“How do you know when a poem is finished?”
I was asked this question a few months ago and it’s been niggling at the back of my mind ever since. It’s a good question and the short answer is “I don’t know”. A poem is not a mathematical calculation which is either √ or x.
One answer would be Jonathan Swift’s definition of style: “Proper words in proper places”. But how difficult it is to get those words and places in alignment! So many aspects impinge on a poem – and just one word can throw a whole poem out of kilter. T S Eliot complained about “the intolerable wrestle/With words and meanings” (“East Coker”). He was writing part of Four Quartets during the Second World War (he was an air raid warden during the London blitz) and confessed that it was difficult “to feel confident that morning after morning spent fiddling with words and rhythms is a justified activity.”
But this is getting away from that word “finished”. When I was asked the question I used the analogy of cutting a hedge – you think you’ve finished but when you look at your efforts you find you have to tweak that untidy little sprig which sticks out awkwardly. Then you look again and there’s another sprig ... When I go to a poetry workshop it is a rare poem that receives the unanimous comment, “I wouldn’t change a word”. But sometimes I am stubborn and resist suggested changes if I am convinced that the poem would be harmed by them.
Then there’s the poem I think is finished but when I go back to it months later I find obvious infelicities that need altering. There is an analogy with painting. How does an artist know a painting is finished? Lily Briscoe, at the end of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, knew. Her painting had been unfinished for years but at the end of the novel, “She saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre. It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in fatigue, I have had my vision.” Just one brush stroke completed the picture. Such restraint. “You don’t have to include everything” is one of the best pieces of writing advice I have received.
I’ve recently been reading W G Sebald’s The Emigrants. The last section of the book concentrates on an artist, Max Ferber. At night he frequently scraped from his paper or canvas much of the work he had done during the day, so much so that there was a deposit several centimetres thick on his studio floor. He “decided the portrait was done, not so much because he was convinced it was finished as through sheer exhaustion.”
All that scraped off paint is the artistic equivalent of the writer’s overflowing waste paper bin with its crumpled crossed out drafts. I wonder if we should consider unfinished as normal and finished as extraordinary!
I was delighted to discover a poem by the American writer, Naomi Shihab Nye, called “How do I know when a poem is finished?” (You can listen to Naomi reading it on youtube – search for Naomi Shihab Nye: Dear Poet 2015. A quick google will give you the text on poets.org.) You could keep altering a poem for ever but sometimes, like the blue chair and the red pillow, it just looks best that way – “So you might as well/leave it that way.”
In the last section of “Little Gidding” at the end of Four Quartets, T S Eliot describes over several lines a perfect poem. He begins “And every phrase/And sentence that is right (where every word is at home ...)” and ends with “the complete consort dancing together”. What a wonderful definition of a finished poem – words dancing together, but it is a perfection to strive for rather than attain.
He prefaces the passage with the lines:
“What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.”
The end of a poem is a springboard for another, like the end of a movement in a piece of music where the sound hangs in the air waiting to begin again in the next movement.