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 abandonedFrench 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
- Nouns: make them more concrete and more specific
- Verbs: make them active, vivid, more dynamic
- Adjectives: are they needed? Or fix that noun? For those that stay, make them more uncanny
- 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 Collins, Melinda 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…
- 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’.
- 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…
- 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’?
- Publish both poems – the ‘before’ and ‘after’ – on your blog.
- 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?
- Link it up to our Mr. Linky.
- 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.
Hello Peter and All, and welcome again Peter on your first hosting as pubtender at dVerse. Today is overcast and chillier these past few days. The cats are sleeping more and the birds are noisier at the feeder. Your exercise was fun and productive. Looking forward to reading others’ works on this one as well. If you’re pouring, a pint of Magners please!
Thanks for your kind welcome and glad you enjoyed the exercise. My cat is sitting next to me as I type – with that look that says ‘you don’t know anything about editing’ 🙂
From what you’ve said before, you have a dog also, so you’re kind of caught between the two of them. Always nice to have choices.
Dog is at other house tonight, so it’s just me and her (and her critical comments) 🙂
Hello all! Greetings from a very humid Boston! But tomorrow we are supposed to get some nice cool and crisp air so we’re waiting for our walk along the Charles River until then.
Welcome to tending the pub, Peter — or should I say G’day! 🙂 I enjoyed going back to rework an old post. I used to teach technical writing and I have always said, the trick of writing is to learn that it’s really all about the editing! 🙂
Thanks for your warm welcome Lillian. Glad you enjoyed the exercise – yes, editors – the unsung un-credited stars of our written world.
Hi everyone! Thanks Peter for the poetic workout! I’m excited to see what comes out of it.
Thanks Kim, you’re welcome. Hope everyone “enjoys” it.
Björn Rudberg (brudberg) said:
Hello Peter and all… this was a prompt that I feared, but I tried the tricks and I feel that it came out a lot clearer and more exciting. I have always feared editing.
Hi Bjorn, I agree, it’s a more memorable piece for editing. Hope this helped allay some of your worries.
looking forward to read ing these – I’m posting and running tonight, though. Will be back to read tomorrow!
Hi all and thanks for the warm welcome. Well it’s dark here (5.00am) but the birds are already up – a kookaburra off in the distance, a wattle-bird and honey eater in the trees out front – everyone getting ready for the day. Hope you enjoy the exercise today and looking forward to reading your wonderful words (once I had my coffee).
Björn Rudberg (brudberg) said:
It’s dark here as well… almost 10 pm… 🙂
Hello Peter and all! This was fun 🙂 I tried to preserve the essence of my poem while editing.
Going to make my rounds now. Happy Thursday 💝
Hi Sanaa, so glad you enjoyed.
Thank you Peter for hosting tonight. You have touched on something near and dear to me — editing. The work I post here on dVerse, in my mind, is always a draft at some stage. Perhaps I have given it its first round of edits prior to its posting here, but that would be as deeply as I ever cut. It has always been my belief, and practice, that my poems are truly NEVER finished. I cull and edit daily, and my entire portfolio of poems and lyrics, written since I was 16-years-old, is fair game. Focused editing is a wonderful experience. The piece always Improves, or becomes two separate pieces, and usually inspires another work or two. Given I am confident in the sincerIty of my writing, I am always a source of self-inspiration. Frequently a line or phrase I wrote years ago, carries me down a different path, to find an entirely fresh new poem waiting. The only work of mine that is spared my wordsmith‘s scalpel, are the works I intended as pure SOC. As such, these remain untouchable in and of themselves. The rest, let me at’m! The true art of poetry lies in the editing — IMHO… 🙂
Hi Rob, so glad this prompt resonated with you. Yes, I found a new idea in my own work too, so I know just what you mean. Glad you could join us.
Hello all. I’ve been enjoying your writings, both the first drafts and revisions. I think this is a great exercise and challenge, Peter. It shows how there can be ideas in poems that at first were not developed as fully or thoroughly when compared to their final versions. The editing process, while not a favorite of mine, is valuable.
“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?”
That’s how you make a tragic ending to a happy one.
Well now, I’m off. I’ll be back later tonight to read more poetry from you, publies.
It’s good to meet you, Peter, and hello everyone. I love your advice and can’t wait to put it to use. Thank you so much for sharing.
Welcome Eugenia, hope you enjoy this.
Victoria C. Slotto said:
Excellent prompt Peter. Welcome.
Thanks Victoria, hope you enjoy it.
Peter, you have presented us with a great exercise. I don’t normally edit my poetry a lot: either it abandons me or I abandon it and move on – but having read this I really want to try. Looking forward to trying out the exercise and reading everyone else’s edits…
Welcome Ingrid – thanks and hope you enjoy the exercise.
Thank you for this insight. I will refer to this in my writing.
Pingback: Write like a dog, edit like a cat – Reena Saxena
Ali Grimshaw said:
Even though I didn’t get to posting, I appreciate what you shared here. Thank you.
Pingback: Hampsfell/Was it Folly? #poetry #dVerse - Experiments in Fiction