There’s an old saying in poetic composition: ‘first line, best line’. This refers to a particular approach to the craft of a poem where the writer, struck by divine inspiration, scribbles thoughts directly as they descend from the muses. This can, of course, be an attractive position to take. The poem is never as pure as it was the moment it arrived, and there’s an ineluctable sense of dread when it comes to making subsequent edits. The fear is that by tinkering, you are in some way dampening that first creative spark, and that any changes you make risks polluting the moment of the poem’s arrival or the fragile shape the poem has taken.
Attractive it may be, but it may also be an unhelpful way of looking at your poems and at your role as a writer. Writing in ‘Recollection, Collected Works, vol. 1’ the French Symbolist poet Paul Valéry states that: ‘A work is never completed except by some accident such as weariness, satisfaction, the need to deliver, or death: for, in relation to who or what is making it, it can only be one stage in a series of inner transformations.’
Editing is all about transformations, and the outer transformations to a poem’s content, structure, or voice are all reflections of an inner transformation – a way to refine and enhance what you want to say and how you want to say it. We all want to think of our poems as complete eventually if only so we can move on to the next one. However, if we accept that a poem is never complete the point when you decide to stop is not when a poem is finished, but simply when you’re happy enough with it to let go. The problem is that we often use the ‘first line best, best line’ mentality as an excuse to down tools on a poem prematurely, and this is not because we’re happy with it but because we’re afraid of it, or afraid of doing something wrong and making it worse. Don’t be paralysed by this. Once you accept that a poem is never ‘pure’, ‘final’, or ‘finished’ you can look at the editing process not as a difficult labour with a just out of reach goal, but as a series of transformations that will constantly move you forward as a writer, and help you to improve your writing.
In this vein, here are three tried and tested techniques for editing your poetry that can make the process a little easier:
1) Frisk your poetry.
This is good practical advice about redrafting from Matthew Sweeney and John Hartley Williams (Write Poetry – And Get It Published). These writers offer a wealth of suggestions about what to look for, but to paraphrase a few of their points: after the first draft, ‘frisk’ your poem for excess baggage. Frisk it for repetitions, and for clichés; frisk it for inappropriate sounds by saying it aloud. Frisk it for sentimentality and pretentiousness, for a conclusion arrived at too soon, before the process of writing has been completed. Frisking is always conducted with suspicion, and don’t be afraid to have suspicion towards your poetry. By transforming your thinking about a poem in this way you’ll find it far easier to spot the bits that don’t quite work.
2) Finding the emotional core.
This is a technique invented by the poet George Szirtes during a masterclass at StAnza International Poetry Festival. Pick out a phrase or sentence or line that constitutes the poem’s emotional core. Once you have identified this, evaluate and reconsider (or even remove altogether) any lines that seem pointless in relation to the core. Be aware that it can be difficult to spot the poem’s emotional core at first, but by doing so you’ll be reconnecting with why you wrote the poem in the first place, which is a great way to approach a redraft.
The most important and frequently offered advice for drafting and editing your poetry – get some distance from it. There are various mechanical ways of doing this. Hide your poems in a draw you won’t look in for a while. Alternatively, posting them to yourself will buy you a few days of distance, or try giving them to a friend with strict instructions to return them at an agreed upon date. Find whatever works best for you. The point is not to ignore them completely, but to put them out of your mind long enough that you can have a fresh pair of eyes when you come back to them.
There’s no right or wrong way to edit your poetry, it all depends on what works best for you. Just remember that editing need not be taxing or torturous. In fact, a lot of great poets share the opinion that editing and redrafting can be the fun part. It gives you time and space to take pride in the work you’ve done so far, and then apply your craft and skills to make it even better.
Jack McGowan is a writer and performance poet with over 10 years of experience on the UK spoken word scene. He has performed at high profile events across the country including the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, StAnza International Poetry Festival, and Ilkley Literature Festival. His poetry appears in a number of online and print publications and he has been interviewed by major news outlets regarding his research into UK spoken word. Jack currently teaches on the Warwick Writing Programme, his research and teaching interests include contemporary poetry, spoken word, digital literature, and new pedagogies in creative writing. Jack currently hosts Shoot From the Lip, one of the largest spoken word collectives in the West Midlands.
Directed by Maureen Freely and David Morley, the Warwick Writing Programme at University of Warwick prides itself in having writing staff who not only teach but are also published authors involved in the writing industry and literary scenes. It has just opened an exciting PhD programme in Creative Writing alongside its internationally recognised flagship BA and MA programmes.