I know lots of people who never revise their poetry and it’s a valid life choice. Continuing to move forward and produce more writing will def teach you all kinds of things and you’ll edit future poems as you write them with things you learned while writing some other, early poem.
On the other hand, tho, I do have some suggestions for how to revise a poem! I don’t write poetry of my own accord, really, but I did have to take several classes on it, so here are some suggestions. Frankly all of these can be done to prose as well but they’re especially good for poetry revision because poetry is so short and every line counts.
This is less an ordered list of how to revise and more several revision things you should probably cycle through and flip flop around on and possibly sometimes do simultaneously for best results.
Set it aside for awhile.
This is pretty much the first step for all good revisions. Unless this poem is gnawing up your brain and you can’t think of anything else, save it somewhere out of the way for at least a couple days and produce some other writing in the meantime. Distance from a first draft is super useful because it will give you fresh eyes.
Read it out loud.
Ideally, actually, get a group of people you don’t mind hearing your poetry together (I realize that this can be a Task; I certainly wouldn’t be able to assemble such a group without lots of effort and worry) or at least one other person or at least a recording program so that you can play your own reading back to yourself. A group of several people will give you lots of variety in how each one reads it, although you might get more bang for your buck if you introduce a new person to the poem for each new draft.
You’ll probably find some parts you stumble over reading out loud, or parts you read fine but that don’t sound quite right when you play back the recording. If you have someone else reading it, they’ll help you find those things and might read the poem in a way you hadn’t considered. Plus, you know, having someone else read it is the freshest pair of eyes you can get. Reading the poem out loud also prevents skimming or skipping over things. Rewriting your poem by hand can also help with that.
Interrogate your word and punctuation choice.
Obviously there’s the usual SPAG editing to be done – and don’t skimp on the grammar part! If you’re going to have a run-on sentence, why? If you’re going to punctuate using only em dashes, why? If you’re going to leave in a comma splice, why? Every change you make from standard SPAG will draw attention, so you should think about why you want it like that. “It sounds best like this” is 100% real and legit. “It’s incorrect grammar but that’s just how I talk” is so valid. Do not remove your voice from your poem! However, do consider rephrasing everything, as a general rule, because the more you think about your poem and what you want out of it the better your revision will go.
Look for ambiguity. Maybe you want ambiguity, but in that case just look for it to make sure you’ve got enough of it and in the right places. And consider all your words individually. Some people swear that the very first word they pick is always the right one and I’m not advising you to bust open the thesaurus on every word (please do not, normal everyday words are strong brave friends who belong in our writing) but you’ll probably find that there are at least some words that are kind of wish-washy. Did you use adverbs? Maybe try to replace all your adverb+verb combos with a stronger verb. What about your nouns – did you use an indefinite article (a, an) where you maybe would prefer a definite one (the), or the other way around? Is there any place where you could be more specific to enhance your meaning or evoke a certain feeling/experience?
Destroy and then rebuild your line breaks (and/or stanzas).
…assuming you’re writing free verse. If you’re not, your line breaks are probably kind of set in stone and you’ll have to mess around with word order and word choice. Which, you know, you should do with free verse too, but still.
This is probably easier to do on a computer than by hand, but you could totally do it by hand – rewrite the poem as one big paragraph and then put in slashes for line breaks? Or rewrite it out below with line breaks again? Either would probably be good. Whatever works for you.
The point of this is: more attention will be paid to the beginning and end of a line. More attention will also be paid to the beginning and end of a stanza. Poems that rhyme or have established structure like sonnets are like puzzles where you’re trying to arrange all the words to say what you mean in the structure you’ve chosen! But for free verse, the only structure the poem has is the structure you put in it, so every structuring choice you make is super important.
It’s kind of like renovating a house vs building a house of your own. Both are good ways to get a place to live that looks the way you want, but designing a renovation involves things like, “Okay, that wall is structural, let’s make it a feature so you can’t even imagine the house without the wall,” while building a house from the ground up means there are only walls where you want them. (I mean, building code and physics permitting – it’s not an exact metaphor.)
People will read longer lines faster. Or, rather, line breaks indicate a pause or interruption in the flow of words, so the shorter your lines are the slower your poem will be read overall. Also, as a general rule, only get weird with your formatting after you’re really sure you’ve got the word parts down and only to achieve some specific effect. The weirder your formatting gets the more you should read your poem out loud when you revise.
Shorten and lengthen your poem.
If your poem is ten lines long, can you make it nine lines? Five lines? If your poem is six stanzas, can you remove the middle two? What about lengthening it, could you expand on your favorite or least favorite line? I mean, if you can’t delete your least favorite line, then there must be parts in there that are necessary, right? Hell, pop that sucker out and see if you can rephrase just your least favorite part as an entirely new poem or stanza and figure out a better way to say or imply the same thing. Then shorten that new poem down until you can put it back where your least favorite line came from.
Every part of your poem should belong there. I know I tend to write poems longer than they need to be, so editing for me usually involves removing at least 30% of the first draft. But you might be different! Some people I know find that their poems always need some additions to feel complete.
Reread earlier drafts.
I’m suggesting some pretty wild edits here because sometimes the only way to find the best version of a poem is to find all the really really bad versions that you loathe. Revision and editing don’t have to have the goal of creating a “better” version because, like Jacks said, writing is totally a muscle and any writing things you do will make you better. Sometimes when I’m struggling with a scene I change point of view. Not because I think the scene needs a different point of view, but because I think I need to look at the scene from a different angle and remember why I picked my first point of view in the first place.
So: save separate drafts of your poetry rather than rewriting over them. Save often and with wild abandon and just number, timestamp, or date your drafts. Or print them out! Or do all your drafts handwritten! If you repeat everything above enough eventually the words in your poem will stop having meaning and you’ll go kind of cross-eyed trying to read it and that’s when you should put down all your drafts and go read or write something else before coming back to it.
Hey lionheadbookends! Luckily you caught me in the limited window of free time, so I’m able to answer your ask now though I’m not entirely sure how much help I’ll be:
I’m honored that you thought of me in relation to poetry, but I’ll be honest… I don’t really know much about it at all. Usually the poetry I post up here is kind of stream of consciousness burbling up from my mind when no narrative can convey what I want it to, and except for here on tumblr (and, technically, the cross-posting onto ao3) I don’t really publish my work anywhere. I mean, I guess technically I don’t publish my work at all since even my few “real world writing” is in play format and so not published per se so much as performed a bit and then not at all.
I guess mostly it depends on what you want the poetry to be. Generally my poetry is me expressing (usually negative) emotions or concepts to declutter my brain so when I post it onto tumblr it’s almost like me throwing letters in bottles out into the ocean. It’s nice if someone reads them and enjoys them, but ultimately the act of writing it was all I wanted–everything else is inconsequential to my goal.
So what would you like your poetry to be? Is it something you want to use to convey a specific message to people (or particular person)? Is it something you want to use as a foundation for future works?
If it’s the last, I think even those other attempts at poetry that “stuttered out before [completion]” could be helpful as a way to build upon and improve your writing. This is mostly anecdotal advice, and somewhat cliché at that, but writing is very much something you have to practice to improve upon, like exercising a muscle, and as seen with me in the past few months, if you don’t use it, it does become more difficult.
… as I said before, I don’t think this is of much help, but I’m glad to hear you’ve written a poem that you’re satisfied with! I think that–your personal satisfaction with what you’ve written–is what is most important, especially with poetry which is so emotionally charged and intimate.
Do whatever you want but want whatever you do.
This applies to pretty much all creative writing. You don’t have to stick to “the rules” because “the rules” are more like strong suggestions. Conventional grammar choices will fade into the background without making a statement, letting your reader focus on your word choice. Simple words used in an abnormal order will draw attention to your specific meaning and sentence structure instead of catching the reader off guard with beautiful word choice. Mix it all together! Try it all out! Make a big mess! Look for readers who will tell you what they got out of the poem and why so that you can decide if your choices are having the effect you want them to have.
Maybe you’ll hate all your changes. Maybe your readers will give suggestions that make you want to physically snatch your writing back from them before they suggest anything else so wrong and bad. But finding out what changes or interpretations you hate means you’ll be more confident about the parts you like, and thinking about why you don’t like something that you’ve decided doesn’t work is often easier than thinking about why you like something that you don’t want to change. It’s unlikely anyone ever going to sit you down and try to interrogate you about why you don’t capitalize the first letter in each line or anything, but conscious choices make for a more polished poem.
Some actual, practical advice! Thank you, waffle! I’ve never actually taken a creative writing class, so this was new for me and much appreciated.