A-Listers and B-Sides: When to Abandon Your Poems

by Ron Hayes

The late French poet Paul Valery (1871-1945) is credited with having said, “A poem is never finished, only abandoned,” which, in my experience, is about as profound a concept as I can find. I think it’s true, art—and writing in particular—is often abandoned rather than completed, and regardless of whether it was Valery who said it first, or daVinci, or your hairstylist’s Aunt Betty, the aphorism serves as a terrific catalyst for this month’s post. If you’re one of those writers who’s constantly tinkering with your old stuff or if you can never seem to bull your way through revision mode, perhaps what we have for you this month will help.

So how does a poet decide when a poem is a poem? Well, there are two ways of looking at it I think. First, I’ll defer to Valery’s wisdom: poems ARE more frequently left behind than finished. To wit: I’m currently revising two manuscripts of mine before I send them off for publication consideration. One of the issues I’m struggling with most is the time I spend off track, revising individual lines and word choices in one poem after another. I find myself spending large chunks of precious time fiddling with line breaks, changing and unchanging word choices, and rearranging stanzas. It’s not unlike why I hate shopping with my wife—the tedium of trying this with that and remembering where we saw the perfect shoes to match… it’s maddening!! Just as I grow weary of shopping options and indecisions, I find myself driving myself crazy with editing options for my poems. The obvious remedy for such an insidious malady? Abandonment. Plain and simple. I just have to leave them alone and let them be—especially the ones that have been published! I don’t know if this is exactly what Valery meant when he used the word “abandoned,” but I do know that I find it quite apt for what I force myself to do lest I fall into the seemingly interminable loop of editing and revising.

Now, this is not to say I’m against editing and revising. That would be silly, foolish, ridiculous. No, there most definitely is an important purpose for revising one’s work and perhaps the most important leads us to the second way of finishing a poem.

In my poetry youth I operated under the absurdly immature notion that every single poem I could and would eventually write should and must be equally good, that every line of every poem would contribute equally to a magical and delightful whole that would enrapture the world and seize the canon by the throat. Once I grew up enough (or perhaps simply after I had written enough bad poems), I came to realize that not every poem is an A-List star just like not every Zeppelin song is “Stairway to Heaven.” It was a huge relief for me when I was able to embrace the concept of what I now call “filler” poems, poems that help you fill out your (chap)book but won’t necessarily go off to become published stars on their own. “B-sides,” to borrow a music industry term.

For my money, “B-sides” are usually the poems that are simply “abandoned.” The rest, however, have a more definitive end. These are the poems that seem to strike a chord within your soul or are the ones that you hear others describe as having just “fallen out of my head onto the page.” They’re the easier ones to write because they just come out right somehow and only the merest swipes of revision hone their edges to razor sharp precision. How do we know these “A-listers” are the poems that are finished? One word, I think: Resonance.

Like the enduring finish of a beautiful Merlot, a perfectly executed floor routine at the height of the Olympics, or the cymbal crash that ends your favorite sappy 80s metal ballad, resonance is that quality of a work that allows the feeling of the work to last far longer than the actual experience of the work. Often, the poems that just fall out of my head and onto the page are the ones that come across as the most resonant and these poems are the ones I find myself tinkering with the least.  They’re the ones I don’t mind leaving alone, the ones that I, yes, abandon first.

In closing, an anecdote for practical use: We all have little signposts along the way in our lives that tell us we’re on the right track (or that maybe it’s time to switch tracks). One of the signposts that told me I was a poet is one I recognize in retrospect. A long time ago I was setting up the filing system in my new computer when I realized I couldn’t use “Finished Poems” or “Unfinished Poems” as folder names. It didn’t seem right. I ended up going with “Contented Poems” in place of “Finished Poems” and “Unresolved Poems” for “Unfinished” and a third category, “Poems on Hiatus.” At the time I thought I was just as clever as all get out, but now, after a brief period of self-loathing, I realize that these are probably the most apt ways of looking at my work. I know my poems will never truly be finished, but if I can classify the ones I’m happy with as “Contented” while shuffling hopeless cases to the “Hiatus Folder,” I can’t help but think it’ll make navigating my way through the “Unresolved” folder just that much more productive.

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