Writing Mini-Lessons: Cut to the Bone


“Poetry is especially an art of compression.”
~ Robert Wallace

“I know a poem is finished when I can’t find another word to cut.”
~ Bobbi Katz

“Poetry is elegant shorthand.”
~ William Coles

The verb compress means to force something into less space. Some of a poem’s power comes from the poet’s ability to say or suggest a lot in a short space. To do this, a poet must make sure that every word is loaded with meaning and is necessary to the poem. Often, when a poet writes a first draft, it will say more than it needs to because the poet’s priority in the first draft is to focus on recording the pertinent feelings and sensory details of the experience. A first draft often includes anything that might be essential. Once the first draft is completed, it is time to start to tighten the piece, eliminating obvious redundancies and portions not relevant to the poem’s central message or feeling tone. Through multiple revisions, you, the poet, will make additions and substitutions, as well as continuing to delete. Finally, when you are certain the poem is finished, revise one more time, being sure to cut to the bone.

When the poet can’t find another word to cut, a poem is done. Weigh every line and every word: Does it do anything for your poem? Does a smart reader need it? And, is this poem elegant shorthand yet?

Below are samples of student writing, both before and after being cut to the bone.

A Little Friendship (Uncut)

Of all the places,
we met on a transcontinental airplane,
a 747 at that.
She was from Germany
and was going to visit
her American grandmother in the States.
I had just finished my vacation
in Germany and was going back home
to Maine with my parents.

We both spoke English and German
and we couldn’t decide which of the two to speak.
At first we just visited each other.
We would listen to music
and would watch Bugs Bunny on the television.
Then we would crawl under the seats,
poking other people’s feet
and then scurrying away,
trying to suppress our giggling.

Near the back of the airplane, two brothers
were playing with their Batman toys.
The two of us absolutely despised Batman,
and we would chant an anti-Batman song
to the tune of “Jingle Bells.”

Toward the end of the flight
we wrote down our addresses
on little slips of paper,
and we exchanged them.
We said our good-byes as we collected our luggage.
But we never saw each other again.

I lost my little slip of paper,
and I think she lost hers too.
We never wrote to each other.
So I would consider her a brief friend,
one who helped pass the time
on a long, six-hour flight
and helped me to make a memory.

A Little Friendship (Cut)

We met on an airplane.
She was from Germany,
on her way to visit
her grandmother in the States.
We had finished our vacation
in Germany and were headed home to Maine.

First we exchanged visits in our airplane neighborhoods.
We listened to music
and watched Bugs Bunny videos.
Then we crawled under seats,
poked people’s feet,
and scurried away,
trying to suppress our giggles.

Near the back of the plane, two brothers
played with Batman toys.
We despised Batman
and chanted an anti-Batman song
to the tune of “Jingle Bells.”

We wrote our addresses
on slips of paper
and exchanged them.
We said good-bye as we collected our baggage.
But I never saw her again.

I lost my slip of paper.
I think she lost hers too.
We never wrote to each other.
So I consider her a brief friend,
one who helped pass the time on a six-hour flight
and made a memory

~ Lucas Mayer

Music (Uncut)

Music—it has the power
against myself to control my emotions
and that creates a need
for me to own it
and control myself.
Each new genre of music
releases an explosion inside myself
of adrenaline which I am eager
to run off and use.
Every music store is
an Amazon of new bands
fighting to release their
own personal effect on everybody.
But I am also fighting
to try the new bands first
and accept and enjoy the effect
that music throws at me.

Musical Emotions (Cut)

Music: the only power
I have over myself
to change my emotions
whenever and however I please:
from frustrating anger
to soothing calm
to enthusiastic happiness—
each new genre of music
added to my collection
equals another emotion
for me to explore.

~ Jacob Miller