17 September 2012

craft tip monday 9/17: writing in reverse

Apologies for the delay with this post. With a mixture of student workshops, edits to my poetry manuscript, preparations for an upcoming “submit-o-rama” (more details on that coming soon!), and more … the day got a little bit away from me! Thanks for your patience, and I hope you enjoy this Monday’s “Craft Tip.”

inversion: finding new meaning in old poems

I had a poetry professor a few years ago whose fix, my fellow students and I would joke, for any poem was to “add an epigraph.” It seemed like any time she had a problem with one of our poems, the “easy-fix” solution wound up being the addition of an epigraph to “prepare the reader for the rest of the poem.” As much as we made fun of it, it really was a helpful tip. One of her other tricks, that actually made a lot of sense to me from the first time she gave it to me, was to “invert” a poem and see what happens. It was actually a trick I had used in the past, though never as effectively as when I attempted it in her class.

inverted inventions

A great poem is often the work of putting the right words in the right order. And as much as we poets love the idea that by the time we’ve committed a poem to the page we’re pretty close to that perfect words-meet-order combination, sometimes there’s also something to be said for completely disrupting that perfect order to see what else can happen. Inverting a poem often reveals how lines might work together in different ways, and how rearranging a few words can give a poem a whole new meaning.


Inverting a poem is simple … and at the same time, not so simple. All you do is start with the last line of a poem, make that the first line, and continue the reversal. This “re-navigation” a poem may mean adding, removing, or simply changing words to “correct” the “flow” of your poem. For some poems the work is easy … for others (especially longer poems), maybe not so easy.

When I share this activity with students, I’ll often use the first two stanzas of William Blake’s “The Tyger” as an example—mainly because it’s a familiar poem for most people, and because it shows what a “simple” reversal of the lines, with seemingly minor changes (additions, subtractions, punctuation, etc.) can do to a poem’s meaning:

What! The hand—dare, sieze the fire!
On—what? Wings! Dare he aspire?
Burnt, the fire of thine eyes—
And in what distant deeps or skies

Could thus frame thy fearful symmetry?
What immortal hand or eye
In the forests of the night
Dare spy thee, tyger, tyger, burning bright?

your turn

A friend who writes fiction pointed out that something about the inverse-poem prompt reminded her of the saying “Begin with the end in mind” for fiction writers. She gave it a go with a fiction piece, and found it fascinating to reverse the narrative and watch the narrative unfold end to beginning. I’ve tried it, too, with a few pieces, and while it sometimes doesn’t work particularly well (at least, not at all in the same way as it does for a poem), it’s surprising to see how powerful a story becomes when the “beginning” is a character’s death and the “ending” is that character reflecting on how wonderful a day is.

So, whether you are a poet or a fiction writer (or even a nonfiction writer … I haven’t forgotten you!), I challenge you to give inversion a try. See what happens when you take a piece and begin with the end. How does the poem’s meaning change? How do the emotions of the story take on a new light? See what happens! Play! Enjoy!


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