How to Revise Poetry: 20 Questions to Ask

Jul 14, 2022 | Poetry

A Poem’s Object is to Explode the Moment

When I think about what I want to achieve in a poem, many things come to mind: emotions, imagery, wordplay, surprise! But mostly, I think, my goal—a poem’s object—is to explode the moment, to burst:

“Through the windows—through doors—burst like a ruthless force,
Into the solemn church, and scatter the congregation;”
—from “Beat! Beat! Drums!” by Walt Whitman

A poem should disturb the universe, stun us awake, disrupt our lives and our ways of thinking. Emily Dickinson put it like this: “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”

But this kind of poetry doesn’t just happen; it’s earned through imagination and hard work and showing up at the page. For me, it mostly happens during revision.

I love revising poetry. I love helping others revise poetry. Which is why Charles Waters and I will be talking a lot about this in our upcoming workshop Poetry for Kids: A World of Publishing Possibilities.

Revision Can Take a Good Poem and Make it a Great Poem

Whatever kind of poetry you’re writing—lyrical picture books! verse novels! nature-based collections!—revision is where we learn to take a good poem and make it a great poem.

As Maya Angelou reminds us: “We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.”

To get you moving toward beauty—and “bursting”—here’s a list of 20 questions to ask yourself and your poem:

  1. Does your title attract the reader’s attention?
  2. Does your title add something to the poem?
  3.  Does the way you have organized the poem “match” the content of the poem?
  4. Do the stanzas serve a purpose for the reader?
  5. How strong are your line breaks? (In my experience, the most important point is the end of the line. The second most important point is the beginning of the line.)
  6. Do you use fresh imagery/language (and avoid clichés)?
  7. Do you engage more than one of the five senses?
  8. Is your subject original? (Or, if your subject is common, is your take on it original?)
  9. Does the poem elicit emotion?
  10. Do you use language that “matches” the subject of the poem?
  11.  Do you use language that is musical and/or has rhythm?
  12. Do you use strong verbs?
  13. Have you cut unnecessary words?
  14. Does the poem contain more than one level of meaning?
  15. If you employ the use of metaphor or similes, do these devices hold up?
  16. Do you surprise the reader?
  17. Does the poem achieve what it sets out to accomplish?
  18. Is there another poem hiding inside this poem?
  19. Does this poem lead to another poem?
  20. Am I having fun?

Yes, revision is meant to be FUN!

Thank you to our faculty for this Guest Post!

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