First Version

You can write a poem in fifteen minutes. A common poetry workshop exercise is to start from some inspirational object or image handed around the participants. Each puts their hand into an envelope and pulls out a photograph. Of an ice-like quartz crystal. Of a misty water-meadow. Or perhaps of the Mona Lisa. Then each participant has, say, fifteen minutes to speed-write a poem. This is followed by a round-table feedback session: “I couldn’t come up with anything”, “It’s really rough” and “I’m too embarrassed to read any of it out” are common responses. Seldom do budding poets say: “I’ve written a perfect sonnet and there’s nothing I can see that would improve it”.

On another occasion, you might wake up to a bright day with a head full of ideas. A concept is quickly sketched over a black coffee. Some might then say: “I’ve just written a perfect sonnet and there’s nothing I can see that would improve it”. For those who think this version is final, in this blog are some reasons to re-consider.

After the first draft, you must be a stranger to your own work. The kind of critic you never want to encounter. One that not only tells you what is wrong but even starts to propose solutions. Quelle horreur!

Sometimes for you to be this stranger it’s worth leaving your draft with its coffee stains, unread, in a drawer for a few days. Let the relationship cool off. When you come back to it, read it out loud to yourself.

Your inner stranger should be asking questions like:

  • Does it flow, have music in its telling?
  • Does this poem say something interesting in a coherent manner? Will readers understand the message and be able to relate to it?
  • Does the form suit the message, e.g. sonnets often are used to juxtapose two different ideas, as in a dilemma?
  • Are the line endings appropriate, e.g. if you’ve used rhyme, does it work? Are the stanza breaks effective?
  • Has each word earnt its place? Are there any words that can be culled?
  • How original are your metaphors; are they too mixed? Have you driven out cliché?
  • Are the first and last lines compelling?

Only then are you ready to write your next draft. And believe me, this process can be quite iterative.

Ideally at some time when you can iterate no more, you need an independent critic. An individual trusted to limit their critique to pointing out what works well and what does not.

See now, how that fifteen-minute poem may only be a seed of a rare fruit.

First Draft - Fruit image

© Copyright Clifford Liles, October 2019

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