Are we there yet?

If you’re a parent and a driver, the chances are the title of this post will resonate. Remember those long journeys – and probably not-so-long ones – when the chant from the kids in the back at some stage invariably migrated to “Are we there yet?”…

Journeys of this nature – from A to B, whether by car, train, plane or boat – have the benefit of a defined end-point i.e. there comes a moment when you can honestly say “Yes, we’ve arrived”.

A couple of weeks ago I was working on a poem for one of the writing groups of which I am a member. I had come across it in an old notebook or some such and figured that it just needed a little tweaking before I would be happy to present it. So I tweaked, then presented. It went pretty well. It was only later that I realised – and not without some internal embarrassment – that I had in fact previously published the piece in one of my collections.

This faux pas (if that’s what it was) immediately spawned a couple of immediate questions: why couldn’t I remember that I’d already published it? And what did my willingness to amend it – including the title – say about that original version?

Of these, the second opens out onto a broader conversation; namely, how do we know when something is finished?

Being firmly of the belief that a poem is rarely ‘finished’ and can almost always be improved, my recent experience served – quite innocently – to support my theory. And logically, why should I not return to that same poem in a year’s time and undertake a further review?

Does doing so, however – once, twice or a hundred times – invalidate those earlier versions, reduce their credibility and ‘worth’? And is presentation of the newer version similarly compromised by the fact that it is not ‘virginal’, it has an already public source? “This isn’t this poem’s first rodeo…”

It’s a conundrum, of sorts – especially when thinking about putting together a volume of Collected / Selected works. How far should one go in ‘tweaking’ old work? I am coming round to thinking that only those pieces which are ‘worthy’ or ‘good enough’ should be considered for revision – and hoping that there may yet be some which remain (in my eyes at least) as good as I can make them and therefore untouchable.


See also the downside of looking back too far