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"Tick tock tick . . . Time keeps on tickin', tickin', tickin' into the future . . ." Boy did the Steve Miller Band get that right.


From time to time, I've bemoaned how long a poem can take to write. Writing in a form or using rhyme can take ages. A draft of even a short rhyming poem can take hours, and can span days.

Writing in free verse isn't always a piece of cake, either, although any delays there are based in finding the right image or just the right color of word, not finding the right image and then screwing with it until you can make it fit the form. More on the color of words later (and no, I'm not planning on discussing synesthesia).

I've talked this over from time to time with other poets. And I've eavesdropped on poets talking amongst themselves. And I can assure you that if it takes a long time to write a poem, you are not alone.

For every poet that claims to write a poem a day, there is a poet that writes only one poem in a month. And I'm not comparing one haiku to an epic poem, either. These are poems of roughly the same length. I have heard poets express amazement at the notion that someone has completed, on average, two poems a week — and why not be amazed? After all, that is over 100 poems in one year's time.


All poems benefit from some time "in the drawer"; that is, time away from the poet. Even the rare poem that is picked up, read over, and left alone benefits from having its maker approach it with clear eyes and a fresh attitude. And most poems require tweaking. One wants to follow Strunk & White's advice and "omit needless words," particularly when it comes to a poem. Not just prepositional phrases that could be reduced down, but also articles and conjunctions that should simply go. Perhaps the order needs to be reconsidered, whether for clarity or for flow. And then there's the issue of finding not just a word to indicate what you meant, but the quest for that best word for the particular line.* This is where the issue of finding a word that is just the right color comes in.

Perhaps you've written a poem about a walk in the woods. Here's a possible first draft idea, expressed as a sentence:

Today I walked through the woods as the light faded, heedless of nature until a rustling noise drew my attention to a litter of raccoons near the stream.

There are those who would simply break the line here and there and call it free verse:

I walked through the woods
as the light faded,
heedless of nature until
a rustling noise
drew my attention
to a litter
of racoons
near the stream.

That, my friends, is not free verse. It is a sentence that has been split into bits to resemble free verse. Let us spend a bit of time and tweak it. In this instance, "today" adds nothing to the poem; if the writer were comparing today to yesterday or tomorrow, it would be different, but such is not the case. Lose the "today."

Is walking the best word here? Maybe; maybe not. If you have a strong desire to convey how you were walking through the woods - what it looked or felt or sounded like, you'd want to replace the simple verb with something better. "Shuffled" expresses slowness and conveys sound as well as speed and appearance; "strolled" sounds more relaxed, and loses some of the other sensory connotations; "slouched" ratchets up the visual and the feel of the walk, and implies a sort of shuffling, so maybe it gets 1/2 a point for aurality as well; "stumbled" says something else, as does "hiked," "trod", "tramped", and "wandered."

"Through the woods" is the next bit of the line. Ask yourself if all the words are really needed. For instance, "I walked the woods" can work perfectly well in some contexts, so maybe "through" isn't neede. Then again, perhaps (like some poets I know), you hate to see useless articles like "the" lying about; in such a case "through woods" might be preferable. Or maybe the article invites an adjective as an addition or replacement: "through darkening woods", "through quiet woods", "through rain-damp woods", "through musty woods". See how those adjectives change your conception of what kind of woods these were? Maybe you should address whteher the walker was on a trail or rustling through the underbrush. Perhaps another line should come in. Perhaps one should go.

If you're getting the idea that every single word in a poem needs to be assessed — weighed and measured to ensure that it has earned the right to stay — then you are correct. And that is just for the creation of the poem in the first place. After it's been allowed to rest a while, all these same issues must be revisited again to determine whether the poem is complete, whether it expresses what you wanted (did you just want to tell me you saw raccoons, or did you want to tell me how it made you feel?)

If you wanted to convey how it made you feel, did you want to do so by telling me "it made me feel this way" (better phrased, of course), or did you want to use imagery to take me into those darkening woods with you so that I could see those raccoons, too, and feel it for myself? Both of these are valid choices, by the way, but as the poet, it's your job to make these decisions. Every poem. Every line. Every time.

This is why those who write poetry can be blown away at the notion of someone writing two poems per week. Or even one a month. In the fifteen months since I began the Jane project, I've completed 57 Jane-related poems, 54 of which are useable. I've also written at least 10 other poems, some of which are actually decent. That puts me at an average of approximately 1 poem per week in that amount of time, some of which still require serious revision. Adding it up, I'm pleased with my progress. But on a day-to-day basis, it feels remarkably slow.

I'll be back tomorrow with my rewrite of the above bit of fluff. Anyone else willing to post their efforts in the comments is welcome to do so, and I'll collect them up.

*Samuel Taylor Coleridge defined poetry as "the best words in the best order."

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( 19 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 8th, 2008 08:05 pm (UTC)
timing and poetry
Kelly, thank you for writing in such detailed fashion about both the composing and revising of poetry. I feel better about my meandering pace already!
Apr. 9th, 2008 12:41 am (UTC)
Re: timing and poetry
I know I felt much better about what I considered to be a "slow" pace of progress on the Jane project after I heard two excellent poets speaking in admiring tones about someone who managed to complete more than one poem per month (14 in one year).
Apr. 9th, 2008 01:19 am (UTC)
Great description of the process, Kelly. I'll take you up on that revision challenge!
Apr. 9th, 2008 01:28 am (UTC)
I can't wait to see what you come up with! (Now to complete my worksheets for this weekend's conference and revise my sonnet for Friday, and then try my challenge myself!)
Apr. 9th, 2008 02:27 am (UTC)
Thank you for letting us in on the process. I love this post.

It's funny, because not long ago I wrote a sentence in your comments about how it felt watching the desert from the plane and just after I wrote it, I thought that it had potential to be a poem. But I wasn't really sure how. What you're doing here is breaking down the thought process that was out of my grasp a few weeks ago. So, again, thank you.
Apr. 9th, 2008 02:36 am (UTC)
You are most welcome. I remember that comment. It's amazing how inspiring foreign terrain can be. (For instance, I was in Iceland once, and it was truly astonishing). And I hope you get your poem out of it.
Apr. 9th, 2008 12:21 pm (UTC)
I posted my revision attempt today. I hope I send a few more revisors over, too. And possibly, a few ducks might show up. Don't be alarmed. :)
Apr. 9th, 2008 03:29 pm (UTC)
Well done, Sara!
Apr. 9th, 2008 01:31 pm (UTC)
Conscious weighing of words
Kelly, I think that you are spot on with your description of the poetic process...the weighing of words, the conscious decision-making and the intentionality behind form and style. Inspiration and imagination may bring a poem from one's consciousness, but it is craftsmanship that brings it to the world.
Apr. 9th, 2008 03:27 pm (UTC)
Re: Conscious weighing of words
That is true in the case of good poems, but for every poet carefully practicing her craft, there is another who is breaking sentences into pieces, pasting them on the page, and calling it done.
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Apr. 9th, 2008 05:22 pm (UTC)
Nice haiku, Kristy!
Apr. 9th, 2008 04:33 pm (UTC)
Ooh, you just made my brain go "ding!" I have never understood how to write or edit free verse or what the heck makes a good one. Admittedly, it's not something I've ever looked for either, but I found this post utterly fascinating.
Apr. 9th, 2008 05:23 pm (UTC)
I am glad it made sense, and that it was useful!
Apr. 9th, 2008 04:36 pm (UTC)
Kelly... This is such an articulate explication. I just love the way you've made this process transparent...
Apr. 9th, 2008 05:24 pm (UTC)
You know, of course, that I want to hug you for the use of the phrase "articulate explication." Although it has also brought to mind the phrase "eschew obfuscation." Hee.
Apr. 9th, 2008 09:21 pm (UTC)
Oooh. Now I've got to think up some other swanky phrases for you. Lemme think here. How about Revelatory Precision? (Which is what you'll bring to your workshop audience this weekend. It's kind of like enlightenment, but less self righteous...)
Apr. 11th, 2008 04:29 pm (UTC)
You are too kind and generous. With a large vocabulary. These things make you my favorite kind of person.
Apr. 11th, 2008 12:32 pm (UTC)
Kelly, first of all, thanks for resetting our expecatations of ourselves. Secondly,if you are ever searching for yet another career option, you'd make a fine teacher.

Apr. 11th, 2008 04:30 pm (UTC)
Re: Process
Thank you for your kind words. Perhaps a how-to poetry book someday.
( 19 comments — Leave a comment )

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