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That is a tough one. I don’t believe that a poem is ever “done.” Like any work of art, you could tinker with it forever. But we don’t have forever. We want to get our work into the world within a reasonable length of time. Which returns us to the question. How do we know when to set our poems free?

Poet Larry Colker says, “In the best cases it is when the hair on my neck stands up when I read it. In most cases it is when the poem says what I wanted to say and it is as concise as I can make it. In most cases what I end up saying in a poem has only a thin connection to what I started out to say, to what I thought I wanted to say.”

That last part interests me most. In my classes, I like to start a writing session by asking, “How many people don’t know what they are doing?” After a show of hands, I add, “Good. You are in the perfect position to create something.” It’s a technique that takes the pressure off and gives the poet permission to go anywhere in the writing. In my opinion, that’s how the most gorgeous poems are made. They may not come out whole all at once, but the little gems within give us the inspiration to revise and craft our work.

How do I know when a poem is done? I’ll share some of my personal guidelines with you:

  • When I feel thrilled. I don’t have a lot of hair on my neck but it’s the same kind of thing.
  • When the energy for the poem has dissipated.
  • If, after I have put the poem aside for a time, I return to it and it feels whole.
  • After I have looked sharply at each line and each word, removing what is not needed and adding what was missing. The same goes for the title.
  • When it simply feels done. (This one takes a lot of practice.)

I always remember two things that my former teacher Michael Dennis Browne taught me. Number one: Sometimes you must slay your little darlings. Number two: It was the best I could do at the time.

I’ll end this with more thought from Colker. He says, “I realize that one’s poetry is a reflection of one’s identity, and by identity, I mean our personal mythology about what makes us who we are. And one doesn’t always get at it at the outset. Of course we imitate others at the outset. But one of the greatest pleasures I have as host of a regular reading series is witnessing a poet coming into his or her own unique voice over time.”

We don’t have forever, dear writers, but if we’re very lucky, we do have time.