Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Fixing 'Failed' Poems: ideas and complications

A few days ago I promised Sorlil, one of my regulars here on Raw Light, a little something on the art - or otherwise - of writing poetry. So here it is.

I've just had to enter a poetry competition using four recently rewritten poems. Since I've been writing a children's fantasy novel over the past month, I didn't have a large number of good new pieces to choose from. So as the competition deadline approached, I began hunting through some old poetry files and folders in search of poems which failed to make the grade for my last collection, Boudicca & Co, but which were not entirely worthy of the bin.

Luckily, I managed to find a few hopefuls, by which I mean unfinished poems with the potential to be finished or poems which, although ostensibly finished, still felt too hollow or gauche to be allowed out in public.

Inauthenticity is what I'm describing, I suppose. When a poem strikes the reader as inauthentic, the poet has usually failed to access something in themselves, some memory or 'persona' that might allow the poem to step away from its creator and develop a creative force of its own. Sometimes that failure can be remedied by editing and rewriting, sometimes not. Often, my first instincts when writing the earliest drafts will turn out to be the most authentic-sounding parts of the poem. You can fiercely edit and scrape until the poem's been cut to ribbons, but by doing so you may lose those early instinctive marks of authenticity.

Laying a poem aside for a few months - or even years - tends to do the trick rather better than attacking it with a scalpel immediately, as you can then put distance between yourself and the original spark of the poem. When you're too close to a poem's genesis, all you see is the spark and the failure to ignite a poem from it. Later, reading it more coolly and with perhaps some humour, you may instantly see where the poem fails and, more vitally, how it can be 'fixed'. You may also be pleasantly surprised by the success of a poem that you felt was an out-and-out failure, since over-working a poem tends to make you loathe and despise it to the point where you feel it has no worth whatsoever. Which is rarely true.

Conscientious but mediocre poets have an advantage here over the sheer flash of talent, which tends to throw anything aside in a temper which is not fully realised as soon as it appears. But even the most mediocre poem which has been well-written and painstakingly brought to life has more worth than a poem which would be unspeakably brilliant if it was diligently rewritten but which will never see the inside of a publication due to laziness or despair.

So what did I change, in these 'laid-aside' poems, to make them good enough to enter in a poetry competition? Well, first of all, I read each one through several times so that I could hear the rhythm of the poem before I started carelessly hacking at it. Once I felt comfortable with the rhythm, I began making notes on the poem itself with a pencil, suggesting where unwieldy lines could be cut short or removed altogether, where metaphors had not been carried through to their logical conclusion, and where the lazy and obvious choice of a word required a rethink and perhaps a leisurely exploration in a thesaurus.

What I found, overall, was that the poems which I'd excluded from my second collection tended to be poems where the conclusion was not working. Problems within the poem were less important than the conclusion, though problems with the start of a poem usually meant the poem was never going to be worth repairing. Some poets 'mine' their older or unworkable poems for lines or phrases they can use in new poems, but I find that each poem is a world unto itself and phrases used there are non-transferable. So if I can't fix a poem, however strong a particular image or group of lines within that poem might be, they can never be removed from their natural habitat and transplanted into some new poem. That would simply transfer the original poem's failure - rather like a virus moving invisibly between people - to the new poem and destroy that one too.

So I only take old poems on for repair where the opening lines don't need any adjustment, and where the conclusion - though failing - is not beyond help. Some poems can be fixed by moving stanzas about. It's not entirely impossible that the right concluding lines to a failing poem lie somewhere already within that poem; sometimes it's just that you, as the poet, have written on past the point where the poem naturally ended, or that during an earlier redraft the original closing stanza might have shifted elsewhere in an unwise attempt to resolve a perceived problem.

So the first thing with a poor conclusion is to read through the poem carefully and see if any strong closing lines can be found within the original work. If that doesn't look likely, then finding a new image or phrase for the conclusion that hooks into an image or repeated phrase in the original is often the way to go. Trying for something completely new to the poem can be disastrous. It does occasionally work out okay, especially with very talented poets who write by the seat of their pants, but if you tend to put poems together in a more methodical, plodding manner, then suddenly leaping in with a brilliant new closing image may shear the conclusion off from the rest of the poem and leave it more fractured than when you began.

Another thing I noticed when rewriting these 'failed' poems this week is that a problematic single line within a poem may represent the main reason for that poem's failure. It's often a line which you, as the poet, love and admire and wish to retain, and feel that with just a tweak here or a polish there, it could make your poem magnificent. Yet still it sticks out like a sore thumb or ruins the lines around it, while you keep working with those other lines and blaming the poem's failure on them instead, or tweaking back and forth repeatedly, removing a comma, then replacing it, changing a word, then slithering back to the original in defeat. Eventually, the horrid truth strikes you. The most brilliant line in your poem is the reason why the poem is failing, and it must be excised.

In all these ditherings and confusions that go on when fixing problematic poems, the most useful thing seems to be arriving early at a sense of the poem's original rhythm and purpose. That's why I advocate reading it through several times and letting the poem sink into your psyche, bad lines and all, before beginning any salvage work. For its rhythm is the poem, and without grasping that fully within yourself, you will only destroy the 'good' parts of the poem by making cuts and revisions which don't take rhythm into account.

Lastly, don't be afraid of startling yourself. Each poem contains its own wisdom and reality, and makes its own rules. In other words, if your 'failed' poem insists you do something which will take it outside its original structure or meaning, and you trust that voice in your ear, then go ahead and do it, fix its problems in whichever way seems best to you. After all, there can be no progress in poetry - or within individual 'failed' poems - without a certain willingness to fall flat on your face!


Sorlil said...

This is great. Plenty of points to think about here especially concerning ending poems and purging much-loved but ultimately non-working lines. Thanks for sharing your reworking process.

Jane Holland said...

Thanks, Sorlil. I would have also shared the poems in question, both pre-make-over and post. But I couldn't have entered them in the competition if I'd done that!

Maybe if one of them wins, I'll feel able to. If none of them win, of course, they'll be going out to other competitions and magazines. The endless round ...