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Monday, 21 March 2011

Any Last Words?

Kirsten Irving muses on how, and how not, to end a poem.

As anyone who's received editorial suggestions from me will no doubt have noticed, I have a predilection for hacking off the end of poems. I was concerned about this for a while, wondering if it had become a reflex action, but having mused on it, I stand by my conviction that a lot of poems go on longer than they need to. A strong ending is as essential as a good opening line. There's little worse than feeling the writer has gotten bored halfway through, or doesn't have a particularly clear idea of what they want to do with the poem and is rambling to a close; instead, the impression should be that the author chose an ending that maximises the impact or purpose of the piece. I don't mean to say that all poets should begin with the exact wording of their closing in mind (indeed, there is value in the stream-of-consciousness approach), just that there is value in knowing where to stop.

Just as an example, imagine a poem ending:

"I drive the motorway
that will take all my friends
that will steal all I have
even the remnants of snot from this clinging cold
even this flattened snatch of grass
where I feel you with me always."

Cutting the last line would in this case do the poem a world of good, because it clumsily spells out what could be left neatly implied. The flattened grass is a strong image, and on its own suggests that the recent presence of a person or persons and their absence is in some way significant.

Overexplanation is a big offender. I sympathise if a writer feels nobody is going to understand what they're on about, to the point of not enjoying the poem. If that's the case, road-test it on some readers. Ambiguity can be great - perhaps they'll like it. If, however, they're baffled to frustration, go back through and see where you might make subtle alterations throughout the body of the poem, instead of tying one big ugly knot of "This was why" at the end. Often, simply by presenting an image the author says what they intended to explain and more.

Say, for example, a piece ended along these lines:

"On that day, I returned
to find, nestled in my toy chest,
flowers and a gun.
The tools of murder."

Why not leave the gun to speak for itself? The added explanation in the last line speaks of a lack of confidence in the image.

Ending on an abstract noun is difficult, but not impossible, to pull off. Too often, reams of excellent grabbable images flit by, only for a poem to end on "I just wanted forgiveness", or "into the darkness", or "Finally, we had closure". The reader needs something solid to hold onto, something specific - an action, an object - which imprints itself on the memory. Why mention "The lake's beauty" when you could leave the reader with "a glow on the lake"? It doesn't have to be action-packed or shocking, or even highly emotive. But abstracts, for all their functionality, lack colour and taste - it's like finishing the dessert course of a great meal and then being made to eat a spoonful of mashed potato.

Punchlines are a dangerous area. Richard Katrovas makes good use of one in 'Love Poem for an Enemy', proffering forgiveness and reconciliation to his foe while adhering to a classical structure, before closing with "while you're down there, kiss my ass". It's a trick that can't be played too often, however, as it grows old quickly. Children's verse manages to get away with the cymbal clash on occasion, though the best writers, like Allan Ahlberg and Roger McGough, don't rely on it. Humour, irony and food for thought are best when carefully sustained throughout the length of a poem, rather than saved as a sting in the tail (what, so the rest of the poem was just preamble?). Think of it like getting a lasting sun tan: it's best to do it gradually in small doses, rather than in one short, sense-frying blast. Punchlines, wrongly used, can come across as an attempt to save a lazily written poem, or as a diatribe in rhyme. If it's an obvious or oft-repeated sentiment, it's hard to get away from the sense that it would be better explored in speech or prose.

It's not just humorous poems, either. The very worst examples are those pieces that try to assert a political or ideological point or that attempt to generate a revelatory moment by meandering hopelessly before whacking a great "Ha! But really she was a ghost!" on the end. I've done it, you've done it. It doesn't make it right.

To return to Roger McGough, his poem 'The Lesson' has a great last line. Strident and amoral, the murderous teacher, surveying the bodies of his pupils, hits an Arnie note: "Let that be a lesson, he said." Given the context of the poem - a classroom massacre - this might seem like a punchline of sorts, but McGough has thought of this, mirroring the speech in the earlier lines "I'm going to teach you a lesson/one that you'll never forget." The first reference to the title provides the threat; the second, though similar, denotes grisly satisfaction, since it arrives after the bloody events. This neat rounding-off, so odd considering the horror that has just taken place, is highly effective when read by children, playing on their experience of fairytales (the soft, non-Grimm varieties that are peddled in schools and in children's publishing in general) always ending "happily ever after". Yes, it's ended very tidily, but everyone is dead! Immediately the poem raises questions and ignites interest.

Equally, abrupt endings can be very effective. Gregory Corso's 'She Doesn't Know He Thinks He's God' places the gentle, dreamlike state of John Rasin, as he comes to grips with his realisation and experiences a rebirth of sorts, against the frenzy of his wife, terrified for their sick child and firmly rooted in reality. The final line of the poem is simply the wife screaming "John the baby will die!" The open-ended note Corso strikes here, by refusing to wrap up the sequence of events or even really to break the spell that pins Rasin in his delusion as his wife hits breaking point, is magnificent. For a short poem, it's got an incredible right hook on it.

In terms of practising and improving the clout of last lines, I find writing pantoums can be a very useful exercise. For the uninitiated, a pantoum features an abab rhyme scheme and follows a pattern whereby every line is at some point repeated, with the final line matching the line the poem began on. Knowing that this is the way the poem will end minimises any tendency to meander. Instead, the writer is forced to examine the ending as they begin, and look into generating a start line that is flexible enough to register some level of development or added significance by the end of the piece, and at the same time sufficiently powerful to kick the poem off.

This article, of course, has not made things easy for itself. Now I've banged on about the importance of effective endings, I've got to wrap it up well. I think I'll leave it to Tony Hoagland, who bucks the trend and gives us a resonant abstract-noun finish, proving that no rule is without exceptions. Here's the ending to 'When Dean Young Talks about Wine':

"When a beast is hurt it roars in incomprehension.
When a bird is hurt it huddles in its nest.

"But when a man is hurt,
....................he makes himself an expert.
Then he stands there with a glass in his hand
staring into nothing
....................as if he were forming an opinion."