Saturday, November 24, 2007

On the True Endings of Poems

I sent my second poetry collection, Boudicca & Co., to the much-admired poet Geoffrey Hill a few weeks ago. In response he sent me a note - completely unlooked for, so doubly delightful to receive - making various comments on my poems, including a suggestion to lop off some ten or so lines from the end of one of my favourites.

Having tried this major surgery, curious to see the result, I realised he was right. It did work better without the 'official' ending. This led me to look at why that should be the case, and whether I could perform the same service for any other of my poems that might be over-written.

First though, I wanted to check something I was already uneasily suspicious of, namely that I was still suffering from the novice poet's heavy-handed 'this is the moral of my tale'-style ending. Like most poets, I'd like to think my endings are reasonably apposite and not too predictable. But scouring through them, I felt too few of them possessed any real gravitas, and I think it was the open-ended quality of Hill's suggested ending for my poem - not trying to wrap everything up in a neat lyrical parcel, but throwing a powerful line or two out to the wind instead - that gave that poem its new authority.

So, il miglior fabbro?

Perhaps, though it's important in these situations to trust your own instincts and not merely bow to criticism, however venerable the critic. No one can know your work or intentions better than yourself, after all.

Indeed, trust is at the heart of this issue. Hill's comment was a valuable insight into the nature of poetic trust - i.e. the poet trusting his or her instincts enough to leave the poem at what feels like a dangerously unfinished point, instead of hurrying straight in with nails and rope, anxious to tether the end of the poem to a fixed point.

There has to be space for the reader to sweep in behind you, I suppose, bearing in mind that the reader is a vital part of that triangle: poet, poem, reader. (An unread poem is like a dead limb on a tree - it exists in real time, a part of the whole, but has neither life nor purpose.) So the open ending is a dynamic one for the poem. By contrast, a closed, box-like ending - summing up the poem's purpose or adopting some coy moralising stance - rejects the poem's potential by too sharply defining and limiting the reader's interpretation.

Okay, so we can agree that messages are for Western Union. But can we trust the reader to work it out on their own? And can we trust ourselves to write so brilliantly that we no longer need to qualify everything in the final throes?

It's far easier in a sequence of inter-connected poems, I've found, to experiment with this 'open' style ending. Poems in a sequence tend to lean on each other for authority, significance and lyrical echoes. The stand-alone poem is a rather different beast, tradition alone - perhaps going all the way back to Petrarch in the Middle Ages - dictating that we provide a sound-bite ending to the modern lyric, something to help the reader get the point of those clever metaphors, similes and other dazzling tropes you may have employed.

So if you throw the latter kind of poem open at the end, letting cold air rush into all those unexplained silences, will the poem still work? And will it still qualify as a lyric?

I think it must change the nature of a lyric poem to chop it off at the foot, to leave the moral or purpose behind the poem dangling. This probably connects to its origins in the sonnet form, a marvellous box of delights, seemingly always tied off neatly at the end with its own declaration of intent or shot at literary immortality, e.g.

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
(Sonnet 18, W.S.)

But the changes in formal direction over the past 150-odd years - poetry gradually spiralling out into a plethora of forms and contradictory definitions - must suggest something about a fundamental change in our perception of what poetry is and why we need it (if, indeed, we need it at all). So perhaps Hill is right and it really is time to relax our grip on the telling last line, the moral of the tale, the conclusion to the riddle. To let the poem hang out there, exposed to the elements and - no doubt - the ridicule of critics.

Again, it's dangerous to take too much on trust, especially in terms of your own writing, where instinct and sound experience should take precedence over the opinion of others, but it's equally dangerous not to at least listen to the oracle when it speaks, and consider all the various possibilities before responding.

Sometimes you find even the most unlikely signpost is pointing you in roughly the direction you intended to take anyway.


Sorlil said...

When reading Boudicca & Co I was particularly struck by the sense of completeness of every poem and how well your endings worked in accomplishing this, something I'm trying to work towards. I guess it's only once this skill has been achieved, and not before, that you can move beyond to that 'open-ended quality'.

Bo said...

marvellous! x

Jane Holland: Editor said...

Thanks, you two! (My fans!!! My only fans!!!)

Yes, I agree that you can't break rules without first knowing them inside-out and having stuck with them for years. Otherwise the poet is like an idiot savant, doing something clever without any real understanding or appreciation of why it's clever. So it falls flat, because there's an emptiness behind it.

I'm glad someone commented in the end, thank you both. I was beginning to suspect this was one of my less successful blog entries.

I feel revived now!


Jane Holland: Editor said...

Ah, I've just been googling, and apparently it's now politically incorrect to say 'idiot savant'. It has to be 'autistic savant' now - which, to me, is just as offensive! My son is autistic but has no special skills (apart from great comedic timing) and this common perception that autistic people are always able to add up fantastic sums or remember the precise shape of buildings does him no favours as an individual with mild-severe learning difficulties.

Political correctness. Blearh.


Bo said...

my dad looked at me once when I was about 12 and said, 'Yo're one of those idiot savants, aren't you'?

Crafty Green Poet said...

excellent post, endings are the most difficult part of poems for me, I'm intrigued by the various ending styles used by contemporary poets. I've noticed some who end a poem with hardly having said anything at all, which I think is worse than overstating the point, though that is nowhere near ideal either.

Steven Waling said...

I don't know if he's right about that poem as you don't say which it is...

But I think he's generally right: leave the tying up at the end to the reader.

Jane Holland said...

Hello, Steven, my old fruit.

The poem in question was 'Almost Iceland' (one of the only poems of mine that Neil Astley actually liked - before I decided to part company with Bloodaxe, that is, after which I don't imagine he liked any of 'em). It's in my Salt collection, Boudicca & Co. Geoffrey Hill advocated ending it at the line which runs something like this (typically can't be bothered to check it): And always the wind/hammering for the house to be absent.

So, if I'm ever lucky enough to put out a Selected, I might follow his advice and lop off the end of that poem.

Though maybe leaving in the original last line: imploding/the senseless resistance of doorways - there may or may not be a line-break after 'imploding' in the book, but there's a pause there aurally - which is a line I've always rather liked.

Fatal last words?