Notes from a poetry masterclass by Marianne Boruch
This checklist was compiled by MA student Rebecca Reader from thoughts and suggestions made by Marianne Boruch during the course of a free-flowing conversation at the IIML on 28 July 2017. Marianne remarked after the fact:
‘This list of ‘tips’ is interesting to me, a little unnerving though, cast as questions and then imperatives. That gives me pause. I hope I didn’t come across as a bully on these matters since uncertainty is a major element in making poems: always a kind of second-guessing which feeds and keeps open the meditative impulse. But I am very grateful to Rebecca for jotting these down, not as dictums so much as just reflections of a fellow traveller of hers-—and anyone smitten with poems and their making. We’re very lucky, aren’t we? And that history is allowing us this moment to support our discussing such matters.’
Questions to ask during revision:
- Does the poem undergo a shift in tone or mood? Does something in the poem change?
- Is the poem abstract – does it open out into something bigger, have a larger quality and an intention of its own? Writing is alive if it arrives at something more than you had in mind.
- Is the poem top-heavy with declarative sentences? Have you raised questions? Have you exclaimed? Or brought in urgency and hesitation via fragments? Vary your syntax!
- Have you over-explained? Less is more is an old and valuable dictum. Just enough is a useful mantra and caution.
- Does the poem compress broad themes, times shifts or multiple associations into a small space?
- Could you get a personal imprint on the poem without using ‘I’? Can a sense of personal juice be enacted through tonal shifts, lively language, surprising phrasing? When used, the ‘I’ could well be abstracted to avoid the ‘Dear Diary’ effect. Vital discovery about the greater world often comes that way.
- Is the reader watching the poem’s speaker figure something out? Is there a progression of thought in the poem?
- Could you shift to present tense to introduce more urgency?
- Does your white space create the pace and moments of stillness you’re after? Poems are made of sound and silence.
- Does your poem have a trapdoor, a place where the poem slips inward, into individual realization, no matter how the world outside the self seems the main subject? Treasure that trapdoor which is our secret passage to the interior, the lyric heart of all poems.
- Could you use a crochet hook to take an image used earlier in the poem and rework it later, even perhaps as part of the ending?
- Could you flip the order of your closing lines, drop an upper line to the bottom for example, especially if that line is open-ended or contains a question? Most lines are portable and can travel and resettle. Some have serious wanderlust.
- Have you read the work aloud and removed the padding?
- Have you befriended your poem by revisiting it over a period of time until it is no longer an exact xerox of your guts? Regular visits with your poem move you beyond your initial state of enamoured shock. Daily meditation over lines that somehow bug you can result in an effective change being made. In short–show up, sit quietly with the current drafts of your poems; give them the time and space to keep revealing themselves to you. That’s what revision is. Patient companionship. Poems are fully alive and separate creatures, after all. They are not their maker. It takes a while to know them. And they often surprise you.
In creating a poem:
- Be in the process not thinking about the process. When you write, words come through you.
- Be as quiet as possible and as empty as possible.
- Be open to images and note why they strike you.
- Have no idea of where you’re going. Intention isn’t worth much—beyond the initial triggering impulse. Let the words and lines lead you into the poem’s real mystery. (You rarely know what that is at the start.)
- Don’t be too wilful with research or the poem may not emerge.
- Use favourite lines or images from poems you’ve read or written to inspire other poems. Waste nothing. Often bits you’ve cut from your earlier pieces make good seed for future poems.