One of the most challenging parts of writing a poem is figuring out how to end it.
You want the ending to be poignant or beautiful or subversive, but how do you do that? These suggestions are by no means definitive, but they should get your head moving in the right direction.
Writing about poetic closure, Barbara Hernstein Smith says,
“Perhaps all we can say, and even this may be too much, is that varying degrees or states of tension seem to be involved in all our experiences, and that the most gratifying ones are those in which whatever tensions are created are also released. Or, to use another familiar set of terms, an experience is gratifying to the extent that those expectations are aroused are also fulfilled.”
The poem moves and evolves as you read it, developing its themes, forming patterns, generating conflict, creating linguistic events. As the poem ends, you want to find a way to resolve the tensions that the poem builds.
All parts of the poem can be read in relationship to one another, but the ending holds a special status, as it is the only place from which the entirety of the poem is in view. It is a place for you to take in all that you’ve written and comment on it.
There isn’t space in a blog post to go over all the possible forms of endings in a poem (Barbara Herrnstein Smith has an entire book on the subject), but broadly speaking, we can identify two categories under which most endings can be classified—open endings and closed endings.
An open ending is one which provides an opportunity for the poem to expand its scope or offer extra interpretive space to the reader.
One of the most famous examples of this can be seen in Ranier Maria Rilke’s “The Archaic Torso of Apollo.” The poem, found here, is an ekphrastic poem describing a headless bust of Apollo.
Rilke directs the reader’s gaze down the bust from the missing head, to the breast, down to “that dark center where procreation flared,” and up again through the “translucent cascade of the shoulders.” After the reader’s eye is directed around the sculpture, Rilke turns the eye of the poem back onto the reader: “for here there is no place / that does not see you. You must change your life.”
After so long describing the sight of the sculpture, we find ourselves reversed upon—it is the sculpture that does the seeing. But it is the final sentence that makes this poem so famous. The subject matter of the poem is exploded; the point of the poem is no longer to describe the sculpture, but to experience the transformative power of art.
As readers, we are given no options, we must change our lives. The infinite possibility of human change is the final image thrust upon us, asking us to reflect on ourselves and our lives.
A closed ending synthesizes all the elements of the poem, or attempts to sum up what the poem has been talking about, keeping the reader within the confines of the poem.
For example, take the last two stanzas of this poem by Ben Lerner:
On vision and modernity in the twentieth century, my mother wrote
“Help me,” on the history of structuralism, my father wrote
“Settle down.” On the American Midwest from 1979 to present, I wrote
“Gather your marginals Mr Specific. The end is nigh.”
I wish all difficult poems were profound.
Honk if you wish all difficult poems were profound.
The poem, of course, is poking fun at its own difficulty, in such a way that it undermines any attempt to interpret the previous string of references. What good is a critical comment on the link between “Settle down” and “the history of structuralism” when the poem itself admits there is nothing profound to be found? The best part of the poem is an imitation of a bumper sticker.
Rather than create space for interpretation or growth, the poem shuts down all possible avenues out of the poem, declaring the whole thing a joke, a slogan, or both.
I don’t mean to say that a closed poem shuts off all avenues of interpretation. Another type of closed poem is that which invites reflection primarily on the contents of the poem, rather than creating space for the reader to think about any number of other subjects. A common method of achieving this is to sum up everything that the poem has been thinking about.
This is often exemplified in Shakespeare’s sonnets. Take, for instance, Sonnet 129. The sonnet moves through a series of reversals and chaiastic parallels detailing the speaker’s shame and disgust at human sexuality.
The end of the poem offers up a moral to conclude the poem: “All this the world well knows; yet none knows well / To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.”
This leads the reader back into the poem—what is it that we know, why do we know it. It closes the poem nicely, summing up it all up into a couplet.
For further discussion of poems, poetics, beginnings, endings, and everything in between, come join my Intro to Poetry class, starting July 27, 2019!
Eve Yuen received her MFA in poetry from Cornell University, where she also taught for three years. Her interests are in book length poems, philosophy of language, and the history of the avant-garde. She is at work on a book about light and a book about trans poetics. Her poems have appeared in the Seattle Review, TAB: The Journal of Poetry and Poetics, and other publications. She lives and writes in Seattle.