Editing Checklist: When is a poem finished?
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People often ask me about how I look over my work before sharing it with the world—in other words “How do you know when a poem’s done?” There is, of course, no definitive answer, but here are some questions I ask myself—and the poem!!
What to check for when editing one’s own poems---or someone else’s! This is a good topic, and one that keeps evolving. What matters, is that every poet have their own parameters that they develop over time. Part of what helps about having guidelines to review our work is that the mind––or ego?––becomes very attached to what we have on the page and it’s important to find ways to uproot it.
Some questions we might ask ourselves:
Is the opening compelling enough to engage the reader’s interest? Is it clear enough, especially at the beginning? Does it begin in the best place?
Is the title helping, or hurting?
Do the line lengths suit the subject matter? Do I like how the lines end? How are the line breaks?
Are there any more words/phrases that can go?
Is it too pretty? How is the blend of dark and light? How strongly developed are the contraries in the poem? (strict freedom, spacious confines, elaborate simplicity, etc)
Is the arrow sharp enough? (In other words, can I up the stakes or the intensity? Can it go deeper? Are the stakes high enough?) What is the poem marinating in (what is happening in the background)? Is there more I need to include?
Are there too many repeat words?
Does it live up to the expectations it creates in the beginning?
Have I let it run a little wild, or is it too tightly controlled? ie predictable (balance of Appolonian and Dionysion)
Is there a balance between the physical emotional and mental aspects?
Is there a central spinal column—a thread it follows? Does everything in the poem serve this center?
Does the tone match the content? (ecstatic subject matter, ecstatic tone, etc.)
What about rhythm and music? Am I staying in the music, or is it becoming more prosaic?
Have I changed my perspective, even a little, from writing this poem? Have I offered the reader a new perspective by the end? Is the ending surprising, yet inevitable?
That’s a Lot!
I know. It can feel like a barrage, at first. You don’t have to ask yourself all of these at once. And I don’t pull out this list for reference. I’ve internalized it, over the years. There is so much mystery to the writing process, but there is also the comfort tat comes with structure—-with having a way to assess our drafts, and to expand them to the height of their potential. I hope this was helpful! You might want to use this to make your own!
Danusha, this is so helpful! I have been writing poetry every day for just a couple of months shy of a year (after a 54 year gap). So I now have a body of work that calls for revision, and I am learning, absorbing, getting better as I go. I have also been journaling a poem a day since Jan 2022, using a collection of poems by a particular poet. I start with the first poem, then keep going, no skipping, and have done two collections per poet. I am looking out for alliteration, assonance, repetition, use of spacing, etc. and it has really added to my skill (and pleasure!) So far, I have worked through two collections each of Maggie Smith, Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer, James Crews, and now about to finish my second Danusha Lameris! I am a member of the Hearthside Community, and I am currently in the Wisdom of the Body series. I am so grateful for your example, and your teaching. I am really looking forward to your posts on this substack!