Gutting a Poem

Every now and then, I get comments from editors of journals to which I’ve sent poems for consideration. I appreciate the time an editor takes to review and comment and almost always take their comments to heart and make revisions. Generally, the comments address only a few words or lines within the poem leaving the basic structure and words unchanged. But, occasionally, the comments shake my view of a poem and lead to an utter transformation.

This happened with my poem “Thoughts While Sitting Along the Lower Potomac.” I really liked that poem– the comparisons between the rural areas along the lower portion of the Potomac River and political power up river in Washington, DC. I liked the languid way in which I would read it at open mics and other venues. I liked the Taoist reference at the end.

The reviewer had this to say:  “This poem considers issues of power of one kind or another through reflection on the Potomac in relation to Washington DC. It uses a large metaphor which structures a series of smaller ones to make this comparison. Parts are nicely done, but overall the poem is a little too direct with its references to left and right, partisanship, corridors as rivers etc. The final stanza is particularly clunky in my view – telegraphing the master metaphor. A better poem would insinuate a little more and telegraph a little less.”

After the initial shock that the reviewer had not loved the poem as much as I did, and that the journal was turning it down, I realized the reviewer was right. Revisions were needed, and not just here and there, but drastic changes. I proceeded to gut it and rebuild.

You can find the original poem below (see “Poems Left in Airports #6,” April 9, 2016). Here’s the new version:


An eagle circling out over the water.
A hook eased from a fish too small to keep.

Crabpots stacked at the end of a pier.
An old deadrise sunk in a creek.

Days measured in bushels,
in the size of rockfish and blues,
and the ones that got away.

Who are we to describe
the wind and the waves?
Heron waits for words.



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