starting a poem 2Objective

Rewriting an existing poem in varied ways.

Assessing the Original

The ways of writing poetry defy enumeration, but here are just a few, with common faults and strategies to overcome them.

We start with a pastiche. This might be a typical offering in a small magazine. 

In a Country Churchyard

Effaced by the wind
Stones stand waiting
For the human touch.

My caring fingers
Trace the names of those
Who walked here once,
Long ago.

What can we say? The poem is quiet and unpretentious, expressing what everyone feels in such surroundings. Certainly, and that's the trouble. Everyone has felt this, and everyone has said so. There's nothing very distinctive in this contribution, and put as prose  — try it — the piece would not merit inclusion in a local newspaper.

What's to be done? Umpteen things:

  • Visualize the scene in its sensory fullness — the season, weather, surroundings, the hum of insect life, the smell of earth, etc.

    Under the skylarks, the hard sunlight, and the frequent bluster
    Of the wind in its shimmy through the laid out rows,
    I kneel down, clear the litter, slit the cellophane wrapper,
    Prop up the flowers, and discard them, one by one...

  • Develop the theme through the sensory details, making them the actors:

    I was glad of the frank ordinariness of the earth beneath —
    Though the grass was unruly, and in the laid path
    I noticed it pushing itself, lush and insistent;
    As much as expectantly on those summer evenings. . .

  • Recast the form. See what conventional metre and rhyme will do:

    Again you have found me at a year's decease,
    With the blue air singing and the green grass spreading;
    Stooping to read, under the familiar heading,
    Words which are final yet give no peace.

  • Start with some striking phrase and develop its connotations. Tone down the rhythm so it that supports the meditation rather than sweeps the reader heedlessly on.

    Epiphanies of the evening, and a slight
    Thinning in the wind, which empties its hand
    Over the headstones, mowed plots, the flowers
    Dead as the rest are, and heaped about. . .

  • Construct a Postmodernist collage of two-dimensional snapshots.

    The body is smoking and the bad teeth go everywhere.
    Daddy wins you, Daddy loves you. Where is that man now?
    He is digging up my garden, he is climbing up my tree.
    Historically, the incidence of incest has been under-reported.

  • Introduce a personal element; tell a story.

    I can't remember. We didn't come much -
    Just kids then, you know, hanging about.
    Even when Dad died and I did my bit
    Again at the gravestone she was still a blank...

Are these improvements? Not yet. We shall develop most of these beginnings in other pages, remembering that the point of these exercises is to:

  • 1. Introduce material that cannot be accommodated by the merely safe and conventional.

  • 2. Recast the poem in forms where more demanding technical requirements apply. To work at all, the new poem will have to be very much better. 


Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if cited in the usual way.

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