My most current manuscript, which
I called “completed,” sat on my desk for well over a year. Every time I picked
it up, I found something to change; at readings, I heard things that didn’t
sound quite right, and I made more changes. Happily, my publisher accepted the
manuscript a week or two ago, and the last nerve-wracking round of edits is
nearing completion—I mean, it is, isn't it?
It’s not surprising that I’ve
been thinking about Paul
Valéry’s statement that a poem is
never finished, only abandoned. At what point does a poet stop and say, “This
poem is completed.” I can’t remember ever consciously doing that, and my
question is, “Exactly how does a poet
know when to stop writing and editing a poem?”
For me, poems are ideas with
wings—they move about quite a lot, and the fluttering usually generates a need
to see where they want to go—the process takes me with it and it takes time. I try to give my poems a lot of time and space.
Most often, I put a poem aside after several drafts and come back to it later
(sometimes much later—I actually found one last week that I started in 2006 and
“lost”). In most cases, my imagination is a step or two ahead of me, and I keep
going back, putting aside, and going back again. Drafts and redrafts can number
in the dozens for me, and I still find myself viewing the work from different
angles and making changes. First and last lines are usually the most
challenging—how to enter and leave a poem—how to invite the reader in and what to leave with the reader.
I have to admit that when I
re-read my published poems months or years after publication, I’m sometimes horrified to think I let them go into the world as they are, and I edit them on their pages
in the books or journals in which they appear. I thought I was a little weird
about this practice until I read that Robert Lowell was famous for revising
after his poems were published and even took his pen into bookstores where he
edited right there.
The best strategy I’ve discovered is to read poems in process
aloud to myself because it enables me to hear places where the poems breathes and sings, where the music
stops, where images miss the intended mark, and where over-writing begins. I don’t imagine that many of us
experience Yeatsian moments when, after revisions, “a poem comes right with a
click like a closing box.” It must be wonderful,
but it’s almost never that simple or easy for me.
With all of this in mind, I sent
an inquiry to several poet friends whose work I respect and admire and
asked them to answer the question,” How do you know when a poem in finished?”
Their responses follow, but before you read on, here’s a poem by Naomi Shihab
Nye that addresses our subject.
How Do I Know When a Poem Is Finished?
When you quietly close
the door to a room
the room is not finished.
It is resting. Temporarily.
Glad to be without you
for a while.
Now it has time to gather
its balls of gray dust,
to pitch them from corner to
Now it seeps back into itself,
unruffled and proud.
Outlines grow firmer.
When you return,
you might move the stack of
freshen the water for the roses.
I think you could keep doing this
forever. But the blue chair looks
with the red pillow. So you might
leave it that way.
How do you know when a poem is finished?
The Poets’ Responses
Donna Baier Stein:
That’s a tough question to
answer! Even after a poem is published I will sometimes make changes when I am
reading the poem out loud at an event. So in that sense, it’s never completely
finished! But there is a visceral feeling, after working for weeks, months, or
even years on a poem, that I get when I feel like I’ve caught what I intended
the poem to convey. It’s almost like the closing of a lid, or a sigh of
completion. It’s that moment when, to my ear, the poem sounds right and true.
Maria Mazziotti Gillan:
I have to say that, for me, I am
often wrong about when a poem is finished. I work on it a long time and then I
think it’s ready for the world, but if a few weeks go by and I read it out
loud, I can tell that a line is off and that it needs to be changed. Sometimes,
I don’t notice when there are lines that I’ve repeated or “wrong” words that I’ve
used until several weeks go by. I admit that sometimes even after a poem is
published, when I get up to read it to an audience, I will spot things that I
didn’t realize before; and often in my books that are my reading copies, I make
changes years after the poem was first published. I don’t feel that I’ve
abandoned poems but more that I need to see them with new eyes as time goes on
and to hear them with new ears as well.
I don’t really abandon poems
(though I forget them) and the usual line is “poems aren’t finished, just
abandoned.” I keep writing until I no longer feel I am in the poem. Then I step
back, and squint at it, the way a painter might squint at a painting to see its
overall effect. Then I leave it alone for two weeks and go back and read it.
While I wrote it, I kept going back to the beginning and reading it, so the
poem has been read by me maybe twenty times in different phases. But now is
different. After two weeks, it doesn’t feel like my poem anymore exactly, and I
see where its “parent” forgot to take the tag off the pants, and left the child
wearing the cuff of the pants caught on a sock, and how there was a mustard stain
on the shirt I’d chosen (almost gone but not quite). And I feel sad, very sad
because the poor kid is going to get mocked if I let him go out like that. I
change the shirt or tuck it in more where the stain doesn’t show, and I take
the cuff out of the sock, and put just a little spit on my hand to flatten out
a wayward cow’s lick (but not too much) and more or less make sure the kid is
presentable. I don’t dress my poems fancy, so a comfortable lived-in look is
what I’m going after. Here’s the scary thing: sometimes I forget to go back and
re-read the poem and I never read it again or think about it. Years later,
while in a panic about some other poem, I stumble over it. My poem has grown up
without me. I either like it or I am sorry I sired it. I lose more poems than I
revise. My favorite part of poetry is the writing, and sometimes the revision. Because
I read the poems so many times while I am writing them, I always almost have
them memorized and that means, even if I lose a poem, parts of it, a part here
or there, still hang out in my brain. Those are usually the parts that should
be in the world. I wrote 20 versions of “Morning at the Elizabeth Arch”—including
one as a Pantoum and another as a sonnet. The final version is in on Rattle’s
web site. I do re-takes, not just revisions. To me this should have a sense of
dress up and play. When you’ve put together the right ensemble, you know your
child can walk out the door, get a lover, and put you in a nursing home when
you grow old and annoying. Then the poem is done, John Donne.
When I first
became serious about writing poetry I attended a lot of workshops where I
received feedback on my initial drafts. I considered my poem “finished” if and
when the group, especially the leader, considered it a completed poem. As years
went on I became more and more a self-editor although there were and continue
to be certain friends I share my drafts with for their take on them. These days
I read my drafts out loud to myself to hear how they “sound” and to discern if
there is dead language that is impeding the poem’s impact. I think I pay more
attention now to how I conclude a poem and might decide to change an earlier
moment in the poem that will be more congruent with the ending. Finally, even though I read my drafts out
loud to myself I find presenting it at a public reading gives me a strong
indication about the poem’s completeness or, in some cases, its need for some
For me, I almost
instinctively know when a poem I’m writing is finished. Maybe because I’m
basically an intuitive poet (whatever that may mean to different poets), I
invariably hear a click in my head that says “finished.” Sometimes the
intellectual part of me wants to add more details to finish it off (and at
times I have), but mostly when I hear that mental “click,” (often at a place of
impact), I know the poem is finished.
Aside from “never really
finished,” I’d like to try and get onto paper the reason why I was drawn or
attracted to the poem in the first place. Does the poem get to that point
anywhere at all? Are there enough moving parts? Does it click? Can I trim the
language, use more striking words, if not vocabulary, polish it up, use some
irony, twist it, tweak it. Sometimes, the poem isn’t going to happen, which
happens enough. Possibly, I’m too lazy or it’s not such a great idea to begin
with. Does the poem get off the launching pad? If I write about a parent, does
this poem add to what I’ve already written about them or should that matter?
These are good questions, which I
should ask more often. Usually, if I stop writing it’s because I get a general
sense I don’t like the poem as much as I thought I would and I should quit
while I’m ahead. That’s where writers say keep a notebook. I don’t keep a
notebook but it’s probably a good idea. I try to keep an idea in my head but
that doesn’t always work.
On the other hand, Saul Bellow
said somewhere that we become writers because we liked reading something and
feel we could do something like that, repeat a good experience for someone
else. Why not?
I like to take the poem for a
test drive in front of an audience at an open reading. I can read it aloud at
home, but for some reason I get a better feel for the rhythm and breath of the
poem in front of people. I also immediately hear what goes clunk to refine the
sounds and rhythms. And sometimes someone in the audience hears something, for
better or worse, that I don’t hear. A fellow poet once resurrected a poem I’d
written off as too obscure and it ended up receiving a Pushcart nomination.
I do many, many drafts, usually,
and the last drafts are oral. I read it out loud, and, if it reads as I’d like
it, I read it into a recorder and play it back. I do this a couple of
times. It’s astounding what I
catch listening to those recordings. And if I’m changing even a single word or
punctuation mark I have to start all over again to assess the whole. And I’d
say that I’m aiming to make the language precise and sonically seamless—or, if
I’m going for crots, let them have their way (as long as their way is my way)—and
that I need to feel a smooth closure that allows me to exit the poem while I
still feel I’m pondering the issue or have what may only be a sense of slipping
out of the poem but only with a resonant egress. Something needs to be hanging
in the air when a poem’s done. No answers nailed down; perhaps a hovering sense
of approaching understanding of one thing or another. Something like that. Of
course, every time you write a poem it’s the first time you’re writing that
particular poem, so you’re a novice every time—who knows what’s going to
happen? All this is my ideal composition, though—and how often do we approach
You don’t always know. Sometimes you are on a deadline and you
have to end it, finished or unfinished.
Sometimes it is too painful to continue and you have to just leave it.
Or you write yourself into a corner and don’t know where to go. If everything is working (and what a
great feeling when it is), you finish the last line or the last edit, and you
say, “Yes, yes, yes ... this is it.
This is what I wanted to say and the way I wanted to say it!”
A big THANK YOU to
all the poets who contributed their thoughts
(and their time) to this post!
I’ve included links
to their websites and/or recently published books.
Please be sure to
visit them online!