20 January 2023
The great contemporary poet and former Poet Laureate explains how she drafts and redrafts a poem, and makes suggestions you can use in your own work
When I was fourteen or fifteen, I could write a poem a day and fill notebooks very quickly. Of course, this helps to build fluency, but there is a point at which you must begin working on the craft of the poem.
Study that first draft on your page. You will begin to detect a shape in it. It might be that you’ve written an opening verse of four lines unrhymed. Then your second verse might be five lines and your third, four like the first. So ask yourself, why are the lengths of those verses uneven? Is there a case for them to be made even or to shape those lines a little more?
A method I have found very useful is to think of the page as a kind of canvas, defined by a regular number of lines in each verse, which gives me an edge and a shape to contain my words and forces me to be selective. Once that decision is made, if I have settled on an eight-line verse, for instance, I know that if I have come up with a nine-line verse I have to lose something. This makes me scrutinise what I’ve written and give rigorous thought to whether each word is necessary. Am I being lazy or clichéd or repetitive or slack? This means that the second draft mostly involves losing what isn’t needed.
Sometimes, of course, your poem won’t suit such a regular shape. I’ve written poems that start with a couplet of two lines but the poem turns out to be about something growing, or coming into being, or an idea forming and getting larger. So I’ve written verses of two lines, then three lines, then four, five, and six and then the poem visually grows on the page in step with the idea. I’ve done the opposite too. I’ve started with a ten-line verse and then pruned and reduced down through nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, and ending with an asterisk as though the poem is dwindling and disappearing. Again, there will be a reason I’m doing that, something inherent in the subject matter of the poem.
It might take two or three drafts before I get to the right shape, but when I see it, I recognise it, even if it is the first time that shape has presented itself to me. I know, because of my reading and my apprenticeship and the thought I’ve given to making it, that this is what the poem wants to be. It’s almost as though the poem is instructing me in how it wishes to be dressed.
Another thing to pay attention to in the redrafting process is your choice of verbs. I think of the verb in a line of poetry as a battery. It gives the poem energy or light and very often the first verb we select will be the lazy or obvious one.
I would suggest that you make many drafts of your poem. The process needn’t be laborious and time-consuming. It can happen quite quickly if you are able to set aside time, especially if you become used to a fairly systematic procedure, checking first for shape, then redundancy, then verbs.
Along with sound comes silence. The one cannot exist without the other and both have power and purpose in writing poetry. For my part, I have learned to value long periods of thinking, reading and contemplating, with just occasional jotting in my notebook. I’ve learned when to abide in silence and when it is time to come to the sheet of paper when the inkling or sense of a poem prods me into position. What I don’t do, or no longer do, is write for a bit and then think: oh, this isn't working; it’s going in a drawer. I do all that this isn’t working before I even come to the page. All that rejection happens before I even pick up the pen. Instead of rushing to the page and worrying at it, I let the poem gestate within me until it is ready to emerge.
I think of my poet self as a kind of burglar. The silence is me casing out a neighbourhood, walking up and down the streets, looking for a way to get in, through a window or up a drainpipe. It’s a very anarchic image but true for me. Perhaps it may be of some use as you think about your own process if only to define yourself in opposition – ‘I’m nothing like Carol Ann Duffy’.
How do I know a poem is finished? The way I see it, the poem tells you when it’s finished. Your recognition of this moment comes from instinct. The poem simply comes to the end of itself, and there is no room for anything more. There may be room for changes – swapping out one word for another, adding or removing a comma – but there’s nothing more to be said. If a poem succeeds on its own terms – by which I mean its shape, language, image, assonance, form, rhyme, metaphor, all the things that you have put into the crafting of it – then that poem will not need you to add anything.
It’s worth pointing out, indeed essential to point out, that this process need not be quick. Most poets have jobs. Most poets have family and work commitments, they have to travel, go to festivals, earn a living, run workshops in schools or work behind a bar, which I did when I was starting out. So when I urge you not to stop until the poem is finished, what I mean is to give the poem your time when you can. If, for example, I started a poem on a Monday afternoon and had four hours, I would give the poem those four hours. Then I might have to get a train from Manchester to London, in which case I would take my draft with me and attend to it on my journey. After that I might be working for two days and not have any time to give to the poem but as soon as I’m able to – by now it could be Friday, going into a weekend – I will return to it. The unfinished poem is like an invisible companion waiting to be dressed in its finery.
I’m not suggesting you abandon life in service of the poem, but you must also find ways of making time for it, just as you would in any loving relationship. Some poems come relatively quickly, but that has nothing to do with length. More likely, it has to do with the swiftness or simplicity of the thought. A haiku, for example, is very short but usually carries some significant freight of thought and you may spend a disproportionate amount of time finding the right seventeen syllables distributed across the right words to carry that freight.
You have to craft a poem. It might be original in thought and/or moving in autobiographical content and/or darkly funny because something lived is coming out through your words on your page, but you have to do your very best for that poem. You must stick with it from drafting and redrafting, through thinking and more thinking, to typing and printing. That final stage is important. You must see the shape of your poem in print and when you do your poem will be as finished as it can possibly be.
This is an exclusive extract from Carol Ann Duffy's BBC Maestro course on Writing Poetry, which is available now on bbcmaestro.com
Once your poem's finished, are you going to think about it being published? Read this useful advice on getting your poems in print to help you on your way!