Gustave Flaubert, nearly done
“A poem is never finished; it is only abandoned.” Poet and essayist Paul Valéry wrote this, and it’s often quoted—but I don’t buy it.
I’ve finished hundreds of poems. A whole bunch of them, maybe most of them, stink up the joint and aren’t worth reading, but they’re done, and I’m fine with that. They’ve been fully worked over to the best of my ability.
I have some good poems, too, and I’m pretty sure my poetic failures were part of the cost of those. A lot of being a poet is just showing up at the desk—working the seemingly malfunctioning pen until the ink starts to flow.
There are days the idea never gels and the inspiration never strikes. Poetry is made of both of these—an intellect that puzzles and proposes, and a genial spirit that visits with gifts. I’m of the opinion that fascinating poems can come from either source—the thoughtful mind or the flash of inspiration. But my favorite poems are a true mix. There are long stretches of days where I labor over my writing and try to get the ideas down just right, and then, finally, I take a look back and see … something other, something I didn’t put there.
I don’t think it’s magic. It’s not the automatic writing or psychography of nineteenth century spiritualists. I’m not channeling spirits; my page has not turned Ouija. What I think might happen is that total concentration on my rhetoric distracted me from something fascinating that happened with the much more basic interplay of words. The brain is wired to make connections, and while I’m shoring up a irrefutable rebuttal with my conscious mind, another part of me is building something beautiful.
Nevertheless, on the page, it looks a lot like grace.
I’m having a hard time tracking down the definitive word on this—I don’t think it exists—but I’ve read that something like 70 percent of pregnancies end in miscarriages, most before the pregnancy is even detected. That’s a wiggly statistic, but a good comparison to what happens in poetry. A zygote could divide and grow and manifest and save us all, or we could flush it down the drain, never knowing it was there. All the potential in the world may go unrealized.
In that same way, I’ve had some really wonderful ideas for poems while buying apples, or in a student conference, or while stuck in the car line at school. Sometimes there’s a scrap of paper to save it on, but so often we return to our desks and don’t even remember we have a purse full of scraps. Should we pull one out, it probably wouldn’t make sense to us anyway. That handful of quick words wasn’t the idea—that wasn’t the gift. When ideas come to us and we’re not in the receiving position, often, they fly onward. They tend not to revisit us after they found us unready.
A friend asked me how to tell when a piece has been over-revised. I think we have to gauge its energy. Have we sanded every corner of it? I hope not, because a poem or essay or story needs some splinters, doesn’t it? We even talk about how a particular writer might get under our skin—how her words might needle us.
A piece is overworked when it lacks danger. There is a difference between offering all the information a piece needs and in shutting down every potential question. I find it useful to remember that a poem is only partly mine. It belongs, too, to the reader, who can’t half-create a fully finished piece.
Work is over-revised when it lacks an edge. There really does come a time when a poem (or any other literary work) is finished. Ideally, this time is just before the time when the next one is to begin.