Saturday, May 11, 2019

When Is a Poem Finished?


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 Valérys 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 corner.

Now it seeps back into itself,
unruffled and proud.
Outlines grow firmer.

When you return,
you might move the stack of books,
freshen the water for the roses.

I think you could keep doing this
forever. But the blue chair looks best
with the red pillow. So you might as well

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.

Poetry Website: 


Joe Weil:

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.

Ed Romond:

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 further work.


Laura Boss:

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.


Bob Rosenbloom:

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?


Tony Gruenewald:

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.


Renée Ashley:

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 our ideal?


Nancy Lubarsky:

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!

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