Unlike academic writing, the ways in which elements of language are used in poetry tend to be entirely a matter of style and thus are much more flexible. As such, editing poetry is less about making technical corrections than it is about making edits and suggestions to enhance the flow, tone, and overall impact of a poem. This guide focuses on punctuation and the poetic line, provides some general tips for editing poetry, and includes a list of additional resources.
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It is helpful to think of punctuation as a tool used to control the pace and tone of a poem, similar to how musical notation guides a musician to play a piece. For example, a poem lacking punctuation will tend to flow at a quicker pace, like in this excerpt from William Carlos Williams’ poem “Blueflags”:
I stopped the car
to let the children down
where the streets end
in the sun
at the marsh edge
and the reeds begin
and there are small houses facing the reeds
and the blue mist
in the distance
with grapevine trellises
with grape clusters
small as strawberries
on the vines
that continue the gutters
with willows over them. (143–144)
Conversely, poems that use punctuation more conventionally tend to feel slower and more contemplative, like in this excerpt from Zachary Schomburg’s poem “The Wild Meaninglessness”:
The people here have all fallen in love with their own meaninglessness, but I’m not sure what that means. I mean, what else can we do but mean? Just the other day, for example, we threw strawberries from the roof at the birds. We can’t help it.
Reading the poem aloud can help you determine the natural pauses in the poem and where the poem would read better sped up vs. slowed down. This, in turn, can help you edit and make suggestions regarding punctuation.
Punctuation should never distract the reader from the content of the poem itself. If you encounter a poem in which the punctuation is disruptive or seems contrived, be sure to leave a comment.
Enjambment (a fancy word for line breaks) works with punctuation to control a poem’s flow and inflection. Lines can be enjambed in two ways:
1) In the middle of a phrase, like in the following lines from Tommy Pico:
[…]There is surely
where it comes from
will help the running
2) After a phrase that is more or less syntactically complete and more in line with natural speech. Re-written in this way, the above passage would look like this:
There is surely something stalking and knowing where it comes from will help the running away.
Notice how the first example has a different cadence compared to the second, a beat that’s a bit off and gives the poem more momentum. The second example feels a bit more settled, a little slower. The length of the lines also plays a role in creating these effects.
Enjambment can also contribute to what Mary Kinzie calls half-meaning: “An enjambed line always creates a half-meaning in addition to the ‘whole’ meaning of the sentence” (59). The beginning of Ada Limón’s poem “Flood Coming” is a good example:
The pulled-apart world scatters its bad news like a brush fire
Wherein “The pulled-apart world scatters” is the half-meaning created by the line break—giving the impression that it’s the world itself that scatters—before the next line provides the whole meaning of the sentence, revealing that, in fact, it’s bad news that scatters. Another example, again by William Carlos Williams, is “The Red Wheelbarrow”:
so much depends upon
a red wheel barrow
glazed with rain water
beside the white chickens
A red wheel becomes a red wheelbarrow, rain becomes rainwater (okay, not that far of a stretch), and a tension is created after “white” before the reader knows that it’s describing chickens.
The purpose of half-meaning is by no means to trick or confuse the reader; rather, it’s an artful way to build and layer images and meaning.
Since enjambment is entirely a matter of style and can significantly alter the feel of a poem, it is advisable to leave suggestions for alternate enjambments in the form of comments rather than make those changes yourself.
- Advise the writer to avoid archaic language and cliched phrases.
- Sentence fragments and run-on sentences are perfectly acceptable.
- Whether a writer capitalizes the first letter of each line is a matter of preference. We recommend making sure the writer is consistent within each poem.
- Read the poem aloud—rhythm is an important element of any poem, even free verse. By doing so, you’ll be better able to tell where the rhythm fumbles.
- Always be sure to consider the writer’s style. Whether they’ve submitted three poems or thirty, you’ll likely get a sense of how they prefer to use the elements discussed above. While your goal is to improve the poem, try to avoid making edits that drastically depart from the writer’s established style. However, if you think the writer would benefit from re-thinking their general approach, this is definitely worth a comment.
- As stated in the previous point, your goal should be to improve the poem, not rewrite it. This is where comments come in: They allow you to make suggestions and critiques without overstepping.
- As with any other type of writing, if you encounter a word or phrase that seems out of place, is ambiguous, or reads poorly, be sure to either make the appropriate edits or leave a comment for the author and, whenever possible, suggest an alternative.
- Try asking yourself questions before or after reading and offer feedback accordingly: What does the poem make me feel? What thought/emotion is the writer trying to convey, and are they successful? Are there sections that are less vivid than others and could be improved? Does the poem feel complete? Are there lines/stanzas that could be reordered or removed?
Finally, don’t forget to enjoy the editing process! In a sense, the subjectivity of poetry can make it trickier to edit; however, tapping into and working within the framework of another person’s creative viewpoint can be an exciting challenge. It also helps to remember that there is no single “correct” way to write any poem. Even if the writer decides not to implement some of the changes you’ve suggested, you’ve helped them by providing another perspective on their writing.
While some of these are geared towards writers of poetry, the information and explanations they contain can guide you during the editing process.
“How to Read a Poem,” Academy of American Poets: https://poets.org/text/how-read-poem-0
“Learning Image and Description,” by Rachel Richardson: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/70212/learning-image-and-description
“Learning the Poetic Line,” by Rebecca Hazelton: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/70144/learning-the-poetic-line
“Poetry for Left-Brainers,” by Judy Willis: https://archive.nwp.org/cs/public/print/resource/2146
Why Poetry, by Matthew Zapruder, HarperCollins Publishers, 2017
The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry, by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux, W. W. Norton & Company, 1997
The Poetry Handbook, by Mary Oliver, Mariner Books, 1994
Kinzie, Mary. A Poet’s Guide to Poetry. The University of Chicago Press, 1999.
Limón, Ada. “Flood Coming.” Sharks in the Rivers, Milkweed Editions, 2010, p. 9.
Pico, Tommy. IRL. Birds, LLC, 2016.
Schomburg, Zachary. “The Wild Meaninglessness.” Fjords vol.1, Black Ocean, 2014, p. 3.
Williams, William Carlos. “Blueflags.” Imagist Poetry: An Anthology, edited by Bob Blaisdell, Dover Publications, Inc., 1999, pp. 143–144.
Williams, William Carlos. “The Red Wheelbarrow.” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45502/the-red-wheelbarrow. Accessed May 15, 2020.