The Finishing Line

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How, as a reader, do you know when a poem is over?  That’s easy – you run out of lines to read.  The question gets tricky, however, when we talk about the poet:  it’s not as easy as saying that the writer knows a poem is over when she runs out of lines to write.  It’s a fascinating question, though, and one that every poet has to grapple with on an almost daily basis.

In a recent interview in the American Poetry Review, John Ashbery asserts that a “timer goes off” when the poem he’s working on is done, and he’s found that it’s futile to keep writing after that figurative ding!.  Reading that, I get this weird and wonderful image of a poem as a mass of yeasty dough that you’ve got to knead and let ferment and then shape into a loaf and toss in the oven – after all that work the cook can only wait for the bread to be done in its own time, and there’s that perfect moment of golden-brownness and hollow thump when you rap it’s underside with your knuckles.

There are plenty of other ways of looking at how a poem runs its course.  In grad school I had a professor say that just when you think it’s done, take one more step.  Push yourself a little bit further over the threshold you constructed, open the door, and walk through.  You might be surprised at what you find.  To this wisdom I’ve added the notion that what a particular poem might need is the very opposite move — for the writer to take a step back, to turn away from that door, to leave something unsaid.

Maybe moving a poem toward its ending is like rock climbing: finding the right foothold.  Do I grab hold of this outcrop here, put my toe in that crack?  Is it wise to try and reach that ledge over there, or should I shoot for that crevice instead?  It’s a game of finesse.  One move may be safe and one may be more risky.  You have to keep weighing alternatives again and again without becoming paralyzed by analysis, but it’s what gets you to the summit.

Taking the poem in a surprising direction, the volta, or turn, usually associated with the sonnet, has the capacity to open, widen, or even detonate a poem as it draws to a close.  That’s exciting.  I’d like to see contemporary free verse engage more in this kind of vigorous movement.  It’s healthy and it gets the blood flowing.

I look at poems I love by Frank O’Hara, Wallace Stevens, Yannis Ritsos, Emily Dickinson, Zbigniew Herbert, and others, and part of what I love about each one is that the ending leaves me feeling like I have witnessed something true, and it leaves me exhilarated or unsettled or grateful, but never indifferent.  It’s true that I want the entire poem to make me feel, and the best poems do, but there is something that a poem’s ending can accomplish which makes the finishing line crucial to the success of the whole.  O’Hara suddenly pleads with his father to “forgive the roses and me” (“To My Dead Father”) in the final line of his poem, and it is a complication of what has come before instead of a closure, but it is the perfect ending.

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