Revising poems

I’ve started reading W.N. Herbert’s book Writing Poetry. Bill’s big on revision, as are others. Don Paterson said at his recent GRV reading that he “writes poems with a tweezer”. Admittedly, Bill’s book is aimed at the beginning poet, who is more likely to make correctable mistakes with first drafts. The experienced poet maybe makes fewer errors, and is more likely to know what she or he wants to say, and how to say it.

I write all my first drafts on paper. Here I’m with Bill: there’s something about the use of the hand and eye, the flow of ink onto paper, that helps the poem to get itself written. The next stage is to transfer it to computer, and it’s that that stage that editing, revision, reshaping takes place. Once it’s there, it’s still a draft, but I look on it as being more or less finished. I may change a word or two, cut out the odd adverb (they still creep in sometimes), swap a line from one place to another, but that’s it. Sometimes I make no changes whatsoever. It’s not perfect – nothing ever is – but it’s finished. After that it’s up to editors and readers to decide whether or not they like them.

I was at an exhibition of the paintings of the Glasgow Boys at Kelvingrove yesterday (stunning exhibition by the way), and I noticed, not for the first time, that those paintings which had been overworked were the least satisfactory. They had lost their energy. It’s exactly the same with poetry. Over-edited poems are flattened by the process of over-editing, I feel. If they were white wines, I’d call them flabby.

I don’t expect everyone else to do what I do – every writer is different. But them’s my methods.

Here’s an example, a new poem, edited in exactly the way I describe. The changes I made from the first draft were to change word order in one line, to cut three lines out, and to substitute another line.

Acer japonicum

This is a tree.
This is a maple tree.
This is a Japanese maple tree.
This Japanese maple tree was a gift
from a friend
who grew it from seed
collected by a friend in Kyoto.
This is a friendship tree
linking Scotland and Japan.
It is Colin’s, Gerry’s, Takaya’s tree.

The Japanese maple is not native to Scotland.
I am not native
to Japan, yet I love its trees.

The tree has pale green leaves
edged with red.
It is beautiful.

Colin Will


About sunnydunny

Poet, publisher, gardener
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3 Responses to Revising poems

  1. Marion says:

    “writes poems with a tweezer” – love that!
    Really like the poem, Colin. I’m thinking I might try writing some poems on paper instead of straight onto the pc as a wee exercise. It seems that most people write on paper first, which surprises me!

  2. Barbara S says:

    I forgot I had that book – one of the first ‘how to’ books I bought. I’m there with you on the method of composition, though. Pretty much how I work now – compared to when I was starting out. Didn’t know then what I know now, I guess.

  3. Thanks – I might check this book out. I write everything on paper, and sometimes, in the drafting process will end up writing a poem out ten of fifteen times. For me, it’s to do with the fact that I like the physical sensation of writing by hand and I can go back and have a record of changes.

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