April is Natonal Poetry Month–Digging Deeper to boost the language of your poem.

Yesterday, (4 3 14) I spoke of ‘Digging Deeper’ to discover original, startling, unusual, ‘just the right word’ additions to your poetry.
So today, I want to give you some examples from my own work in which I did so.

Here’s an early written part from the fourth stanza of “In Every Life Both” (published in Schuylkill Valley Journal, Spring 2011 and in Wordgathering in September of 2011, Pushcart Prize Nominee.  See the whole poem on my menu of Pushcart Prize nominated poems–Ha! only two.)

Rough Draft:  (words to revise in bold)


Spectacle Island’s loon nest settles
among the thick grass and weeds;
a loon call wavers over water
while the long reply echoes.

Final: (words chosen to make the poem more alive)

Spectacle Island’s loon nest
cocoons amid dense grass
and weeds; one long call
wavers over darkening water,

while the reply—distant, trailing—
stills the heart. 

While the rough draft captures some of the sound and meaning (all the ‘s’ sounds, and the lengthening evening), that I wanted, it is too plain, too ordinary.  I knew this could be more ethereal, more lonely, even.  So I got out paper and pen and wrote this list of words and phrases that could substitute and make the detail in the poem come alive.  Never be afraid to use a thesaurus!

for “settles” I listed: calm, wraps around the brood, sinks into grass, lowers, hides among, is camouflaged, and then I wrote, cocoons — the word that perfectly fits the idea of hidden and safe.

While “among” is what I want to convey, the word is ordinary. So I thought I’d list some alternatives:  between, surrounded by (how terrible is that), amongst, then finally I wrote ‘amid’–the word I ended up using.  I like its short, rather formal sounding nature.

For “thick“: I felt that the word sounded too harsh, too guttural in the poem. So, I wrote the word ‘thick’ down on the paper, and wrote anything I could think of to substitute for ‘thick’: solid, deep, compressed, hard, firm, wide, and then I thought of  ‘dense’–the perfect word here. It has the ‘s’ sound I’m looking for and the heavy connotation without the guttural sound.

I changed “a loon call” to “one long call” because I didn’t want to repeat ‘loon’ again, and I liked the three one word syllable words in this order. Plus, I still used the letter ”L.”  “One” instead of “a” is also important here.  It draws out the line better when read.

I read what I had written aloud with the changes, and something was missing.  I fooled round with changing line breaks (more on that in another post), word order, etc. While adjectives can fill up your poem with unnecessary palaver, if used with judiciousness, they can hit the mark.  When I added “darkening” to describe “water” that deepened the tone of the poem and got to what I was trying to do.  While the poem ends with light–as I meant it to–I wanted the opening to be a bit surreal, somewhat foreboding.  So it takes place at night, with an “almost full moon” and loons calling.

The end of this stanza is lengthened.  When I read it aloud (I encourage reading what you’ve written aloud–your ear often knows what your eyes don’t), it felt stunted, skimpy.  “While the long reply echoes” hits the mark in some way for sound and meaning, I played with it and thought the syntax of “While the reply–distant, trailing” captured more of what the poem encapsulated–that a night on the lake with the moon, one boat, two people, and the sound of loons, can be magical, revealing.

I shortened the lines over many rewrites, and added at the very end of the process the phrase, “stills the heart.”  Don’t know why that came to me, but I’m glad it did.  The heart is vital to this poem about two people looking out over a lake at night.

Digging Deeper is something I do all the time during my writing.  It has saved me from leaving something alone that needed tweaking, needed uplifting, or absolutely had to change to add more punch to the poem.

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