I really enjoyed last weeks conversations about How Do You Read a Poem? and was interested to learn all the different ways and methods a poem can be read; especially the thoughts around how poems can appear different when they are written to being spoken. The conversation sparked this week’s Thursday Thought and got me thinking, how do you know when a poem is finished? Are the poems we read the finished article? and how do poets know when the end is reached?
Sometimes when I have written a poem on paper and completed a few drafts I let it sit, thinking the work is done. When I come back to it and read it aloud I realise there are things missing and rhythms not flowing in the words. This can happen with poems written many years ago. There always seems to be words or stanzas that don’t fit, and the poem is redrafted to suit the new moment.
The French poet and essayist, Paul Valery, claimed a poem is never finished, only abandoned, and most of the time it does seem he is right. There have been many occasions when I have pondered and drafted a poem to such an extent that it has become a different poem and it has been left, as the excitement of a new idea or poem has taken precedent.
Maybe a poem is complete once it has left your head and hits the paper? Japanese Haiku Master, Basho, alluded to the fact the first thoughts of a poem are the purest and said, “when you are composing a verse, let there not be a hair’s breadth separating your mind from what you write. Quickly say what is in your mind; never hesitate a moment.” Is the drafting and working of a poem something habitual and what we are taught to do to seek perfection that can never be found?
Sir John Betjeman was ruthless in how he ended a poem, writing out the completed draft only five or six times before being contented with it. Once he finished the process he was no longer interested in the verse. Clinical although this may seem, Betjeman’s poetry is testament to the fact applying logic and process may be the only way to get a poem to the finish line.
Preparing today’s Thursday Thoughts has left me more confused than when I started, and I am thinking many of my poems have been finished out of boredom and frustration. With some there is more to write, others – things to be taken away.
I need some help with this. How do you know when your poem is finished?