According to W. H. Auden, a poem cannot be finished: it is simply abandoned by a poet who can add no more to it. This well-known statement is, on many levels, quite true. It doesn’t, however, offer much help when it comes to a poem that, up to a point, does pretty much what you want it to but, then, defies the perfect ending. There’s a lot to be said for “finishing” a poem.
This “prompt” is about some of the things you might try when you’re working on a poem and can’t quite pull it all together. I thought that you might find it interesting to read what some of my favorite poets and good friends have to say about their own “dismount” processes.
Following are suggestions that we hope you’ll find helpful. I send my sincerest thanks to all the poets who contributed and have included a link to one of each of the poet’s books, all of which are in my personal library and which I recommend highly! Most of these poets have more than one book to their credit, some are writing professors, some are journal editors and publishers, and at least one is a book publisher, so you may want to Google them individually for more info on their work and for examples of their poems. I've also included links to places where you can visit them online.
1. Charlie Bondhus
Author of All the Heat We Could CarryClick Here to Order Charlie's Book
Ending an unruly poem can often be a challenge. The first question you might want to ask is “did the poem end a stanza or two ago?” Chop off some lines and see what happens. Another option is to try shuffling your stanzas. Swapping the first and last stanzas might be a good starting place. If cutting and shuffling don’t work, try simply putting the poem aside for a bit—days, weeks, months. When you return to it, the ending might smack you right in the face. All of the above strategies have worked for me at some point or another.
2. Dean Kostos
Author of Rivering
The first thing I look for in the ending, whether it evaporates quietly or sounds off with a tad ah, is: Does the ending feel earned? Has the poem arrived there organically? A powerful approach to ending a poem can be the non-sequitur ending. An example of this is Thomas James’s haunting poem, “Mummy of a Lady Named Jemutessonekh.” (Note: to read “Mummy of a Lady Named Jemutessonekh,” click on the link below.)
3. Gail Fishman Gerwin
Author of Crowns
“If at first you don’t succeed . . .” Sometimes this old adage simply does not work. If I have created a draft to which I return again and again, tweaking to my internal standards with satisfactory content and a dismount that pleases me (and hopefully a journal), I’ll see the poem through to the end. If I cannot rework, rearrange, redraft, or release a poem, if I don’t wake up with the desire to return to my ideas with the appropriate words, I feel free to reject it and toss it on the “tried/failed” pile. Permission given not to “try, try, again.”
4. Penny Harter
Author of The Resonance Around Us
Note: Scroll Down to The Resonance Around Us
How I end a poem is not usually a conscious decision. However, I do know that I want my poems to take a turn toward (or at) the end, similar to the turn in a good haiku. At the heart of haiku is the juxtaposition of two images or ideas across a kind of “spark gap”. And these images connect in a way that both startles and seems inevitable. When I look back at poems I wrote some years ago—or even at occasional recent work—I find myself saying, “Well, I like the imagery, or the sound, rhythm, theme, etc., but if I reach the poem’s end and it hasn’t gone anywhere, hasn’t taken me from here to there (wherever here and there are), it doesn’t satisfy me.” For me, writing a nice representational poem doesn’t feel like enough.
5. Gina Larkin
Author of When the Gods Play Hide and Seek
Honestly I have found that what works best for me is to put the poem away and just not look at it for at least 7 to 10 days - then read it and see what happens. I also sometimes read it backward (bottom to top) - this can make what you are trying to say clearer. Share it with a trusted friend and listen to what he/she says.
6. Diane Lockward
Author of The Uneaten Carrots of Atonement
There’s help for the poem that ends with a whimper instead of a bang. Please don’t ever let your poem go until that ending is fixed. The poem might be able to tolerate a weak line or two earlier but not at the end. Sometimes, however, the problem isn’t that you haven’t yet written the ending. You have written it, but it’s in the wrong place.
Here’s a strategy that I’ve found helpful. I go through the draft (it’s still a draft until the end is just right), and I mark my strongest line. I move that line to the very end of the draft. On a computer this is easy to do. You will most likely have to do some revising to the nearby lines so that the new ending works. You may need to add additional lines. I love this part of the process. All kinds of new possibilities open up. And in all likelihood, your poem now ends with an image instead of a piece of information.
7. Michael T. Young
Author of The Beautiful Moment of Being Lost
I’m going to give the advice about this that I believe is the hardest to hear: be patient. And by that I mean: put the poem down and forget about it for a while, maybe months. Over those months, go back to it, read through it and see if the closing lines come. If they don’t, put it away again. I had the beginning of a poem that I was very happy with, but I couldn’t get the ending. I had that beginning sitting around for almost 2 years. Every once in a while, not every time, but every once in a while when I went to my notes for poems, I would return to those lines, read through them a few times and see if I could hear the next lines. For almost 2 years I didn’t. But then, one day, bing!—they started coming. And when they came, I was able to complete the remainder of the poem in a one-hour lunch break. But all in all, it was about 2 years.
8. Emily Vogel
Author of First Words
When a poet brings a poem to a close, it does necessarily have to be “conclusive,” or even resolute. Organically, the poem closes when you feel a settling in your “soul,” whether or not as editor of your own poem you believe that this is how a poem is “supposed” to close. You may even feel that there is “supposed to be” more to say in order to make it seem like a “wrapped box,” so to speak. Sometimes the box needs to remain somewhat unwrapped, and that leaves your reader in suspense, and that is from where Keats’ idea of “negative capability” derived.
9. Joe Weil
Author of The Great Grandmother Light: New and Selected Poems
If the ending seems too neat, it probably is. A too tidy ending is like a bad comic smirking before the punch line, or a boxer telegraphing his punch. Or better still, is like one of those grief counselors who nods his or her head in “active listening” and “professional empathy” and tells you you’ve achieved “closure.” The best way to know when to end is to listen and look at your own poem several times. If the last few lines are somehow longer or shorter, or differently structured than the rest of the poem then you’re either coming to the end or your going off on a tangent and beginning a new poem (some poets often have two poems going and don’t know it). Beware of forcing the shoe to fit by cutting off the toes. Avoid loving your sense of symmetry so much that you impose it on your own creation even when it screams for mercy. Know your intention, your theme, and what your effect might be on the reader, and if all three seem accomplished close it out. If not, wait and be patient and don’t be afraid to try several endings. Also know that sometimes a poem ends rhythmically before it ends in any other way. In this case, go back, and edit so that the rhythm doesn’t have such a dying fall.
10. And ...
If you read this blog often, you’ll recall that I often suggest that you:
- be wary of tying your poem up in a neat little package at the end,
- avoid the pitfall of simply summarizing what is already contained in your poem,
- take care not to undercut your poem’s authority by ending with trivia or a “so what” line that doesn’t make your readers gasp,
- make a point of concluding your poem in a way that points toward something broader than the body of the poem; in other words, give your readers a “dismount” that leads them to discover something subtle and rich, something that resonates for them even if it isn’t exactly what you had in mind when you started writing. (I think of Seamus Heaney’s lines here, “Since when,” he asked, / “are the first line and last line of any poem / where the poem begins and ends?”)
1. Now … and here’s the challenge for this week … take a look at three of your own poems (completed or in process).
2. Read the poems carefully and think about your closing lines. Are they really the dynamite dismounts they should be?
3. If your answer is “no,” think about the suggestions above and see what you can do to bring your poems to better closure.
4. Marianne Moore wrote, “I tend to like a poem which instead of culminating in a crescendo, merely comes to a close.” Think about that and what it might mean to some of your poems.