Posted by: jeannineatkins | May 21, 2010

How Do You Know When a Poem is Done?

Sometimes I wish writing poetry was like baking. You set the timer, though there are always a few adjustments: slipping a knife into the cake to see if it’s still sticky inside, or pressing a fingertip to see if the surface bounces back. At least we know what it’s supposed to look and taste like.

Poetry is trickier. Recently I met someone who sent me a poem for my opinion. I told her I liked it, but mentioned a few words and phrases that felt a bit mushy, to continue with the cake metaphor. The poet agreed, then emailed me back her revisions, to which I gave my blessing. A few hours later, she sent another slightly revised version. Then another, with a few words changed. I’ve been asked to do this sort of instant and ever-changing editing before, and found it impossible to judge at such close range. I had to tell her: the poem is yours now. She didn’t have to, and shouldn’t, stop playing or wrestling with it. But besides the editing difficulty of seeing slight shifts, there’s a time to offer your poem to critique and a time to own it.

So how do you know? Well, you don’t entirely. There’s always some uncertainty, and I admit to some published work that’s gone through quite a number of eyes, withstood a lot of my own contemplation, and still makes me cringe. But not for long. You have to go on, at least when you know yourself as a fairly sharp-eyed critic of your work. Before I begin being that critic, I tolerate a lot of mess and mistakes. Giving myself lots of words and leeway, which I gradually narrow down. I shape poems that seem slightly dull and lumpy, then work line by line, trying to put or find a gift in every one. A word that glimmers, a surprise in the rhythm, the shock of two clashing things now together.

I remember how cake batter looks merely lumpy and wet, but with faith put it in the oven. Sometimes I’ve had to scrape away burnt edges. Sometimes a damp middle must be excavated.

And I’m glad to write poems that are really more close to life than baking. For a long time, they can be changed, and kind intuition lets us know when they’re in just the right place.

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Responses

  1. I love the idea of looking for a gift in each line. I’ve finally gotten a copy of Borrowed Names and begun reading. It’s lovely. I’m enjoying reading it with a little background into your process with it, too. I’m curious as to how long the book was in the writing stages.

  2. Thank you for reading Borrowed Names, and I’m happy you like it! The writing process took several years, though I don’t have an accurate account as I did some other things in between, and the accuracy might be depressing!
    I have a longish article about the writing coming up in Hunger Mountain, an online journal that should “go live,” I think is the phrase, in a week or two. I’ll announce that here, so if you check, it will go more at length in answering your question. Thanks for asking!

  3. Wonderful post
    Jeannine, thank you for this post! It really spoke to me. And here’s what totally resonated with me. It’s what I aim for but have to remind myself of often:
    I shape poems that seem slightly dull and lumpy, then work line by line, trying to put or find a gift in every one. A word that glimmers, a surprise in the rhythm, the shock of two clashing things now together.
    Keep finding that gift!

  4. Great post.

  5. when is a poem done?
    Jeannine, I love this posting! Especially your words, “then work line by line, trying to put or find a gift in every one.” What a wonderful way to express what we try to do. I feel like you’ve given me a gift today!
    –Mary

  6. Hi Jeannine,
    Thank you again for sharing your process. I love these posts!
    Laura Evans
    all things poetry

  7. Re: Wonderful post
    Thank you, Laura. And I hope your weekend holds some glimmer.

  8. Thank you!

  9. Laura, thank you for following along! Have a great weekend.

  10. Thanks for a peek into your process!

  11. Mary Lee, thank you for stopping by! Have a good weekend.

  12. Wonderful post.
    I find the process similar when I’m writing an essay. I’m restless about it during all the writing and tweaking, but there finally comes a point when I can read it through and feel calm. Then I know I’m done.
    Like your other commenters, I love the idea of a gift in every line of poetry.

  13. Karen, thank you so much for coming by and taking the time to comment. I love how you write that you know the piece of writing is done when you feel calm. I might only add that then I know it’s almost done. If I can read it and feel calm a few days later, then it’s surely a keeper! But I think peace is a great gauge.

  14. Oh, yes! Definitely do not hit “send” the moment peace descends. It could be false peace brought on by chocolate and a *desire* to be done. 🙂 The calm I mentioned is the calm that comes after the space, just as you said.
    When I work with my daughters and their friends on their writing, I stress to them that there’s always a time to put the writing aside for a day or two, then read it again. The space is essential.
    I liked what you said here:
    “There’s always some uncertainty, and I admit to some published work that’s gone through quite a number of eyes, withstood a lot of my own contemplation, and still makes me cringe.”
    Yes again. Done, for me, usually means “done for now,” and that it’s time to stop the endless tweaking and, as you said, own it.

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