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A Dream in Your Head—A Hammer in Your Hand
Copyright©2004 by Nathan Harms

While almost every poet has written a poem on the basis of inspiration, it’s my view that few poems make it through successful rewrites steered solely by that same power.

The initial work of a poem might be inspiration, and inspiration may be the work the poem accomplishes in our spirit. The poem may have redeeming qualities, almost as though we’ve written our way out of a deep well back to clear air and sunshine. No one denies the breath of life a poet feels as a new poem winches her upwards to joy. It's inspiration.

But it’s necessary to separate the initial, personal, inspirational work the poem performs for—and in—us from its future function as art or literature to be enjoyed and understood by others. The rewriting of a poem begins when we separate it from its initial inspiration—the personal work done in us—and decide to make it accessible to others. At this point we might look at the poem the way a carpenter looks at his newly framed house—with a dream still in his head, but a hammer in his hand.

Dan Ray recently submitted his poem, “Florida Straits,” to me with the request that I critique and rework it. Here’s the poem the way Dan sent it to me.

Florida Straits

A long windy day, spent on the sea.
A quiet moment anchored in the lee.
The sights and sounds of the wide-open space,
wind in your hair, salt spray in your face.
High overhead, the Frigate bird seems to say,
follow me—I will show you the way.
Pushing your limits to make that last dive,
you've never felt more tired, or more alive.
A knowing glance from friend to friend,
it's understood why we choose to spend
time in her wet embrace.
There is no doubt who wins this race.
Sights you have seen, the stories you can relate,
an unknowing person will not appreciate.
For unless you have known her firsthand,
you will never understand.
This bond has been shared since time began,
the endless story of ocean and man.
Though I live far away she still courses through me,
this undying love for the mysterious sea.
I thank my father, who chose to show
me all of her beauty, above and below.
This chain of life that bonds father to son,
never can be broken, never undone.

                                Copyright ©2002 by Daniel Ray
                                (used by permission)

There is more right with this poem than wrong with it. Dan was clearly inspired by his day on the ocean, and starting with the title, he shares some of the sights and sounds of the ocean. “Straits” provides a solid setting. The salt spray and Frigate bird help make the experience more vibrant and specific, so that it’s not just an anonymous stretch of water. The “dive,” though mentioned only briefly, adds an unexpected element, and affords the poet an opportunity to deepen the meaning of the poem.

The ending draws the entire poem into the frame of a personal relationship, which is very often a powerful way to make a poem accessible to readers. This ending could be touching and meaningful to many people.

Dan’s overall rhyme and meter are passable, although there are some failings too.

Start at the weakest point

Deciding how to tackle the rewriting of a poem usually requires an analysis of its weaknesses. While Dan’s poem has some strengths, we want to focus on the weaker aspects as we begin to rewrite it. As we go, we’ll try to keep Dan’s inspiration (his dream) in our heads, even as we wield a hammer.

One of the first things I noticed about “Florida Straits” was that it seemed to consist of three separate “stages,” which are held together only loosely. The first stage, from line 1 to line 8, describes the ocean-going experience—the sights and sounds.

The second stage, from line 9 to line 20, delves into deeper issues connected to the ocean—how the sights and sound affect Dan. You could say these lines focus on feelings.

The third stage, from line 21 to the end, are about Dan’s father—the connection Dan and his dad share through the sea.

Leading the reader through a poem in a series of steps is not a bad thing. In fact it can be a strong way to construct a poem. But the steps must be linked. We must usually avoid surprising our readers, where they begin thinking the poem is about one thing and then find out later that it's about something else. While this gambit is often popular with beginner poets, it results in dissatisfied readers.

The beginning of “Florida Straits” makes me expect a "nature" type of poem, but at the end it turns into a "relationship" poem instead. It's not a totally unpleasant surprise, but I think it would be better if Dan brought his father into it earlier. It would help the readers interpret what they're reading in a way that makes the poem more powerful for them at the end.

Here’s an example of how this might work.

Florida Straits

1   A long windy day with dad on the sea.
2   A quiet moment anchored in the lee.
3   The sights and sounds of the wide-open space,
4   wind in my hair, salt spray in his face.
5   High overhead, the Frigate bird seems to say,
6   follow me—I will show you the way.
7   Pushing our limits to make that last dive,
8   we've never felt more tired, or more alive.
9   A knowing glance from father to son,
10 it's understood why we choose to spend
11 time in her wet embrace.
12 There is no doubt who wins this race.
13 Sights we have seen, the stories we can relate,
14 an unknowing person will not appreciate.
15 For unless you have known her firsthand,
16 you will never understand.
17 This bond has been shared since time began,
18 the endless story of ocean and man.
19 Though I live far away she still courses through me,
20 this undying love for the mysterious sea.
21 I thank my father, who chose to show
22 me all of her beauty, above and below.
23 This chain of life that bonds father to son,
24 never can be broken, never undone.

I've done little to the poem in this example except introduce Dan’s father right at the beginning and use small opportunities to weave him more fully into the story (lines 1, 4, 7, 8, 9, 13) . The poem is still about the experiences they shared on the sea, but when the reader comes to the end, the father does not arrive as a surprise because the early mention has the reader sharing these experiences in a different way.

Let’s continue from this "revised version" as the basis for more work with our hammer.

Working with words

One way we can strengthen our poetry is by sharpening the language, weeding out imprecise words and replacing them with very exact and image-laden words to help the reader see more clearly. Examine each word and ask if it means something precise or if it's just a "general purpose" word.

Line 1: "spent on" / we could try using a verb (exploring, challenging, riding, etc.) For example: "A long windy day braving the sea." We could make this poem quite different by pushing the limits of the verbs we use. By surprising the reader with unexpected verbs we can evoke strong reactions. For example, imagine we wrote: "A long windy day holding the sea," and put this together with the "wet embrace" mentioned later. This could be very interesting.

Line 3: "of the wide-open space" / we could try something more specific and colorful (of an ancient realm, from the rolling deck, etc.) "Sight and sounds of an ancient realm/my father and I gripping the helm. Wind in his hair, salt spray in my face . . ."

Line 5: "seems to say" / be bolder: "Frigate bird cries"

Line 10 & 11: "spend time" / be brave: "exult"

Line 13: "sights" / has been used in line 3 already

Here's a more developed version of “Florida Straits” demonstrating how we can play around a bit with these ideas, brightening the poem with sharper images. (I have no experience on the sea, so readers will have to excuse any nautical ignorance.)

Florida Straits

A long windy day embracing the sea.
Quiet moments anchored alee.
Sights and sounds of a rolling realm
my father and I, hands on the helm.
Salt spray in our faces, wind in our hair.
A shrieking Frigate bird's deadly dare
"Follow me now to who knows where."

Pushing our limits for one last dive
we are never more tired or more alive.
A knowing smile, passed father to son
we understand when the day is done
it's more than the boat or the rippling hours.
Deadly danger, the sea's dark powers
we belong to her, more than she is ours.

A bond has been shared since time began
the endless affair of ocean and man.
Far from the surf, there rages in me
an undying love for a boundless sea.
But a bond with my father, forged by the tide
encircles my heart and can't be denied.
Like an ocean, eternal, it surges inside.

You can see that I chose to break this poem into three stanzas. This helps to separate the different phases of the poem as the reader moves through it.

I've changed the rhyme scheme a bit too, giving it a break from the simple aa, bb, cc plan. Now it's aa, bb, ccc. I think the poem communicates the message of Dan’s original piece, while overcoming some of the problems.

His original poem is still at the center, and though we've put a few hammer dents in his inspiration, I think more readers will be able to identify and adopt his intended message.

If you read this article, please let me know.