As a poet, I am endlessly fascinated by questions of how to create poetry that has mystery without obscurity, how to be plainspoken without being prosaic. How do we give the reader room for thought but not leave them lost in confusion? This will be the focus of my craft talk later this month.
In this blogpost, I’m going to explore one aspect of this topic: endings. As we know, while a great ending might not save a mediocre poem (your reader probably won’t even make it to that last line!) a weak ending can definitely ruin a good poem.
Linda Gregg’s “Trying to Ripen” ends with a snake “and a covey of quail / strong enough now to fly over / the fence. I saw distance.” She leaves the reader literally looking off into the sky and reflecting. Ending with an image like this is a good way to add mystery to a poem.
Give Eavan Boland’s powerful poem, “Quarantine”, a read. It has a firmer ending but she also manages to leave room for the reader. At the beginning, Boland places the reader firmly in the story of a couple during the potato famine in Ireland. She then hits hard with the final stanza:
“Their death together in the winter of 1847
Also what they suffered. How they lived.
And what there is between a man and a woman.
And in which darkness it can best be proved.”
Boland uses several techniques. First, she provides a definite sense of slowing down in the last two lines through the use of more single-syllable words, which slows the rhythm.
In Poetic Closure: A Study of How Poems End (University of Chicago Press, 1968) literary critic Barbara Hernstein Smith wrote about the technique of closural allusion: “Allusions to any of the ‘natural’ stopping places in our lives and experiences – sleep, death, winter, and so forth – tend to give closure force when they appear as terminal features in a poem…” Boland’s use of “darkness” relies on this device.
Boland also uses a shift in her poem, the thematic change of switching from the very personal story of a couple, to the larger issue of what is real love between a man and a woman. A thematic shift, or a shift and return in a poem makes for strong closure.
But Boland doesn’t slam the door shut at the end of the poem. Smith also talks about “a gesture of exit” as opposed to the door “locked and bolted.” Boland’s ending gives room for the reader to reflect on what is being conveyed in the poem. It is not direct; it comes at a bit of a slant. There is a resonance at the end that the reader will take away with them. There is clarity, but still a sense of mystery.
Using short syllables, structural changes to form, closural allusion, and thematic shifts at the end of a poem are all great ways to improve an ending. In general, modern poetry has moved away from the tendency for a firm closing. But it’s still important to give the reader more than just the white space at the end of the poem to signal that the poem is coming to a close. We want to leave an echo or resonance that stays with readers. Maintaining clarity does not mean that the poem answers all the questions for readers; allowing ambiguity means giving readers room to reflect on the poem and discover something of their own.
I’ll be discussing this and various other techniques that help to make a poem more clear or give it breathing room. Please join me for an evening poetry reading followed by a craft talk, An Alchemy of Words: Mystery and Clarity in a Poem. We’ll meet at the Indigo Tea Lounge in the Metro Mall, 530 E. Benson Boulevard in Anchorage on Thursday, April 21st at 7pm.
Julie Hungiville LeMay is the author of the poetry collection, The Echo of Ice Letting Go (University of Alaska Press, 2017). She holds an MFA from Antioch University, Los Angeles where she served as poetry editor for Lunch Ticket. Born and raised in Buffalo, NY, Julie has lived in Alaska’s Matanuska Valley since 1978. You can find more information at julielemay.com.