We talk a lot about our favourite opening lines in literature, but for me there’s something quite laudable about the delivery of a killer final line when it comes to poetry.
As poets, we must seek to ensure that every word is necessary. Every word and punctuation mark must have earned its place. Unlike fiction, where the necessity is defined by the scene or dialogue’s role in advancing the plot, poetry has a more laser-like focus. We remember standout images and lines in poetry until they become recital. For example, think of your own favourite poem. How much of it do you remember word-for-word? A well-written poem leaves an impression that sears while taking up minimal space.
It’s all too easy to become carried away with our own creations, particularly at the start of our writing journeys. I was a self-confessed sucker for unusual adjectives. I eschewed alliteration or fanciful form; I wanted to create images that haunted the reader’s mind long after reading. However, what I soon learned from tutors and editors alike, was that stuffing a poem with too many adjectives, adverbs and similes only dilutes its effect. Even now, the first thing I do while editing poem drafts is to slash out anything that may sound good alone, but that weakens a stronger image beside it. Still, I am learning, but I hope I have made decent improvements from those undergraduate poems that could have been spat straight out of a thesaurus.
This sort of overkill is something it’s all too easy to fall prey to when it comes to final lines. As readers, we’re delighted by a punch-in-the-guts finale to a poem. We love to be surprised by the writer’s sign-off; the kind of ending that causes our eyes to instantly flicker up to the first line and soak it up all over again. Yet in trying to replicate this as writers, we can at times end up dragging our writing out just one line too long. If the ending is too self-conscious it will only wear the reader out or, at worst, cause them to cringe and fling the book onto the shelf of a nearby charity shop.
You wouldn’t want a movie to end on a poignant death scene and then having the deceased swoop back in as a phantom to deliver a final monologue (complete with tiny violins). Nor would you want the same effect with your poetry.
Writing is not an entirely solitary pursuit. We are constantly learning and growing as a result of both direct and indirect influence from others. As well as writing, we should be reading and developing continuously, noticing what works and what doesn’t when it comes to the writing of others.
So, in no particular order, here’s a selection of ten of my favourite final lines that to me set a shining example.
1. ‘Love After Love’ by Derek Walcott
“Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.”
2. ‘The Man With Night Sweats’ – Thom Gunn
“Hugging my body to me
As if to shield it from
The pains that will go through me,
As if hands were enough
To hold an avalanche off.”
3. ‘Lady Lazarus’ – Sylvia Plath
“Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.”
4. ‘kitchenette building’ – Gwendolyn Brooks
“We wonder. But not well! not for a minute!
Since Number Five is out of the bathroom now,
We think of the lukewarm water, hope to get in it.”
5. ‘Venus and the Rain’ – Medbh McGuckian
“A sun for sun, those cruising moonships find
Those icy domes relaxing, when they take her
Rind to pieces, and a waterfall
Unstitching itself down the stairs.”
6. ‘Love in the Asylum’ – Dylan Thomas
“And taken by light in her arms at long and dear last
I may without fail
Suffer the first vision that set fire to the stars.”
7. ‘The Rain Ballad’ – Srijato
“…way back, someone way back
halts in that scene –
A lone road, a bit of rain, and a drenched guitar.”
8. ‘The Second Coming’ – W.B. Yeats
“And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
9. ‘About His Person’ – Simon Armitage
“No gold or silver,
but crowning one finger
a ring of white unweathered skin.
That was everything.”
10. ‘Mid-Term Break’ – Seamus Heaney
“Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple,
He lay in the four-foot box as in his cot.
No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.
A four-foot box, a foot for every year.”
What you’ll notice is that for each of these, that final line is necessary and only strengthens the one preceding it. These are the lines that startled me, moved me and, on more than one occasion, brought me to tears.
To master the grand finale of a poem is a skill that takes a lot of discipline, editing and feeling, and it’s one I want to keep learning with the help of those little gems I stumble across in books and recite over and over through the day.
If you’re going to sign out of that piece of work you’ve been crafting for so long, a subtle, yet beautiful exit can be just as powerful as any grand entrance.