When Is A Poem Finished?

When I first got hooked on writing, I’d bang out 10 poems a day—no problem. Everything was spontaneous. Whatever came up came out. And I rarely looked back at a single line. I was writing more for the therapeutic value of writing than for the end product. I wrote thousands of poems this way. Thousands of terrible poems.

As I began to take poetry more seriously, I became a more careful craftsman. Revision became a much larger part of my writing process. So much so that now I often spend a week at a time revising a single poem. Word choices are reconsidered, the syntax of each line is adjusted, entire verse paragraphs are removed and rewritten, etc.

But alas, I remain dissatisfied with the final product. It seems that my only criterion for calling a poem “finished” is being frustrated with it and tired of looking at it. Or else I lose confidence in the poem. Worst of all, I get tunnel vision, and I worry that my revisions are taking a turn for the worse rather than improving the poem.

So, I think it’s important to pose some questions about the revision process: At what point does revision go too far (when does it only begin to weaken the poem)? I wouldn’t disagree with the old adage that a work of art is never finished, but when do we know to walk away and move on to the next project? How do we assess the completion of our own work with a clear, objective eye?

I am always reminded of Ezra Pound’s In a Station of the Metro. I’ve heard that this poem was originally over thirty lines long, but Pound, with his Imagist eye for economy, cut it down to two lines and just fourteen words. Talk about revision!

In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

by Ezra Pound (1885-1972)


Afterlife Insurance

Afterlife Insurance

The surgeon jabs me in the gut, twice under the chin.
Gentle boxer, he means to knock me out
with anaesthetic. He means to leave a scar.

I am inhuman to him: a muscular pink cartoon
in the waiting room’s coloring book, cut
on the dotted lines. My body, one whole chicken
in the grocery aisle, pre-marinated in antiseptic.
Down the breastbone slide his forceps and scalpel
like a fork and knife at supper. He sets
the cancerous organs aside like anchovies
in a salad he didn’t order.

When I wake up, he’s scanning my wrinkles
the way one skims the hard-set words
on a stranger’s headstone. He reads them to me,
but the breathing tube down my throat
has eaten my reservations. I swallow hard.
He lifts my hands. Then lays them down
across my ribs like two fish on an oven rack.
By parting the curtains, he parts the veil
between the living and the dead. The curtains

part again; this must be the angel—no,
it’s the insurance agent. Historian of agony,
accountant of Acheron, she wants some identification,
and some answers. Above all, she wants the tokens
I owe the ferryman at the gates of death. When
my relatives place the gold pieces upon my eyes, she
is the one will who cash me out.


by Ryan Dowling

Facing It: Metanoia

Facing It is Yusef Komunyakaa’s most well-known poem. In it, the speaker has a profound emotional experience while reading the names at the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial (Komunyakaa himself is a Vietnam Vet). The names of those lost in the war are engraved on a black granite wall, and the poem relies heavily on the reflections in the granite, allowing for the interplay between the speaker’s intimate experience of the war and the seemingly mundane reality around him. I’m particularly fond of how powerfully this poem ends:

“…In the black mirror
a woman’s trying to erase names:
No, she’s brushing a boy’s hair.”

Part of what makes this ending so powerful is a rhetorical device called metanoia. Metanoia is when a statement is retracted and then requalified. For example, “He was as big as a bear; no, a whale!” Because the device is a self-referential negation, it is common for the speaker to interject with “No,” but not necessary.

In the example of Komunyakaa’s Facing It, its function is to show how deeply the speaker is immersed in war reveries, and how easily he is brought back to reality. It is a mechanism for disillusionment. However, given the heavily-loaded image of the woman brushing the boy’s hair, one might argue that the illusion, in this case, is never actually broken. No, it’s one and the same with reality.

See what I did there?

Here is the full text:

Facing It

My black face fades,
hiding inside the black granite.
I said I wouldn’t
dammit. No tears.
I’m stone. I’m flesh
My clouded reflection eyes me
like a bird of prey, the profile of night
slanted against morning. I turn
this way—the stone lets me go.
I turn that way—I’m inside
the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
again, depending on the light
to make a difference.
I go down the 58,022 names,
half-expecting to find
my own in letters like smoke.
I touch the name Andrew Johnson;
I see the booby trap’s white flash.
Names shimmer on a woman’s blouse
but when she walks away
the names stay on the wall.
Brushstrokes flash, a red bird’s
wings cutting across my stare.
The sky. A plane in the sky.
A white vet’s image floats
closer to me, then his pale eyes
look through mine. I’m a window.
He’s lost his right arm
inside the stone. In the black mirror
a woman’s trying to erase names:
No, she’s brushing a boy’s hair.

by Yusef Komunyakaa (b. 1947)

Astral Redux

Astral Redux

There are spoken infirmities and spilled lips
cloaked in the growl of rusted foliage
and mutiny in the eyes
and in the ears and in the yawns
of faces wrinkled into disrepair and rage
                furious mold glittering on the clown’s tongue
                               under the streetlight a tail without a dog
world offenses
and the disjunction of its judges
cannot undo any of this
yet the boy who painted the evening sky
an orchard eager to implode
dropped the little dipper of his big idea
when he banged his head on the moon
and gravity was tilted back
and conciousness slid off the table
               so that arm in arm we took a wormhole through
                              and beyond the astral plane
                                             at times colorless
                              but peopled by a stampede of puddles
               families of stamps and envelopes
we heard the machines and taught them thoughtlessness
suspicions arose as a sparrow hit the window
the honey stood with the consistency of a clay pillar
the swagger of a lily endured by sages
the monk lighting a cigarette at the memorial
I’m remembering what was left
                of the ribbons in the murder room
                              and of the knife-shaped intruder
                                             that came through the keyhole
now both puppet and ventriloquist
hang by the cat’s cradle of the universal grid
a breeze expired on a blade of grass
to regard you with funereal indifference
as over the coined eyes of an unremembered uncle
who burned out in the exit lane
              I kick the heads off the dandelions saying a prayer
                             to dispel the sound of inner oceans
                                            undictated by this or that
                             indiscretion or assault or melodramatic arrival
I have my duty and know my name among the garden
traveling the beet to its root and back again
arms centrifugal in and out of time
going the course of nature in the wake of the worm
minding my own business hunched over
a scythe left and right at the big man’s knees
splitting the boulder to which I fastened my libido
my back a collapsible antennae my head a radio in the stars
my sleep patterns repeating in the rapids of sleep
               where will you be at midnight among the pranksters
                             conniving under the armored skirts
                                            whistling a tune?

by Ryan Dowling