WestWard Quarterly, the Magazine of Family Reading Writer's Workbench

Reworking a Poem

We wanted to write a poem, “The Sycamine Tree Lesson,” based on Luke 17:6, And the Lord said, If ye had faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye might say unto this sycamine tree, Be thou plucked up by the root, and be thou planted in the sea; and it should obey you.

After citing the quotation from Scripture, we started with this stanza, addressed to Christ:

Oh You, who offered the possibility
of casting a sycamine tree in the sea,
and spoke to nature much as if
Adam’s dominion again exists!

The stanza, however, didn’t scan consistently. Each of the first two lines had eleven syllables, with differing patterns of accentuation. The third line had eight syllables, and the fourth nine syllables. Only the third line preserved a consistent pattern of iambic “feet” (ta da ta da ta da ta da). Moreover, the rhyming of the third and fourth lines was false, as if set against exists.

The stanza was rewritten using the consistent eight-syllable, four-iambic-feet pattern, and the false rhyme was changed. This was the result:

You offered possibility
of casting trees into the sea,
and spoke to nature much as though
Adam’s dominion yet were so!

The original poem had four stanzas. The third stanza presented the most opportunity for improvement:

It seems that You insisted upon
unsettling nature with aplomb!
When the disciples were appalled,
you chided them for faith too small.

The first line had nine syllables, the others eight in a consistent metric pattern. However, again the rhyme of each pair of lines was false. The first and third lines were revised to yield this stanza:

It seems You never drew back from
unsettling nature with aplomb!
When this your followers did appall,
you chided them for faith too small.

Finally, the poem is about the lesson of the sycamine (or sycamore) tree. However, the name of the tree was removed from the first stanza when the scansion was cleared up. Therefore, we added a fifth stanza that reintroduced the tree’s name and summarized the thought of the poem:

Your gospel teaches, line by line,
to heed the lowly sycamine
and set our sights beyond the scope
of earthlings, to a greater hope!

If your purpose is to write “conventional” poetry with consistent patterns of rhyme and metric accentuation — a skill sadly lacking in much of the poetry published today — then the “moral of the story” is, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite until you have achieved your goal! If writing that kind of poetry is not what you are trying to do, then there will be other things to watch for in your revision process. But we will take up the question of better "free" verse another time.

You can read the entire poem “The Sycamine Tree Lesson” by clicking the link to Poetry by Shirley Anne Leonard, and selecting the poem from the listing.

Happy Writing!