Yet if any man who has received the gift of poetic fervor shall imperfectly fulfill its function here described, he is not, in my opinion, a praiseworthy poet. For, however deeply the poetic impulse stirs the mind to which it is granted, it very rarely accomplishes anything commendable if the instruments by which its concepts are to be given shape are deficient.
-- Boccaccio, Giovanni. Genealogy of the Gentile Gods, Book IV, Chapter VII: “The Definition of Poetry, Its Origin, and Function”.
So, you’ve written a poem. The words poured straight from your heart, like a gift from the heavens; the poem just wrote itself, really. It’s perfect just the way it is.
Take a step back, let that fervour cool a little. Go for a walk, make a cup of tea, breathe – then very slowly, very carefully approach your poem. Don’t let it take over your mind again (that’s what poems do, you know, they’re like the Borg). Get yourself a red pen, or set your finger atop the “delete” button on your keyboard, because without a doubt you are going to make some changes.
I’m not going to tell you what they should be. I could suggest a few, and you could listen to my suggestions; then, with sovereignty over your poem (and not the other way around, remember), you can decide whether any of my suggestions would strengthen what you have already written. One of the most common reasons given for not editing a poem as per suggestions in a workshop is “but if I use your suggestion then the poem wouldn’t be mine”. If I were to extrapolate that argument, I could easily say “but if I use words that I didn’t make up, the poem wouldn’t be mine”, or “but if I use letters that someone else has used, the poem wouldn’t be mine” – how far back would you like to take it? The poem is ALWAYS yours (although some would argue that once you’ve written it and given it to others to read, it becomes theirs as well). As poets, our job is to use materials that people recognise – words – and fashion them into something unique.
There are tools we can use to improve our poems, but it’s always up to the poet as to which tools he/she wants to use. There are many schools of thought on what a
poem should and shouldn’t be, but the fact is that many of these ideas are based on current trends and are most definitely not hard and fast rules. You must decide for yourself which direction you want your poem to take, and then use everything at your disposal to make sure it gets to where it needs to be. To ensure your success, read. Read everything that crosses your path: poems, myths, philosophy, newspaper articles, instruction manuals, whatever takes your fancy. You never know when you might find something you can use in your writing, and nobody can predict who’s going to write the next “defining poem of our generation”, or in what style. Listen to people, learn about the world, seek out opinions that differ from yours (and argue with them if you must, in the spirit of enlightenment). A poet sees poetry where nobody else would, and a great poet will make it so that others can see it too. Find out how poets have done this before you. Try out new styles, new voices, new viewpoints. Look for people whose poetry you admire and try to work out why you admire it. Ask questions. Get involved. Don’t be afraid to look or sound ignorant or silly – true ignorance is not knowing something and not trying to find out, even when the answer is offered to you. Everyone you meet will have something to teach you, and you will have something to teach them, no matter how small it might seem.
You will find many different techniques discussed on poetry websites. You may see others using terms you have never heard before, or talking about someone whose poetry you’ve never read. By all means, ask. Nobody knows it all to begin with – in fact, despite claims to the contrary, nobody ever knows it all. People who’ve been writing poetry will use a lot of terms that they’ve become familiar with and will often forget that not everyone knows what they’re talking about. They’ll usually be happy to explain, and more often than not they’ll also be happy to take a look at your poem, point out where it could be improved and give you suggestions on how to go about it. In turn, you could read one of their poems, share your ideas, point out how the poem does and doesn’t work and give them the benefit of a fresh perspective.
Editing your poem may involve changing or removing a word or phrase, or it might mean rewriting into a form that suits the poem better. Your poem will change, adapt, and become a better vessel for its essence. Think of it as evolution, instead of slowly decaying in a stagnant pond.