ABCs of Poetry: E is for Ending

Posted by on Apr 27, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on ABCs of Poetry: E is for Ending

E is for Ending:  Packing a Punch into a Poem’s Finale

The best novels do not resolve in the last chapter. They leave you wanting more. This feels authentic to the reader, if unsettling, because the ending of a book, or a poem, or an epoch is never the end of the story.

Perhaps you have a perfectly good draft of a new poem, but are stuck for an equally worthy ending. You’ve tried different endings none of which are going to make your otherwise good poem memorable. The many ways to not end a poem are familiar. Every poet tries to avoid certain pitfalls, i.e., endings that are: 

  • predictable
  • weak
  • synthetic
  • tied up in a bow
  • a summary or review
  • moralistic
  • a retelling of the poem’s intention

But knowing what not to do is not the same as figuring out what works. Unfortunately there are no rules to guide you. The best way to find better endings for your own poems is to study endings that do work to discovery their secrets. A strong, well crafted ending for an otherwise “good enough” poem can make the poem unforgettable. Conversely the wrong ending can utterly defeat the poems best qualities and intentions.

Here are some examples of how good endings work for the good of the poem.

1) An ending can disrupt the poem and deliver an opportunity for paradoxical interpretations. It’s artful to let readers know you are aware of leaving them with questions, doubts, and uncertainty because it shows you trust your reader and you’re willing to let them make of it what they will.

Sometimes a “leave-‘em-hanging” ending is unambiguous. In her 3-line poem titled “Last Lines (from The Irrationalist”) Suzanne Buffam offers this ending:

And you should never hear the end of it.

Or consider this last line by Vi Khi Nao in her poem “My Socialist Saliva” (from The Old Philosopher):

I suppose I could go on. 

Sometimes an ending upends the lines preceding it.  In this poem by Emily Dickenson, as in so many of her poems, the last lines, rather than clarify the events they refer to, exasperatingly leave the reader to decipher them for herself.  (from #96, in the Public Domain)

My life closed twice before its close—

It yet remains to see
If immortality unveil

A third event to me

So huge, so hopeless to conceive

As these that twice befell.

Parting is all we know of heaven,

And all we need of hell.

2) An ending can unlock the poem’s borders, extending the poem into broader territories. In the traditional sonnet, the last two lines are called the volta, which means “turn”. A successful ending in any style of poetry may pivot or turn in a direction away from the text, or offer an antidote to it. In this sonnet, “A Young Man” by Jericho Brown (from Poem-a-Day, the Academy of American Poets), the narrator, a young black man, offers thoughts about his children, one a girl, the other a boy. He ends the poem with this disturbing 2-line volta:

In him lives my black anger made red.

They play. He is not yet incarcerated.

A single line can have the same effect, as in this poem, “Potted” by Robert Lowell (from New Selected Poems), which questions free will as it follows the narrator “from bookstore to bookstore”, and then takes this turn:

Death’s not an event in life, it’s not lived through.

3) An ending can turn a poem on its head, contradicts itself, or ask or answer a question the poem itself doesn’t pose. An ending that veers away from the emotional tone of the preceding lines can have an emotional kick that moves the reader to rethink (and re-read) the poem.

In my poem, “Metanoia Lost”, I offer this end line, which is effective because, unlike what precedes it, it is conspiratorial, with its intimate you know whispering directly in the reader’s ear.

Lost is an actual place, you know.

Consider this example, but Bob Hicok, in his “Song of the Recital” (from Elegy Owed), which unexpectedly brings in an inanimate object to speak for an abstract concept, while setting the reader off on an entirely new path to ponder. 

Don’t take my word

for the juicy fragility of beauty: ask the baklava.

4) A striking ending often stays with the reader. A memorable last line or couplet is often unforgettable due to use of repetition, or through tone, pacing, or language. There are endings of poems that we all know:

And miles to go before I sleep.

And miles to go before I sleep. (Robert Frost)

And dances with the daffodils. (William Wordsworth)

Till human voices wake us and we drown. (T.S. Eliot)

Other less famous but equally memorable last lines include:

Pass the joint and put some ice in my Hennessy (from “DiVida lives within her means” by Monica Hand, in DiVida)

The beauty of the rattlesnake is in its threat. (from an untiled poem by Jim Harrison, in Songs of Unreason).

I hope these examples of memorable endings may help you discover your most memorable endings. Often the best ending is achieved through trial and error, putting the poem aside until you can visit it in a new way, trying a reversal of the line order, or ending with a question, a seemingly random thought, or a unique metaphor.

Risa Denenberg is a co-founder and editor at Headmistress Press, publisher of Lesbian/Bi/Trans poetry. She publishes poetry book reviews at the Rumpus and curates The Poetry Café, an online meeting place where poetry chapbooks are reviewed. She has published three full length collections of poetry, most recently, “slight faith” (MoonPath Press, 2018).