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The Paris Review

Poets Work Really, Super Hard

Did you know it can take years to write a poem? That’s what poet Timmy Straw told The Paris Review.

Person welding while wearing a welding mask.
Photo by Aman Jakhar on Unsplash

For example, Straw said he wrote the first draft of his “The Thomas Salto” poem in 2016. He then spent six years working on the poem, which went through “probably fifteen-plus inadequate iterations” before Straw had “something I can live with.”

It’s hard to imagine working on any piece of writing for six years, especially a poem. Because, you know, poems tend to be short. 

So how does a poet spend years working on one little poem?

Let’s look at how Maggie Smith edited one of her poems. Smith uses her newsletter to show her work occasionally, and she shared her annotations for her poem, “How Dark the Beginning.”

The piece contains 17 lines, and Smith marked up nearly every single one. 

Regarding one line, Smith annotated, “This line has its own integrity and meaning before we get to the rest of the sentence.” And in other places, she noted how certain words sounded when read (“’B’ alliteration long ‘A’ assonance across lines”).

I don’t even know what any of that means.

To edit “How Dark the Beginning,” Smith said she repeatedly read the poem aloud to herself. 

“I revised word choices to play up assonance or slant rhyme (‘dragging its shadow’ capitalizes on the short A assonance, while the verbs ‘hauling’ or ‘pulling’ wouldn’t do that).”

Maggie Smith

It’s an incredible breakdown of how one poet revised one poem. And it’s a reminder that poets, who undoubtedly dress in all black and wear berets, work ridiculously hard.