Posted by: jeannineatkins | August 23, 2013


I’ve been revising some poems, which means while I trim and polish, I’m also kicking up dust, going deeper, a tricky term that doesn’t mean patching in meaning with words boasting an extravagant number of syllables that might be spoken in churches, temples, or lecture halls. To me, going deeper means working with a polishing cloth to get a clearer view of what the dust-raising reveals.

I often end a day, or month, or year, thinking I’m done, then go back with the clarity of distance and find an alarming number of opportunities to bring readers with me for a renewed sense of connection. For example in the verse novel I’m revising, I’d set a scene with an aunt and girl playing cat’s cradle. I’d wanted a simple linking task. But as I look closer, I see the patterns made by string that twists into new pictures, and will bring those out a bit, going beyond a game to fit my theme of transformations.

Good critique partners or editors may ask questions that lead us to looking again, looking longer, but I also pull out my own stock of questions as I head through another round. Looking over the shoulders of characters to the background can tease out meaning. What kind of light are they in, and does it change as they speak? What’s happening in the sky? What might they smell, and does that change? What’s the season? What shape spaces form between the characters? Is their conversation at odds with their surroundings?

Bringing in weather may make us think of the clichés such as, “It was a dark and stormy night.” But weather may lead us to something new in the way clover catches sunlight.  Landscape changes with each observer, and when we put it into words. Most of us have stood with another, and seen something only when the other names what’s before our eyes. Not only what is now seen, but what we missed before, may offer a place to deepen. What made us or our character blink or duck?

Changed feelings alter what we see. Grief, for instance, may make our throats burn as we spot a child swinging a jump rope or a couple holding hands. We don’t need to name the ache or our sense of passing time, but can try to accurately convey the scene. We’ll never quite get it, but that’s all right. Part of the reader’s work is to fill in what was missed. We just want to turn them in the right direction, toward beauty that may seem slightly beyond grasp.  We put into words what resists words, so it may be a ragged fit. Readers are not therapists, waiting for us to announce meaning. We want to invite them with us as we retrace our awkward steps and let meaning glimmer, peek, or elude in the same haphazard or slippery way it comes to us.

Some dust clouds are raised by clearing out information that gives away too much, put there because I need to know it, but when taken away might give the reader more places to enter, speculating, or even feeling suspense. Not my forte. I nudge characters closer to cliffs, though they are more often made of choices than rock and air.

Writing is like living, in which we often act, make choices, and the meaning appears only afterwards. It’s the mix of seeing, feeling, and questioning that deepens. We see something that touches us, in life or imagination, and probe: did that stir feeling because of some association? What colors, shape, or patterns seemed to touch us, and can we mirror that with words? We can try.

For more Poetry Friday posts, please visit I Think in Poems.


  1. What a wonderful post! Much to think on. Last week when I went to Swampscott to retrace Elizabeth Alcott’s (and Jo and Beth’s) footsteps on the seashore I felt a strong array of emotions. I felt it on the drive to Swampscott too but another reason was thrown in – it’s where my mother’s family comes from (they are one of the oldest families in the area with the original ancestor going back to the 1630s). I could not put a finger on my emotions, and therefore could not describe them (still can’t) but I want to. Your post is making me realize that I must if I am to grow as a writer.

    • Susan, what beautiful layering you have to work with. It’s those feelings we can’t articulate at first — the challenge of them — that add so much, when we are at last able to find the words. And the connections between people, generations, and the places we share. I don’t always love being the one who suggests another round or two or more, but I love your grace in feeling eager to go the distance.

  2. As you rightly say, revision is not just checking the spelling and beefing up the vocab. It’s a matter of shaking the structure of the poem to see if its; sturdy enough- maybe shifting words, even whole stanzas around.
    A really useful post. Thanks for the insights.

    • Thank you for reading, and lovely s-filled reply! Shaking the structure to survey sturdiness — yes!

  3. I love your definition of deepening. For me it means adding layers or adding to layers of meaning. This summer I taught writing the regional novel (MG and YA) and spent an entire three-hour class on weather. If I teach that clas again I would fold in your question about the light a character stands in. Wonderful post!

    • Thank you, Candice. I love your attendance to weather and setting. Of course you knew that, I hope.

  4. ‘Readers are not therapists, waiting for us to announce meaning. We want to invite them with us as we retrace our awkward steps and let meaning glimmer, peek, or elude in the same haphazard or slippery way it comes to us.’

    LOVE this 🙂

    • YES! I copied that same bit to paste in my comment then saw someone beat me to it. 🙂

      Thank you, Jeannine, for always, always giving me something to think about after reading your posts.

      Off to kick up some dust of my own…

    • Thank you Aja, and Tracy. It’s always good to know someone appreciated the lines I almost deleted!

  5. Wonderful post, Jeannine! I love the questions you ask here.

    >>> “I often end a day, or month, or year, thinking I’m done, then go back with the clarity of distance and find an alarming number of opportunities to bring readers with me for a renewed sense of connection.”

    This is one reason why I find it so hard to declare a manuscript done. I’d hold onto them for years if I could.

    • Yep, if I had a nickel for every time I thought a manuscript was “done,” I could buy us each a coffee (and I’m talking large fancy coffee drinks with flavors and whipped cream and cherries on top).

    • Thanks, Amy — and Tracy! I agree, but there’s something to be said for pulling out the shears and cutting the threads, too. Other work needs our attention, and gives us plenty of second, third, and 100th or so chances. Not good to say “Done!” too soon, but it is good to say!

  6. Beautifully stated, Jeannine! And I love the term, deepening!

    • Thank you for reading and writing! So many of us want to deepen, whatever we call it.

  7. I just wrote a poem this week that surprised me, Jeannine, and now I read your post while thinking about the poem and what I might add, or take away that would, in your words, ‘deepen’ the poem. I like that you brought out different slants of looking or feeling. Thank you. This is something to keep and ponder for differing purposes too.

    • It’s wonderful to get those poems that surprise us, and sometimes good to not stop there, but let the surprise gently scratch at us, suggesting where it might have come from and where it might go. Good luck with this, and thank you for commenting!

  8. Wow. Not only is there a lot to learn about revision in this post, but it is so beautifully written that it could be a prose poem, itself!

  9. Thanks, dear Mary Lee. I hope to get back more with you and others of the Poetry Friday crowd this fall.

  10. I agree with Mary Lee, this post IS beautifully written and says so much. More and more I discover how different artistic genres are really so much alike… the levels of editing, the layers of paint on a canvas, the different parts of a musical composition, even the deeper meaning of each physical or vocal mannerism an actor chooses to convey character. It’s all very cool, isn’t it?

    • Yes, it’s cool how much in common the various arts have. Sometimes thinking of mine in terms of another can give me a clue re what I should do next. It makes that little gap that lets me see with fresher eyes. Thanks for reading, writing, and for your insights!

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