The Total Poem

The total poem is one to which you have given your all. That means that you have considered the elements of craft when composing each draft —idea, voice, line, stanza, title, meter and rhyme. It means that you have analyzed the modes of expression —narrative, lyric, dramatic —and employed the appropriate methods and forms to convey your epiphanies and peak experiences. It means, ultimately, that you have respect for your readers, sharing your best ideas with the best words in the best order of presentation.

Of all the definitions of "total" or "pure" poetry, the one that impresses me the most was coined by Canadian poet George Whipple, whose lyric "A Hymn to God the Father" appears in the chapter on voice. Whipple, who composes as many as thirty drafts of each poem, advises: "When you revise, remember it is not what you feel that is important, but what you can make others feel."

An implied respect for audience has been the theme of each chapter in The Art and Craft of Poetry.

Unlike other texts, however, my discussion of revision in this chapter will be the shortest. You have been learning the discipline of revision by keeping a file labeled "Work in Progress" and by keeping all drafts of each poem. My goal has been to transfer to you the process of composing effective poetry via these methods:

1. Conceiving effective ideas. In notebook assignments in the first section, you learned that poets are expected to envision the inner and outer realms of life with universality. Truth emanates from powerful ideas. Without such ideas, your poems may seem static, trite, rambling, vague or obscure.

2. Studying tools of craft. In notebook assignments in the second section, you learned that the more tools a poet has at his or her disposal, the easier it is to convey those universal and visionary ideas. Moreover, you learned how to assemble the foundation of a total poem, aligning such elements as voice, line, stanza and title.

3. Employing formats and forms. Finally, in notebook assignments in the third section, you became familiar with methods of composition. If it was your first go-around, the Level One exercises also showed you how to adapt your drafts and ideas to narrative, lyric, dramatic, free and formal verse. If it was your second go-around, the Level Two exercises showed you how to identify your individual strengths and weaknesses when adapting your drafts and ideas. If it was your third go-around, the Level Three exercises should have pushed you to the edge of your ability, attempting to turn those weaknesses into strengths.

Now it's time to apply what you have learned to drafts of poems in your "Work in Progress" file.

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