Posted by: jeannineatkins | March 28, 2011

Poetry Housekeeping

Even when I write prose, most of my writing starts with stray words and phrases that slowly shape into sentences. I visualize, with fuzzy edges, much of what I want to say, then later stalk verbs and objects to make the mess make sense. When I write poetry, it’s satisfying to see words line up. Then stanzas look like stanzas. I love the moment when words down the page look like a poem. But I know my work has just begun.

What looks like a poem needs to be turned over and given a good shaking. Phrases tumble. Some are swept past the margins and stay there. Others find places in other poems. I’m getting toward the end of a volume of verse, but you couldn’t tell it from the haphazard slew of words, lines, and cross-outs on the page. It’s like I cleaned out a closet and spent time discarding and organizing, but when everything’s still on the floor, the work hardly shows.

I don’t know if there’s ever a more efficient way. I have to make things as neat as I can, then throw it to the wind. Play with what’s scattered, and I suppose seeing how different words look when set against different ones, I make new connections. With new layouts, holes glare and demand to be filled.

If I were cleaning a closet I’d be tempted to cheat: tired of the piles, I might stick things back whichever way they’d fit. But I’m more careful here. I tolerate the stacks of words – this one, or this? –, clean up, then shove words willy-nilly all over again in the hopes of spotting more gaps to fill or more words that fit side by side or don’t match at all, but startle.

So how do I know when I’m done?

It’s a good question. I know some poets revise almost forever, and I understand that temptation. For me it’s a matter of letting the poems rest, then coming back with fresh eyes. If the poem can surprise me, that’s a good sign. If I can sense that these words were already shaken up, strewn, and raked, that’s a good sign, too. I want words to follow each other in clear ways, but leave enough sense of an imperfect hand doing the arranging, so there’s room for readers to do their own shaking, shuffling, and strewing. At last I feel happy about the look of lines in straight rows, finally, I hope, where they belong.



  1. You make me want to throw my novel up in the air and write a poem. None of that tumbling and word-arranging and raking seems to work in a big project. If I get the words to behave, my characters are running riot. The beauty of writing small, writing short.

  2. Yeah, you can sometimes get away with mix and matching a chapter here and there, taking a character in or out, but it’s not the same chaos in the wind. Good luck — and I hope your snow has melted, and dresses with sashes can billow among pear blossoms again (your picture was a poem).

  3. Your poetry housekeeping process sounds lovely. Thanks for sharing your insight.

  4. Great post.
    It also sounds a bit like revising a novel.

  5. Wonderful post. So funny, though–my tendency in cleaning out closets is to get tired of it and throw all the piles out! My second drafts seem to follow a lot of that system, but as I get further along I have to look deeper into what I’ve written and see if there’s more there to actually play with, rather than starting over with a totally clean slate!

  6. I’m laughing with you this morning – especially because you so perfectly captured my recent poetry-writing so well (although it’s not a collection). It was supposed to be one poem, but it’s now one complete poem plus the starts of two additional ones, with the possibility of a fourth – all because some of the words and phrases didn’t play well together, yet they all resonated for me. So they’ve shaken out across a few documents right now, and are waiting to see if other words will join them.

  7. So nice to see you here, Vivian! Here’s to flowing words for you this spring (and spring in general coming to Massachusetts…)

  8. Thanks, Sarah!

  9. Hmmm, throwing out all — that sounds like a poet’s way. Done that. But it’s not the best way to write a novel. Your way of making yourself look deeper, even into the clutter, sounds wise.

  10. Glad to be flinging around words with you this morning, Kelly! It’s cool when one poem splits into others, or becomes seeds.

  11. Angela, thank you!

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