by Elizabeth McCallister
The first thing to remember when writing any poem is that each and every word is significant. Every poem should be an organic whole. A good ending is no more or less important than a good beginning. One image or series of lines does not make a poem no matter how good they might be. The poem needs to be built around them.
A second step to understanding what makes a good ending might be to examine some of your favourite pieces of poetry. Are the endings effective? Analyze how the poet built up the poem to its ending. If I look at two of my favourite poems, I can see how each poet has crafted the ending. First, “Mia Carlotta” by Thomas Daly is a comic piece about a barber who has his choice of many women except the narrator’s Carlotta. Daly used a dialect to help create the voice of the narrator and the poem ends with the lines:
“But notta –
You bat my life, notta –
The ending of the poem suits the rest of the poem. The narrator’s voice and point of view are consistent and the poem ends on a triumphant note.
The second poem is “Bishop Hatto” by Thomas Southey. This ballad tells the story of a bishop who burns the starving in a barn and calls them rats. Southey takes the reader on a journey from the bishop’s actions to his flight to his final judgement.
Both of these poems are older but if you look at modern poems; you’ll be able to see how modern poets craft great endings. Some that I’ve read recently are in Dave Margoshes’ collection The Horse Knows the Way, specifically, the endings to the poems “To The Station” and “Scars”. Also, I like Ann Joyce’s ending to her poem “Her Six Sons Carried Her” in her collection Watching for Signs.
Most of us write lyrical or narrative poetry. If poetry is a new way of looking at something through a series of images creating a specific rhythm, beat and sound, a good ending must match the rest. Remember what kind of poem that you are writing. If you’re writing a humorous poem, don’t end it on a serious note or vice versa. If you’re writing from a particular point of view, remain in that point of view throughout the poem. While the ending of a poem is its climax, avoid hitting the reader over the head with the moral or meaning you’re trying to get across. If you find yourself doing that as I do, take out those last few lines and see what happens. Sometimes, the image before the “I’m going to tell you what the poem is about” lines is the best ending.
Finally, in all the great endings that I’ve read, I find usually the poet has taken me on a complete journey through the poem that ends in a crescendo. I’m left feeling only “yes” and “perfect”.
Elizabeth McCallister grew up in Scarborough now resides in Brantford. She is currently a member of the Cambridge Writers Collective, enjoys poetry readings and has been a winner in Cambridge Libraries’ Poem A Day contest.