Wednesday, November 17, 2004


Final lines have been accosting me lately. In a long-distance conversation with Adze, my own most careful and dedicated critic (lately we've been mailing poems back and forth and critiquing…) he was saying that that final line has to be the most crucial - and most difficult to pull off -- in any poem. It may not be difficult to come up with something approximately right in a first draft, but it's often very hard to get it right on, in a clear, wholly satisfying way. (Sometimes, of course, one can be right on right off …but as Sheryl Crow said about songwriting, "Inspiration's great, but knowing the craft will save your ass!" This little post is about craft…)

I have a tendency to sum up or round off poems with a cryptic or mysterious statement, or return to the beginning in a kind of "refrain" or circular movement repeating earlier elements or variations of one of the first lines (if not the first line). As methods for arriving at final lines go, the "circular method" is certainly the easiest and perhaps the most common. … but there are other ways to finish that are far more ingenious, can have more impact, or resonate more deeply. Ending with surprising image, one that somehow sums up the poem although it hasn't appeared before, is one way. Having a concluding image or idea that the whole previous poem "leads up to" is a related , probably rarer way. Victoria Chang's poem, Yang Gui-Fe, which recently appeared in the New England Review, is a superb example of a final concluding line that the whole poem leads up to and that encapsulates the whole thing. Or think of the final lines of Hughes' Thought Fox.

Adze was also telling me that in my own recent poems (or rather, drafts of poems) some of my concluding lines might be best deleted so as to allow that deeper kind of resonance to happen. I think he's right here … I don't pretend to be immune at times to final line deficiencies. For instance, one rather lengthy draft called Emblem, I end with

lines bars binds of thought blending into colours curves hues
memories time and now on a shelf
this picture, twenty-three years later, me smiling with you --
I had put the camera on the rock and set the timer, we had to do it
a few times to "get it right" --
around it stones and twigs we had picked from the shore, embedded with dust,
emblems selected from that day

(NB: because Blogpspot protocol doesn't recognize internal spacing and pushes all lines to the left, the lines quoted above end up being rather more compressed than I'd like ... to see them more faithfully reproduced, click on my blog-city link …)

Adze suggested, take out the final "summing up" line, and let it end with "embedded with dust", a final image which packs much more symbolic resonance… Emblem too becomes a more interesting title: because it is a word that no longer in the poem, and therefore sheds a more singular light on the poem (more about titles later). This tendency to "talk about" and "sum up" with a line like "emblems selected from this day" is a habit taken from literary analysis, he thinks… I tend to think though that it's just crude expression of our need for symmetry…

(For some of our correspondance, see Blog City, June to August. )

After this conversation, I looked up Mark Strand on Poetry Connection (that was just before the Strand reading I attended). What did I see?

Mark Strand - Lines For Winter

Tell yourself
as it gets cold and gray falls from the air
that you will go on
walking, hearing
the same tune no matter where
you find yourself --
inside the dome of dark
or under the cracking white
of the moon's gaze in a valley of snow.
Tonight as it gets cold
tell yourself
what you know which is nothing
but the tune your bones play
as you keep going. And you will be able
for once to lie down under the small fire
of winter stars.
And if it happens that you cannot
go on or turn back and you find yourself
where you will be at the end,
tell yourself
in that final flowing of cold through your limbs
that you love what you are.

This is one excellent poem about dying… right up to that final line. Hate to say it … that line is terribly trite. Certainly unworthy of Strand. "Tell yourself that you love what you are" ... did Oprah take over? What a shame!

Staring at the poem with this god-awful line as if it were one of my own, I thought, hey, maybe it could end something like this:

tell yourself
in that final flowing of cold through your limbs
that you will go on
that you are.

This is of course is following the common "final line" method: Going back, repeating a major element in a kind of refrain or circular return.

Maybe, though, there's a better way. A more cunning, ingenious way…an encapsulating image, perhaps… can anyone out there come up with one? (It's fun to test our editorial skills this way…)

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