Virtual Poetry Workshop

A few ideas from a workshop I was going to be giving on writing and rewriting poetry for M2S at dlr LexIcon this weekend you might enjoy/ find of use.

“No one knows how to write a poem. Congratulations!” Dean Young

‘Poetry is a real DIY art – you learn it by doing it.’ Marvin Bell

Three Poetry Prompts

  • A Poem sparked by a Painting.

    Read Ciaran Carson’s extraordinary last collection Still Life.  Find a painting you love and use it as a starting point for a poem. You could write about it from the point of view of a person/ object in it OR from the pov of the artist. Browse poems by other famous poets based on or sparked by paintings. Go to the cover image of Sunlight on the River at this link and you can access the first few pages.

  • Write a poem about the current situation from the point of view of – a bird, the Corona Virus, your hands…Consider tone of voice, things they might see/ feel that we can’t.
  • Have a read of this poem by ‘What Is Worth Knowing’ by Sujat Bhatt and write your own list poem with the same title ( or ‘What I Know’)

Some Ideas to Help you Revise your Poems
To re-vise = to see again

W.S. Merwin “Sometimes going over something is a way of entering into a whole new process of writing, finding new layers in a piece of writing. I think of it that way. Again, one of the people I learned a great deal from was Robert Graves, who felt that going over a piece—the revisions—was almost more valuable than producing an original draft.”

One immediate way to make a poem stronger, leaner and to make every word earn its keep, is to go through the poem and strike out all the adjectives and adverbs – then go through it deciding whether or not to insert each one again. For each word ask yourself – is it essential? Does it add to or weaken the line? (Think about it this way, which is stronger – the statement ‘I love you’ or ‘I really love you’?) Matthew Sweeny called this the ‘frisk draft’.

You could also experiment with quickly cutting a third of your poem and rereading it. How does it look now?  There are editing extremes – American poet Marianne Moore published a 29 line version of her poem ‘Poetry’ in the 1920’s which began, ‘I too dislike it..’ and by 1967 she had cut it to 4 lines;


I, too, dislike it.
              Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers

              it, after all, a place for the genuine.

Marianne Moore

If a poem hasn’t even got to the ‘frisk draft’ stage and just isn’t taking flight you could try writing it from another perspective (first person instead of second and vica versa)  

You could also:

  • Try writing your first draft out by hand if you wrote it on a screen and vica versa – you’ll spot things that are unclear this way.
  • Stick it in a drawer for a few days/ weeks/ months (some poems take years to finish!)
  • Experiment with taking off the first 2 or 3 lines – sometimes these are necessary scaffolding for a poem but …scaffolding comes down once construction is done.
  • Likewise look at your last two lines –have you tied it all up to neatly or ‘poetically’. The best poems end on a line that sends us back up to read the poem again. Robert Frost said ‘No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.’
  • Read it aloud yourself and then get someone else to read it back to you, exactly as you have written it. The things you thought you wrote may not be what the reader has on the page!
  • Read, read and read poetry – that way you’ll hone your instinct for what works, what’s fresh and what’s not.  

You might decide in the end that the poem that doesn’t work, is in fact a prelude or preparation for the next one.

Finally – don’t forget to keep saving your drafts (rather than always revising the original document) as you go – often we can revise one or two versions too far and need to go back.

Happy Writing and Revising! Nell Regan Mar 2020