Sea Otter Poem, 4th Draft: Reaching Revision Goals

Continuing the verse writing process on a wildlife subject first drafted here, developed here, and revised here, below are excerpts from the latest (4th) draft of my sea otter poem. Between development and revision, I pursued three main improvement goals:

  1. Let the poem stretch and breathe a little to see if idea clarity improves without wrecking structure or sound. Make the poem feel less stilted and claustrophobic while still preserving economy of word choice. Specifically, reduce the number of hyphenated phrases.
  2. With increased clarity and space, home in on a definite theme and/or message to dovetail with the sensory detail. Make sure the poem communicates what I intend it to.
  3. Decide how form may best serve content, and whether to make a series or set of parts out of the different treatments tested during the drafting phases.*

The first true revision (3rd draft) made good progress on these goals, but more work was needed to reach them. My husband reviewed a few versions in the 4th draft revision phase and helped me to make the poem more accessible.

For theme and purpose, I decided I wanted to convey the relationship between observer and observed, the longing to see something special in nature first hand, the wonder of possibility and knowledge of what could be seen if we’re lucky, the appreciation of unique species traits, and the elusiveness of the wild.

The poem was inspired in large part by my California trip to visit family this April, especially sharing the National Geographic young reader book about sea otters and the day we spent in Monterey. I saw one sea otter swimming briefly in the harbor near Monterey Bay Beach. Sunset occurred hours later with sightings of sea lions and shorebirds, which we also enjoyed, but no otters.

I am now confident that my verse writing goals have been met, and the poem is fully ready for feedback. Feel free to share yours, too!

Opening stanzas introduce the observer’s perspective —

Realized from shore, what do 
we dredge up through horizon?

A seascape we have not seen
peers to us watchers of wild,
whose eyes by turns troll 
and bail, and then decant. 

The new-to-us coast is cold,
far from our land home and  
the smaller ocean edging 
ancient world from this one.

2nd questioning stanza —

Does this speck of sea otter
then disappoint? Or does life
in motion mean so much 
more in person than on video?

Focusing in on the water —

Sudsy flickers of ocean
tongues lap the beach, where
remnant foam re-gathers 
in the formless current and 

jutted surf-wash, rinsed
by the sprawl of shadows,
promontories kissing back.
These never tire of the affair.

The gaze becomes mesmerized waiting for action, then sharpens into a new question —

The sea surface quilts into 
copper-coated tents interlocked 
over endless circus, reluctant 
aquarium—indifferent, holding 

fathoms unsolved. Wet coats 
plunge, flashing a black-coffee 
sheen, like fireflies in twilight,
porpoising between questions.

Do I mistake otter scuttle for 
the dark face of rising water?

Behaviors that do happen but we don’t witness live (closing 2 stanzas) —

Belly up, becoming a raft, 
mother suckles her one pup. 
We won't see. She hunts and 
scratches, stones fresh mollusks. 

Sharp teeth keep urchin counts 
checked, and kelp alive. Mom
folds the babe in their blades. 
We miss her relief as she dives.

copyright 2015 C. L. Tangenberg

May all your wildlife encounters be safe, enchanting, and joyful.

Sea Otter Poem: Revised Draft

Feedback is still to come, as we did not have time to review my poem tonight at group. Instead, I continued working on the poem on my own, after having taken a different direction in my approach to the content earlier today.

Previous posts with draft text of this poem can be found here and here.

A few excerpts of the latest draft follow.

Realized from shore, what do 
we dredge up to this horizon?

A seascape we have not seen
peers to us watchers of wild,
whose eyes by turns troll, 
and bail, and then decant. 

The cold coast is newer to us,
farther from land-home, than  
the smaller ocean edging 
elder world from younger.
Flattened flickers of ocean
tongues lap the beach, where
remnant foam re-gathers 
in the formless current and 

jutted surf-wash, rinsed
by sprawling shadows,
promontories kissing back.
They never tire of the affair.

Past that crusted boulder, 
its girth and rough ribs, 
we gaze and scan the weedy 
waves with craning necks.

Do I mistake otter scuttle for 
the hollow of a larger peak?
No mistake, yet no encore.
Porpoising, and then a raft,
the insulated mother floats, 
one pup suckling; now hunts, 
scratches, stones fresh mollusks. 

Sharp teeth keep urchin counts 
checked, and kelp alive, frond 
forest tall, sound, swaying true 
for sea otter sunrise, more life.

Wildlife Poem: Sea Otter in Progress

As promised, here continues my focus on nature and wildlife poetry that began with Call of the Wild Poetry. See my prewriting for this poem at Raw Poetic Material: Sources and Destinations. In response to my writing group moderator’s assignment to “write a poem about a sea otter” (which I had only partly attempted), I began with a more meandering subject matter focus and less formal stanza structure than you’ll see below, but with similarly short lines.

Step 2 zeroed in on the target subject, and I wrote a longer collection of 6-line stanzas with no end rhyme. The poem at bottom represents the latest (third) iteration, taking what I felt was the best (last stanza) of the intermediate material and building on it. This version employs 4-line stanzas using an ABXB (or ABCB) rhyme scheme. It is still a work in progress.

My revision goals include:

  • Let the poem stretch and breathe a little to see if idea clarity improves without wrecking structure or sound. Make the poem feel less stilted and claustrophobic while still preserving economy of word choice. Specifically, reduce the number of hyphenated phrases.
  • With increased clarity and space, home in on a definite theme and/or message to dovetail with the sensory detail. Make sure the poem communicates what I intend it to.
  • Decide how form may best serve content, and whether to make a series or set of parts out of the different treatments tested during the drafting phases.*

It may seem backwards not to start with the message you want to convey and then seek the words to express it. While I do begin with a concept in mind, my entry into verse writing is more predominantly through its music–the sounds of words, the rhythm of phrases, the frolicking through rhyme and alliteration. For students of poetry and speech, this collection of aspects is called is called prosody.

Sound, sense, and form all must work together for overall poem quality.

Sometimes I emphasize form excessively, spending more time experimenting with line and stanza breaks than is beneficial. Likewise, I tend to obsess over punctuation, probably using too much of it. (This habit comes both from my college poetry instructor’s admonition to “study [verse] punctuation” and from my own pique over comma errors committed by my writing students and others.)

For additional insight into the state of my verse writing process, see the 4-post series beginning with On Process: Verse Writing, Introduction and Part I: Motivation. In that series, I use the writing of an elegy for Leonard Nimoy to illustrate both poem creation and my development as a poet.

I hope you find these descriptions and samples instructive. Happy verse writing and reading!

Watery wiles gild sea
waves, yield thick-furred
off-white young, black-
eyed dark, five fingers.

Coats arc down through 
copper-coated ocean tents 
with slick black-coffee sheen 
toward gloaming, up again.

Porpoising, then a raft,
mother floats belly up, 
one light pup suckling;
now hunts, stones mollusks. 

Sharp teeth keep urchin 
counts checked, kelp alive, 
frond forest sound, safe,
for otter sleep, more life.
Sea otter with kelp Image sourced through Wikipedia

Sea otter with kelp
Image via Wikipedia

* Sometimes a writer must face the fact that the chosen form or style may not be what the content calls for, which can mean, e.g., changing a poem into an essay or end-rhymed verse into free verse.

On Process: Verse Writing, Part III: Home Stretch and Final Draft

On Part II

In my last post, I laid down a heavy, lengthy development process for your consideration. Now I feel giddy and light with the surety of being finished and knowing it truly has been worth the effort. In this post, I’ll reveal how that happened and share some of my favorite resulting lines of verse from my original elegy. It’s so exciting to be able to deliver on the promise! I’m relieved and a bit surprised, actually. . . .

Feel free to comment or tweet @Carrielt37.


The Verse Writing Process, Part III: Home Stretch and Final Draft

I have been through the wilderness and come out the other side refreshed, enlightened, and satisfied–about my poetry writing, that is. And let me assure you, this is an extremely rare feeling when I write poetry. While the drafting phase was somewhat cyclical and cumulative, toward its end, three distinct steps emerged: (1) final development/drafting and revision, (2) evaluation and final revision, and (3) “proofreading” or polish.

Final development/drafting and revision

At the beginning of this phase, which was after that 15+ step development period, I have to admit I was right in the thick of the woods, wondering how the heck I was going to find my way out.question-mark-maze-8643312This phase included a somewhat disorganized process of line scansion for meter, writing and rewriting to balance rhymes with language and ideas, adding ideas both in meter and disregarding it, plucking individual lines and isolated stanzas or series of stanzas from earlier drafts to place in the next iteration, and ultimately, leaving a ton of poetry behind. It was messy, but those discards may bear fruit elsewhere, some other time. It also took several days of wrestling with and ignoring the work, by turns.

In between sessions, I watched the film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which (spoiler alert) ends in Spock’s death, caught a glimpse of a tabloid headline targeting Nimoy’s demons, and read an article featuring synopses of the author’s top five favorite Spock-focused books. I allowed these experiences to inform and influence the poem’s development, adding ideas and reflecting on, and sometimes slightly altering, the ones I’d already put down.

Once the larger mess was behind me, I felt freer to re-order stanzas, sections, and lines within stanzas, and to revise content within and across stanzas. The poem began to take real shape.

Know_Your_Limitations_Then_DefyEvaluation and final revision

Although there were moments when the evaluation period seemed both self-congratulatory and extraneous, by the end, I felt thoroughly reassured of my poem’s finished status.

First, I assessed the progression of ideas after having done all that rearranging in the last step. Check. Then, I looked at how well the parts fit together as labeled with Roman numerals, reflecting the turning points in that progression. I moved the middle three numbers up or down one or two stanzas to improve the divisions.

Next, I gave final thought to the detailed poetic aspects: rhyme scheme, meter and rhythm, point of view between personal and universal, Spock and Leonard, topic focus and shifts therein, elegiac characteristics, other poetic devices, the alignment of content with form, the symmetry or circularity of the poem’s five-parted structure, and the effectiveness of repetition of concepts. Check, check, check, check, check! See Poetry Foundation’s Glossary Terms for more information about poetic devices.

There may be dozens of other little decisions I made more automatically based on my experience with writing and reading iambic tetrameter, studying sample elegies, and being an active poet and poetry reader for most of my life.

For some examples, I strove to avoid filler words that are empty of meaning–too many prepositions or articles–used alliteration, assonance, consonance, internal rhyme, near rhyme (end rhymes that are not exact, a.k.a. off rhyme or slant rhyme), what I hope are subtle puns, a formal tone with archaic word choice, a corresponding inversion of syntax (think Yoda speak) and interjections both to make rhymes work better more often, and rhetorical questions.

Decisions_arrows_sproutingSpecific to this poem were intentional placements of Spock sayings, physical and personality descriptions, multiple meanings for terms such as “dust,” “space,” and “soul,” veiled allusions to real life and other celebrities, and practice imitating the usual features of the elegy’s form and spirit. All of these decisions continued from early development through final polish.

Incidentally, I neglected to mention in my first post of this series the prep work I did, studying and taking notes on several famous, modern elegies by the likes of Auden, Gray, Yeats, and Housman.

And to fulfill the parameters of the original assignment from The Daily Post‘s free, online course Writing 201: Poetry, I made sure I added fog as a concept and metaphor as a device into my elegy.

“Proofreading” or polish

I put proofreading in quotes because I see finalizing my own verse as a very different process from helping students clean up a piece of prose. Every choice of punctuation, preposition, noun, and pronoun change in verse writing for me is fundamentally a poetic decision more so than a matter of correction.

Still, there are corrections to make, too, usually affecting the meaning of a line, or sentence across lines, toward more precise communication of my intended message, rather than fixing true grammar errors. This last step is usually brief and includes formatting my poem into columns.

The schedule?

My journey began on February 27th, the day Leonard Nimoy died, by writing thoughts and feelings on paper. The idea development step of the process took about 3-4 days. I first starting typing things up on March 2nd. Then, from March 7th, the drafting/poem development step took 4-5 days of actual work with days off in between. I spent between 1 and 3 hours for each sitting.

Due to my flexible schedule, I varied the time of day I worked. On a few occasions, I stayed up late, drawing my juice from my night-owl tendencies, starting work at 11:30 or midnight and working until 2 or 3 a.m. (I work as an online tutor part-time during afternoons, evenings, and weekends.) In my eagerness for results, I woke up very early for me the morning of March 16th to cross the finish line.

And what about those results?

The final product is a five-part elegy of a total of 29 four-line stanzas. Here are some of my favorite parts of the elegy I wrote in honor of Leonard Nimoy and his signature creation, Spock.

The first half of part III:

Where you once dwelt a single being--
two souls' two places, space and scene--
now mystifies the Star Trek fan,
bereft the hope you'd play again.

Let none suggest unjustified
the love of you, ironic pride,
for plain as scientific fact
reflects your greatness humbly back.

Who but you could teach us best,
less science, more about ourselves?
Who but Spock win skeptic minds 
and reaffirm all humankind?

Of man, of myth, of dual soul—
one resurrected, one immortal
—how can there be a final end
to he who was and shall be friend?

The final two stanzas of the poem, part V:

We clasp the artifacts of you
to fire our hearts and douse our blues.
Galactic space, your last frontier,
asks how you feel, O pioneer.

For you, we blest, stout hearted shall
declare, “Just fine,” return the call, 
as each horizon bears us forth,
to star-lit skies, our truest north.

? How do you decide when your poem is truly finished?

? When in poetry writing does one reach a point of diminishing returns?


In my last post of this series, On Process: Verse Writing, Part IV: Reflection, I will reflect on the process as a whole, sharing a summary of lessons learned, milestones reached, and impressions of the exercise of chronicling my verse writing process.

If you’re just joining me and would like to read about how this project began, go to On Process: Verse Writing, Introduction and Part I: Motivation and follow the bread crumbs from there.

I welcome your comments or tweets @Carrielt37.