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Working the Poem
Copyright©2004 by Nathan Harms


Those of us who watch television golf have perhaps heard a golf commentator speak of "working" the ball. A golfer so speaks of the precise and minute movements of hands, feet and body that go beyond the basics to derive the most from a golf shot.

Working a poem is a necessary step for any poet who wishes to to take her poetry beyond mediocrity. Working a poem involves the re-evaluation of each aspect of the piece with great attention to detail.

Because a poem is at least as artistic and demanding as a golf shot, the poet can expect the working of a poem to require perseverance. But the reward can be a poem with impact—and there are no hefty green fees to pay!

Let's take a look at the poem below(contributed by Elsie Montgomery) and see how we can begin to work it—keeping in mind that poets and editors will differ in approaches to art, and there there is no objective right or wrong way to complete a poem. There is always the chance that we will prefer elements of the original version, but even if we find this is the case, we might learn a lot from the exercise.

               THE GREAT SILENCE

               What horror
               silence of the lambs
               gashes across the screen
               human misery
               carving, scarring sensitive hearts.

               There is worse
               a horror that does not carve
               a silence without light
               or feeling
               a greater dread
               dripping misery
               without blood
               or screams
               a hidden death
               unknown.

                a silence
               sears across my grating
               a divine mystery
               dissevering soul and spirit

               the silence
               of one Lamb

               who will not speak

               because my heart
               is hard
               and cold.

               because
               I refuse

               to listen.

The movie title, "Silence of the Lambs," and the Lamb of God are juxtaposed. The poet has an idea in mind and moves us towards it. The poem title helps. Still, this poem could be worked. (We assume this poem, in its original form, has little meaning for a reader unfamiliar with the movie.)

Several aspects of "The Greater Silence" distract me from my poetic journey. First, the poet makes a common mistake of telling, rather than showing. Second, there is much imprecise language in this work.

Let's take our the poet's first line, "What horror," which seems weak and editorial—and telling.

 THE GREATER SILENCE

Silence of the lambs
gashes across the screen

The poem starts more strongly this way, but as we look at it again, it seems that the main goal of the first stanza is simply to describe the macabre theme of the movie in vague words like "sensitive hearts." If readers of this poem do not know what the movie is about, the first stanza will do little to help. If they do know the movie, we might be able to skip this telling. (Another vagueness of the first stanza is whether the carving and scarring refers to the hearts of the characters in the movie or to those of movie watchers.)

Could we drop the first stanza entirely?! Let's try it—but we'll change the title at the same time, so we do not telegraph the ending before the poem has even begun.

SILENCE OF THE LAMBS

There is worse
a horror that does not carve
a silence without light
or feeling

Before we move on let's give some thought to precision in poetry. In the original first stanza, the word "gashes" was especially powerful and precise. "Slashes" is another possibility, and we prefer its sibilance.

Of the four lines above, "or feeling" is especially imprecise and weak, and the word "light" could be better defined. What kind of feeling? What kind of light, precisely? Is it daylight? moonliht? sunrise?

It's time to break out the thesaurus and—with its help—sharpen our understanding of what we are trying to communicate with this poem. We often determine what we are trying to say during this difficult, working-the-poem stage of writing.

SILENCE OF THE LAMBS

Horror that does not gash
or carve
silence without sunrise
dripping misery
a hidden death unknown

a silence
sears across my grating
a divine mystery
dissevering soul and spirit

In the stanza above, the poet has taken some risks with the language (bravo!). We especially appreciate "dissevering of soul and spirit." Dissevering has the same meaning as severing, but in this instance is more evocative of separation, largely by its sound. We are not so sure about the use of "grating." The adjective is used as a noun here, and though its use is daring, we're not sure it works. "A divine mystery" is another instance of telling rather than showing, and the rhythm of the line causes the poem to stumble. To demonstrate this, we need only read the stanza, omitting that line and see how much more smoothly it moves. Let's leave it out for now.

SILENCE OF THE LAMBS

Horror that does not slash
or carve
bloodless dripping misery
silence without sunrise

The silence of the Lamb

His silence sears
dissevering soul and spirit

The poet has broken the final lines of this poem into shorter bits, possibly to add punch. But because of this, the poem is fractured as it comes to a conclusion. The surfeit of line breakes and short stanzas dilute the desired effect. It would be better to join some lines together and seek power in images rather than geometry.

who will not speak
because my heart
is hard and cold
and I refuse

to listen

On the 18th line, the poet unexpectedly brings herself into the work with the use of "my." Although the sudden intrusion of the poet might be effective at times, it is preferable not to introduce a "third character" so late in the work.

There are at least two ways to solve this problem. We might bring the personal pronoun into the poem very early, or we might find a way in which to make it unnecessary.

A simplistic way for the poet to insert herself into the poem early might be as follows:

SILENCE OF THE LAMBS

What horror
silence of the lambs
gashes across the screen
human misery
carving, scarring my sensitive heart

Writing the poet completely out of the poem is almost as easy. The original poem being lyrical in nature, it's our preference to insert the poet earlier. The revised poem is less lyrical, however, and because of the way we have begun it, we could choose to omit personal pronouns. It's a matter for consideration.

One question to ask in bringing this poem to a conclusion is whether we will emphasize the proposition that God does not speak to us because we refuse to listen—hence the silence. Or if the silence derives from our refusal to hear Him despite the fact that He does speak to us. Either way, it is the "silence of the Lamb." A fine point like this might have a marked effect on how the poem moves the reader.

Before we draw this exercise to a conclusion, let's look briefly at the ending of the original poem.

who will not speak

because my heart
is hard
and cold.

because
I refuse

to listen.

We would prefer that the poet had found a way to show that her heart was hard and cold, rather than telling us. A poet can do this by using images, for instance, showing us something hard and cold.

but granite will not hear
nor ice open its door

The poet must commit herself to perseverance and precision if a poem is to reach its potential. Words like "heart," "hard," "cold," "greater," "something," "love" and "unknown" (along with about 10,000 others) are usually imprecise, and ought to be replaces with precise words that communicate an exact image or emotion.

Here is how we might have written this draft of the poem (with apologies to the poet for liberties taken with her work).

SILENCE OF THE LAMBS

Horror that does not slash or carve
dissevering soul and spirit
bloodless dripping misery

silence of the Lamb

When my stiff neck
and calloused ears
bend to the beating
of my heedless heart

silence without sunrise
silence of the Lamb

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