How do we finish a poem? How do we find that line that brings our words to a close, that leaves the reader feeling content or in awe or enraged? Let’s wax poetic about endings this week.
Revisiting the Final Line
Speak this to yourself until you know it is true. I believe that I woke up today and my lungs were working, miraculously, my voice can sing and murmur and ask, miraculously. My hands may shake, but they can hold me, or another. My blood still carries the gifts of the air from my heart to my brain, miraculously. Put a finger to my wrist or my temple And feel it: I am magic. Life and all its good and bad and ugly things scary things which I would like to forget beautiful things which I would like to remember -- the whole messy lovely true story of myself pulses within me. I believe that the sun shines if not here, then somewhere. Somewhere it rains, and things will grow green and wonderful. Somewhere inside me, too, it rains, and things will grow green and wonderful. Sometimes my insides rain from the inside out. And then I know I am alive I am alive I am alive
I suddenly felt so seen and affirmed in who I was and who I could be. Who wouldn’t? I was alive. I was crying at the edge of the kitchen counter, forgetting the coffee, letting it grow cold. Ewing’s poem hits me in a similar way that Maya Angelou’s Still I Rise2 does, welling up the same depth of emotion:
You may write me down in history With your bitter, twisted lies, You may trod me in the very dirt But still, like dust, I'll rise. Does my sassiness upset you? Why are you beset with gloom? ’Cause I walk like I've got oil wells Pumping in my living room. Just like moons and like suns, With the certainty of tides, Just like hopes springing high, Still I'll rise. Did you want to see me broken? Bowed head and lowered eyes? Shoulders falling down like teardrops, Weakened by my soulful cries? Does my haughtiness offend you? Don't you take it awful hard ’Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines Diggin’ in my own backyard. You may shoot me with your words, You may cut me with your eyes, You may kill me with your hatefulness, But still, like air, I’ll rise. Does my sexiness upset you? Does it come as a surprise That I dance like I've got diamonds At the meeting of my thighs? Out of the huts of history’s shame I rise Up from a past that’s rooted in pain I rise I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide, Welling and swelling I bear in the tide. Leaving behind nights of terror and fear I rise Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear I rise Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the dream and the hope of the slave. I rise I rise I rise.
Angelou’s poem is a masterclass in repetition and refrain; by the time your eyes read that final verse, your body feels, with every breath, that ending coming— the building, the tension, and the ultimate release. I rise, I rise, I rise.
Ewing’s thrice refrain rings out like a delicate bell, too, her words becoming an anthem: I am alive, I am alive, I am alive. Both poems describe finding security within themselves despite the incomprehensible pain and trauma of racism, violence, and circumstance.
Of course, not every ending needs to be a call to action. An ending should represent the final note your audience leaves with; maybe it is a question, or a universal truth, or it calls back to earlier verses. Maybe it is an answer, or a final twist, or a sudden shift in tone. Here is another masterful ending I love, Maggie Nelson’s Spirit:3
The spirit of Jane lives on in you, my mother says trying to describe who I am. I feel like the girl in the late-night movie who gazes up in horror at the portrait of her freaky ancestor as she realizes they wear the same gaudy pendant round their necks. For as long as I can remember, my grandfather has made the same slip: he sits in his kitchen, his gelatinous blue eyes fixed on me. Well Jane, he says, I think I’ll have another cup of coffee.
Finding my “last words”
I wrote the following poem this week, but in all honesty, I struggled with the ending for days and days. Like every week, I knew I would be sharing it with you. Sharing a poem that is fresh and unseen is always like opening the door to a new therapist’s office, except I never look you in your eyes and read it to you. I can’t see your face as you read over each word. I can’t hear your intake of breath. And I’ll never know, truly, if you even like them; yet, I bare it all for you.
I can’t exactly offer much advice for how to find the ending you want, other than give yourself space when you feel stuck on an ending. I often find a better line when I take a few days off from a poem and come back to it with a different eye.
Another piece of advice I’m sure I will repeat often is some I received from a college professor in my creative writing program: “poets often write past their own ending”. Which essentially means— know when to pull back and edit your final stanzas. You might have already written past the ending, so cut, cut, cut.
every species of tropical fig tree has its own fig wasp that evolved with it.
when the spring sun brings bumblebees to the yard, I'm shaking in the spots I held venom in last year, on a hike, I slipped in the dirt and a wasp swarm burst out of the earth to engulf me I try to be a fig and let myself fall ripe, to the ground. I am the tree, I am blooming. the wasps pollinate me and I am not screaming. I am evolving. and I forgive them: all those honey creatures and wings and yellow wounds I have nothing against figs or any wasp at all what else can we do with the hate we are born with— except sting
And in the spirit of honesty and of posterity and of endings, I thought I’d share some of my cut final lines:
they are born with that stinger and that hate ||| they are born with that stinger and that fire ||| they are born with that stinger and that taste of fruit and pain
The more I look at these trashed lines, the more content I am with how this poem evolved. That doesn’t mean I’m ever really done with a piece; I often revisit old poems and rewrite them, mixing them up into something completely new.
write your own
How will you focus on your ending in your next piece? This week:
Try stealing an ending to write a poem.4 Choose a poem you love, or open a poetry collection and turn to a random page. Take the last line of that poem and either make that your first line or your ending line. You can do this with any book on your shelf, too; take the first sentence, last sentence, a sentence from a random page — anything that can give you a place to construct a poem around.
Create a poem inspired by Ewing and Angelou. Create a refrain, line or phrase that you repeat throughout your poem, and use this as your final line or final three lines.
Find an old poem, and steal your favorite line to be your ending. Dig into your own archives and steal a line to be your penultimate verse. Can you write a unique piece with a different story, theme, or idea than the original?
I’m still adjusting to the workflow of returning to full-time work, but I did manage to take a short break to relax with Taylor L. Ciambra (t.l.c.poetry) for their birthday this week. Not only are they an incredible poet, but they’re a joyous light and fantastic best friend. We sat out in the cool evening for hours, dining and sharing life’s goings-on, tiny birds occasionally stopping to eat the birdseed from the morning. This is a time for reconnecting and basking in the glow of dear friends, which I hope you get to do soon, virtual or distanced or however you can.