Kill your darlings: Hilary Jacqmin on making poetic imagery more pointed

During the Association of Writers & Writing Programs annual conference earlier this month, we challenged our JHU Press authors to write on the theme “Kill your darlings.” We asked: What poem, line, stanza, or piece of brilliant work have you sacrificed for the greater good? Has this piece or well-turned phrase found its way into another poem, short story, or into your subconscious to use at another time? Inspired, we turned to our own talented staff and posed the same questions. Read on to see what they had to say. And check our archives to learn how poets Peter Filkins and X. J. Kennedy responded. 

By Hilary Jacqmin, manuscript editor

I hate to cut strong lines and images from my poems. But, because I tend to avoid stating emotion outright, instead filling my poetry with charged objects, I often leave my readers feeling stranded.

When workshop members critiqued my poem Powder House—later called Coupling, to better introduce the piece’s subject—they said that they were confused by the ambiguous tone and overly-specific references. In the piece, which focuses on a young couple who have decided to move in together, I attempted to provide some sort of commentary on the stresses and pleasures of early adulthood in a dingy apartment. My first draft included a final image of a sandbar, which I thought was a lyrical and mysterious way to sum up the couple’s emotional journey: it managed to be both hopeful and remote. But my readers weren’t convinced by the ending, saying that the image was too vague. Although the poem made them feel uneasy about the couple’s chances, they were ultimately unsure of what the underlying point or theme might be.

In my revision, the sandbar is changed to an iceberg. Although the image is now a bit stock, the sense of peril comes through much more clearly. I also cut some of the more specific, less-universal objects in the poem—a bottle of Chimay Blue; All-Star, the name of a local sandwich shop—to open up the work to a more general audience, and switched from the first-person to the third. By “killing my darlings,” I believe that I made the poem much more poignant and relatable.

The final lines now read:

They shared a grease-soaked paper bag

of onion rings, hands pale with salt,

as constant as New England snow,

then watched the float-glass windows cast

an iceberg on their bedroom wall.