As it’s the beginning of the new year and the ending of the old year, I have been prompted to think about the beginnings and endings of poems. I always find beginning and ending a poem the hardest aspect of writing. I very rarely have quick flashes of thought and feeling that lead me into a poem, it’s more a matter of trying various lines and phrases until something starts to sound promising. But even more difficult for me is ending a poem, so I recently purchased Barbara Herrnstein Smith’s highly regarded book Poetic Closure: A Study of How Poems End (The University of Chicago Press, 1968) to see if I might get some help with this problem. I’m about half-way through and enjoying it very much. For those who write free verse it can be much more difficult to find closure in a poem because the closural resources of free verse elements are minimal, or at least the formal resources are. With a metrical or highly structured poem it is easier to indicate closure by changing the formal elements, or making a structural modification. You might ask: why worry about closure, why not leave a poem open-ended? Haven’t so many innovative and significant poets resisted closure, and isn’t it much more appropriate to write in open forms, aren’t they more suited to the times? I certainly don’t want to end a poem by clicking the lid shut, so that no air can escape, but I do want to seek some thematic resolution and often a structural resolution that will make what I am writing linguistically different from every day speech. Perhaps this is just stating the obvious, but it seems to me that when writing a poem there are any number of ways you can make it conclude, but it’s finding the one that has most power that is the challenge. When I have felt that I’ve ended a poem successfully, it’s as though I’ve solved an equation: only one answer is right, or to put it in poetic terms, only one image is right. I was very happy with the ending of my poem “Delancey” in Storm and Honey :
Sometimes I catch myself shaking
my head the way he did – just working
it slowly – like a sieve at the water’s edge.
I felt this worked because it drew in many images and elements that I’d set up in the poem and it brought the poem to a credible emotional conclusion, the change from the softer “s” sounds to the harder “d” sounds giving it some sonic, closural force.
One of the prevailing questions students ask is how does one know when a poem is finished. I don’t entirely agree with Valery’s notion that “poems are never finished only abandoned.” Many poems have successful and satisfying conclusions, but who knows how long it took the poet to find that end. The ending of a poem is often the element that requires most patience, though I have read that Louise Gluck often gets her endings first.
Strong beginnings are obviously important too, but perhaps, because the first line of a poem is most often preceded by a title, and a lot happens in the space between the title and first line, the opening line or lines can be fairly plain, though some of my favourite opening lines are those which hold tension, weirdness, wildness, mystery, such as James Dickey’s, I have just come down from my father. (The Hospital Window); or Eliot’s beginning of The Wasteland, April is the cruelest month. I have always loved the opening of Robert Duncan’s, “My Mother Would be a Falconress”: My mother would be a falconress, and I her gay falcon treading her wrist, would fly to bring back/ from the blue of the sky to her, bleeding, a prize,/ where I dream in my little hood with many bells/ jangling when I turn my head.” Who can beat the opening of Ginsberg’s “Howl”, or forget the apocalyptic strength of Philip Levine’s “They feed They Lion”:
Out of burlap sacks, out of bearing butter,
Out of black bean and wet slate bread,
Out of the acids of rage, the candor of tar,
Out of creosote, gasoline, drive shafts, wooden doilies,
They Lion grow.
One of my most favourite opening stanzas is from Robert Lowell’s “Colloquy in Black Rock”. The forceful syntax and sonic power are mesmerizing:
Here the jack-hammer jabs into the ocean;
My heart, you race and stagger and demand
More blood-gangs for your nigger-bass percussions,
Till I, the stunned machine of your devotion,
Clanging upon this cymbal of a hand,
Am rattled screw and footloose.
Who could go past Yeats’ brilliant beginning of “The Second Coming”: Turning and turning in the widening gyre/ the falcon cannot hear the falconer; things fall apart; the centre cannot hold/ mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
Wallace Stevens and Emily Dickinson are full of enticing opening lines and endings too. Dickinson’s, I heard a fly buzz when I died is such a beguiling opening, and Stevens’, The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream is just as beguiling as an ending. But most of all I love the concluding line of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “Over 2000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance”: – and looked and looked our infant sight away.
Obviously I’ve quoted all these lines out of context and what really gives these poems power is how they operate within the whole poem. If they are just embellishments, or lines that don’t have any thematic or structural integrity to the rest of the poem then they are of little value, simply novelty and verbal bling.
I generally do manage, overall, to end my poems to my satisfaction, but it often takes a lot of work, and there’s usually an element of surprise, something I couldn’t have predicted. I recently had a conversation with Michelle de Kretzer about her novels and she says she can’t write a novel until she knows how it will end, she must have the ending first. My endings come as I wrangle with form and content, and I never know from the outset what that ending will be. They are part of the process of discovery, which is one of the things I love about writing.