You non-poets, stick around. This will work for you, too.
I’m not a great reviser of my poetry. I tend to throw lines on a page and consider it done. If it works, it works. But last week a prompt from Poets & Writers gave me a way to make an okay poem much better. The prompt was to take two favorite lines from a poem that needs revision and write a villanelle. Now, a villanelle is a form in which you write five three-line stanzas and end with a four-line stanza. What makes it tricky is that you are supposed to repeat the first line at the end of the second and fourth stanzas and the third line at the end of the third and fifth stanzas, then repeat them both as the last two lines of the ending quatrain. Confused yet? There’s more. The first and third lines of each stanza should rhyme while the second lines all rhyme with each other. Ready to give up? I hear you. For a great explanation and examples of villanelles, click on http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/5796.
But wait, you don’t have to write a villanelle. In this exercise, the villanelle is just a tool, like grabbing a different screwdriver from the toolbox. And you have choices. In my revision, I didn’t do the rhymes, just the repetitions, and I liked what I got. Using the villanelle form forced me to think a little harder about what I was trying to say and to choose lines that said it better. However the repetitions became too . . . repetitious. So . . . I started a whole new poem, using the best of the villanelle, with fewer repetitions, and now I really like my poem. It took a while, I got a little sunburned because I was working out on the deck, but now I get it. Keeping only the best of the poem, cutting and adding until all the lines are good, I think I finally am saying what I was trying to say.
They’re only words, friends, tools to express an idea or a feeling. If the words aren’t quite right, reach into the toolbox for other words. You can always save the rejected lines for another poem. If you insist on keeping only the words from that first blast of inspiration, it’s like trying to tighten the screws on a bookshelf with a flathead screwdriver when what you really need is a Phillips-head. You’ll never get it tight, and it will always wobble.
Now go write.