Saturday, December 23, 2006

Writing your way out of the end

Endings have been troubling me for a while. Sometimes, I read a poem, and I'm hooked all the way through, and then I get to the ending, and I feel let down. The ending feels like it was just kind of tacked on (let's finish this one fast). Sometimes, when I'm writing a poem, I'll get the same feeling, so I'll go over and over the end, trying to figure out what that last stanza, those last lines, are really all about.

My friend and fellow poet Judith Skillman has a whole bagful of ways to revise a poem. Deep revision, ways to get at the heart of the whole poem. She has taught the class at Richard Hugo House (if you're in Seattle, you can look up the class). I've found these to be great strategies to use when I'm not sure what a poem is about—not just where it's going, but where it's even really starting out.

But sometimes, I feel really good about the poem—up to a point, that point near the end. Usually, I'll try to rewrite the end, and I also look for the trapdoor. Maybe, as much as I'm resisting it, that poem is supposed to head off in a different direction, or deepen in a different direction, before I even approach the final images.

I'll write the last stanza several times, completely different each time, or I'll write several more stanzas just to see what might happen next. Or I'll go back to old drafts, see what I've discarded already and whether any of it can give me a path to where I need to go.

One of the best rejection letters I ever received included a handwritten note, which said that the end of one poem was "quite good."

How do you get to the end of a poem? How do you get out of the end?

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