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Monday, January 14, 2013

Thoughts on Ending Your Poems



Mary Ruefle, in her wonderful book Madness, Rack, and Honey, references Roland Barthes on the subject of endings. Basically, he asserts there are three types:

1. The ending will have the last word;

2. The ending will be silent;

3. The ending will execute an unexpectedly incongruent pirouette.

Have the last word? Be silent? A pirouette? What in blazes is Barthes talking about? Well, here’s my stab at interpretation:

1. The ending will have the last word.
I think what Barthes is saying is that the final lines will resonate—they will “make”  the poem; without them, the poem just wouldn’t have that zing, that deep meaning that makes the reader swoon, emit the tell-tale poetry sigh (“ahhhhh”), leave us with a satisfied feeling that a box has been tightly closed, that a package has been festooned with just the right ribbon.

Example of a poem with ending that has the last word: Sharon Olds’ “I Go Back to 1947." “Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.” What would this poem be without this last line, where we are informed that all the dysfunctional pain the speaker endured will be spun into golden poetry? In a word, nowhere! But Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish” is probably one of the best examples of the last word ending in the English language. What would this famous Bishop poem be worth without the statement “And I let the fish go”?

2. The ending will be silent.
Some endings are barely audible. It’s like the speaker is backing out of a room very slowly, not wanting to wake the infant he or she has just (finally, finally) put to sleep. They are so understated you read them over several times, trying to discern how in the world the poet pulled it off – exited her poem so quietly and tip-toe-ingly you hardly noticed. These poems are the opposite, the very opposite, of poems that end like Olds’ “I Go Back to 1947.” Molly Tenenbaum’s “I Live in a Yellow Ice Cream Truck” wraps up in a quiet way, sort of like the bottom of the poem is a blanket tucked under a mattress.

3. The ending will execute an unexpectedly incongruent pirouette.
Here’s a very short poem by WB Yeats with a somewhat out-of-nowhere flourish:"The Balloon of the Mind."  Who puts a balloon in a shed? There are likely many other examples of these final-line flourishes. Can you name others? I'd love to see examples of your interpretation of an "incongruent pirouette." 

Of course, there are the poems that do all three at once, exemplified in Kathleen Flennekin’s “Let me Sleep 20 more Minuets." This poem ends with an emphatic/essential, pirouette-ing whisper. What a tour de force! 

As you work on how best to end your next poem, think hard about how you want to wrap things up. Read as much contemporary poetry as you can, paying close attention to endings. When it comes to whether to end on an image, an action, a bold/profound/important statement, the best thing to do is try them all, post several different endings, ask your peers which one they like best and why. Keep reading poems and studying how they wrap up. Each poem you write improves your ability to end a poem successfully. Don’t be afraid to take a risk with a seemingly incongruous flourish. Who would have predicted Rohrer’s “Childhood Stories” would end with the purchase of a toy tomahawk, and yet didn’t we see it coming, sort of, once he mentioned pow-wows in line four?

Would love more examples of poems from each of these categories, so do send them along. 

4 comments:

jenniferbullis said...

Congratulations, Martha, on your two new poems in Terrain.org! Both "If You Could Be Anybody, Who Would You Be?" and "God in Utah" have zinger endings--the former a last-word, reach-for-the-top pirouette, and the latter a whispered, fist-pump "YESSS." I enjoy both of these so much!

I'm trying to "follow" by email but having trouble using the widget underneath your blog banner. Any suggestions? Thank you!

Martha Silano said...

Thanks for your kind words about my Terrain.org poems. You are a dear. I am not sure why that widget isn't working for you -- I just added it, so maybe it was not officially up and running when you clicked on it? I just tested it, and it accepted my request. Try again? Thanks again for your enthusiasm about my work, and I hope you enjoy future blog posts -- am doing a bunch about craft right now as I am teaching poetry writing this quarter.

jenniferbullis said...

Thank you, Martha--I'll try again!

I'm learning a lot from your posts about craft. These Barthes categories are especially illuminating--and particularly because of the example poems you apply them you.

Martha Silano said...

I wouldn't know about the Barthes categories except that I devoured MADNESS, RACK, and HONEY by Mary Ruefle over the holiday break. Glad you enjoyed my attempt at elucidating.

These posts evolved from lectures I wrote when I realized there was virtually nothing out there on the web about titles and endings, and yet beginning poetry students very much need this information. Without it, they neglect to title at all (or title blandly), and their endings tend to be "zingers" (and I don't mean that in a good way). It's nice to be able to steer them away from these tendencies, the very same mistakes I made as a beginning writer.