March 23, 2022

Am I Done With This Poem?

Sara M. Robinson

When is a poem finished? How do you know when you have reached the end of your poetry piece?

For some of you who have kept up with either my Southern Writers columns or my Suite T blogs, this may sound like I am resurrecting old stuff. But hang in there with me, I have some new things to say about finishing a poem.

When we are writing, and we believe we are coming to the end of the poem, the “finish line,” as it were, are we saying that the poem is good at this time? Is there more to write, or have I written too much? And now when I go back, I realize I finished the poem in several places before I came to my perceived “end.” Was I really done? Is where I am really “good.”?

How many poems have you read, where you asked if the poet really meant to stop there?

I’ve read my share, and that includes my own. Some poets stop intentionally before they finish.

Does that seem odd? Sure, we read a poem, think that the poet stopped too soon. But that is our opinion. We can’t guess intention. Take this ending from Billy Collins’ poem, “Hippos on Holiday”: “Only a mean-spirited reviewer/ would ask on holiday from what?” Of course, this ending is taking out of context, but he does end the poem with a question mark, which is a great way to leave the reader to determine from herself whether the poem is done.

Now you ask, where am I going with this? I want to convey that good poems need to come across as finished. When you say the poem is done, in your view, the poem is good when it is done.

I often choose many endings or closings for one poem. I have to have enough plans for when I decide I am done and what I have written is good. This is when revision becomes important. I know. I know. Many poets hate to revise. But I’ve shared this before: I love revision. Between when I create the first rendering and when I finish the piece, I might go through 5 to 10 or more versions. And when I finally settle on something, this is how the poem tells me it is done. Here is a little trick I use: I reverse the order of the poem to see if the first line is a better ending than the last line. You might find yourself surprised if you try this.

I have finally gotten to the point: The poem will tell you when you are done. When you write, listen and read carefully so you don’t miss hearing, “that’s it, we’re done. And it is good.”

Until next time…

Sara M. Robinson, founder of the Lonesome Mountain Pro(s)e Writers’ Workshop, and former Instructor of a course on Contemporary American Poets at UVA-OLLI, was poetry columnist for Southern Writers Magazine and inagural poetry editor for Virginia Literary Journal. She has served as guest lecturer at UVA’s College at Wise, Wise, VA. Her poetry has appeared in various anthologies, including We Grew Wings and Flew (2014), Scratching Against the Fabric (2015), Virginia Writer’s Club Centennial Anthology (2017), Blue Ridge Anthologies and Mizmor Anthology (2018). Journals include: Loch Raven Review, The Virginia Literary Journal, vox poetica, Jimson Weed, Whisky Advocate, and Poetica. She is poet and author of Love Always, Hobby and Jessie (2009), Two Little Girls in a Wading Pool (2012), A Cruise in Rare Waters (2013 Stones for Words (2014), Sometimes the Little Town (2016), a finalist for the Poetry Society of Virginia’s 2017 Book Award. In 2019, Needville, her poetry about effects of coal mining on SW Virginia was released and in 2020 debuted as play in Charlottesville. Her most recent publication is Simple River (2020, Cyberwit).

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