Opening Up Your Poetry: Five Approaches to Revision

Poetry works best when it helps us see and hear the world anew. Through concise use of vivid languages and sensory images, we can bring our poetry alive, opening it up to new dimensions. "Language can do what it can't say," William Stafford said, and nothing is more true of powerful poetry. By tilting how we usually write just a wee bit, we can make sparks to illuminate the writings' hidden possibilities. Here are some approaches you can test-drive in your poetry:

  1. Last Line First: After writing a draft of a poem, let it sit a while, and then rewrite it, using your last line of your first draft as your first line of your next draft. You can always go back to using that line as your last line later on, but just starting with it can help you see new ways to enter the poem.
  2. Free the Sled Dogs: Many of us having running starts when writing a poem, that is, a line or two that helps us get into the poem without adding much to the poem overall. William Stafford also said, "Harness all sled dogs" in writing poetry, but once the sled dogs have gotten you to your destination, you can cut them free. Are your first lines essential or where the poem really starts? If not, let them run free.
  3. Write Into the Middle: Poets tend to aim for strong beginnings and endings, but you can strengthen your poetry considerably by also writing into the middle. Look at a middle stanza or two, and focus your energy on revising these lines to be as strong as possible.
  4. Open the Door Behind the Door: Often, in our early draft of poetry, the initial poem doesn't open up fully to its subject matter. Look for the door in the poem -- a turn of phrase, a line, an image -- that seems to be at the heart of what the poem most wants to be. Then open that door: write more about what's behind it, and if you find another door, open that one too. Just describing a moment with a few more words, or revealing (through image or narrative) what something is about can help open up the full heart of the poem.
  5. What is the Poem Not Saying?: We often concern ourselves with what the poem is saying, but what is it not saying? As Rumi said in one of his poems, "Reach your long hand out to another door, beyond where you go on the street, the street where everyone says, "How are you?" and no one says How aren't you?" So write a quick list of what the poem isn't about (and yet cozies up to in its unfolding). Then see if anything on this list actually belongs in the poem.

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, guest-editing this site this week, has been writing poetry since she was 14. She is the poet laureate of Kansas and author of four collections and editor of four anthologies of poetry.

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  • Janet McAdams

    Terrific advice. I'm going to share your post with my students.

  • I particularly like - and relate to - "last line first."  In some recent poems I have seen that the last line really works best as the first line!  And that makes it easier to see how to "free the sled dogs,'' too.  I think "opening the doors"  is one of the biggest challenges, which, when done, results in the most successful poems.  Thanks for your five ways of focusing on  revision!

  • Thank you so much, Gerda for what you say about the journey. Of course I agree! Thanks for commenting, Patricia. Clene, thanks for sharing your experience, and I think it's a lifelong art to do gut-check on the writing, and develop our critical sense about what works and what needs work.

  • Gerda Govine



    Thank you for you wise words that I take to heart.  As a emerging poet fortunate to be a member of a writing group your advice captures the essence of the why, how, what, where and when in opening up and closing many doors on our journey.  Wishing you the best.  Take care.

  • Great tips!