“Poetry: The best words in the best order”
~ Samuel Taylor Coleridge ~
Many writers rank revision right up there with root canals and colonoscopies, especially beginning writers. They’ve struggled to get their words down and now you’re asking them to change them?!? Or maybe they’ve hit upon a rhyme they think is perfect. Until you ask them what it means. Then they have to admit they really don’t know, but they like the way it sounds.
The magic of word processing has made the labor of revision much less overwhelming, but still it’s often hard for writers to let go of their words. (“Kill your darlings,” William Faulkner advised.)
This week I was working with a fifth grade student on a poem that had promise. His opening line had a nice rhythm and the second line had an effective repetition. Then came two lines he was really proud of. They rhymed, but he achieved that rhyme through weak, almost meaningless word choice that would stop readers in their tracks.
I began our conversation by reminding him that poems don’t have to rhyme. We had read many poems over the past week, immersing ourselves in persona poems and poems of address. A few rhymed, but most didn’t. Then I asked him to explain the lines to me, hoping he’d use some more effective vocabulary in his explanation. We spent a few minutes talking about what people often say when they lose things. (His poem was about an explorer searching for, but never finding, gold.) I asked him how he thought the explorer felt after expending all that time and energy for nothing.
Feeling like the explorer, I was getting frustrated trying to uncover a nugget of anything that made sense, but still coming up empty-handed. I tried hard not to put words in his mouth, but it was clear he didn’t have the vocabulary to say what he wanted to say. In the end, with the help of a thesaurus and a rhyming dictionary, he found the words he was looking for, even though I still had to explain some of the meanings to him. Was that cheating? I hope not. Because I think he learned some valuable lessons in the process. Now he has a better understanding of the words “sorrow” and “woe.” More importantly, he recognized how much better his poem sounded after making changes. His hard work of revision paid off.
What lessons were there for me in this whole process? I considered flat out banning rhymes in our next round of poems, but that limits student choice, doesn’t it? Maybe a better approach would be to study poems with rhyme more closely to discover what makes them work. And as always, it comes down to more writing. Because the more we write, the better the chance we’ll find the best word, and have the skills to put them in the best order.
Every Sunday, Margaret Simon of Reflections on the Teche invites teachers and writers to reflect on digital literacy, teaching, and writing. Please visit her there to read more about revision.