How do you know when a poem is finished?
When I was starting out as a teenager, I thought that a poem was a vessel I could pour my expressivity into. A message in a bottle. A poem was finished when it said what I wanted it to say. A big problem with this was I didn’t really know what I was trying to say. Not only that, but I believed I was supposed to know what I was trying to say before I started saying it. And, frankly, I wasn’t entirely sure whether the poem was the message or the bottle. If it was simply a message, why put it in a bottle specifically? Would it still be a poem if I put it in a mug, or an envelope, or my pocket, or the fridge, or the glove box, or the chamber of a pistol?
A little later on, I thought maybe the reader might be the vessel, so a poem was like a strange elixir that I would somehow inject into the vessel. The poem was finished when the vessel glowed, or levitated, or vibrated, or shattered, depending on the elixir’s alchemical composition. But I had no idea what the hell I was doing: I couldn’t tell the difference between a reaction and a side-effect; was I out to heal or to harm? And I had just moved the problem around — was the poem the elixir, or the vessel, or the reaction, or the syringe?
And there was a certain hubris underlying these attitudes that I found more and more troubling the older I got: both attitudes implied, whether I realized it or not, that I wanted to remain the most important corner in the triangle of author/poem/reader. More authoritarian than author. This flew in the face of my experiences as a reader, where my own engagement with and interpretation of the poems I read was just as important as the author’s intent. Thanks, Author, I’ll take it from here: you’re not the boss of me.
Once I accepted that the writer is only one part of a vast, ongoing collaboration, and I let go of the idea that poems are necessarily vehicles for (and that readers are passive recipients of) my “self-expression,” I could finally let poems be themselves. As Grace Paley said, “Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.” Poems deserve this, too.
And just because poems are made of language does not mean that they are always trying to communicate. Communication isn’t the only thing we use language for, and language isn’t the only thing we communicate with. So why should art-forms built with language always be about “communication” — much less its solipsistic sidekick, “self-expression”?
Poems are events. It’s not so much what I’m saying or how I’m saying it that makes a successful poem, but how well I laid out a path that the reader finds compelling enough to follow. A poem is finished when I believe I’ve built something worth exploring, an event worth experiencing.