How Do You Know When A Poem Is Finished?

Is a poem ever finished blog

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?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

53 Comments

Personally I feel when I have written my poem, read it through, and felt satisfied that it flows/makes sense/has come to a natural conclusion, it is finished… for now. AS you said there are times I have gone back to a poem and found that there are nuances I want to change, be it a word I feel I should substitute, or a rhythm that is not quite there…
So I guess it is as finished as you want to feel it is! Like anything there is always room for improvement! And equally, how you feel at the time of writing compared to how you feel when reading back can influence whether you feel it is an accurate piece of poetry for your state of mind… I read some pieces that I have written when down, when I am in a happier place, and think “OMG! I need to change that! It’s so depressing!” But then, it is a pieced that reflects my feelings at a particular time. Wow, I do waffle!

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    Thank you Ritu and I appreciate your thoughts. Your response picks up the thread I was following in the post around how sometimes a poem feels finished and sometimes it doesn’t. I think Valery is right when he says that poems are abandoned rather than finished. You read of poets and poems like C.K Williams’, The Hearth (in the Singing), which took 25 years to write. Which throws up another question, how long does it take to write a poem? Thank you for this Ritu and for raising even more questions.

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Hi! There are times, it just flows all in one go, there are others when I begin with a word or phrase or image which has inspired me and then keep adding layers to it. But as a habit, I tend to sleep over my composition and come back to it after a couple of days (or in a different frame of mind, or mood) and revisit it to see if I want to make changes. And then, finally post it.
This promises to be an interesting conversation…
Take care & God bless!

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    Thank you Kunal for your valued thoughts and adding to the conversation. It is interesting to read and learn about the processes and habits of different poets. Do you ever feel after those few days and posting there is more of the poem to come? I know I do. I remember reading on a post somewhere (I have forgotten where) a poet saying their poetry came to them and they spent only 10 minutes working it, then it was finished, which illustrates Basho’s thoughts I mentioned in the post. I wonder if the point where we consider our poem to be finished is linked to our personality?

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I do very often find that, once I start tinkering with a poem, it turns into a different creature. At this stage I often place my first efforts, which, when returned to later, often turn out to be the best, on one side and start again with the the follow up version. Brevity being the soul of most good poems, a certain ruthlessness is required to stop short of over-elaboration. Knowing when that point has been reached is the key which is so often missed. Poetry’s terseness is often best served by allowing an ending to be suggested rather than overt. Food in your words for so much more thought, Davy. Thanks for posting.

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    Some good points here Roland and thank you for sharing them. I like your thought about an ending being suggested rather than overt. Sometimes I read and poem and feel there is more to come but that takes you back into the poem to try and establish more meaning. There are some when you feel verses or lines are added, as the poet was writing more to the form of the poem and it could have ended earlier. Many of my haiku style poems begin in 500 or more words and I try to take them down to their simplest form. They are seeds for other longer poems which illustrates the point you make about over-elaboration. Thank you again for sharing these excellent thoughts Roland.

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I personally prefer writing it in a go, read and re-read few times to make sure it reflects what I wanted to write and then hit publish!
If I keep it in waiting, then I end up not justifying the feeling or thought which made me write it.
And I am glad you posted this. I am already getting an insight on making what I write, better!
Thank You!! 🙂 🙂

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    Thank you for your thoughts Tanya and for giving up time to share them. What you describe is along the lines of what the poet Basho alludes to of the first thoughts being the purest. Maybe the first thoughts are the intended poem and the drafting and alterations are creating further poetry. You make a good point here Tanya which has me thinking is one thought the seed for many poems?

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      I would say may be and may be not..
      May be when you look at a thought or idea from different perspectives at a point of time. Or when you read your published poem in future, you may find a change in your perspective and then jot down another piece..something which happens with me at times..
      And may be not when you just write a poem and know that you have covered every feeling you wanted to write and there is no need to write another or probably no point writing another as it would be repetitive!
      🙂 🙂

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      Good points Tanya. I just wonder when we write a poem whether it takes us to another level in our subconscious allowing us to access more thoughts and memories, and the emotions associated with those? As poets, is all we are doing is writing one poem and it appears as different forms and reflections of our life’s journey? Thank you for your response Tanya and taking me deeper into the essence of this question.

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      All my pleasure, Davy..! 🙂 🙂

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For me it has to do with how the poem was born. Some of you will have heard me use the phrase ‘Tumblers & Teasers’. Tumblers are all ready formed/written in the subconscious, and as such, bar a bit of trimming are generally complete, and therefore already have an end set.
Teasers are the opposite, the components are scattered in the subconscious and therefore need to be formed still, and therefore it’s end has yet to be determined. As we have infinite supply of imagination, in theory it could never end.
I think we are all to some degree perfectionists, but this needs to be tempered by confidence. I am as likely to crop mine as add to it. For me less is often more, and I often find when an effective denouement lights up my mind so ends the poem.

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    A great point Nigel and it brings to mind some of the conversations we have had about personality and I would add to that experience as writers. Does our experience of writing and reading poetry allow our subconscious to do a lot of the work for us. On another post Carolyn mentioned about waking up with a poem already formed in our heads and that supports what you say about tumblers. Are the teasers linked to personality? and as you say confidence, and having the experience of knowing when to end the poetry. Great points Nigel, taking us further into the conversation.

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      Waking up with fully formed poems is how I started. It coincided with a major psychoactive drug increase, prescribed of course, which I believed was the trigger. Retrospectively I think that’s incorrect. I think I’ve always been a poet in outlook, the drugs just gave me enough respite to find my hidden self.

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      That is so interesting Nigel. When reading about the backgrounds of poets there were many who wrote whilst under dependency for drugs and alcohol and others who were suffering from varying conditions where the mind was affected. I wonder if it is this level of subconsciousness where the real poetry is found. Another Thursday Thought maybe?

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      Absolutely Davy. When I talk about ‘opening doors’ it is to the subconscious that lies behind that I am talking about. I believe poets/artists have access to doors others have not, it’s a question of what we, as poets, find beyond the threshold that others can’t

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      On the subject of drugs Davy, it is worth noting that since that moment I first woke up with a tumbler I’ve had the drugs ramped up to the point where I had a drug induced crisis, breakdown. Then through the hell of reduction/withdrawals, which rendered me bed-ridden. In that time the only thing stopping me writing was my physical ability. It did not alter in any way the creative process, which seems locked in ‘Open’.

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      Taking in this and your previous comment Nigel about the subconscious it is a fascinating subject. I often wonder as poets / artists how far we allow ourselves to drop into this. Is there a part that without drugs etc we would not venture, either through fear or ability. I know there are some things I want to write about re my experiences in the police but the pen is reluctant to go there at the moment. I wonder if Dylan Thomas would have written some the poetry he did without the aid of alcohol?

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      This is an important point Davy, I struggle as I’m sure you’ve gathered at times with my situation, but it is at these times I’m 100% most creative, it’s as if the demons that break free leave the doors open for me to dive in. And it’s very dark sure, but not always, some of my best works were born this way. I will say Davy, for me, diving in amongst the demons was an exorcism par excellence . I’m a grasp the nettle type anyway but it is still daunting to go to those places yet I’m drawn because of the creative buzz it gives me, maybe that’s the answer to the ‘doomed poets’ . The reward is deemed greater than the risk or consequences .

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      I am sure there is a book in here somewhere Nigel. I read lots about various angles on poetry but very little on the psychology of both the poem and poet. Maybe it is the complexity of the poets that makes this an area few want to venture into.

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I have to be happy when I read it. I write , then leave it , come Bach , read it again , if I am not happy then I rewrite it.

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I consider a poem finished just before the first person reads it…

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Very interesting points you make Davy and I will ponder them more. I do like this and quote: ” 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.”

In the early days I can have honestly say that all I wrote were what Nigel so aptly calls ‘Tumblers’. You just write as fast as you can and after a rest, read and see. Can be quite a surprise.
I am still writing only when a thought or a whole poem appears. So far I have never sat down and tried to write something just because. One of my posted one was on a prompt but I had the choice of object. That was interesting.
I have today started editing some of my earlier poems and find it very interesting. To change many things and yet hang on to what had tumbled out. Will see what comes out of this.
There is more t say but you u were not asking for an essay.:)
Miriam

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    Thank you for taking time to offer these valued thoughts Miriam. Sometimes I have had a tumbler and worked it so much it was a completely different poem. I went back to the original thought as it was there where the emotion was most felt. When you read Basho’s haikus and essays you get a great sense of what he was alluding to. As I said in a previous comment on this, I sometimes wonder if all we write is one continuous poem and they are just different reflections of our journey through life. The only separation being the gap in time between writing down the thoughts. I would be interested in reading your edited poems and seeing the contrasts to the originals.

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      Seeing as life is one continuous journey It makes sense about one continuous story, I feel though that poems high lights events – strong snap shots from our lives. Be it long ago or yesterday.

      I will see how the last edited comes out and if I have courage show you the original.:) thanks for your interest.
      Miriam

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      A good point Miriam and all these different thoughts and opinions are what makes this community so inspirational. There is always something in the poems and comments taking us deeper into poetry.

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I agree with Valery. A poem is never really finished. I edit things to death and then have 20 different versions of whatever I’m working on. Usually, I go back and like my initial piece the best. So, for a while now that I no longer write by hand and use technology, I stopped editing . I hit send or post and even with errors I let my creation just be. Otherwise I’d never finish it. Sometimes I go back and cringe as I then find a million mistakes and the teacher in me is appalled and embarrassed. But, I have found that I’d never finish anything if I didn’t let it go. Perhaps I never think it’s quite good enough.

And I don’t have the patience to walk away and then come back to my writing. I’d just edit it to death and lose interest.
When I taught writing for the school system, I told my students not to worry about grammar or spelling in their first draft. To Just go with their imagination. And I’d time them because state writing tests are timed. Afterwards, I’d let them read their essay or poem aloud. Reading out loud often gave them a whole other perspective. THEN, I’d give them some time to edit. Maybe 20 min.
If we spend too much time pondering our thoughts, we lose sight of our original inspiration. So yes, every poem could be added to or delete some lines.
To bring in my hero, The Bard, his plays took all afternoon to watch. They were about 4 or 5 hours long. Today, they are never performed in their entirety. So if even the best writers in the world are edited, then certainly, we mere mortals can’t expect our poems to stand the test of time and be complete. I’m sure all writers and poets feel like something can always be changed for the better.

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    Thank you for these thoughts Lesley and some excellent points you have raised. In the past year I have been visiting a number of universities and art colleges with my daughter. In their interview processes they ask for portfolios of work and the interest is mainly in the sketches and thoughts leading to the finished piece of work. They say this reveals more about the artist than the final piece. I think this is the same with writers. The end piece is just the final point of many hours of hard work. Like you I am interested in the bits behind the final piece and love looking at the scribbles and jot notes of writers. The unedited scribbles reveal a lot more.

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I think some poems ARE finished and others NEVER ARE! 🙂 HA!
Love this post, Davy, and everything you shared…what you’ve learned and how you feel about poetry writing!

Most of (what I consider) my best poems were birth-ed hard and fast like a baby ready to hit the world running! 😀 So I write them down and I don’t make any changes.

Other poems I have to labor over like a baby who wants to stay in the womb longer! 🙂 so I write them down, read, reread, make changes.

Either way, I am not sure I am ever happy with any of them. I am too critical of my own writing.

Some of my best poems were written when I was very sad. And I am not sad very often, so I don’t write many poems. I finally learned how to write whilst happy and even write some silly goofy poems. Ha. 😀

HUGS no bugs in rugs. Just hugs!!! 🙂

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    LOL Carolyn, your responses always manage to bring a smile and warmth to my heart 🙂 I love the analogy of writing poetry to that of giving birth. Although, for biological reasons, I can’t comment on the birthing experience the process of pain, blood sweat and tears seems similar to writing some poetry. The joy when the poem comes out into the world to be seen for the first time. I also agree with your comments about Poetry being fun. Poetry is about life and there are smiles as well as tears, so why shouldn’t we celebrate that with words. Keep writing the fun poems 🙂 And I will be checking for bugs in the rugs.

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Sometimes, I write a poem and voila! Other times, I go over it, again and again, to be sure my intent is clear, the rhythm is the way I want it, and it has a conclusion. I like my poems to have a noticeable beginning and ending. Also, I have gone back to some of my poems from the past and rewritten them. With that said, have you ever reread one or some of your poems and ask yourself “did I write that?”

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    All the time Eugenia. It is a bit like looking at an old photo and saying, “did I look like that?” Maybe our poems are like photos and represent where we are in that moment in time. I think reading our old work can also prompt new poetry, even if we are not satisfied with the old pieces. Interesting thoughts Eugenia and thank you for sharing them.

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Really well written.. The featured image is great..

Regards
Ami

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This is a good question…I’ve never thought about how to tell. Sometimes I start and just keep writing until it sounds complete in my head. other times I will edit it to death. And sometimes I will write until I think i’m done, walk away, then come back a few days later and think of something else I want to add.

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    Thank you for offering your thoughts mikimaree and I see where you are coming from. There are many varying thoughts on how long a poem should be left before trying to finish it. I have come back to some poems years later and thought they were no where near finished.

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