Thoughts on Ending Poems by Ann Chandonnet

There are three quotations I like on the subject of poem endings. Yeats says: “A poem comes right with a click like a closing box.” Frost says, “I have never started a poem yet whose end I know.” In a similar vein, T. S. Eliot says, “The poem does not know what he has to say until he has said it.”
I think Frost was posturing–to emphasize the notion of the poet as witchdoctor, the notion that a poet does something magical or inspired–something beyond Nature. Art can be seen as Nature pushed to an ultimate or ultimatum–science pushes in another direction–; but certainly nothing on earth can surpass Nature.
What Eliot says seems to be closer to the truth. One may work at a poem for days, even years, not quite knowing where he wants it to go. You start with one word, a phrase, two lines on the back of an envelope. A kind of mental gestation takes place around this seed–especially when you are not concentrating on the subject.
Eventually more lines come, and then, as pen moves across paper (or letters appear on the computer screen), the remaining lines may work themselves out in your head and flow onto the paper.
There are two ways to look at what Yeats says. The poem should have a definite end, one that makes the reader shout, “Yes! Yes!” (or “No! No!) Whatever the reaction brought forth, the poem should not leave the reader dangling. It should do something dynamic with the initial thought/scene, move it through a chronology, argue with it, turn it topsy-turvy. There might be a philosophical development. At any rate, before the end, there should be a revelation or change–unless the poem is a mere description of a feeling or landscape or piece of art; in other words, a sort of journal notation in verse.
Sometimes poems begin with the end. The poem conceives a perfect last stanza or line but lacks a beginning from which to suspend this gem. Eventually the beginning surfaces in the mind, and the click has a box it can shut.
I do think, however, that the click device can be overdone. One need not slam the box on the reader’s fingers and gloat! There needs to be a modicum of subtlety. A poem is not a victory over an enemy, but an interoffice memo you hope reaches the right desk.
Here is an example of a perfect ending.
OPEN LETTER TO SAM ERVIN AND OTHER SOUTHERN GENTLEMEN by Sheilah Mayr
For every door you’ve held open for me
in respect
You have slammed fifty in my face
keeping opportunity closed
Every time you stood as I entered a room
in respect
You sealed your ears deaf to any
intelligent remark I may have made.
The price I paid for your walking on the outside
in respect
is, you shielded me from mud splatters
and knowledge of how to jump on the bandwagon
Your broad shoulders protected me from the crowd
in respect
And I only saw half the parade
You took my arm and guided me
in respect
down streets with pretty shop windows
past unattractive but lucrative businesses
with brick walls
And then you lovingly call me empty headed
scatterbrained and cute.
Please, don’t respect me any more
Please, don’t protect me any more
I can open my door you haven’t locked
I can stand while you sit
And I can take my chance crossing the
street against the light.
What I cannot survive–is your respect
–From Black Sun, New Moon, Special Women’s Issue of Hyperion, Carolina Wren Press, Chapel Hill, 1980.

1 Comment

Filed under writing

One response to “Thoughts on Ending Poems by Ann Chandonnet

  1. cthurston2013

    Interesting thoughts, Ann.

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