Guest Post: On Exit Strategies by Jane Craven
Jane Craven, a Redbud Writing Project instructor, is teaching a poetry class at So&So Books starting on October 6.
Poetic endings have been on my mind lately. After all, the ending is the last gift you leave your reader, the poem’s final bit of precious language, and it should be memorable, right? But how do you go about creating lasting, memorable endings that will endure in a reader’s mind long after they finish the poem?
Crafting the last lines of a poem can involve a host of nuanced considerations. Should you use the ending to resolve thematic tensions you’ve created throughout the poem, or should your last lines suggest a quiet continuation of thought with no apparent resolution? In my own writing, I try to avoid concocting too pat an ending, as though I’m tying things up neatly with a bow. Sometimes if I feel too satisfied with my last lines, it may be a sign that I have composed too “neat” an ending, or at least a sign that I should give the ending more thought.
In a reading she gave at NCSU last year, the wholly original Diane Seuss gave this advice: when you think you’ve ended a poem, force yourself to keep writing. In contrast, a common suggestion in workshops is to drop the last lines of the poem, thus ending with an arresting image or thought from an earlier line. I was somewhat surprised when my wonderful teacher, the poet, Dorianne Laux, suggested I drop the whole last stanza of a poem I had just read in workshop. But I was pleased to find that in doing so, the ending was more compassionate. I had perhaps subconsciously subverted this compassion with a perfunctory ending. Diane’s suggestion is harder to implement, but worth it. Often, I’ll return to my notebook after I’ve finished a poem to see if I’ve written down an idea or phrase I can use to extend the ending.
The benefit of both approaches is that they defy preconceived notions about what your ending should look like. Both have the potential to restore a sense of spontaneity and surprise to your work, in line with Ezra Pound’s valuable dictum to “make it new.” Although these suggestions to “drop the last lines” and “keep writing” may seem diametrically opposed, they both encourage experimentation as well as deep consideration on how to craft an effective ending for your poem, and are both sound craft suggestions to keep in mind.
Some endings offer resolution, while others resist finality. Still others exaggerate finality for effect. In the following poem about the controlling nature of death, Jane Hirshfield offers the reader a next to last line with a startling aphorism: “The grip of life is as strong as the grip of death.” She then brings a poignant human element to the final line by posing a question about the role of love in the overwhelming struggle between life and death.
Often our poems develop as deep-inside-the-head affairs, with a laser focus on unfurling metaphor. Nothing wrong with that! But concluding your poem by introducing compassion, or another personal emotion does much to bind the writer’s or persona’s human presence to that of the reader’s. In other words, an ending suffused with surprising emotion works to make the poem relatable.
Poem With Two Endings
Say ‘death’ and the whole room freezes –
even the couches stop moving,
even the lamps.
Like a squirrel suddenly aware it is being looked at.
Say the word continuously,
and things begin to go forward.
Your life takes on
the jerky texture of an old film strip.
Continue saying it,
hold it moment after moment inside the mouth,
it becomes another syllable.
A shopping mall swirls around the corpse of a beetle.
Death is voracious, it swallows all the living.
Life is voracious, it swallows all the dead.
Neither is ever satisfied, neither is ever filled,
each swallows and swallows the world.
The grip of life is as strong as the grip of death.
(but the vanished, the vanished beloved, o where?)
In “Epitaph on a Tyrant,” W. H. Auden leaves us with what I call a “BAM!” ending (apologies to Emeril Lagasse.) After lulling us into a purposefully banal character description replete with pleasingly musical meters and end rhymes, Auden lowers the boom with a heart-breaking image. The tone of the final line departs from the tone of the work as a whole, but we can look back and see how the poet was carefully laying the groundwork for a devastating ending all along:
Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.
Emily Dickinson’s poems often feature “open endings” which forgo obvious finality. Here, she enlists death as a metaphor for mental illness. The finality of death may be hard to dispute, but look at how she ends the poem with a single word suggestion of optimism and continuance:
I felt a Funeral, in my Brain (340)
I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading - treading - till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through -
And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum -
Kept beating - beating - till I thought
My mind was going numb -
And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space - began to toll,
As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race,
Wrecked, solitary, here -
And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down -
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing - then –
In closing this post, I realize that all three poems I chose to illustrate this discussion on endings have death as a central element. This may be because, as Donald Hall points out in an article for The New Yorker, “Poetry begins with elegy.” Whether your works begin with notions of death or of abundant life, as you write and revise your own poems, I want you to ask yourselves: what concluding thought and feeling do you want to leave your reader? And how can your own poems have the most impactful, resonant endings?