Deciding When a Poem is “Finished,” or Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?

The notion of a “finished” poem gnaws at me sometimes. How exactly do we know that a poem is finished? When we’ve run out of ideas? When we’ve read it to enough people? When enough people have told us it is “finished”? Sometimes I have waited for months to submit “finished” poems  to literary journals. It wasn’t that I worked on the poems during that time. I just felt like they needed a kind of limbo. Other times, I have literally sent out poems the day after “finishing” them because I knew — I just KNEW — they were ready. Sometimes, but not always, I’ve been right. And when I was wrong, I happily took the rejection as a cue to get back to work and get beyond my ego.

Now I put poems to the Morning After Test. You see, I mull over the ideas for poems and start writing them in my head (and sleep) in the weeks leading up to me actually writing the poem so the time spent at my computer is typically an intense 1-3 hour period. Last night, I had such a session with a new poem and by the end, I felt good. Really good, in fact. Not that I wanted to submit it right away (really — what’s the rush for getting poems published in lit journals anyway?) but I had a feeling it was “finished.” In spite of that feeling, I decided to put the poem to the test. I went to sleep and forgot about it. This morning, I opened another word document and tried writing the poem again to see if it still felt right. For some reason, I kept writing the first couplet over and over again. I couldn’t move on. Something wasn’t working.

I noticed that I had built an unnecessary frame story in the poem to protect myself from what I was really trying to say. This frame was sleek and had some interesting lines that I might use elsewhere, but ultimately, it was just in the way. I discarded the frame and started a new draft that immediately cuts to the meat.

If I wake up tomorrow and the poem survives this test one more time, I think it might be a keeper.

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One response to “Deciding When a Poem is “Finished,” or Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?

  1. I just had a somewhat similar experience myself.
    http://davidglensmith.blogspot.com/2012/02/discovering-epiphany-moment.html

    What frustrates me in a sense of not knowing how others interpret abstractions… a control issue between myself and the minds of readers. Maybe I distrust the interpretations of other minds…

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