Friday, June 24, 2011

How To Edit Poetry

It seems like only other people's blogs or message boards move me to write about poetry these days. This is something I posted on a message board frequented by both writers and editors:

There are several ways to edit poetry correctly, and it depends on the form that is being used. Metrical verse requires different set of gloves because the syllabic nature of the line, plus modern metrical poetry use of "substitutions." Plus, it also changes with the type of “form” that has been written. You wouldn’t edit a sonnet the same way you would a villanelle or sestina. Free verse is rather different construction altogether. However, lets just run with that, since it’s most of what people write these days.

The biggest misnomer about Free Verse is that is formless and anything goes. That is far from the truth. However, when you are confronted with editing free verse, there are a couple of fundamental things to look for.

1. Wordiness. How can the poem be edited or rephrased for more economical uses of language. This is roughly the same when you're editing fiction and non-fiction prose. Consider:

The sun is a bleeding in the sky.


The sun bleeds in the sky.

Both are saying the same thing, but the second option is more concise. Since poetry is a language medium, you do have to consider the sonic qualities at work. The second option is a valid edit because it keeps the sibilant "s" sounds as the first.

2. Noun and verb choice. Even if you're a sprawling poet like Allen Ginsberg or Walt Whitman, poetry is still mode of writing where language is highly compressed. If you're looking at free verse poetry document, pay special attention word choice. "Sprint" as opposed to "run." And so forth. The key to descriptive writing in poetry and prose usually comes down to good nouns and verbs.

3. Look for adverbs and adjectives to cut. Unlike marketing writing and "why buy" language" adverbs and adjectives stand out as "extra-fluffy" in poetry. You can largely red line most of it out, while going back to trying to strengthen nouns and verbs.

4. Make punctuation and grammar consistent. Creative uses of grammar are frowned upon by nearly every poetry editor I know or have worked with. Look beyond the line and how lines fit together as grammatically correct sentences. This is considered the norm in poetry editing. However, there are notable exceptions out there. Usually, it consists of pulling out the punctuation completely. Some poets, influenced by Asian formalism, sometimes will only use a dash, or a comma -- whatever it is they're doing, it has to be consistent. In most cases, an eye to normal grammar will suffice.

5. Discourage the poet away from the little first person "i." Poetry editors HATE that and reject it with relish. EE Cummings could get away with it, but not every body is EE Cummings.

6. Try to help the poet either write better metaphors or find a way to cut them out completely. The most common of these are anything that compares sometime to the moon or flowers. It's so overdone, they've become poetic cliches. And, they've been poetic cliches for such a long time, Shakespeare even made fun of them in Romeo and Juliet. Writing metaphors can be tricky prospect. Anything that sounds silly on a first read is usually a bad sign.

7. Look for ways to make the imagery as vivid and concrete as possible. Free Verse, thanks to poets like William Carlos Williams, is often a way of writing by using the language of imagery. As mentioned earlier, imagery is always best rendered through specific nouns and verbs, not adjectives.

1 comment:

  1. wow that is alot . ime writeing poetry for ELA my teacher told me to '' pear conference '' but people say ime VERY ''shy'' so ime going to edit all of them myself