The process of writing a poem is very rarely as simple as making a first draft and then publishing it. Re-drafting is an important subject because poets must do such a lot of it. Before a poem is published, there’s always a sequence of drafts.
It’s very difficult to know where to start the re-drafting process when it comes to your own poetry, so I’ll be offering a few ideas and pointers that you can use when it comes to redrafting them.
On principle, redrafting is about ‘making again’. It isn’t about just tinkering with one or two words, far from it. Productive redrafting is something much more thorough: It’s about ‘making again’—starting from the ground up.
Sometimes redrafting requires radical steps to solving the issues with a poem. An often-cited example of this is in the poetry community is the extreme redrafting process that T.S Eliot’s The Wasteland  went through. Whole pages of the poem were eradicated from the first manuscripts by Eliot’s friend and editor, Ezra Pound.
As you can tell by the image above, redrafting can be a very radical affair, where you might have to make changes that are far beyond your previous anticipations. It’ll feel like a kick in the teeth, but don’t feel too disheartened! A lot of the challenges you endure when you redraft poetry can reveal vital principles on writing poems. As the old saying goes, a lesson learned is a lesson earned.
Things you can do when redrafting a poem:
- Change the pronouns: Just because a poem emerged out of a personal experience, it doesn’t mean that it has to stay in the first person; Or, if a poem was originally written in the third person, it doesn’t mean that it can’t be made personal through the use of first person pronouns. In a redraft, you could try moving the pronouns out of the first person and into the third person, or vice versa. Or, perhaps you can try to move the poem into the second person, introducing a kind of ambiguity in the poem due to the inherent vagueness of “you” in a poem. The simple act of flipping the pronouns might be illuminating: It could change a poem in a way you like, or reveal some things that need to change in a poem. In some ways, it can make the poem easier to work on by creating some distance between the original experience that prompted the poem.
- Start the poem at a different point: Sometimes in a poem, you can identify a place (maybe one or more) where there’s an alternative line where you could start the poem. These other starting points might be in the second stanza or even the last, and it might lead you to reconfiguring the order of the stanzas. After trying out a new beginning in your poem, start asking yourself these questions: Does it captivate the interest of the reader? Does it hint at the poem’s deeper message? What does it do which the original beginning of the poem didn’t do? If your answers to these questions are positive, then you might have found a better beginning to your poem!
- Change the title: Oftentimes, the first titles we write are only meant to be placeholders, a temporary solution to a permanent problem. Placeholder titles usually change during the redrafting process, when our view of the poem shifts once we find out its deeper meaning. You could name the poem as the place, emotion or moment that directly inspired it. Or, more daringly, you could turn the title into a large hint at the deeper meaning of this poem to the readers.
- Add an epigraph: Rather than taking something away from the poem, you could add something to it—in this case, an epigraph. An epigraph is a small quote or a scrap of text that’s positioned below the title of the poem. While it doesn’t belong to the title or the poem itself, an epigraph can be a quote from some source of inspiration, or it can be used to provide context for your reader—cueing them into the right place to read the poem.
- Insert a question: Oftentimes, introducing a question into a poem can quickly and easily disrupt the voice and tone of the first draft (in a good way). By introducing a rhetorical question into your poem, you are bringing in a new element, providing the readers with a question to puzzle over. The question can be either something completely unrelated to what the poem’s focusing on, or it can relate to the content of the draft already.
- Cut the first and/or second line: A common practice in poetry workshops, this process simply involves taking the first and/or last line of a poem, and removing it from the poem itself. Quite often, when we’re writing a poem, the first line is just a preamble—a way of writing ourselves into the poem. Its only later we find that we don’t need it at all. Similarly, the last line can be just us writing ourselves out of a poem, which isn’t always necessary, and in fact harmful to the poem itself. Writers have the horrible tendency of attempting to tie things up, when (in reality) we don’t need the poem all neatly wrapped up in its conclusion. Perhaps your poem can end on a cliff-hanger? Cutting the first or last line works together with starting the poem at a different point, as beginning the poem elsewhere would automatically make the original start of the poem useless.
- Take radical steps: If you feel like your poem requires a bit of radical surgery, then it might be worthwhile to cut up the first and/or last stanza, scavenging whatever lines are fit for purpose and recreating the poem from its remains. Or, you could even identify the best stanza, and ditch the rest—leaving only one stanza if needs be.
All these experiments are reversible: They can be taken out again if you don’t like the changes, so don’t worry if any of the experiments above fail to meet your expectations!
I can’t cement the importance of avoiding cliché enough. In all your drafts you must seek and destroy cliché, because its the enemy of good poems! For your poems to have an impact on the reader, they need originality: There’s no point rehashing the same techniques and ideas repetitively, because it’ll make you no different from the millions of other poets (and poems) using the same style and discussing the same topics.
Controversial point ahead, but this is why I’m not too fond of ‘instapoetry’ as a form—because most appear and read like a copy-paste of Rupi Kaur’s work—who allegedly ripped off another instapoet pioneer as the genre started to become popular. I don’t want to give my exact opinions on instapoetry, because I think it’s a large and controversial discussion to save for another time, but I think instapoetry has reached a point where it’s become a self-feeding cliché. Of course, I recognise that the form has its merits, but it does fly in the face of what I’ve been taught at university.
One of the things I’ve been told at university is, when something feels a little bit cliché and said ‘too much elsewhere’ already, it’s best to find another (and better) way of saying it. This is where a thesaurus becomes your best friend, containing dozens of synonyms and antonyms for every adjective, verb, and noun in the English language.
So, that’s all the tips and tricks of redrafting poetry I know, and hopefully it’s all you’ll ever need! I’ve got a few more Food For Thought and Back To Basics articles planned for this week and the next. I’ll be covering imagery and other aspects of writing poetry, so if you need more trustworthy guidance then follow my blog and Instagram account (@electri_fried) too! See you soon!
(© Thomas Gallimore Barker)
 Poetry Foundation (n.d.) The waste land. Poetryfoundation.org. [Online] [Accessed on 21 February 2021] https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47311/the-waste-land.