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Distilling Words to Their Essence: Editing Poetry for Impact

Written by Emily Salja; copy edited by Meagan Kus

When we think about editing poetry, we first have to think about what poetry is. This is something that poets and critics have debated for decades—what is poetry?

All writing, to an extent, comes from the heart—creative writing in particular—and poetry is one of those strange, elusive creatures that is stitched together mostly by heartstrings. Poetry is the least efficient way of conveying a message. It is the language of trauma and inarticulable feelings. In poetry, we write around things instead of at them. How do we edit something so personal?

We look at poetry like we look at most manuscripts, like a series of moving parts but smaller and more compact. We need to trim away the excess to get to the bones of poetry when we edit: be specific, be ruthless, and question everything. We need to interrogate poetry to get to the core of it. Think about adjectives and words that are mundane and overused: happy, amazing, hard, sad, etc., and ask if they are working their hardest, if they have intent behind them, or if they can be cut or swapped out. Each word in a poem needs to be working. There is no space for fluff or for slackers. This applies to articles as well. If the is pulling its weight, leave it. If it clutters up a line, try taking it out. We want something unexpected and slick whether the intent is to stick in a reader’s throat or slide down whole. A poem must fit in the mouth.

Poetry editing principles

To help a poem fit in the mouth, we need to edit with the following principles in mind:

  • Every word must hold weight. If a word (any word or article) is not absolutely necessary, cut it.
  • Mundane words must be subversive. Or they get cut.
  • Mouthfeel matters. When read aloud, do the consonants, liquids, glides, and vowels make sense? Do they flow? If they don’t, is it impactful? Or does it detract from the poem? This principle is connected to metrics and prosody, but it’s also an intuitive process based on being a human who speaks and works with language.
  • Form does not poetry make. Line breaks are stylistic (and rhythm-based) decisions that work closely with the third principle.
  • Whitewashing is never acceptable. Do not whitewash poetry that comes across your desk. Do not, do not, willfully edit out things that you don’t understand because they are from a different culture than your own. Do your own research, read poets from different cultures other than your own for context, and discuss with your poet about the choices they’ve made.

Classic structures

If you’re editing poetry written in a classic structure, you need to have a comprehensive knowledge of the structure your poet is using in order to give appropriate feedback. If your poet is writing a sonnet, a quatrain, or a glosa, you need to know the rules and regulations of that particular structure in order to edit within expectations. This should go without saying, but make sure you know what structure your poet is writing in. If your poet is writing free verse poetry, that’s both a blessing and a curse. Without a predetermined structure, poets will willfully put in line breaks and varying line lengths for stylistic purposes (I am calling myself out here), which may distract from the integrity or impact of the poem.

Metre and syllabics

Generally speaking, as part of the poetic structure, metre is the rhythm of poetry measured in beats, and syllabics is when you play with syllables, noting which are stressed and which are unstressed. This is where reading aloud is useful, as when you stumble over a line, it means the syllabics are not flowing the way speech naturally flows. This is useful to note and useful to interrogate: is it serving the meat of the poem?

Consistency

When you’re reading a poem, look for consistencies and inconsistencies. Similar to editing prose, you can look for inconsistencies in verb tense, but also, think about inconsistencies in tone and register of words used. Think about what articles are kept and which are cut. How are the line breaks used? For emphasis? Or for disjointedness? Or maybe for disruption?

If you deviate from the consistent use of a stylistic feature, make sure it is intentional. If it is not intentional, cut it or make it consistent.

Verb tense

Lastly, when you look more at the verb tense, you’ll find it is a tenuous thing in poetry. Past, continuous, and passive tenses are difficult to write cleanly with. They create more of a narrative feel, which can be powerful if used deftly, but when used sloppily, it can distract from a poem’s impact.

In English, the way we conjugate verbs is less fussy than a lot of other languages, however:

we have been walking around for hours in our
heavy winter boots making small thuds in
the soft quiet

OR

we walk, our heavy winter
boots make small thuds in
the soft quiet

If the tone of this poem is simple and clean like a heavy blanket of fresh snow, we want to honour that and cut the fussy verb endings that clutter up the lines. Above all else, honour the tone that the poet is conveying.

For more reading, I recommend Carmen Giménez Smith’s list of suggestions for poetry self-editing and writing.


Emily Salja is a queer editor, poet, writer, and consultant at Stone Fruit Editing. She lives and works on unceded Coast Salish land, on the overlapping territories of the šxʷməθkʷəy̓əmaɁɬ təməxʷ (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh-ulh Temíx̱w (Squamish), S’ólh Téméxw (Stó:lō), Stz’uminus, and səl̓ilwətaɁɬ təməxʷ (Tsleil-Waututh) Peoples.

Meagan Kus is a freelance copy editor and proofreader with a 20-year background in arts administration.

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