When is a poem finished?
This is the question that has been on my mind for a while now, as I struggle to finish a pamphlet-length manuscript of poems. These poems have all been written since I moved to Belgium in the Summer of 2015 and they are also in some way inspired by my new life here in Ghent (after moving from Ostend). But I’ve spent so much time going over these pesky poems that it is not my intention to write about them here, but ponder the question more generally – when are poems ‘finished’?
I am lucky to have a very trusty and supportive critical reader in the form of fellow poet Matthew Stewart. Matthew has been an invaluable help in diagnosing some of the faults in my poems and suggesting ways to put them right. By the time I send this collection to a potential publisher the poems in it will have been through about 5 separate drafting processes. This kills off the romantic illusion I used to have that poetry was a gift that you were given spontaneously and which arrived more or less perfectly formed. So much for that! The word-count of my collection is barely more than 3000 words, yet it represents nearly a year’s worth of creative effort. Can you imagine a short story writer, or novelist, spending that much time on 3000 measly words?
There seem to be two schools that dominate when it comes to how poems get written. First is the (what I call) Norman MacCaig school which says that the urge to write a poem comes like hunger and the poet sits down, writes something and the resultant poem is typed up and published without any major revisions. Just like that. I doubt if many poets, perhaps even MacCaig himself, really work that way.
The other school I’ve decided to call the W.H. Auden school. Someone once described Auden’s endless revisions to his already published (and often anthologised, memorised, studied and discussed) poems as like that of a man with a scab which he cannot resist picking. I think I fall into the Auden camp, but I do not feel compelled to constantly revise my work once it has been published. I like to think I also have elements of the MacCaig school. For example, the narrative or intellectual cores of my poems are never totally altered and the form is often little changed, but I am never happy enough with metaphors that I use.
Above both of these schools hovers the Paul Valery maxim that poems are never finished, only abandoned. It is tempting to think of poems as the struggle to communicate something in an aesthetic way that ultimately, but sometimes beautifully, fails. I was reading the Dutch poet Remco Campert’s poetry in translation last night and came across this brilliant line: ‘the most beautiful poetry / is that which has never been written’ (‘Lack of Proof’).
But how does this relate to proofreading? Well, it does – Matthew Stewart has proofread my work and I have done the same thing for him and will, I hope, do so again. I’ve offered critical feedback and advice on poetry and have proofread numerous poetry collections. Shortly before her death last year, I was honoured to proofread Tessa Ransford’s last collection A Good Cause. I was delighted to find some mistakes in the manuscript that I could put right because it made me feel like I was doing something positive. When the book came to be published, Tessa had added an acknowledgements note where she thanked me for my help. That was better than seeing one of my poems published in a prestigious journal. Poems might never be finished, but there’s always room for improvement.