Friday, 1 May 2009

When is a poem finished?

Another poet asked me recently, how do I decide when a poem is finished and ready to submit to a magazine? It is a hard question to answer. I’ve been pondering it for a couple of weeks now.

I’ve heard other poets say things like: when it feels finished; when it is published; a poem is never finished.

My answer to the question is complex. I write, not intending to write a poem or a short story or anything of a particular identity, I just write. At some point in the process I think, oh this is becoming a poem, or I don’t know what this is but I like it. I keep writing until I find a natural end, or I get interrupted or fed up. I put it aside (for minutes or hours or months) and then read it again and decide based on a feeling whether it is a poem, whether it is anything, whether there is a germ of an idea, whether I like it.

Very rarely, I write something ‘whole’, i.e. I write a poem or story straight out and barely alter it (the occasional word or phrase, play with the grammar, sort out the punctuation or how it looks on the page. I think wow, I just wrote a whole poem, just like that.

Sometimes, I redraft a poem, put it away again, redraft it, put it away and then one day it clicks into place or I feel happy with it and don’t want to change it anymore. I finish it when it feels right, looks right, but mostly when it sounds right when I read it aloud (and by ‘right’, I mean when it ‘fits’ my voice, sounds natural, sounds like me.)

Most times, I don’t think a poem is finished, or I decide that it isn’t a poem or a story or anything I like. I might abandon it, or totally change it, or leave it for a long, long time until I find an idea or an angle or a new way into the idea, and then I start the process again, perhaps using some of the initial words, but mainly writing it fresh.

There are times I get impatient or in the first flush of excitement about a piece of writing, I decide a poem is wonderful, complete and impossible to improve. I send it away to a magazine, it gets rejected and I read it again with wiser eyes and see where it can be strengthened, what else it might need.

Occasionally, a poem is published and I read it, wishing I’d held on to it a little longer, giving it time to settle before I committed it to print. There have been readings where I alter my printed poems and read a different version, a post-published version that I prefer.

So, I guess my answer is that I’m not always sure when a poem is finished. I use my instinct, decide whether it feels finished and at some point let go.

I'd be interested to know how other writers would answer this question...


Lychee said...

Thanks for this honest and thoughtful response. I like that you admit to the process of sending things out, getting it back and realizing that adjustments are needed and even feeling free to do so after something is published. I guess this is something I wonder about and doubt I will ever read a poem in 5 month or 5 years and feel the same about it at the moment I think "it is done." Very interesting and I, too, hope others share their thoughts and experience on this.

Megan said...

This is very similar to the way in which I attack my fiction, Annie - for me too, there is no single definitive way of ending and I'd agree that reading aloud is essential

SueG said...

I agree that I'm never sure when a poem is "finished." I often wish that I could trust myself to know whether a poem is working or not without having to get the approval of a friend or two who are kind enough to read it. But I suppose I tend to send them out if, after reading it many times over time, I finally stop tinkering with it. If I read it and there's still even 1 more word that I change, then I assume it's not ready. If I read it and I don't touch anything, then although it might not be "ready," still I feel there's nothing else I can do with it but either submit it somewhere or file it away.

Michelle said...

I often find it helps to hold on to a poem before sending it out. My perspective changes after I've moved on from that heady excitement to another poem. It's when I read a poem cold, removed and out of its immediate influence that I find things to improve. The distance allows me to spot things I would never have found straight after writing it despite having read it over fifty times.

Mariacristina said...

Since you write poems and stories you have a different perspective. I like that you don't sit down to write in a specific form. It means you're listening.

Sarah Hymas said...

Paul Valery said, A poem is never finished, only abandoned.

Don Paterson said, The performance of a poem is in its writing.

Sarah H said (in the voice of Karen Carpenter), When a poem has readers it’s only just begun:)

Emerging Writer said...

I used to think a poem was finished when it was published. I've thrown away that idea now.
I have also sent quite a few poems out in the first flush of excitement. Some got published straight away. Most didn't