Poetry in the weeds

How do you tend your poems?

I was out in the garden, pulling up some of the tall grasses going or gone to seed in the sage and the iris beds and yanking out what might not be oregano. Mostly, it was slow going–focusing on one stem and avoiding another. The rest of the yard (and all the work it needs) blurs around me.

That close kind of work made me think of editing or revising poems. Or, really, more like line editing. So often, I’m in the weeds–absorbed by some sticky syntax issue or a punctuation question, line breaks, trying to find the right word and avoid repeating words inadvertently. And then it’s easy for me to lose sight of the whole poem–what the poem’s trying to do, what’s at stake. Which is a good way to edit the heart out of it–and that’s not good.

I’ve been working on the grief poems, each one in turn, editing and revising. But they’re little tweaky revisions, not the kind of deep revision. And I realize that I’ve lost a sense of whether each poem works–is it telling the reader enough, does it need to expand, does it need to be re-imagined? Is it too much like the other poems? (I’ve just cut a few out completely.)

The trick is to constantly switch between the weeds and the garden, the words and the whole poem (or manuscript). To spend some of that focus taking a wider view. To ask the hard questions: Is this poem earning its place here? Where’s it going–is it somewhere new and does it look like where you want it to go? If not, how can you get there?

So I’ll take a few steps back, look at the landscape of the poem. I’m sure I can find a lot of work to do, just as my garden still has a lot of weeds to pull.

How do you approach revision? How do you balance your attention between the little details and the big picture?