Poetry Editing 101: Session Seven – Words Don’t Grow on Trees: Full Stop

In the final stages of editing a poem the most essential part of the process is cutting.

The ability of a poem to encapsulate an idea into as few words as possible, into the most powerful and effective words as possible, is a huge part of what enables it to move and hook into the mind of a reader.

When editing poetry, this may mean replacing weak phrases with single words, editing entire lines to tighten them up, or cutting out certain words entirely. This concept is called conservation of language.

To offer an analogy, writing a poem is a lot like making yourself a whiskey and soda – the more soda you add, the weaker the drink.

Take this couplet:

I think that you look very nice in red.
I see your new dress flare as you spin around.

Right away I can see there are a ton of words in there of which we can rid ourselves and keep the exact same meaning:

You look very nice in red.
Your new dress flares as you spin.

That’s a good start but we’re not done yet. That very nice in the first line can be turned into a better adjective. How about:

You look phenomenal in red.

We could go even further and take it down to:

You’re phenomenal in red.

But I don’t like the change to the rhythm that produces. However, I do like the change from look to are, so…

You are phenomenal in red.

With the second line we could edit it down with a rewrite and keep the meaning:

You spin – the new dress flares.

So let’s compare the original to the edited version and see which you think is stronger:

I think that you look very nice in red.
I see your new dress flare as you spin around.

Or

You are phenomenal in red.
You spin – the new dress flares.

For the rest of this session, I’m going to answer some frequent questions on the subject of capitalisation and punctuation.

Before I start, it’s worth pointing out that there are no set rules for this within poetry. The most important thing is consistency. However, what there are a lot of are reader expectations and receptions to the various styles.

There is an old school method to poetry punctuation which most modern poets have abandoned, that is, the capital letter on the first word of every new line and then standard punctuation. It looks like this:

Holy Sonnet VI

This is my play’s last scene; here heavens appoint
My pilgrimage’s last mile; and my race,
Idly, yet quickly run, hath this last pace,
My span’s last inch, my minute’s latest point;
And gluttonous death will instantly unjoint
My body and my soul, and I shall sleep a space;
But my’ever-waking part shall see that face
Whose fear already shakes my every joint.
Then, as my soul to’heaven, her first seat, takes flight,
And earth-born body in the earth shall dwell,
So fall my sins, that all may have their right,
To where they’are bred, and would press me, to hell.
Impute me righteous, thus purg’d of evil,
For thus I leave the world, the flesh, the devil.

John Donne

This is, of course, fine. No one would criticise you for this approach, but, to me at least, it does seem dull and slightly plodding, even stuffy.

The next option I’d like to look at is using full, classic punctuation as if the piece in question was prose. Here, the first word of a new line is only capitalised if it’s a new sentence. Commas are only used when they would be any other time, so some lines will end with no punctuation mark at all. Here is this style being used in one of my poems.

Picnic

April brought the dreams of summer,
days when we will pack a hamper,
lay out our blanket in the sun
and take a break from everyone.

We will savour all the fare,
bought from foreign grocers, share
each flavour and each moment while
we live a day vacation style.

And though this reverie has passed
to rain which drums the window’s glass
Outside with you, my dreams remain,
together in idyllic June.

This approach gives a much lighter and more contemporary feel. Not capitalising the enjambments also makes them easier to parse.

The final style I’d like to look at is one with no capitalisation or punctuation, probably best known as the e e cummings style. Again, using one of my poems, this is how it looks.

solitude

sometimes i dream
of a hermit’s life
on an untroubled beach
amidst natural wonders
where i shall nurture
those parts of my being
so starved in the big city
only forced to hide
from passing boats

To me, this style feels unobtrusive and somewhat meek and low-fi. It’s a good one to use when you want to bring that to the page. It may seem in places, problematic, not to be able to use punctuation, but part of learning to write in this way is learning how to use the other aspects of poetry to work around this.

I was recently offering some advice to @tinypaleokitchen about a piece she had written in this style. There was a section where a patient was being revived with electric paddles and a doctor shouted, clear.

promises snuffed out
around him medics shout

clear

trying to jumpstart
the beating of a heart

Tiny wanted to use an exclamation mark on the line, but, as we saw in the last session, the fact this is a single word on the line, all on it’s own, already gives it that emphasis.

Whichever style you decide to use for a poem, the key thing is consistency. I say, when in doubt, use the second style, perfect punctuation.

In the final session we’re going to be bringing everything we’ve discussed together and doing some editing. There will also be room for questions, so if there’s any final doubts, things you’d like to know or have amplified, let me know in the comments.

For now, go write!

2 Replies to “Poetry Editing 101: Session Seven – Words Don’t Grow on Trees: Full Stop”

  1. The cutting out words I was already good with, but I hadn’t given any thought at all to writing poems without any punctuation.

    I like your examples.

    1. Not sure why I didn’t think of this sooner. But I think you’d like The Writer’s Block community on Discord. We’re a group of writers who work together to progress our writing. If you want to check it out, pop in and say hello. https://discord.gg/k23eX8Y

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