Poetry is the ultimate baring of the poet’s inner thoughts. Not to say all poetry will be deep and serious (just as our inner thoughts can be lighthearted and fun, so can poetry), but that regardless of the tone the poem, you can always be sure that it’s a reflection of the poet’s mental state when they wrote that particular poem. As such, the poet must carefully construct each poem with full consideration of tone, word choice, and structure.
Often, poets tend to change their voice in their poems. They use an “author’s voice,” and it’s painfully obvious to the reader. This is one of the worst mistakes a poet can make. Compare this to acting. One of the differences between a good actor and a bad actor is in how realistic their acting appears. The bad actor appears to the audience as an actor (using their “acting voice”), while the good actor comes to the audience in the shoes of their character. For a poem to have the greatest effect, it needs to come to the reader in the poet’s real voice. The reader is not interested in superficial voices and effects. No. They are looking for a voice that they can relate to, and one that speaks to them on a level of truth.
Another important aspect of the tone is word choice. Consider the way the words feel on the tongue, and the way they sound aloud. Short, sharp consonants (such as, Cut, Click, Stop, Kick, Heart, Start, Punch, etc.) will create jagged edges in the poem’s verses as they cause your readers tongue to stop rhythmically. Longer, soft consonants (such as, Believing, Ballerina, Feline, Lovers, Sexual, Melancholy, etc.) create a slower pace that embraces your reader. Be sure to consider the tone and definition of each word carefully.
Lastly, the poet must be fully aware of the poem’s structure. Poems are to be structured tightly, with any unnecessary words cut. Check for any lines where passive voice is being used. Change the voice to active and compare the difference. In most cases, you will find the active voice to be an improvement. Next, take a highlighter and highlight all adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, and conjunctions. Do these words add any benefit? If not, can the lines be reworded to remove them? Be stingy with the delegation of these types of words. If something can be reworded to remove “of,” “the,” or “very” – do it.
Let’s review an example with the following short verse:
The tall, Ash tree’s braches reached high into the air
As if the branches were reaching out,
Hoping God’s hand would reach back down.
Let’s remove the unnecessary words and view the effect.
Here’s the revised version:
The Ash tree’s braches reached to the sky,
As if reaching out,
In hopes God would reach back.
Can you feel the difference? Most would say the second verse has a stronger punch. Do you agree?
Do not be afraid to cut words. This is one of the most important aspects of editing your poem, and you may need to do this multiple times with the same poem. All writing is revision. Do not ever stop on the first draft thinking you’re done, because you’re not. You have just began.
Rita Dove said, “poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful.” This is an apt observation. However, I’d add that the poet must also be willing to strip to their naked soul beneath. Don’t skim over the truth, no matter how ugly it may be. Lastly, always choose your words carefully and cut the fat ruthlessly.
So go. Be a naked poet. Be ruthless. Go write.
As always, thank you for reading.
See you next week!