As a poet who also runs writing workshops one of the most frequent debates I come across is about when or whether a poem is finished.
On the face of it it might seem a fairly straight forward issue, especially to anyone who isn’t a writer and more specifically a poet. Say I’ve written a poem, I’ve read it through a number of times, made some changes, taken it out to live events and considered the audience reaction and the way the words flowed (or didn’t) and maybe made some more changes. Eventually I might well have submitted that poem for publication or included it in a book. Is that poem now finished?
In the past I might well have thought so but recently I’ve realised that such a view might have been a little short-sighted.
Take a band who become famous and tour around the world for 20 years. Everywhere they go their audience expect to hear that old favourite song, the one that everyone knows. But the band have played it so many times that they’ve started to make little tweaks, the odd word here or there or maybe a change in the instrumentation. They still perform the same song but not exactly as it was 20 years ago. They’ve become more accomplished as singers, songwriters and musicians and it is really no surprise that they now see better ways with that old song.
What about Bob Dylan’s “Knocking’ on Heaven’s Door” which Dylan himself has recorded in various versions, mostly longer that the original and which has been covered and changed by many others including some cases where whole new verses have been added and some cases where a band has recorded more than on different version of Dylan’s song. Will “Knocking’ on Heaven’s Door” ever really be finished?
Poems are a bit like that, they can evolve.
If they were a B-side that never got played or did little more than balance out the numbers on an album, the track everyone skipped over, then maybe they are finished. They’ll lie there unlisted, unread and certainly no longer performed. Those poems and those songs might well be finished; maybe.
But the rest?
I doubt that I could ever say definitively that any of my poems are finished.
And what if someone changes it after I’m gone?
A whole new world of finished/unfinished would open up. Maybe all of Beethoven’s Symphonies were unfinished and all of them change each time a new conductor and a new orchestra, or even just a new audience, get their hands and ears around them.