DON’T YOU JUST LOVE THAT FEELING of getting back from a hard week at work, uncorking a bottle of fine Chardonnay, lowering the volume on a Barry White LP, taking out the tea-candles and . . . editing poetry?
Okay, so editing poetry isn’t often the most exuberating experience but it’s nearly always a necessary one. There are, no doubt, a few prolific poets out there who are able to rattle off great poem after great poem (and yes, we all hate them) without so much as a whiff of Tipex, but for the majority of poets the editing process is what makes a ‘decent’ poem a ‘great’ poem.
In this short article I will talk about the potential benefits of editing your poetry. It begins with that age old, flatulent and diseased topic of ‘what is a poem?’ or perhaps, more accurately, ‘what is the matter of a poem?’
In my mind there are two occupations of poetry: expression and experiment. A purely expressive poem deals with human experience, emotion and car sickness. It’s a love poem, a poem about the pain of losing your father or the wrath of losing your house keys, the poem that makes you laugh or vomit. It has no particular concern for how it is put together. A poem of experiment is interested in language and academia, construction and artistic pursuit; it cares almost nothing for a crying infant or a genital wart. Each has merits in their own right, though in my view a poem that is an extreme of one or the other is frequently ineffective. It is often the combination of these two occupations that produces the most affective poems: an emotive lure and a sense of thought behind it. What does this have to do with editing? I hear you cry in outrage. Well hush your face and I’ll tell you . . .
The purely expressive poem is raw and rough, a splurge of emotion on the page, untainted, untempered but often flabby and wasteful in the haste with which it was written. Through editing (the removal of unnecessary words, thinking about where effective line breaks can affect the reader and so on), this vastness can be condensed, strengthened and made more concise. Far from diminishing its initial expression, a careful edit can enhance the potency of an expressive poem. Let’s take an example from an imagined couple of lines:
The damned harsh crack of your lip is
rage and outrage, blood and bile
The crack of your lip is rage,
outrage, blood and bile.
‘Damned harsh’ was too driven, too leading. It undermined the reader and the line, made it seem overwrought; it tried to say too much by saying very little. The line also changed to read ‘your lip is rage’, which is a far starker notion than ‘your lip is’. Through these minor changes, the anger of the poem is focused to make subtler, but more evocative, linguistically interesting lines.
In contrast we have the cold and calculated maniac that is the experimental poem. She’d cut your thumbs off with a cigar clipper and tack them to the wall of a gallery without a thought to your pathetic human ‘emotions’. These poems often leave the reader feeling as though they’ve read something clever but not particularly important. They miss the human element, the hook that makes someone think ‘hey, I hate gerbils too, I get this’. The poor experimental poem exists only as ‘art for art’s sake’; it holds some value as an interesting trial but maintains no strength in connecting with its reader. This is not to say that it ought to be made emotional, but rather that something beyond its own existence is necessary to improve it.
This is the crux of editing: to make a poem better, more interesting, more memorable, more effective as a piece of art: which brings us to consider the problem of ‘how to edit’.
Poetry is often a lonely game, sat in the darkness muttering away and tap tap tapping on an aging keyboard or scribbling on wads of paper whilst laughing at a bluebottle rotting on the window sill. Aha, haha, bluebottle. Ahem. Whilst the poet is, ultimately, the creator of their own demise/work, it can be invaluable to have the opinion of somebody you (currently) admire or trust thrust on your precious nuggets of inspiration.
Here is my mantra: I am one poet, one fragile mind in one sack of flesh, squinting at the world through my fading, tired eyes; unable to see life through the pupils of sunshine and sustenance.
Therefore to get some perspective, to offer ideas I’d never have thought of, to tell me when I’ve made a mistake I’m blind to, to jab me in the eye and the gut, I need someone with a different take on the world to rattle my words.
To be insular and closed off to new ideas is likely to make any poet stagnant. The process of editing, sharing and re-editing poetry is what brings about new insight, change and vitality to a piece of writing. It’s fine to stick to our guns and not change a thing, but it’s completely foolish to think we get everything right the first time and to ignore the insight of others completely. That’s like smelling the Chardonnay but never drinking the wine.
Sites like Writers’ Dock offer an opportunity for anyone, wherever they are, to share their work and to receive potentially useful feedback from people who care about art. So get posting your poetry, comment on the work of others, think about what’s being said and edit your work: it will almost always benefit from some feedback from someone other than the bluebottle on the window sill.
— Russ Jones