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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

How do you know a poem is ready?

Knowing when you have completed your creative work is a concern encountered not only by poets but by artists, writers, composers, and chefs.

Take, for example, the now seldom fried chicken. Before the general awareness of cholesterol had seeped into our veins, a good cooker looked for a golden-brown hue, yes, and sniffed for that special yummy smell, yes, and felt with the touch of a fork or finger for a particular degree of softness, yes.

So, if you want to fry chicken in your kitchen today, those same traditional characteristics of a beautifully prepared bird will help you to know when the thing has cooked long enough.

But maybe you want more. Maybe you want a prize-winning recipe. Maybe you want deliciously fried chicken that you love and everyone else loves too.

If that’s what you want, you may need more than what you see, smell, touch, feel, or even taste, which often comes later anyway.

The unique identifier of tastefully fried chicken will usually arrive through your poetic ear. Since this may be subtle, listen carefully.

Listen for the sound of sizzle throughout the cooking process.

Get so familiar with that sound that you recognize it anywhere.

Then listen for subtle changes.

As you fry chicken, the sizzle stays about the same until the sound drops a decibel or two, and then you know it’s done.

Listen for that little sizzle of readiness in your poems. What does it sound like? A nicely done poem will sizzle with:

Tasteful subject

Fresh ingredients

Nothing artificial

Crisp detail

Hint of spice

Visually appealing presentation

Feel for reader interest

Tasty side-dishes with a sudden dash of insight

Thought-provoking layers of connotation in your word choices

Ear-pleasing sounds, echoes, and that little sizzle of readiness you will learn to recognize, yes, as you read each poem aloud

(c) 2011, Mary Harwell Sayler, all rights reserved.



  1. It's so funny that you posted this today! It's like you read my mind. There are quite a few of my poems where I get that instinctual feeling that they're complete and ready to market, but then others I don't get that feeling from. That deep, satisfied feeling that you get that you've done a job well done just isn't there, something's missing. It would be interesting to find out what other poet's "systems" are for completing poems.

  2. This is a great article. When you've been writing poetry and getting feedback for it for long enough, you begin to get a feeling for what works for your poetry.
    The feeling you get when you first write a good poem is wonderful, and it's even more wonderful when you read it again later - a week, month or year later and you still get that 'Oh my God' feeling of wonder that you wrote such a fine poem.
    Writing poems like that doesn't happen every time, but it's worth continuing to write to get to that feeling at last. The more you write, the easier it gets, and the more adept you become at tweaking your words to perfection. Having a knowledgeable audience is terribly helpful.

  3. I like your site, and this is a great post. I've been writing prose lately (my blog) but have written poetry and all kinds of stuff. Sometimes it seems like a piece is never done and, in a sense, it never is. But true, elements seem to fall into place as we add and chisel away. Your analogies resonate. I'm writing these days about freedom issues: http://www.Gatewaystoaction.com Would love your comment on any of my posts. Barbara

  4. Thank you all for your feedback. Those poems with something missing may sit in a file for weeks - even years - and then "suddenly" a new thought or word arrives and the long-awaited "something" finally clicks. So don't give up! We never know when that little something will become everything to the poem.