How do you know when a poem is finished?
Mercenary as it may sound, I think of what Macbeth told his hired assassins on the eve of Banquo’s murder, “always thought that I require a cleanness…to leave no rubs or botches in the work.” When I’ve moved past cleverness and fancy and ego to arrive finally (or sometimes, if I’m very lucky, immediately) at the unvarnished imagination the poem demands, then I feel that I’m done. The work to finish a poem demands a kind of winnowing, exhausting all options until only one—the poem’s—remains and it stands firmly in its own intelligence rather than mine. The best way to test this? First, if what I’ve written surprises me, then I know the poem is working beyond me. Second, if I can read the poem in front of a crowd of strangers without feeling embarrassed then I know I’m on to something.