We sat together at one summer's end,
That beautiful mild woman, your close friend,
And you and I, and talked of poetry.
I said, "A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment's thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
--William Butler Yeats, Adam's Curse


if W.B. Yeats takes hours to write one good line with his friends' help, why can't you be bothered to? If you do edit your own poetry, or ask others for honest grammatical and structural critique, a thousand blessings on you; this write-up is not aimed at you or your well-crafted sonnets.

The title of this write-up is that phrase I hear from far too many would-be poets. You have to rewrite if you want your poetry not to suck. Yes, you do. No, stop arguing with me. You may feel inspired, shat on by a muse, at one with everything... and maybe you are. Nonetheless, the inspiration doesn't make the words come, just the feelings. You and your gifted, soulful, pensive, mysterious brain, make the words that end up on the page. But no matter how gifted you are, you aren't writing the best poetry you can if you just vomit it out onto the page and leave it there.

Let me get right to the hardest part. Saying this is going to hurt me as much as it hurts you: your radical ideas about being a gifted stream-of-consciousness poet have already occurred to others, and their poetry sucked on the first draft, too. So did mine. A lot of it still does.

Saul Bellow said "you never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write" -- and he's wrong. All of the great beat poets rewrote their poetry. If you publicize your poetry before you've tried any rewriting, you're not a poet: you're a snake oil salesman, trying to pass your disconnected, unfocused thoughts off as "deep" or "eccentric" or "Zen". Anyone with any appreciation for good poetry will read your poem, see it for what it is, and say "I like it," or "it works," and leave it at that, silently pitying your self-importance.

So, what can you do about it? Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. Some simple exercises that will make your poems better:

  • Stop writing and read ten poems you've never read. Then start with a blank sheet, and ignoring your first draft, write the poem again from scratch. Strive for the same feeling and meaning.
  • Rewrite a poem in sonnet form, or even villanelle.
  • Rewrite a poem using half the number of words in the original poem.
  • Rewrite it from another character's or object's perspective.
  • Rewrite it in the future tense, or the past tense.
  • Rewrite it without using the words "the", "I", or "me". Translating to Russian and back doesn't count.
  • Trade poems with a friend. Rewrite his or her work, then trade back and rewrite again.
  • Last but not least, read up on the devices that make poetry poetic at The English Poetry Metanode. Try one you've never used in at least three versions of the same poem.

One last thing... I'm not trying to tell anyone they suck. I'm just telling you that if you're not rewriting, you can't call it a "work" of poetry--you didn't do any work! I'm writing this node to anyone out there who is a younger version of myself, who has just discovered that his pen or typewriter can be attached directly to his brain and boom, really cool stuff with lots of line-breaks comes out.

Unfortunately, it's not poetry. At best, it's a draft, a stream-of-consciousness letter addressed to the author; at worst, it's bloated prose with extra line breaks (in other words, fermented elephant feces). Before it can be called poetry, it needs to become a purely distilled form of a moment, an emotion, the taste of a kiss, a place, a dream, a person. A total stranger should be able to read it and instantly understand that portion of who you are,

(without you sitting across from him or her in the coffeehouse drinking your Starbuck's and staring nervously at him or her and hinting that this may be your best work yet and pointing to a line that's vague and saying "do you like that line?" and looking at him or her with little innocent please-don't-tell-me-I-suck eyes).

He (or she) needs to get it all on their own, and never once feel like you are forcing it on them.

If you can do that in a first draft, then you don't need to rewrite your poems.

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