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Twenty-Two Poem Hacks
I’m really excited to be blogging for Harriet this month. I’ll be writing about translation, Latina poets, ekphrasis, mixtapes, collaboration, and Peyton Place. But I thought I’d start off by sharing a list I use with my students that’s based on little intentional copyediting strategies I often use to re-enter a poem, especially if I’m feeling stuck. All of these suggestions are not meant to be proscriptive, and for every argument that these hacks offer, there’s likely an excellent example in a poem to counter it. On the other hand, I don’t think that style is some ineffable ingredient one finds in poetry. I’m with Roland Barthes: “There is nothing in discourse that cannot be found in a sentence.” Over the years, after reading a lot of poetry and writing a lot of poetry (good, bad, meh), I’ve found that a practical, even cosmetic entry into a poem can often be quite generative.
1. Lose that first stanza: The first stanza is often the path to a poem, and it provides scaffolding for us, but our reader doesn’t need it as much as we do. Read the poem without the first stanza, and see how much is missing. Consider how quickly the first stanza situates the reader in the poem.
2. Balance your image systems: An image system is the set of images we create in a poem to make our argument. A good image system coheres, but also makes an idea new. The elements of the image system should be clear and lucid and dynamic.
3. Nouns and verb, verbs and nouns: Whenever you look at a poem, the majority of the heavy lifting should be done by the primary building blocks of a clause.
4. Best line: Every other moment in the poem should be able to hold its own in relation to the best line in the poem.
5. Appositive: The appositive is a noun or noun phrase that renames a noun besides it. Often, when we write a poem, we develop a set of images to describe something. If the use of the appositive is more of a multiple-choice strategy, rather than deepening and complicating the description, it should be cut.
6. Check word frequency: If we use a single word in a poem more than once, we’ve created a pattern (the same goes for entire books). Is this a generative pattern, or an accident?
7. Test your modifiers: Are they sharp enough, accurate enough? Are they descriptive or abstract? A strong modifier should add texture to the thing it describes. If you can use a noun or verb that’s more specific so that it doesn’t require modification, then do that. Economy is key.
8. Assess your use of cognitive handles: Language like “I feel,” “I remember,” “I think,” etc. often points to the obvious work of cognition. We rarely need them, and more importantly, they offset the potential for a dynamic subject-predicate engagement. Remove them whenever possible, then move the subsequent language into the spotlight.
9. Choose the right point of view: Although poems are often written in the first person, a third person might serve a persona poem that doesn’t ring authentic.
10. Vary your sentence patterns: Everything that a poem shares with music is enacted in the syntax. Repetition creates beautiful density, but can also wear on the reader’s ear if attention isn’t paid to how the sentence pattern repeats and/or how that repetition can be maximized.
11. Check for dummy subjects: The constructions “there is” and “it is” give the predicating power to the “to be” verb. Poems that are idea-driven can often support that sort of predication, but it’s a good idea to make sure that the referent in that type of sentence can be readily identified, isn’t abstract and unclear.
12. Articles: Do you have the right one? Are you using them when you can? Some poets consider the article a throwaway word, an easy source of economy, but they overlook the ways in which articles, like feminine endings in other languages, give our nouns texture and scope.
13. Clauses and fragments: Fragments can serve us well in a poem, but if we have a conventional clause (subject-predicate) divided by a period, we should ask why break up that engagement with energy and momentum.
14. Titles: Titles are the toughest thing we write, but they are often the most overlooked component in a poem. The title should be the first note the poem sounds and engage with some level of complexity that enhances the reader’s relationship to the poem’s subject matter.
15. I came, I saw, I conquered: Parataxis is a writing strategy of linking short simple sentences or clauses together. This can be hugely generative, but sometimes linking the information of two sentences, with either coordination or dependency, complicates the syntactical hierarchies in a poem. This is called hypotaxis. Either way, consider how connecting or disconnecting clauses might better serve the poem.
16. Lines: Read the poem from the bottom up to see how the lines sound. Reading them individually, they become units of sound and meaning.
17. Stanza type: A couplet does different rhetorical work than a quatrain, and as a poem changes in revision, a poet might occasionally reconsider how the stanza type supports a poem’s ambition.
18. A punctuation plan: If you’re not going to use commas, then don’t use them consistently. Consider what the rhetoric of your punctuation announces to your reader.
19. Capitalization of proper nouns: Do it.
20. Out Loud: The poem has a sonic rhetoric that we don’t hear when we read the poem in our head. Listen to the poem’s musical reason and make sure nothing sounds tinny or awkward. You might not know the immediate fix, and it might require pushing the poem through a few more drafts, but you should make note where the poem’s sound sticks in your craw.
21. Revise toward strangeness: The poem should make you uncomfortable and it should challenge you. “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” –Robert Frost
22. Move your last stanza to the beginning of the poem: A poem isn’t just looking for one answer. In our work in a poem, we uncover lots of questions we might not have considered when we set out to write it in the first poem. Moving the last stanza to the top of a poem changes the terms of the poem’s investigation.