'Un poème n'est jamais fini, seulement abandonné. A poem is never finished, only abandoned.' Paul Valéry
I’ve abandoned a good few poems in my time. It’s hard to know when, or if, they are ever ‘finished’.
Gerry Cambridge, poet and editor of The Dark Horse, once told me, ‘Do not send out fresh poems.’ And he was right. It was a long time ago, and I’d had a surge of inspiration. I had ‘finished’ three or four new poems and promptly sent them to him.
Even now, time and again, I find a poem is not as finished as I thought it was. I tinker about for a week or do, think the thing is ‘done’, file it, and – lo and behold, I pick it up six weeks later and see immediately something must change, or the first stanza must go, or that it mustn’t have stanzas, or that I’ve repeated a key word twice and didn’t even notice.
On the other hand, I’ve abandoned poems sometimes because I couldn’t get them right. Then I’ve gone back into them to finish them, and I’ve wrecked them. Sometimes they’re worth keeping, flawed or not. A fragment might be salvaged and re-used. Sometimes, they need to be abandoned without trace.
When people send me poems during submission windows, I quite often (and this comment is terribly annoying) tell them I don’t think a particular poem’s quite ‘cooked’. Or I say, ‘I think there’s a poem in this poem but it hasn’t quite arrived.’
I'm a great fixer. I worry about this too. I often think of Robert Browning's poem Andrea del Sarto. I may be employing my "low-pulsed forthright craftsman’s hand". Who wants to be low-pulsed?
I, painting from myself and to myself,
Know what I do, am unmoved by men's blame
Or their praise either. Somebody remarks
Morello's outline there is wrongly traced,
His hue mistaken; what of that? or else,
Rightly traced and well ordered; what of that?
Speak as they please, what does the mountain care?
Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what's a heaven for? All is silver-grey,
Placid and perfect with my art . . .
The aim is not to be placid and perfect. The aim is to let the poem do its thing, whatever that may be. It's a strange process, working with words and lines, working with one's art, such as it is, and hoping the poem will do what it seems to want to do, that some subconscious process will allow the lyric to achieve itself. Almost impossible to describe.
But redrafting is not necessarily about making perfect. Browning might have talked about the soul of the poem and setting it free. Andrea del Sarto, 'the faultless painter', longs to fix a painting, but there's a cost:
That arm is wrongly put, and there again –
A fault to pardon in the drawing's lines,
Its body, so to speak: its soul is right,
He means right – that, a child may understand
Still, what an arm! and I could alter it:
But all the play, the insight and the stretch –
Out of me, out of me!
Many people get a poem to a certain stage and then take it to a workshop or even a masterclass. This can be helpful. It can also wreck the poem.
I once sent a poem to a good poet I know for advice. Her advice led me to change the poem substantially, and I was rather smug about the pleasing result. Then I put the poem away. I came back to it six months later. I had killed the poem stone-dead. I went back to the original version. That wasn’t right either. So I abandoned it forever
I’ve returned to ancient poems too – poems I wrote decades ago, which I think I can now ‘fix’. But it’s hard to work on poems after they’ve aged beyond a certain amount. You’re not the same person. Your voice is different. They can end up more ‘finished’ but less authentic. There is a point at which abandoning the poem is the right thing to do.
How do you know when you’ve reached that point? I’ve no idea.