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Jan Wood Poet Laureate15 Minute Adjustment:
Revising Poetry

Copyright ©2010 by Jan Wood

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

Pushing Against Predictability

Tension in the lines makes them interesting. In the poem "Dreams" by Robin Blazer the lines “There are knives in the air/ all around the poorly loved” follow a thought from the stanza before them “wanted more dissonance.” This is exactly what Blazer gets with the lines, dissonance and tension. The reader is moved not only by the symbol but by suggestion of the physical adherence of the invisible knives and the powerful tensions they create.

It is a surprise that often holds a piece together. With a twist of the unexpected a poem can rotate on its own axis. In her piece, "Lately I’ve been Feeling Very Jewish," Miriam Waddington writes,

Jews are soft
touches: I am a soft
touch too.

Waddington surprises the reader with the word "touches" and then again with the self confession that follows it. “I am a soft touch too.”

Pushing against predictability can introduce an unexpected direction. D.G.Jones uses a rather unexpected comparison of a surgical procedure and spoken words in his "Portrait of Anne Hebert:"

Words are arrayed
like surgical instruments
neatly in trays.

Poetry has a great deal to do with place and viewpoint of the poet. It reveals how the writer has imagined or measured the world from a particular point. Playing the unexpected until it nearly falls over the edge but doesn’t can be very effective. In the poem, "My Horse," we are led to sympathize when first reading Fred Wah’s line “Oh, my dead horse” and are quite taken aback with the following line “I never had”. Through the rest of the poem we are able to share Wah’s measure of the world from that viewpoint.

Quick Check:
Choose a poem you are currently revising. Try to revise a section of it by playing the predictable response against a random one. Push it hard enough to seem ridiculous. Like Fred Wah, strive to make your reader want to believe in your dead horse, the one you never owned.


You were born who you are,
then came through it

          From "Frowning Girl" by Bruce Rice

In the darkness the fields
defend themselves with fences

          From "Progressive Insanities of a Pioneer" by Margaret Atwood

They tell me despair is a sin
I believe them.

          From "The Geology of Norway" by Jan Zwicky

We silence words
By writing them down

          From "Seed Catalogue" by Robert Kroetsch

My angel has fallen
in love with me

          From "Falling Angel" by Nathan Harms

I remember the night we touched
on all the important things: fate,
poetry, honesty, true love.

          From "It’s Not about True Love" by Ralph Fletcher

Bruce Rice : Canadian Poet

• lives and works in Regina, Saskatchewan
• received the Anne Szumigalski Award for Grain Magazine in 2002
• has published three volumes of poetry Daniel 1989, Descent into Lima 1996, and The Illustrated Statue of Liberty 2003
• his poetry has been adapted for performances by Globe Theatre’s Online Series
• Rice often employs the method of placing a random or unexpected comment after a statement that provokes a predictable response. He often uses these lines to introduce his poem.

Because I stutter
my voice is a plowed field.

          From "Tony Again"

More than anything
I want to wake without a past.

          From "Thallassophilia"

Life, if it lives here
Borrows the form
Something to speak through.

          From "Liberty"

How do you make love to a mad woman?
In a top hat and cape.

          From "Tony"

My grandmother’s bed smells like
wool and mothballs but it’s
going to sleep I’m afraid of.

          From "Father Aesop"

Sooner or later we all paint

          From "Unfinished Portrait"

In his poem, "The Memory Museum," Rice begins each stanza with a purposed tension in response to his first line.

Stanza 1
My father’s afraid
of walking in crowds,
the strangers
that know him.

Stanza 2
There is a kind of forgiveness
in museums. You are asked
to remember no one.

Stanza 3
Soon , he’ll remember
Less of me;

Some interesting discussions in the Poets Poetry Section. There are 500 articles and debates posted on topics like Tips on Poetry Analysis.