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The Work of Your Hands
Sweat and Serendipity
Copyright 2002 by Nathan Harms

Do your poems flow to the page in perfect form? Is your poetry fine, “Just the way I wrote it?” Do you claim divine dictation as your source? Do you resist critique? If so, this article is not for you.

Unfortunately, the above characteristics make it unlikely that you will write very much excellent poetry (no offense to divine inspiration). Excellent poetry is a result of toil far more often than dictation.

To illustrate some of the steps a poet might go through in editing and refining his work, I’ve chosen to lead you through the rewriting of a poem. Our poet, who we’ll call David, has an idea for a poem. He calls it, “You Build Fences.”

The Inspiration

In this example, David feels someone (who becomes the female subject of this poem) is building barriers to prevent closeness, and he is is frustrated by her actions. He compares a previous closeness to the present distance. . .and he reaches for a pen.

You’re building fences I cannot climb
with pickets that snag my pants
and barbed wires that jab my skin
You’re building fences of silence and time.

Here David pauses. Although the metaphor of fences is sound, it is too general—almost cliché. The poem communicates a self-pitying tone, which may be true to the poet’s emotions, but will not endear a reader.

The Thesaurus

David’s first problem—that of cliché—is solved with the help of a thesaurus which lists 74 different types of fences and enclosures. The poet notes several interesting word combinations among the entries. Pickets, palisades, pipes, pilings and parapets all produce alliteration. Hedges and hedgerows have a pleasant similarity to them. The thesaurus lists a good variety of other fence types which may prove useful in this poem; stone, clay, brick.

A thesaurus can save a poet from ruin and provide sudden enlightenment, often smashing through whatever blocks the progress of mere inspiration.

So the poet employs his newly gained vocabulary and writes another draft.

You’re building fences I cannot climb
with pickets that snag my pants.
Palisades I can’t peer through
stockades and parapets
of stone and wood and clay.
I scale hedges and hedgerows
dikes and ramparts.
Yesterday I spent on my belly
worming my way under
rails and railings
through pipes and pilings.

The inclusion of more specific fences has added a lot of interest to this poem. A bit of literary excitement has been created by the sounds of the words. The additional detail has also softened the “pity party.”

So David turns his eye to some of the technical details of the writing. Poetry is shorthand for the soul, after all, and shorthand is a distillation.

The dreaded “ing” words are passive. Our poet strives for action.

You build fences
faster than I climb
pickets snag my pants.
Palisades I can’t peer through
stockades and parapets
of stone and wood and clay

These changes are effective. Note the newly discovered alliteration, “fences” and “faster.” Such pleasant surprises await any poet who toils at his craft. What is perceived by readers as poetic genius is often serendipity in sweats.

Take Five

It’s useful to put this poem aside for a few minutes right now, make a pot of coffee and let the subconscious mind work on the poem.

Ignore the myth about poetry requiring perfect silence and uninterrupted reflection. The poetic muse is capable of working without our help, while we talk to our spouse, walk the dog or make coffee.

David prefers a dark blend, over-roasted, finely ground and brewed with distilled water. He softens his swarthy coffee with heavy cream.

David’s break could be five minutes or five days. It’s valuable time, critical to the development of his poem.

Now that David is sipping his coffee, he returns to the poem to see what’s been developing in his absence.

The Craft

David can see that he might be intruding on this poem with too much personal reference. This happens a lot with lyric poetry—the poet’s presence becomes a stumbling block to the reader.

He decides to diminish the frequency of “I” in the poem. There’s no rule about how many times a poem make direct personal reference, such as “I”. . .it’s all a matter of judgment. But too many personal reference can force readers out of your poem.

You build fences
faster than I climb.
Pickets and palisades
snag my pants

Eliminating “palisades I can’t peer through” has tightened the alliteration of “pickets, palisades and pants.” Good job!

He drops the line, “Yesterday I spent on my belly,” because it seems to break the flow of the poem.

Now he activates the poem by giving the fence some movement.

You build fences faster than I climb
Pickets and palisades snag my pants
Stone, wood and clay, stockades and parapets
zigzag to daze my eyes.
Every day something new.
Hedges and hedgerows, dikes and ramparts
Rails and railings, pipes and pilings.

Fine Tuning

David began this piece with no idea of a conclusion. It was only an exercise to express his personal feelings, but now he knows the poem must draw to some sort of satisfying end to succeed.

To be honest, David struggled for a long time and finally resorted to earlier drafts, rediscovering the barbed wire fence which prompted these attempts:

barbs of steel scratch my skin


barbed wire tears my flesh

neither of which are very poetic. But the word “barbs" in the thesaurus references “blades,” and prompts the following lines.

Lately there are blades on some of your fences,
barbs of steel to eat my flesh.

The end

Poetry is a blend of the rational and irrational. Bad poetry—especially bad Christian poetry—often happens when the poet sacrifices the poem in order to explain the message. When this happens he ends up with a sermon or a speech, not a poem.

David does a lot of thinking about the ending of this poem. His personal feelings are still a strong motivation. These fences are being built by someone else’s hands, not his. And he feels the pain of remembering that those hands were once gentle with him, not busy building barriers to keep him away.

I remember and dream
the other works of your hands.

David finally decides to put this poem aside. He feels a certain satisfaction in expressing his emotional pain. When he looks at his poem it expresses much of his mental state at the time he started writing.

The Work of Your Hands

You build fences faster than I climb
Pickets and palisades snag my pants.
Stone, wood and clay
stockades and parapets
zigzag to dazzle my eyes.
Every day something new.

Hedges and hedgerows
dikes and ramparts
Rails and railings
pipes and pilings.

Lately there are blades
on some of your fences.
Barbs of steel claw at my flesh.
I rest between the barriers
to breathe and bleed
remember and dream
the former works of your hands.

Whether or not David ever returns to this poem, his effort with it has not been wasted. It's been much like a journal entry for him, and he's sharpened many of his writing skills. The work will pay off in future poems.

Let me Know

If you read this article, please let me know.