Reader, I have a large stack of poems that are — to use a baseball analogy — in the bottom of the ninth with one man on base. In other words, they are very close to being done (done = “sendoutable”) but they are not done yet. So, this week, I am being the closer.
In baseball lingo, a closer is the pitcher who comes in toward the end of the game to clinch a win. Sometimes I refer to Husband as my closer when he gets home in time to do the bedtime routine. Sadly, being that he is an engineer, he cannot help me close out my poems.
But here’s what does help me (and I hope may help you, too, if you’re the writing type):
look hard at endings Somebody (I have no idea who) said, “Endings are like drawing hands.” In other words, they’re hard. I’ve been reading an essay by Steven Dobyns, “Closure,” and he says: “In human affairs, the word ‘closure’ means putting something behind us; in a successful poem it can mean the invocation of something ahead.”
Ay, there’s the rub.
Dobyns notes that one way to give an ending power is to “use one or more formal elements to create rhetorical emphasis.” So, things like: (1) rhyme or slant rhyme that will echo with sounds earlier in the poem; (2) a repeated syntactical pattern, perhaps using actual repetition, or perhaps just using the same syntactical structure (e.g., noun verb descriptive clause / noun verb descriptive clause); or (3) creating a rhythm, or a break in the poem’s rhythm.
I’ve been paying close attention to endings in the poems I’ve read this week, as well, and have noticed the following strategies:
(4). A shift in the poems focus — for example, a poem that has mostly been descriptive shifts to the existential; or a poem that begins immersed in nature shifts to apply the same insights to the human realm.
(5). A shift in voice — for example, the speaker of the poem shifts to direct address of the poems’ subject, or even the reader (classic example: Mary Oliver’s “Summer Day,” which ends with the line: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” Bonus: note that she also uses repeated syntactical patterns [Tell me, … Tell me,…] to end this poem!).
6. Staking a claim — making a bold statement (or asking a bold question) that will both bring the poem to a satisfying resting place and invite further inquiry. Um, okay, Mary Oliver does that, too.
Anyway, I know that’s a lot — all just for endings — but thinking about this stuff has helped me spit and polish this week. Other helpful strategies:
word choice When I’m in closer mode, I always look hard again at word choice. Having my wordbanks handy is a life-saver for word choice decisions. Whenever I read a book of poems, I read with a pad of paper next to me and I write down all the words that strike me as interesting or particularly rich. Then I scan in the list and keep it on my computer. The result is that I now have (probably) close to 100 word banks at my disposal. When I’m stuck on a word or a phrase, I start opening wordbanks to see if I can find any words that will help the poem. Almost inevitably, I do.
Another word choice tip: go for complexity and/or layers of meaning when you can. I was looking for replacement for “snow” in the phrase “days of winter snow and waiting.” “Snow” seemed boring and predictable, but I still wanted a word that would conjure winter. In one of my wordbanks was the word “drift” which conjures both winter (as in snowdrift) and uncertainty ( as in “to be carried along by currents of air or water,” “to wander from a set course”). Bye, bye “snow.” Thank you, wordbank.
when in doubt, go for sound In choosing from alternatives for both word choice and rhythm, I’ve learned to let sound be my guide: which word/rhythm sounds most compelling for this poem (e.g., assonance, alliteration, rhyme/slant rhyme, stresses within the line, etc.)
“every line a poem” I got this idea from one of my excellent po-friends: I have a little window cut into half of a file folder. It’s about the height of a line of text and about the width of a standard sheet of paper. Above the window, I have written the words “every line a poem.” I use it when I’m in the last stages of polishing a poem as a way of looking very closely at each line. It’s amazing to me how much physically blocking out other lines helps me to focus on an individual line.
just listen This one I learned from my tween. Lately, at night when I tuck in my oldest, I’ve just been sitting on the edge of the bed, saying nothing, ready to listen. Almost inevitably, if I’m quiet long enough, he’ll begin to talk about something that’s bothering him or that he’s curious about, or something he feels he’s figured out for himself. The key is being quiet long enough — as I tend to want to fill empty spaces with words. I think the same is true for our poems. Sometimes, if we just sit quietly in a posture of listening, the poem itself will tell us how to be the closer.
And now, Reader, speaking of being the closer, it’s time for me to close because the library will soon open. I hope these strategies are helpful to you. Thanks for reading and happy Thursday.