How Should a Poem End?

John Barr sitting at his desk in his studio

A narrative poem, whether an epic as long as the Odyssey or an ancient ballad like Sir Patrick Spens, has a tale to tell. And when the tale is told, it stops. The progress of a lyric poem is quite different. Robert Frost describes it memorably in “The Figure a Poem Makes.”

Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting. A poem may be worked on once it is in being, but may not be worried into being. Its most precious quality will remain its having run itself and carried away the poet with it. Read it a hundred times: It will forever keep its freshness as a metal keeps its fragrance. It can never lose its sense of a meaning that once unfolded by surprise as it went.

And he says of such a poem:

It has denoument. It has an outcome that though unforeseen was predestined from the first image of the first mood. It is but a trick poem and no poem at all if the best of it was thought of first and saved for the last. It finds its own name as it goes and discovers the best waiting for it in some final phrase. No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.

It is of that surprise I want to speak, and how that surprise can engage its reader in a partnership. In “Meeting the British” Paul Muldoon (himself a great admirer of Frost) describes a meeting between a Native American and British soldiers who have come to suppress tribal uprisings during Pontiac’s War (1763).

Meeting the British

We met the British in the dead of winter.
The sky was lavender

and the snow lavender-blue.
I could hear, far below,

the sound of two streams coming together
(both were frozen over)

and, no less strange,
myself calling out in French

across that forest-
clearing. Neither General Jeffrey Amherst

nor Colonel Henry Bouquet
could stomach our willow-tobacco.

As for the unusual
scent when the Colonel shook out his hand-

kerchief: C’est la lavande,
une fleur mauve comme le ciel.

They gave us six fishhooks
and two blankets embroidered with smallpox.

See how the poem keeps on going after the surprise in that last line? The poem is finished but the reader’s mind must continue beyond that line to realize the British intent and to watch a dark world open. The reader has become a participant — a partner — in the work of the poem. And it is that personal engagement, when the reader is no longer reading but enters the poem as a participant, that will stick in the reader’s mind, perhaps forever.

I call this a Wiley Coyote ending. Wiley races after the Roadrunner to the edge of the cliff — and keeps on going. After running several steps on thin air he halts, looks at us, looks down, and plummets. The last line of a lyric poem should carry us beyond the poem’s end to plummet into thin air.

John smiling and holding his dogs

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