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Hi everyone and welcome to Meeting the Bar. I’m your host this evening Peter from Australia and tonight we have lots of nourishing goodness for poets of all vintages…whether you’re just starting out or well-practiced. 

(This session has been adapted from work by Australian poet, editor and workshop teacher Melinda Smith and is used with permission and kind thanks.)

Edit like a cat 

In a world of daily poetry prompts and the rush to meet the next deadline, we can forget to go back and look at our work and reflect on it. Could it be truer to what we intended? Sharper focus? Is it the best it can be? 
Editing is changing mental gears, from the fervour of creation (eager, excited dog-mind) to healthy scepticism (hard-to-impress cat-mind). To edit your work, read it as though you were a cat: pretend you’ve never seen it before, and you’ll take some convincing to like it. 

So here’s how to make your poem more memorable, bring the ideas in the poem into sharper focus, and help your poem stand out in a crowd – whether for a competition, a publication or the pleasure of publishing on your blog.

And how much editing does your poem need?

A poem is never finished, only abandoned

French poet and essayist Paul Valery,   

Nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs: The Bök Checklist… 

Canadian experimental poet and academic, Christian Bök, has been teaching poetry for a long time and has evolved his ‘10 rules for writing lyric poetry’. Here’s the essence of Bök’s ‘rules’ distilled into four ‘tools’.

(These are so good, there’s a free beer, wine or packet of crisps to anyone who really can’t find something to improve in their poem after using the checklist.) 

The Bök Checklist 

  1. Nouns: make them more concrete and more specific 
  2. Verbs: make them active, vivid, more dynamic
  3. Adjectives: are they needed? Or fix that noun? For those that stay, make them more uncanny
  4. Adverbs: are they needed? Or fix that verb? For those that stay, make more uncanny 

1. Nouns – concrete and specific

Nouns are the bones of your writing – you want them to be enduring and strong.

Go through your poem and highlight at all the nouns. Now replace abstract nouns (e.g. ‘the environment’) with concrete nouns (e.g. ‘the forest’). Among the concrete nouns, choose the most specific concrete noun available (‘rainforest’). 

In the noun phrase ‘the forest of evil’, the noun ‘forest’ is concrete and ‘evil’ is abstract. The abstract noun ‘evil’ can be replaced with any concrete noun for a more engaging phrase e.g. ‘forest of chandeliers’. 

‘The heat made cacti of us all.’ (John Stammers Like a Heatwave Burning)

2. Verbs – active, vivid, dynamic

Use active verbs, rather than relying on the verb ‘to be’ and the passive voice: 

‘I was hurt’ » ‘you hurt me’ » ‘you cruelled me’ 

Go through your poem and highlight at all the verbs. Choose the most vivid and dynamic verb, for example:

‘ran away’ » ‘fled’ » ‘scarpered’ 

‘a child assaulted and murdered’ » ‘a child broken, bagged,/ sunk in a lake’ (Maggie Smith, Good Bones’)

Try a verb which makes a noun do something it doesn’t normally do. Choose a muscular or uncanny verb: 

‘The sea stormed’ » ‘…the sea tantrumed herself flat’ (Jini Maxwell, bay city plaza)

‘I travelled, witnessing / the humanless infinite’ » ‘I flowered, witnessing / the humanless infinite’ (Michael CollinsMelinda Smith, a poem about the Apollo 11 astronaut.) 

Adjectives – really?

Highlight each adjective. Now ask, do I really need this? If I found a better noun could I get rid of it? 

‘the cockatoo’s harsh cry’ » ‘the cockatoo’s rasp’ 

If the adjective must stay, choose one that adds an attribute to the noun that it doesn’t normally have, to give it an uncanny quality: 

‘an ostrich is lowering itself gently / to the earth, its neck honest and determined’ – (Andy Jackson, ‘Lindsey’

‘a flock of banners fight their way through the telescoped forest’ (David Gascoyne, Salvador Dali)

Sometimes though, simplicity is best: 
‘A month after your death I wear your blue jacket’ (Maxine Kumin, How it is’)

Adverbs – essential?

Same idea about adverbs: highlight them; do I really need this? Or if I found a better verb could I delete it? 

‘walked angrily away’ » ‘stomped away’ 

If the adverb needs to stay, choose one that adds an attribute to the verb that it doesn’t normally have. 

‘walked angrily away’ » ‘stomped away’ » ‘stomped redly away’

‘Nun-souled, they burn heavenward and never marry’ (Sylvia Plath, Candles

A caveat or two 

  • Don’t change every noun or delete every adjective in a poem. You don’t want the poem to feel mechanical and forced. It needs your voice. But look for the places where it is possible to lift and intensify what’s already there. 
  • Don’t introduce the uncanny into every single line – a few surprising elements are great but there’s a balance between plain and unusual in any poem. 
  • Always come back to the themes of your poem, the key concerns, and let this guide in your word choices. 

So, to our exercise…

  1. Pick a poem you’ve already written — a favourite, one that needs a second look, one that never reached its full potential (maybe a shorter one for tonight’s exercise). This is the ‘before poem’. 
  2. Make a copy and give it the “Bök test” – highlight all the nouns – could they be more concrete, more specific? now do the same with the verbs — can they be more active? Now do the same with the adjectives & adverbs… 
  3. Look for the uncanny – can you find a ‘rainforest of chandeliers’, ‘a sky as blue as a car accident,’ ‘a speech as hard as a machine gun’? 
  4. Publish both poems – the ‘before’ and ‘after’ – on your blog.
  5. Did anything surprise you? Did the poem lurch off in an unexpected direction, like a body laid out in a mortuary suddenly sitting up and asking for a cheese sandwich?  
  6. Link it up to our Mr. Linky. 
  7. Don’t forget to check the little box to accept use/privacy policy 
  8. Visit other blogs, enjoy some amazing poets, and don’t forget to comment. 

‘Edit ferociously and with joy, it is very fun to delete stuff.’

Anne Carson

Cartoon, Mark Twohy, TheNew Yorker, c/- Cartoon Collections LLC

Thanks again to Melinda Smith for permission to adapt this session from her original work. Melinda’s latest collection Man Handled is available from Recent Work Press.