How to Edit Poems

I’m often asked how I edit. Some people want to know if poems land full-formed on the page and seem disappointed to find I redraft at all. Conversely a student recently asked me what is the maximum number of drafts a poet ought to write, afraid she might be breaking some kind of cap.

In order to bust some of these myths the Poetry Society’s Young Poets Network recently asked if I could explain the editing process. You can read the article here, complete with photographs which show how the scribbled first draft in my notebook eventually turned into the ‘Hilda and Caedmon’ poem below.

Hilda and Caedmon

It isn’t enough to turn snakes to stone,
miracles must be tidy, divinely mathematical.
So each spitting body she touched,
rolled itself up in a ram’s-horn curl.

When spring storms ploughed
new steps in the beach,
fishermen found the frozen snakes
and split them for the jewels in their bellies.

She could steer the bishops in synod
like the farmer’s wife who taught rabbits
to stand respectfully on Sundays.
She knew the price of wool.

Without her, he’d have been a shepherd
who once dreamt of a song and rolled it
round his mouth like a ear of pilfered wheat
stilling his jaw when the overseer walked by.

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