Skip main navigation

Trying a poem on for size

In which the lead educators discuss drafting their poems.
So Helen, we’re both teaching later today and working with the student poets looking at drafting poems. How do you approach that when you’re teaching it? I think about my own process of drafting, I guess. And I’ve certainly had to learn how to draft, I think, as a poet. When I started writing, I just used to discard the poems that didn’t feel like they came out all right, straightaway. And it’s only in more recent years that I’ve learned to go back to things that might not be working, and try and develop them, or try and write them differently. Do you have a method or a process? It’s a bit more haphazard, I think, than what you call a method.
But I do draft a lot. I think, like most poets, in a way, the more you write, the harder you realise it is. And the more you want to push upon them, push upon them and see if you can make it what you hoped it would be, or better than you hoped it would be. So that involves, for me, usually a handwritten first draft, or sometimes it’s typed on a computer or on the phone. And then I’ll leave a gap, go back to it, maybe print it out, look at it in another form, then scribble over it, and then put it away. I usually find there’s a passage of time between drafts.
And if you leave it a week or two weeks and don’t look at it, you come back again, and immediately see the howlers in it and what’s not working. Do you use time in that way? Definitely. Definitely, because I think you get a strange kind of poem blindness, don’t you, straightaway after you’ve got that euphoric feeling of having written it, or that despairing feeling of it just not working at all. And the reality is usually somewhere in between. We have to step away from it and go back. I think it’s interesting as well, I know that we both write quite a lot in our heads before we get into the page.
So I guess there’s an element of drafting that goes on there before you get to the paper, as well. Is that true for you, do you think? Definitely, yes. So you’re drafting before anything is written down. And I find I could walk around with the poem nagging away for days, or even not a poem, but just a line, or a rhythm, or an image. And then it’s in the back of your mind as you’re doing other things.
And then it reaches a sense of there’s a moment of urgency, I find, where suddenly, the ideas start coming thick and fast to do with this poem, or the lines lead one to another and you do then have to write it down for fear you’ll lose it. Do you have that, speeding up? Yeah. Yeah, and I guess you’re trying not to limit yourself too much at that stage. I tend to almost when I first write something out in my notebook after it’s been in my head for a while, I almost do this expansive thing where I’m writing down different lines that I know are in different parts of the poem, but there might be gaps in between them.
Then sometimes I try and fill in those gaps as I type it out and start to see the shape that it might have on the page. Are there ever poems, have you ever salvaged a poem through drafting that you thought was totally lost? Have you ever really redrafted something so radically, it’s become a totally different poem? Yes. And I think more than that, some of the poems that I’ve come to think years afterwards were important ones for me, because they moved me on into a new kind of writing, were the worst first drafts, because I didn’t quite know what I was reaching for, or what I was doing.
I think the easier the first draft, there’s something about a really easy slick first draft that I don’t trust. Yeah OK. If it’s too easy, then there’s more likelihood that you’re repeating your old tricks. Yeah. Do you find that? Not entirely, because for me, the poems that come out relatively complete are usually stranger than what I’d normally write. Those are the ones that feel like they’ve come from elsewhere. And so I do trust in those, because they’re liable to be a bit more unusual perhaps. I see. Yeah. But if I’m sitting down and trying to write something, I wouldn’t trust my first thought about it at all. No, no.
And there always has to be something else, and that sense of urgency you talk about when you’re drafting a poem mentally before it even gets to the paper I definitely experience. And often, it’s about finding a second idea to connect with the first, what I first thought I wanted to write about maybe isn’t enough, or it’s not– Yes. When do you bring other people into the drafting process, or do you like feedback from– Quite late– Late. Yeah. – usually. I’ve got friends and have worked with students before who will put a very early draft, perhaps on a blog or something. I’ve never been able to do that.
I feel I need to take it as far as I can take it before anyone else comes into the equation. And often, that can be as simple as there’s two or three trusted readers–
I think a lot of writers have that, maybe another writer, or partner, or friends– and I might try a poem on them, or just ask them to read it back to me. Hearing in somebody else’s voice can be an eye opener. That’s a really good– and what you were saying about printing the poem out, those are never things that I’ve really done before. But I’ll definitely try because I guess it’s about making the poem unfamiliar to you again when you’ve got so close to it. And someone else’s voice can do that, but also, just seeing it in a different format can do that as well.
A different font, I’ve heard people talk about, they just put it all into a different font– I’ve never tried that, that’s interesting. And then it looks different, or a different arrangement. Yes. Yes.

In the video (above), Helen and Michael discuss how they draft their poems. Some poets hardly touch their poems once they’ve finished, while others continue to revisit their work for years and years after it has been completed. Here are some things you could try to explore your poem:

• Read it out loud to yourself.

• Ask someone else to read it.

• Write out each line individually and see how it works out of context.

• Try reading it backwards.

• For a radical approach you could use the cut up method and see what happens when you cut your lines out individually and put them back together at random!

Did you try? When reading out loud for instance, were there places where it was harder to read than others? Have you changed anything, and why?

Additional video

Drafting a poem

This article is from the free online

How To Make A Poem

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now