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Jan Wood Poet Laureate15 Minute Adjustment:
Revising Poetry

Copyright ©2009 by Jan Wood

This is the sixth in a series of short articles in which Poet Laureate Jan Wood shares valuable tips for poets.

From General to Specific

Exchanging a concrete noun for an abstract one can give the reader a more definitive sense of what is important. For example, changing the abstract or general nouns in the end line “The knowledge of the creatures in the tree” to specific nouns can give the reader a clearer message.

The knowledge = (the recipe) for paper
The creatures = wasps
The tree = fork in the (poplar) branch

Using specific nouns the end line becomes

The wasp’s recipe for paper
dangled from a poplar fork

There is a relationship between the specific and the simile. Trading abstract or general nouns for specific or concrete nouns can lead to literal images. The ideas about a jilted woman’s anger and the raging fires of hell might come together in a common idea of fury. The simile might be born “hell has no fury like a woman” or “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” (Shakespeare, Act II, Scene ii, Romeo and Juliet)

Choosing specific nouns can firm up an opinion and make it read like belief. “Death’s an increasingly regular face in our crowd, mostly dropping by unannounced.” Lynne Burnett from "Hearing that a Friend’s Husband Died in his Sleep," is more believable than using the hyperbole “Everyone I know is dying.”

By readjusting the nouns that create distance the poet can bring the lines close enough to touch. In fact, the lines can be brought so uncomfortably close they can cause the reader to gasp. In "Milton in his Garden" Barry Butson writes:

For the sake of small potatoes I have killed a toad.
Impaled it on the tines of my potatoe fork
a fat spud with blood.

By using specific proper nouns, the poet can claim a sense of place. Often the local names for places like Snake Creek and Bill’s Hill are replaced with more general or formal ones. Keeping the concrete local references can lend a unique flavor to the writing, introduce another level into the poem, and preserve local history.

Isn’t that how it began, love?
The poem we found that rainy day
Flushed into that quaint bookstore on Fleet St.

(Linda Siebenga from "1917 Correspondence from Pte.Thomas Hughes to Maud McGee")

Quick Check:
Choose a poem you wish to revise and circle all the nouns in it. Are any of them abstracts? Can any of them become more specific?

Suppose you have written ‘treat’ in one of your lines can it become ice cream or cone? Once it is "ice cream cone" can it become a double scoop of peaches and crème? Are you able to place the "treat" geographically by changing it to Papaya juice or pomegranates? Can you alter the mood of your lines by replacing "treat" with a dry crust of bread or grandma’s cinnamon rolls?

In his poem, "Iceland Poem #1," Matthew Godden creates the mood with the specifics nouns and details.

…pushing canoe around, thin suds in
hard water the lake the black water
the freezing red knuckles blankets on
clothesline with green pins rusted
springs. Faded faith at night
cold cards on slippery oilcloth, mosquitoes
appearing through the cracks in the panel.

Sarah Cassidy in "The Children are Sleeping" begins the comparisons that lead to similes and metaphors in her list of specific examples following her general statement “All things sleep:”

…even their teeth sleep.
All things sleep:
the mountain ash in the yard
the spoons in the drawer.

Linda Siebenga: Canadian Poet 1947–

• was published in 1989 (Windcatcher) and in 1997 (Waiting for the Play to Begin) Published again in 2004: (Earth Against Your Cheek) New Leaf Works, 121 Morin Maze, Edmonton, Alberta.
• Siebenga writes from her home in Lacombe, Alberta and employs many of the images that inspire her from the surrounding fields and gardens in her poetry.
• Siebenga’s work is full of specifics and details that enrich her poetry and create a sense of place and time for her readers.

CBC Radio through the window screen
When the task becomes to repetitious
PK Page reading lines on ironing the earth
Lines spawned from a poem by Pablo Neruda
Her voice smoothes and polishes

          from "Painting the Deck Oxford Brown"

beside short clumps of Staghorn Sumac
…sometimes the leaves fell O’Canada red
…when the sunset
…behind the Susquehanna River
beside the nuclear reactors
belching only steam they say

          from "Red Fall Leaves over There"

but high on an Andean plateau
the Altiplano
five kilometers into the sky
flamingos come

          from "And the Flamingos Danced"

now at fifty four a heart attack and emphysema have
your attention

          from “They Have Taken Your Cigarettes”

four o’clock this February afternoon
the shining divided
in geometric patterns.

          from “Winter Shadows”

in the mountains of Tora Bora
I print her name on my mind
a Pashtun

          from “Now They Know Her Name”

photos in the National Geographic
faces and eyes full of stories
that I wanted to hear
the tales of Solzhenitsyn
the small parts I dared to handle
…condemned for daring
to touch your grandmother’s faith

          from "A Poem for a Young Russian Poet Sentenced to Seven Years for Writing Poetry"

Books of Interest:
There is an interesting chapter on changing the general to the specific in the book, Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg (1986 Shambhala Publications).