Revising Poetry: Syntax, Diction, and Play

by Ellen Gwin

How To:

Mechanically:

  1. Look at the syntax in your poem– the arrangement of your words and phrases.

Syntax includes much more than just grammar, it helps provide rhythm, structure, and tone in the poem.

Is the meaning of each sentence clear?

This may seem like an obvious mistake to look out for when revising poetry, but it’s actually quite difficult to remain objective sometimes. While the sentence may make sense to you, the writer, it may not make sense to the reader (and we want our poetry read)!

For example:

“I said hello to the man with a dog.”

Am I walking a dog while saying hello to the man or am I saying hello to a man who owns a dog?

When re-reading each sentence/phrase imagine how a complete stranger would interpret it. This does not mean that you have to over-explain (or even explain) your subject matter, your reader doesn’t even have to completely understand what you’re saying: just make sure the impression, tone, or nature of your subject is relayed in a way another reader can connect with.

Poetry is about communicating, so communicate in a way your reader can grasp.

Is the poem in active or passive voice?

Many people hold the notion that passive voice results in inadequate writing. However, this does not always ring true.

Passive voice becomes useful when the writer wants to emphasize the object(s) impacted by the verb. This is useful when writing about victims of violence, famous works of art, geographical locations, etc.

Use passive voice to put relevant information at the forefront.

For example:

Active: The policemen killed George Floyd.

Passive: George Floyd was killed by policemen.

This puts more emphasis on the victim and less attention on the policemen while conveying the same actions.

For example:

If you’re writing a poem about the ocean but need to mention how you traveled to it.

Active: I took an airplane to the ocean.

Passive: The ocean can be reached by airplane.

While passive voice holds a lot of great qualities, so does active voice; writing in active voice makes sentences less wordy and the meaning more direct. Active voice also helps to remove “to be” verbs. Active voice is useful when setting a strong and clear tone for readers.

Here’s an example of a poem written in passive voice & changed to active voice:

Passive:

Merlot was spilled on my white, lace Easter dress.

My lips stained my grandmother’s antique set.

Green tomatoes ripened too quickly to fry.

My copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray has blood on it.

The bushes lost their rose petals too early this spring.

Active:

Spilled Merlot on my white, lace Easter dress.

Red lips stained on grandmothers antique tea set.

Green tomatoes ripened too quickly to fry.

Drops of blood landed on my copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Rose petals fell off their bushes too early in the spring.

*Writers should try and stick to active voice for the majority of their sentences

Do the order of the adjectives correlate with the order of the prescribing nouns/verbs?

Word order is important because while one does want to challenge their readers, sorting out nouns & adjectives should not act as one of the challenges.

For Example:

I saw roses, violets, and sunflowers, they were red, purple, and yellow.

Where fulfillment meets serendipity out in the peach orchard of satisfaction and chance

Are there a lot of long sentences or a lot of short sentences?

Like verb voice, the length of a sentence helps set a tone.

Does a pattern exist?

What effect does your sentence length cause?

Is your speaker speaking in quick, short sentences, long, breathy sentences, or drawn out, pensive sentences?

What type of sentences are used? (i.e. declarative interrogative, exclamatory, imperative)

The type of sentence used is another tool for setting the tone of the poem.

For example:

If the tone your speaker is curious or unsure, use interrogative sentences

If the tone is demanding or urgent, use imperative sentences

If you want anger or excitement, use interrogative sentences

If the tone is passionate or even matter-of-fact, use declarative sentences

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2. Look at the diction in your poem– word choice and use of words.

Just like syntax, diction helps set the tone of a poem…just in a different way. Diction refers to whether the language in the poem is flowery/figurative language, concise/formal language, comedic/sarcastic language, etc.

Remove all “to be” verbs

To be” verbs, a type of linking verb, include: Is, Am, Are, Was, Were, Be, Being, and Been.

Removing “to be” verbs allows the sentence to become more active and the verbs pack more punch. All writers usually write with “to be” verbs in their initial draft so don’t stress yourself too hard! Also, don’t stress yourself if you find yourself unable to remove every “to be” verb.

1. Remove “to be” verbs that are near verbs with the suffix “-ing.” One can remove “to be” verbs by choosing an action verb instead of linking verb.

For example:

I was picking the flowers that were growing in the sun.

I picked the flowers that grew in the sun.

2. Another method is to show instead of tell

For example:

The journalist is a woman.

The journalist walked into the room with foggy glasses, oblivious to the fact that everyone around glared at her.

3. Change an adjective to a verb

For example:

She was in love with him.

She loved him.

Soon I will write a longer article on “to be” verbs so that is all I will write for now!

What are the effects of words in your poem?

What can you do to support your desired effect? In poetry it’s important to show, not tell, analyzing and changing diction can help illustrate over-explained ideas more clearly and concisely.

Ask yourself why am I choosing these words? How will they be interpreted?

Look at all of the nouns in the poem. What do they have in common? How are they different? Do the differences create an interesting juxtaposition or a confusing effect? What might you change?

Look at all of the verbs in the poem. What do they have in common? How are they different? Do the differences create an interesting juxtaposition or a confusing effect? What might you change?

Look at all of the adjectives in the poem. What do they have in common? How are they different? Do the differences create an interesting juxtaposition or a confusing effect? What might you change?

For example:

In a poem written about the color yellow without saying the color I chose the nouns: lemons, sunshine, serendipity, and sunflowers. To correlate the mood with the nouns I chose the adjectives: golden, productive, sour, and persisting. And finally I picked verbs such as filled, grow, sweeten, and bloom.

In a poem written about dangerous-sweets (honey) I chose the nouns: honey, throat, ambrosia, and hive. To correlate the mood with the nouns I chose the adjectives: sweet, contemptuous, ravishing, and bloated. And finally I picked verbs such as drink, swell, escaped, and clogged.

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Playfully:

Playing with your poetry is really fun because you don’t actually have to keep the form it morphs into; if you dislike the outcome of your playing you can always change it back!

Playing with your poetry helps generate more ideas about your poem and a clear understanding of what you’re trying to say.

Playing with poetry also holds importance because as writers, once we find what field we excel in, we tend to stick to it because it’s comfortable. For example, I write in prose poetry the majority of the time because I know I am good at this and I have studied prose poetry a lot, however I like to challenge myself and grow by writing in verse as well.

And who knows, maybe you’ll like the new form you put it in!

Easier Ideas:

1. Try out different points of view: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc.

2. Move the last line to the first line

3. Read from the last line to the first line

4. Make the poem longer, even if it feels finished

5. Change where you put line or stanza breaks

More interactive ideas:

1. Cut your poem with scissors and move the lines/sentences around

2. Write a response to the poem– “Call and Response”

3. Use a poem from another century as a guide fro re-structuring yours

4. Write a poem in the opposite tone, invoking opposite emotions

5. Change from prose poetry to verse poetry or vice versa

I hope this finds everyone well and happy writing! ~Elle

Add Symbolism to Your Poetry

by Ellen Gwin

   Using symbolism in poetry remains vital because poetry contains a sort of nuance compared to other forms of writing; there is much to express in words left unsaid.

In this way poetry is like a painting, the viewer (or reader) can project their own experiences of life, thought, and emotion onto the work. The poet’s job is not to shamelessly project their own experiences onto another but to try and find a way to connect their experience to something larger than themselves.

In short, show instead of telling when writing poetry.

Dr. Murray of City University New York defines a symbol as, “ a person, object, place, event, or action that suggests more than its literal meaning.” For example, both spring and water symbolize rebirth, doves symbolize peace, and Martin Luther King symbolizes hope.

It’s easy to feel intimidated by symbolism because symbols seem all too tangible or concrete compared to the abstract ideas of your poem but I’m going to try and make them seem a little less scary.

Let’s add some symbolism!

Step 1: Write down your poem without symbolism in mind

Write down your thoughts all at once without censoring yourself; you may naturally write down some symbols in the first write-up or you may not. 

If you concentrate on symbols too much here then you’ll distract yourself from the main focus of your poem.

A lot of people get intimidated here because this feels like cheating or they feel their words are so flat originally nothing good could come out of it but I promise this technique is what most writers do and it’s worth the result.

Step 2: What symbolism pre-exists within the ideas of your poem?

These symbols will already be threaded into your words— whether by theme or image. Think to yourself: “What is my poem trying to say or convey?”

For example I wrote: 

Red lips and crimson hearts tempt the sleeves of the vulnerable to rip them bare.

When I realized I was trying to use red to symbolize that lust corrupts innocence, I wrote:

Nothing is Permanent by Elle Vue

Spilled Merlot on my white, lace Easter dress.

Red lips stained on grandmothers antique  tea set.

Green tomatoes turned ripened too quickly to fry.

Drops of blood landed on my copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Rose petals fell off their bushes too early in the spring.

More examples:

If your poem discusses death perhaps use the symbol of night or sleep.

If your poem discusses peace use the symbol of doves and olive branches.

If your poem discusses sadness perhaps use the symbol of rain.

If your poem discusses life perhaps use the sun or trees as a symbol.

Step 3: What symbolism can you create within your own ideas of the poem?

Sometimes when writing you start to use similar images and themes subconsciously. Your brain is probably working to saying something unique and it’s best to just let the images flow and worry about how they connect once you reach this step.

Once here, re-read the poem and look at the images and themes you chose to write on. These recurring images and themes give you the framework to throw in a symbol of your own.

Ponder: Symbolism for emotions

Above pomegranate I used to represent the idea of someone who can see from many perspectives but one can also use symbolism to show an emotion.

For example:

A deer hiding from the hunter to symbolize someone who feels scared and unreachable.

The praying-mantis to symbolize all-consuming love.

The moon to represent loneliness.

For Example: A poem I wrote directly about fear and anxiety transformed into a poem full of symbolism:

Original poem:

It’s these feelings of content I find most difficult to bear but most satisfying yet. I’m afraid that I cannot trust these feelings, that I cannot go into the world and remain unshaken, brave. I don’t want to live in fear of the horror to come, but in harmony of the good fortune that is now.

Finished poem:

It’s these feelings of content I find most difficult to bear but most satisfying yet. A stranger I have not yet gotten to know with mischief lurking behind their tilted smile. A crocodile sticking its snout out of the pond, aware of the temporary cover the dim sunlight and low hanging, morning fog bring from the huntsman. These feelings are fleeting and terror is inevitable, but these moments of solace are what’s present and real. 

Ponder: Symbolism for concepts

Symbolism is great for conveying emotions in addition to well-known concepts, universal truths, ideas in religion, etc.

For example:

Water: Standing in the rain, swimming in the ocean, showering symbolize rebirth

Roses and other flowers symbolize beauty

Clocks and baths symbolize mortality

How to Write About Color Without Saying the Color

By Ellen Gwin

The key to writing about color without saying the color is to stimulate the five senses of your reader: sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste — and the sixth sense: emotions.

While you don’t need to incorporate all five senses into your poem, it’s still a good idea to think about them when brainstorming.

Think about:

Sight: The images that come with the color you’ve chosen:

  • Yellow:
    • Ducks, sun, lemons, honey
  • Blue
    • Ocean, sky, eyes, veins
  • Pink
    • Brain, flowers, sunset, cheeks
  • Green
    • Leaves, emeralds, frogs, pears
  • Red
    • Roses, strawberries, lips, racecars
  • Orange
    • Sunset, pumpkins, salmon, marigolds

Taste & Smell: The objects you imagine tasting & smelling with each color

  • Yellow
    • Lemons, saffron, passion fruit
  • Blue
    • Blueberry pie, blue cheese, bluraspberry lollipop
  • Pink
    • Starburst, watermelon, bubblegum
  • Green
    • Brussel sprouts, peppermint ice cream, honeydew melon
  • Red
    • Cherry, spaghetti, blood orange
  • Orange
    • Tangerine, kumquat, papaya

Touch: What do you imagine feeling or touching with each color?

  • Yellow
    • Warm skin, hot seatbelts, sticky honey
  • Blue
    • Salty water, clear breaths, cold showers
  • Pink
    • Dainty lips, burning cheeks, dense gum
  • Green
    • Slime, luscious grass, wet leaves
  • Red
    • Hot blood, smooth fruits, soft flowers
  • Orange
    • Burning hot, red hair, fuzzy peaches

Sound: What sounds remind you of the color?

  • Yellow
    • Clapping crowds, giggles, charades
  • Blue
    • Splashing waves, crying tears, rain drops
  • Pink
    • Sloppy kisses, long goodbyes, smacking gum
  • Green
    • Wind in the trees, birds chirping, lovers screams
  • Red
    • Loud voices, moaning into the night, yelps of pain
  • Orange
    • Laughter, crunchy foods, running feet

BONUS: Emotions that remind you of the color

  • Yellow:
    • Energetic, sunny, joyous
  • Blue
    • Deep, sad, tranquil
  • Pink
    • Blushing, inspiring, warm
  • Green
    • Vivacious, envious, ambitious
  • Red
    • Passionate, angry, powerful
  • Orange
    • Creative, zealous, fiery

I hope this finds everyone well and happy writing! –Elle Vue

How to Spruce Up a Flat Poem

by Ellen Gwin

Have you ever loved the idea and general gusto of a poem but felt it fell flat or seemed cliche? Here are some tips on how to add in some metaphors, symbolism, and philosophy into a poem to give it more life!

Brainstorm for a new idea to weave in

This could be Plato’s ideas about happiness, Circe’s symbolism of transformation, the comparison of a heart to a tasty apple, whatever you want!

The point here is to add an extra layer to your poem, making it more interesting for the reader.

  • Read philosophy
    • Aristotle’s theories on friendships
    • Descartes’ ideas on soul & body
    • Nietzsche’s nihilism & thirst for life
  • Pick a specific story within literature
    • Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: A story of friendships and betrayal
    • Athena’s representation of wisdom and wrath in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey
    • Beowulf sacrificing himself to slay a dragon & save his village
  • Look to nature
    • The sun: airy light or scorching fire
    • Flowers: Blooming, rebirth, dainty, love, their origin stories
      • Example: Poppy flowers sprang from the blood of Adonis according to Ovid’s Venus and Adonis
    • Trees: Strong, old, unwavering, wisdom
    • Water: Purity, rebirth, flow of life
  • Art
    • Fashion:
      • Gothic eyeliner, fishnet gloves, combat boots
      • Cottage dresses, wooden clogs, strawberry lips
      • Dusty books, wool sweaters, oxford shoes
    • Paintings:
      • Renaissance art: Botticelli, Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci
      • 19/20th century art such as Picasso, Monet, Salvador Dali
      • Modern art such as John Currin or Zeng Fanzhi
  • Music
    • Classical music: Alberto Iglesias, Philip Glass, Dario Marianelli
    • 80s music: Joy Division, New Order, The Who
    • Other oldies (misc. decades): Don McLean, Billie Holiday, Van Morrison
    • Jazz: Stan Getz, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie
    • Current: Billie Eilish, Lonely Benson, The Strokes
  • Example
    • I read the Odyssey and felt inspired by Sirens

What to do once you’ve picked a topic

  • Write down every image, word, or idea that comes to mind when you think of the topic you’ve chosen
    • Do this step without any research so that you can make sure your poem isn’t “too smart” for your readers
    • Example: Sirens
      • Beautiful voices
      • Fishnets
      • Birds
      • Mermaids
      • Odysseus
      • Death and consumption
      • Deathly love
      • Rock ocean
  • After writing what you know off the top of your head, research for facts
    • Only include the researched items if they can be easily understood or if there’s room to explain them
    • Example: Sirens
      • Demeter gave handmaids the body of birds to help her search for Persephone when Hades took her
      • Some people believe sirens die if a man hears them but does not come to them
      • Sometimes known as the Muses of the underworld because of their deathly beautiful voices

Weave in the new found metaphor, allusion, symbol, etc.

Only change places that seem natural to change, do not try to force the metaphor, symbol, allusion, etc. into places that it does not fit.

  • Find verbs to replace with ones pertaining to your idea or metaphor
    • Example: Sirens
      • Replace kiss with consume
      • Replace calling or beckoning with luring
      • Replace walking/moving with sailing, swimming, or flying
  • Find adjectives that can be replaced with adjectives pertaining to your idea or metaphor
    • Example: Sirens
      • Replace t-shirt with mesh shirt
      • Engulfing arms with oceanic abyss
  • Change places where you tell into places where you show
    • Example: Sirens
      • Change “you would’ve done anything to make sure you were the only guy who got to touch me” to “you consumed me whole”
      • Change the idea of someone’s false words into the well known metaphor of “flimsy falsettos”
My original poem:

If I had the opportunity to kiss you again I would say, “No, I can’t. My love for you was a hollow scream and I do not have a hollow soul. I didn’t know any better back then, I didn’t understand that if you loved me back you would’ve done anything to make sure that you were the only guy who got to touch me. I didn’t want anyone else near you. I loved you with my heart on my sleeve and there will always be a place for you in my heart. But no, I can’t kiss you one last time, I’d spiral down into your arms. I’ve moved on and I know you have. I hope for the best for both of us

The finished product:

   If I had the opportunity to kiss you again I would say, “No, I can’t. My love for you was a hollow scream and I do not have a hollow soul. My mesh t-shirt was meant to show you my bleeding heart, not satiate the luring consumption you desired.  I didn’t know any better back then, I didn’t understand that if you loved me back you wouldn’t consume me whole in flimsy falsettos. But no, I can’t kiss you one last time, I’d spiral completely into your oceanic abyss again. I’ve opened the sail of my ship to take me with the wind, or at least I’m trying to.”

Siren Call by Elle Vue

I hope this finds everyone well and happy writing! –Elle Vue

My Poetry Writing Process

by Ellen Gwin

Today I am going to explain the more mechanical side of how I write poetry. In later posts I will break down the process a bit more and explain more of the “why” of what I choose to do.

First and foremost it’s important to remember that everyone’s process is different and that’s completely okay! Do what works for you or try something new.

Step 1: Write down your thoughts all in one go:

  • Do this step without censoring or judging yourself
  • Write in your most natural voice, even if it doesn’t feel groomed
  • Close your eyes and try to empathize with the poem you’re trying to write, place yourself inside of the space you want to create
  • Here is what happens when I take this step:
    • I always imagined what the perfect guy was and who I wanted to date, but when I saw you, you were the complete opposite of what I’d ever constructed in my mind. I was flushed with curiosity and I couldn’t keep my gaze from drifting to you. It was as if you felt it too. I looked up from my journal when your eyes met mine, it was in that quick moment, a literal blink of an eye, that I realized I need you. I couldn’t keep myself from imagining my mouth exploring yours and my body being touched by yours. I felt like I had been stranded in a whirlwind of people who never really cared to get to know me at all, no matter how hard I tried with them. Then you, out of nowhere, gave me this knowing look..It was as if you were saying, “I know we don’t know anything about each other and I know you might get weirded out by how forward I am, but there’s this magnetic force pulling me to you…..and I wouldn’t be surprised that if we got to know each other, I could love you for the rest of my life.” Please do. Love me. Love me. Love me. For the rest of my life, because that’s all I need.

Step 2: Break the poem into stanzas

  • Find places where you begin a new idea, want emphasize a point, or change the pace of the poem to create a stanza
  • Doing this gives you a chance to refocus the poem & your thoughts with each line

Step 3: Remove lines that don’t fit in the poem

Now I realize this sounds obvious, but it’s very hard to do this to the writing you worked so hard on & have grown to love– here are some tips

  • Remove ideas that seem strained
  • Remove any sentences that you feel like are over-explaining
  • Remove sentences that “tell” instead of “show”
  • Remove lines that seem cheesy or melodramatic

Step 4: Keep the removed lines somewhere else

  • I keep the lines I remove at the bottom of the word document I’m working on
    • You can also create a specific word document for lines removed from your poetry
  • This way you can remove lines without losing ideas (or getting sad)
  • For example here are some lines I saved while editing the poem above:
    • My body touching the warmth radiating from yours.
    • Unexplored are the lips surrounding our smiles might be, but our eyes have discovered each other
    • “I know we don’t know anything about each other and I know you might get weirded out by how forward I am, but there’s this magnetic force pulling me to you…I wouldn’t be surprised if we got to know each other, I could love for the rest of my life.” Please do. Love me, love me, love me. That’s all I need.

Step 5: Tweak parts where the idea holds water, but the structure may burst

  • Change “to be” verbs to active verbs
    • “To be” verbs: Be, Been, being, is, was, were.
    • Example:
      • “To be” verb: I was eating bad soup.
      • Active verb: I ate bad soup.
  • Add in descriptive adjectives and remove ones that just add “fluff”
    • Example:
      • Original: “I always imagined what the perfect guy was and who I wanted to date.”
      • Revised: “I always imagined who my life partner would be, perhaps someone tall and humble or short and witty.”
  • Make sure the piece flows rhythmically
  • Play around with point of view
    • i.e. first person, second person, third person, third person omniscient, etc.

Step 6: Voila!

Maybe at this stage you finished your poem or maybe you need to sit on it for a week or two before repeating the steps. Either way, I hope this helped and I look forward to explaining the “why” behind using some of these tips!

Finished poem: Slightly Delusional but Mostly Desperate by Elle Vue

  I always imagined who my life partner would be, perhaps someone tall and humble or short and witty. When I saw you, you existed as the complete opposite of what I’d ever constructed in my mind: neither tall nor short, humble nor witty but something far more complex and indefinite.

    I was flushed with curiosity and couldn’t keep my impetuous gaze kept drifting to you and maybe you felt it too. I looked up from my journal, your eyes found mine, in that literal bat of an eye, I realized I needed you. 

   I couldn’t keep myself from imagining my blooming lips exploring yours and our bodies so close between silk sheets we create our own kind of global warming. I felt like I had been stranded in a whirlwind of people who never really cared  to look into my eyes no matter how hard I tried to catch their eye. 

    Then you, out of nowhere, gave me this deliberate smile while boring into the abyss of pupils and I just wanted to scream, “The lips around our rosy smiles may be unexplored, but our eyes have already observed what our hearts have yet to admit. Please sit and chat a while and let those lips loosen like a sail to the wind. I want to unearth a new anthropological discovery in the curve of your tempting hips.”