Apr 132011

Why Revise Your Poems?

by David B. Axelrod

Because, as often, poets write from the heart, I meet many people who are unaccustomed to revision, even rejecting the notion that they should take suggestions. Their comments as often reflect the sentiment that “It came to me that way and I like it that way,” or “If you change it, it won’t be mine anymore.”

I write for myself. I revise for others. If all I wanted to do was release some energy through writing, I might not revise. Poetry, for me, however, is a means of communication. I want people to understand and respond to what I write. I want them to see exactly what I describe, feel the emotions I wish them to understand.   

To do that I need to consider not just how I think and feel or how I use the language, but how my reader thinks, feels and uses the language. Thus, I am very glad for comments on what I write. I can say, categorically, that every creative writing and poetry writing class I’ve taken or taught has included “workshop” time to collect comments from others for the purpose of revision.

Thus, though I may be quite happy with the first draft of my poem, you can be sure I will go back over it and look for what might be improved. I say this even as I confess that I love it when a poem just rolls write out. It feels like “inspiration.” I’ve written hundreds and hundreds of poems so I bring a lot into play as I write and thus, sometimes don’t appear to revise as much when I go back.

Here is a poem I wrote straight out, looking out my window as I wrote this lesson. In the discussion below, I’ve made at least one change.  (The  slash / is where I would divide my lines):

The big boy on the bicycle  /pedals standing. The blue  /dirt bike fit him for thirteen  /not sixteen. Hurrying to hand-  /ball behind the high school,  /hanging out, talking girls.  /The bike’s small frame  /renders him a circus clown,  /but learners can’t drive  /on their own. He’s lucky  /he’s alone except for one  /person taking notes.  /If I were a photographer,  /he’d be shot, or if I were  /a painter, I’d render him  /a modern Icarus pedaling  /too close to full-grown.

I’m unhappy with the word “shot.” It’s too harsh–even violent. I wouldn’t want people to mistakenly think I have negative feelings or bad intentions toward the boy on the bicycle I observed! All I intended was the notion that I could preserve h is picture, have “evidence” of how he looked as he pedaled by me.

So, I thought of several other words for what a photographer does: He “photographs” but “If I were a photographer I’d photograph him” is too long to say and redundant. “I’d take his picture,” is also too long to say. Then I had a passing notion of saying I’d “digitize” him, as we now use digital cameras. I think you can agree that doesn’t work as a word to substitute for “he’d be shot.” So… I settled on a simple substitute:

“If I were a photographer, he’d be snapped.”

“Snapped” is certainly friendlier than “shot.” I’m not yet fully satisfied. So far that is actually the only revision I’m working on–which is not typical. More typically, I make a number of changes to any poem I write. I try to think of all the variables that a reader brings to a poem and I try for “pure” communication.

It should be fun, but it isn’t always easy! If you have suggestions for revising this poem, I’m glad to hear from you. We’re all in it together, trying to write better poetry.