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)


			

Poetry Revision: Growing a Seed (featuring Arthur Rimbaud’s “Sensation”)

None of the revisions I’m going to use in this article are necessarily “bad” or by any means “incorrect.” One might argue that each has its merit—even the simplest of them—but I’d like to argue here that simpler poems are sometimes the seeds to still greater poems.

I’ve taken Arthur Rimbaud’s “Sensation” and broken it down into a much simpler rendition of my own. Of course, I’ve done this only in order to mimic one approach to revision that I find useful. These are not a reflection of Rimbaud’s creative process.

Let’s start with my over-simplified rendition of the poem:

I will walk down this road,
Dreaming on a cool day.

Thoughtless, in love,
Nature will make me happy.

This isn’t bad at all. Though it lacks originality, it’s sensible and pleasant. Thought it doesn’t necessarily stand out, it does stand on its own.

However, what I’d like to do is to take what I’ve got and revise it a little. While keeping the original ideas and sensations, I’m going to expand upon them a little:

I will pass along grassy roads,
Dreaming with a cool breeze in my hair.

Thoughtless, overflowing with love,
I will love Nature like a woman.

This is better: an image is starting to take shape with the added sensory details. Moreover, the speaker’s love for Nature is more relatable now that it’s been compared to his love for a woman. But perhaps the ideas/images are still too contained here. Let’s add some more lines:

I will pass along roads in the summer,
Pricked by wheat, trampling short grass:
Dreaming, I will feel the cool breeze
On my bare feet and on my bare head.

Speechless, thoughtless:
Love will flower from my heart,
And I will wander through Nature—
As happily as with a woman.

Now we’re getting somewhere: the image becomes much easier to visualize with the prickly wheat and the short grass added to the road. And the breeze is much more tangible now that we feel it against the bare feet and bare head of the speaker.

The expanded second stanza reads smoother as well. The pause between the first and second line makes the state of the speaker more poignant. And a slightly more visual interaction between the speaker and Nature is introduced with the verb “wander,” as opposed to more abstract verb “love” in the revision prior.

However, I’m going to let Rimbaud finish this one off:

“Sensation” (translation by Wyatt Mason)

Through blue summer nights I will pass along paths,
Pricked by wheat, trampling short grass:
Dreaming, I will feel coolness underfoot,
Will let breezes bathe my bare head.

Not a word, not a thought:
Boundless love will surge through my soul,
And I will wander far away, a vagabond
In Nature—as happily as with a woman.

by Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891)

Afterthoughts:

Rimbaud was very capable of writing much longer poems, so why did he stop after only two quatrains?

At what point do you know when to stop revising?