Last summer, I attended a lecture on “Writing Poems, Writing Books” at Vanderbilt University by Jane Hirshfield, an American poet whose honors include election to Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2012 and work in seven editions of Best American Poetry. Her most recent books are Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World (Alfred A. Knopf, 2015)1 and The Beauty: Poems(Alfred A. Knopf, 2015)2.
Below are my notes on the questions she asks herself while revising (with some paraphrasing, and her copious explanatory comments left out since I can’t write that fast!).
Questions to Ask While Revising a Poem
- What does the poem actually say on the page? Is it saying what it wants to say? Is it confused?
- Does it follow its own deepest impulses, rather than my initial idea?
- Does it go deep enough?
- Would saying less be stronger?
- Does the poem know more than I did when I started writing it? Did I discover anything?
- Is there music? Does it need a more deeply living body of sound? Is the music helping its meaning?
- Does the visual shape of the poem [lines, line breaks, stanzas, etc.] serve its meaning?
- Is it true?
- Is it ethical?
- Does it feel?
- Is there anything that doesn’t belong?
- Do any digressions serve the poem?
- Are the poem’s awkwardnesses and smoothnesses in its own best service?
- Are there places that would be confusing to an outside reader or where I’ve assumed non-general knowledge or mind-reading?
- Are there any cliches in words, images or ideas?
- Is the poem self-satisfied?
- Is it predictable?
- Is it precise?
- Does it allow strangeness? Is the strangeness it allows accessible?
- Is the grammar correct? Does wrong or non-standard syntax serve the purpose of the poem?
- Are the transitions serving the poem? Are the ideas and rhetorical gestures in the right order?
- Does the diction [ornateness/simpleness] fit the meaning?
- Is it in the right voice [first person/second person/third person]?
- Do each of its moments move it forward?
- Should it go out into the world or is it the seed for another poem?
- Is it finished?