Hi poets Peter here from Australia with your last MTB for the year and your last Dverse post for 2020 (what a year it’s been ! ). Since we’re going to be away for a wee while, tonight we’re talking about endings.
Tonight we have a seasonal buffet of five delicious (though low-fat) things about about endings:
- how and where to end that line
- endings as quotations like The Golden Shovel form – where one poem quotes another
- endings and beginnings – verse forms that loop and repeat
- underlining your endings, and
- surprise endings.
1. How and where to end that line
The line is fundamental to poetry. It’s the thing that differentiates verse from prose (apologies to all those prose poets out there). Verse is cast in sentences and lines, while prose flows continuously. So where should the end of the line go? Typically, the line end signals a pause or a breath. The end also creates a visual cue and (usually) a right margin – which may be ragged or in the case of concrete or shape poetry form a deliberate shape (Gay Reiser-Cannon hosted a Dverse session back in 2011 on concrete poetry). So, the end of a line is important both to how the poem sounds (take a breath) and also how the poem appears on the page. It can also allow changes in meaning. Here’s Ukraine-born US poet Ilya Kaminsky from his book Deaf Republic.
We Lived Happily During the War
And when they bombed other people’s houses, we
but not enough, we opposed them but not
enough. I was
in my bed, around my bed America
was falling: invisible house by invisible house by invisible house.
I took a chair outside and watched the sun.
In the sixth month
of a disastrous reign in the house of money
in the street of money in the city of money in the country of money,
our great country of money, we (forgive us)
lived happily during the war.
Notice how he plays with line endings and line breaks to create double meanings: ‘we opposed them but not //enough…’ or ‘our great country of money, we (forgive us) // lived happily…’
As an exercise, pick one of your own poems and try shifting where you place the ends of your lines. Does this create ambiguity or change the tone of the poem? Back in 2018, Björn hosted a Dverse session on enjambment– where lines run on beyond the line endings.
2. Endings as quotations
Some of you may have read African-American poet Terrance Hayes’ A Golden Shovel – a poem where Hayes quotes Gwendolyn Brookes’ 24 word poem ‘We Real Cool’ by using each of her words as the last word of each of his 24 lines (twice!). (De hosted a session here at the pub back in 2016 on the Golden Shovel).
Notice the two ‘chapters’ in Hayes’ poem: the first in 1981 and the second ten years later. Hayes was born in 1971, so the first chapter is, if you like, ‘the poet at ten’ — see how the lines end in a straightforward way.
Da promised to leave me everything: the shovel we
used to bury the dog, the words he loved to sing
his rusted pistol, his squeaky Bible, his sin.
In the 1991 chapter, ‘the poet at twenty’, the endings are enjambed, run-on, hyphenated or broken words.
…Light can be straight-
ened by its shadow. What we
break is what we hold. A sing-
ular blue note. An outcry sin-
ged exiting the throat.
This isn’t Hayes showing us how clever he is, he is saying something. Brookes’ poem from 1960 was about despair and violence for young African-American men. In 2010 (some fifty years later) Hayes is saying that some things have changed but also some things haven’t. ‘Groomed on a die- /t of hunger, we end too soon.’
3. Forms that avoid endings
There are a number of poetic forms such as the villanelle (see Sarah’s Dverse sessionin 2018), the ghazal (see Gay Reiser-Cannon’s session in 2019) and the pantoum (Samuel Peralta’s hosting of Dverse in 2012) which repeat and loop. The circular journey set up in these forms suggest emotion and memory and perhaps obsession, rather than narrative moving towards a resolution.
Here’s Australian poet and writer Tess Pearson with a pantoum on housework called Household Ripening
I refuse to do the vacuuming when you are out, my dear
even though it is infinitely quicker without a toddler.
Though there is a kind of satisfaction in making things clean,
such tasks are never complete, but cyclical and ever renewing.
4. Repeating words: underlining your ending
Repeating a word or two in the last line of a poem is often used as a way of emphasising the ending and telling the reader that they can stop. It’s a bit like the final ‘da dum’ in a symphony. While Shakespeare’s sonnets are full of last line repetitions (e.g. Sonnet 18: ‘…So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.’) it’s probably Keats who really kicked the practice off. His Ode on a Grecian Urn ends with that hyper-romantic aphorism
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,— that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’
Aside from starting a tradition of poets staring at vases, this firmly established repetition as a way of ending a poem. Here’s Yeats’ Sailing to Byzantium… ‘To lords and ladies of Byzantium / Of what is past, or passing, or to come.’ And W.H. Auden In Memory of W.B. Yeats ‘The day of his death was a dark cold day.’ Sylvia Plath – The Moon and the Yew Tree ‘And the message of the yew tree is blackness – blackness and silence.’ You can hear how these last emphatic lines wrap the poem up often with a tidy full-stop at the end of the line.
[ This section drawn from an essay by Joy Katz, called Goodbye, Goodbye, Goodbye: Notes on the Ends of Poems which appears in The Monkey and the Wrench: Essays into Contemporary Poetics, Biddinger, M. and Gallaher J. eds. 2011, University of Akron Press]
5. Surprise endings
Sometimes though, the world isn’t neat and our lives or our poetry leave us with doubts and uncertainty. If so, there are many other ways to end a poem. In his sonnet Archaic Torso of Apollo the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke spends 13 ½ of his 14 lines (depending on the translation) describing an old broken statue: its heroic torso, the head (missing), the piercing gaze of the eyes (also missing) and then ends with a sharp left turn: ‘…You must change your life.’
James Wright’s comic response to this poem ‘Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota’ similarly describes nature: butterflies, pines and old horse poo and then ends with ‘…I have wasted my life.’ And here’s Vietnamese-American poet Ocean Vuong with ‘Torso of Air’ where he speculates ‘suppose you do change your life…’ and then
…So you take the knife to the wall
instead. You carve & carve.
Until a coin of light appears
& you get to look in, for once,
on happiness. The eye
staring back from the other side—
This wonderful last word ‘waiting’ hanging in space all on its own like the happiness the poet is seeking, ever out of reach: a real Grecian Urn of an ending.
I could go on but look at the clock ! – it’s late, sleigh bells are jingling, mince pies are mincing and eggs will be nogging in no time.
So tonight poets, I leave it up to you. Let’s write something on endings:
- it could be a poem that plays with endings – where your lines don’t end properly but run off into the next line creating ambiguity and doubt.
- it could be a golden shovel – find a poem (or indeed any other text) that annoyed you or that you loved, that spoke about change or resisted change, and use your golden shovel to comment, critique or cheer (don’t forget to tell us the poem that you’re quoting).
- it could be a villanelle, pantoum, ghazal or any other repeating form which resists endings in favour of recurrence of emotion and memory (or obsession).
- it could be a poem with the good old ‘repeating the word just in case you missed it’ ending, or a surprise ending.
You know what to do:
- Write your poem.
- Post it on your blog.
- Importantly, visit other blogs, enjoy some amazing poetry
- and above all have fun
Before we go
A special seasonal greeting from everyone behind the bar. 2020 has been an amazing year. Here at Dverse we’ve published nearly 150 prompts, and you, our beloved poets, have written and shared well-over 3000 poems in response. We’ll be back on 4 January 2021 (save that date) with more poetry from the great palace of verse, along with the usual imaginary beer, magners, cocktails and swizzle sticks. Until then, stay safe, read lots of lovely poetry over the holidays and we’ll see you in 2021.
And I’ll put something seasonal on the jukebox…