Warning: 1. We can get too serious about our poems. 2. Sometimes poems die under the knife.
So – choose a poem you don’t love deeply. Choose a poem you know has something but you’re not sure what. Set aside eleven copies of the original to work with, and try ten of the methods below. Then take a look at your ten versions and decide whether you want to combine or vary or mix the results on the eleventh text.
Creativity involves fun, discovery and joy. None of the following methods are magic. But they may encourage your brain to function in ways it ordinarily doesn’t. Your poem might surprise you yet.
So, if you’re on board with this, start your selection and implement fearlessly. At the very least, this will keep you harmlessly engaged for a whole wet afternoon in winter. If you suffer from that mysterious malaise known as ‘writer’s block’, you’ll forget such an affliction ever existed.
I suggest your original poem should be no longer than 20 lines in length, and it should not be sestina, villanelle, triolet or pantoum. Ghazals and sonnets will be fine to mess with.
Please don’t try these methods on a poem you strongly feel is right already. Keep faith with that poem, no matter who has rejected it.
Work with a text you were never all that sure of in the first place. This could be more about process than product anyway. Most of the methods will be easiest to do if working electronically.
- Choose another title, a long title, that seems not to belong to the poem. You might try the style one of those 18th century chapter titles: “In which a gentleman of uncertain age meets three ladies and has to take a decision”. Or any other lengthy title you like.
- Dump your title. Use the first line as title.
- Find two words that rhyme. They may be very small words like ‘you’ and ‘two’. Introduce more words that rhyme with these, but not at end of lines. (BUT if this is a rhyming poem, take all the rhymes out and then decide what other changes you need to make for the poem still to work; these will probably include changing the line breaks.)
- Change a key noun in the poem by replacing it with another word that rhymes with it. Don’t worry if the poem no longer makes sense
- Change the font of the poem: if you use a seriphed font like Garamond or Times Roman, change to sans serif like Calibri or Arial Narrow. The aim is for you to see the poem differently. Now cast the whole poem into two-line stanzas.
- Change your pargraph formatting. If you double-space your poems, single-space it (if you don’t know how to get it out of double spacing, you need a soft return at the end of each line: shift+enter instead of just enter). If you single-space, try widening the gaps between the lines to 1.2 (in Word, Select the text, then Font > Paragraph > Line Spacing and type 1.2 into the box).
- Remove all adverbs and adjectives if there are any. Then put one adjective back in but it must be different, and more potent, than any you took out.
- Change the shape of the poem. Consider indenting every second or third line. Consider making it concrete. Think hard about what the poem is about and whether there is any shape or stanza division that would connect with its central idea.
- Take out all the line breaks and put them back in again every seventh word.
- If there are stanza breaks, take them all out. If there are no stanza breaks, break the poem into either two-line or three-line stanzas.
- Cut the first sentence. Not the first line, the first sentence, unless the first line ends with a full stop, in which case cut the first line.
- Take out all the punctuation and remove capital letters at the start of sentences (you can retain capital I for the first person). Now decide what you need to do to allow the poem to make sense. You’re not allowed to put any punctuation back in again.
- Run your eye down the left hand margin. Which line has most energy? Which line starts in the MOST interesting way? Make this your first line.
- Reduce (or expand) the poem to fourteen lines. Whatever it takes. Remember you can have very long or very short lines. You can have anything: you are The Poet.
- Go to another poem you have written (unpublished) and extract three lines you know you like, not necessarily a group. Inject them into the rejected poem somewhere near the middle.
- If the poem has a clear theme, find a nice quotation that touches this theme obliquely. Insert it as epigraph.
- Consider assonance. Where you find an ‘ah’ sound, vary your existing word choice so as to create another and another. Where there is an ‘oh’ sound, make more of them. And so on. Do this systematically through the whole poem, but not to the extent it gets silly.
- Consider consonance. Reading aloud will allow you to discover naturally occurring sound repetitions: sounds like D and K and S and M. Strengthen the phenomenon in one particular section of the poem but try to avoid alliteration – sounds in the middle or end of words can be subtler.
- Recast the poem as a series of questions and answers. (Optional: take out the questions. Or take out the answers.)
- Alter your sentence lengths. Make sure not one of them is longer than eight Now ensure two of them are no more than three words long.
- Sing the poem to a well-known tune. (Allegedly all of Emily Dickinson can be sung to The Yellow Rose of Texas.) You might like to try You’ll Never Walk Alone or, if you’re a church goer, ‘Praise my soul the King of Heaven’. Adjust the poem so it’s possible to sing it to this tune without too much difficulty.
- Pantoumise the poem by creating a repeating pattern. It will end up divided into four line stanzas (quatrains). So start with your first four lines, then make a stanza break. Your second and fourth lines will now be repeated as the first and third line of the next four line stanza. And so on. It will double the length of your poem. Don’t worry: this is poetry.
- Reverse the opening and closing lines of the poem.
- Repeat the opening line or lines at the end of the poem.
- Cut the last line(s) of the poem.
- Introduce a new voice into the poem, a voice that argues with any of your assertions. eg. The morning was chilly and grey. / No, it was warm and sunny.
- If your poem is about an event, something that happened once, change it completely so it’s about what didn’t happen that day. This is a complete redraft though you may save some of the poem anyway.
- Think of your poem, whatever it is, as a sort of narrative or commentary on an event or person. Divide it into three chunks and number them 1. 2. 3. Change the title to something that contains the word ‘three’. Or if you get really excitable, do the same with the number 7.
- Read the poem aloud. Change any line you stumble over unless you never stumble once. If you never stumble once, make one line much more difficult to read aloud, preferably a line that connects with some idea of difficulty in the poem.
- Take out all the line breaks. Think about your poem as a prose poem. Does it work in prose? If not, make it work in prose. If it’s a prose poem, it had better be really good prose. Remember Mark Twain on adjectives: If in doubt, strike it out. And on adverbs, If you see an adverb, kill it. You also need to decide how you want to justify (in typesetting terms) your prose poem: left justified or fully justified. There is a choice and it’s just as significant as your choice of line breaks in a conventional poetry format. If your prose poem is fully justified, how wide should your block of text be?
- Put the word ‘dinosaur’ into your poem somewhere. Or make ‘Dinosaur’ the title.
- Decide which lines in the poem you like best. Remove them. a) Do whatever it takes to make the poem work without them. b) Make the lines you’ve removed work on their own (changing the title could be a key move). Now you have two poems: it’s like a ginger beer plant. Remember ginger beer plants? All you need is a starter.
Finally: assemble your versions in a row. Pick out any that attract you. Work with one or several of them to arrive at a revived poem you like. Don’t angst over this too long. Send it to a worthy magazine and see what happens.