Poetry Editing 101 – Session One: Respecting the Process

Imagine you want to craft some fine gold rings. You have all the tools at your disposal to get the job done but you have to carry out all the work yourself, right from scratch.

The first thing you’re going to need to do is mine the ore. It’s hard, dirty business and by the end of it you’re going to feel like you’re done. But you’re not. When you look back at what you’ve achieved, what you have is a big pile of rubble. The smelting, shaping and polishing are all ahead of you.

This is the exact same process you follow when writing a poem (or prose, for that matter). That first draft you just finished might feel like it took all your best effort but, when you look back at it, what you really have is a pile of rubble. Writing it was an essential part of the process and you can’t possibly proceed without it. However, at this stage, it’s far from ready for publication.

The truth is, a good poem can take weeks to get right. A great one can take months. Sometimes a poem seems like it almost writes itself in a couple of drafts and edits, even on the same day, and is ready to go. Others need time to breathe, to rest in the conscious and subconscious before they fully reveal themselves.

It’s down to you to judge when a poem is ready, though it never hurts to get a second opinion. So I can only suggest you join a great writing community like The INKubator on discord where you can get some feedback and editing.

So, for the first post in this series on editing poetry, I’m going to take you through the complete process of writing a poem. I’m not going to talk about the editing here – those are the things we’ll be talking about in future lessons – but, rather, explore how much a poem can develop from the first draft through shaping and polishing until it’s ready for publication.

First Draft: The Idea

On the first draft it’s all about the outpouring of ideas onto the page. Here, I may write using the formation of poetry but I pay little attention to it. At this point my ideas are probably going to seem discordant and fragmentary, but that’s the nature of the pile of ore I’m mining. My grammar and punctuation are bound to be wrong and the rhythm non-existent. What I’m chiefly concerned with here is the theme, logical structure and any imagery I can get down, all ready for what comes next.

Butterflies don’t swarm to protect
the voracious caterpillar
which chews through the world
ingesting corruption
until it transforms —
free.

Second Draft: Exploration

Now the poem will probably need a little time to mature and grow in your mind. Put it away, at least until you’ve had a chance to sleep on it. When you’re ready, you’re not even going to look at the poem again but – instead – write a new version from scratch. You’re free to write as many different versions as you want. This will help you uncover the new ideas which have been forming in your subconscious. Before I start this draft, I might also spend some time researching the images and subjects I’m using.

Larva stray into rotting pastures
and feed on corrupted vegetation.
They turn at the inevitability of change
and work their own puberty
with silk and spinnerets.

Third Draft: Finding Meaning

Now is the time to compare the versions you’ve written and synthesise them into a single poem. The primary consideration at the stage is meaning (the idea and logical concept within the poem), as you’ll be working on all the technical aspects and perfecting them through the editing process. Secondary to this is the shaping of the poem onto the page, which will still be open to editing but will start to take form at this stage.

The bald caterpillar migrates
to rotting fields
in its exploration.

It chews through
corrupted vegetation
towards metamorphosis
and works its own puberty
with silk and spinnerets.

Edit One: Building

Here is where we will start to apply all the fun techniques we’re about to learn. This is the most intense part of the process where we’ll be looking at the use of simile, metaphor and other tropes, abstractions and reification, word positions and enjambments, and a raft of other things. We’ll be looking at all of them separately in weeks to come.

The bald caterpillar migrates
from green to rotting fields.
Unwatched in its expedition
of dark earth and high branches.

It chews through the world
towards inevitable metamorphosis
and works its own adolescence
with silk and spinnerets.

It hangs, motionless, tied
from the edge of a great
biblical fall before
breaking free
and falling, falling,
then winging to the sky.

Edit Two: Cutting

Here is where we will cut back everything that isn’t needed to convey either our meaning or a sense of beauty to the reader. We’ll make our final choices about layout here and may even make structural changes to further accent our underlying theme and logical process.

The naked caterpillar migrates
from green to rotting fields.
in unwatched expedition
of dark earth and high branches.

It chews the world towards
inevitable metamorphosis,
working its own adolescence
with silk and spinnerets.

Chained to the edge
of a great biblical fall.
Then breaking free and falling,
falling, falling,
winging to the sky.

Polishing

This is the final stage. Read the poem through several times and make sure there are no spelling or grammatical errors. Give it a title. It’s after this stage that you should get someone to cast their eye over your work, to see if there’s anything you’ve missed.

Puberty

The naked caterpillar migrates
from green to rotting fields,
in unwatched expedition
of dark earth and high branches.

It chews the world towards
inevitable metamorphosis,
working its adolescence
with silk and spinnerets,

chained to the edge
of a great biblical fall,
then breaking free and falling,
falling, falling,
winging to the sky.

So that’s it for this session. For some, there’s a rush to write and post work online, but I firmly believe you’re doing both yourself and the work a great disservice by publishing before it’s at its best. Taking a poem from the first draft to the final polish is an amazing process. Exactly how to do it, will be the primary focus of this series.

Keep writing your first and second drafts and have some to hand, as the next lesson will be on abstractions and how to deal with them.

In this new, bi-weekly series on poetry editing we’ll be looking at the primary potential problems from which first drafts tend to suffer. Forming a check-list, of sorts. through which you’ll be able to run your poems. The ultimate aim for this course is to enable you to bring your poetry to a publishable standard. To feel confident entering competitions and posting your work on the blockchain.

While we’re doing so, we’ll make some stops along the way to take some first glances into the theory of poetry, as I see it. I hope this will also be of interest to those who wish to further their understanding, as readers of poetry, in the nuances of the craft.

Before you go. please take a moment to give me a follow. It’s a great way you can help support the series and the blog. If you have any comments or questions about this lesson, or just want to say hello, feel free to post a comment below.

Now, go write!

Damian.

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