Poet Behind the Poetry, CKP’s special blog series in honor of National Poetry Month, looks behind the scenes of a writer’s creative life.
The Many Lives of a Poem
I know a poem is finished when . . . well, let me count the ways. When I no longer feel the impulse to tinker with it. When I wake in the middle of the night with the right word or phrase to solve a problem that’s been nagging me. When, after a draft has sat for a long time – years maybe – in its manila envelope in a file cabinet, almost finished, I pull it out, make one small change and suddenly I’m happy with it.
That’s the key for me: to be happy with a poem. What I mean by that is complicated. It could be a satisfying degree of compression or density of internal rhyme. It could mean solving a metrical issue within a phrase or across the poem as a whole. I might need to shift line breaks until the poem reads out loud as I hear it in my head. It often involves experimenting with stanzas and forms until I find or invent the one which best embodies the poem. More broadly it could mean finding the right tone to do justice to a difficult subject. Or it might require writing many versions (and I mean dozens) of the last line or last sentence until it lands with power, hits home, until it surprises me.
For surprise is essential. It isn’t enough for me that the poem ends as I originally intended. When that happens, the poem is claustrophobic. I like poems that are not predictable, that open up at the end, teach me something, that take me to an unexpected place or conclusion, that surprise me, their writer, even as the elements of the poem come together in a way that feels inevitable. For me, a poem is about discovery.
Sometimes I think a poem is finished, only to realize it isn’t. This can happen during a reading. In the middle of a poem, I might stumble over a line and realize it isn’t quite right. Or I might suddenly be bored and understand only then I didn’t push the poem hard enough, that I let it go too early. This might be in a poem that’s already been published. It’s happened occasionally even in poems that others love, or admire. The question then is whether to leave it as is, to respect the writer of that poem, for better and worse.
Fortunately, poems have many lives, so there are opportunities to fix these glitches. During the original drafting, after friends, peers, and teachers have weighed in with feedback about what is and, more often, isn’t working, a poem eventually feels finished enough to send out. With luck, that poem will be published. After it appears in print, it might appear online, or vice versa. It might appear later in an anthology, either as is or slightly revised. When a poem is about to appear in a collection is a wonderful time to revisit it. By then, it’s possible to see any flaws more clearly. Before The Disheveled Bed was published, I decided to revise some of the poems. Most of the changes were small, others less so, but I was grateful for the chance to improve them, even poems that had previously seemed fine. Once those changes were made, I have never had regrets, a sure sign it was the right thing to do. Finally these poems were “finished.”
Most of us would rather move on after a collection is finished, believing that each new body of work provides opportunities for growth. I recently finished a book-length narrative poem written in heroic double sonnet crowns titled September 12. Although I had fallen in love with the sonnet and written many of them for my first book, this extended form was a huge stretch for me. But it seemed so perfect for the subject matter that I couldn’t imagine the collection in any other form. Little did I realize when I started that the discipline of this form together with its capacious nature would allow me to have fun while writing about an extremely difficult subject. I came to enjoy writing, finding, choosing, or varying the repeated lines that would end one sonnet and begin another.
This long poem has taken me almost ten years to write. Many times I thought I would never be done. Many times I thought it was done, only to realize I had missed something essential. For a long time I didn’t know how to end it. Perhaps it was a question of enough time passing, the perspective distance gives. Not until the 10th anniversary of 9/11 did I discover the conclusion that felt right to me – an ending which is satisfying without being simplistic, that brings together the many elements of the poem, some of them at odds with each other, an ending which is inclusive and comprehensive without being conclusive. This ending surprised me. It makes me happy. September 12, the work of a decade, is finished.
Even as I write that, I know that to say a poem is “finished” is provisional. It’s true that “gift” poems occasionally come to us complete; they never ask for revision, and we are grateful for them. Most of the time, though, we work on a poem until we are satisfied we have done our best with the material. When we have, these poems take us back to the place, the feeling that first prompted the poem every time we read then. When a poem does that for me I know it is done. Then, and only then, is the poem truly finished.