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)


4 thoughts on “When Is A Poem Finished?

  1. I wish I knew the answer to this. For years I would write poems and not give them a second look, my heart told me they were finished. Now I’m editing them to death. I’m supposed to read a new poem tonight at a town hall meeting, about 6 hours from now, and I’m still unsatisfied with it. I have a feeling it will be one of those, ‘fuck it’ moments and I’ll read it as it is. Not happy with the uncertainty.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. 2 thoughts: First, it’s important to keep the first draft. Some poets I know keep every draft. That way I can go back to see if I lost something in revision. Second, I love having a writing buddy and/or workshop group. I’m blessed with both. When I’ve gone as far as I can with a poem, I send it to my writing buddy, and he always makes it better with a word choice here, or a line break there, or by killing that darling I didn’t have the heart to murder. Same goes for a workshop group. I’ve never taken a poem to workshop when I didn’t get an aha that made it better. Of course in both instances, I can take or leave the advice. But I know they’re acting for the good of the poem, so I consider everything they offer.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I agree with all of this. Unfortunately, I do not have any reliable sources for peer review, so I’m always playing my own worst critic. Thanks for sharing your insight.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s