Why do we end poems the way we do? We have a feel for endings owing to stories, movies, television, sports, recipes — all of our cultural underpinnings. Ever since we were children, stories have had endings. We crave them. A story — or a book — is a world complete unto itself. We usually aren't left wondering whether to turn the page. If we are left hanging — "to be continued" is satisfying in its own way — we know the next episode is coming. Jokes have punch lines. Television commercials have logos. At the end of her floor exercise, the gymnast springs into a “Y” shape. Bake at 350. Roll credits.
Our minds are used to these forms of ending. There aren’t very many pieces of music, except by Webern and other twelve-tone extremists, that leave you thinking more notes are coming. In pop music, when Morrissey says “Yes, you’ve made yourself plain, yes you’ve made yourself very plain” — you know the song is over. Even pop songs and standards that trail off do so by repeating the chorus. The kick-kick, or triple-repeat, ending I talked about last time probably signals FIN to the writer as much as it does to the reader.
Poetry, because of its adroitness — you can cut very fast between centuries, images, levels of diction — is perhaps structurally more like film than like pop songs or like stories or novels. The Italian neorealist directors, in the 1940s, believed the traditional story form, and closure in particular, was a bourgeois artifice. They felt movies should begin and end in medias res. Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica, and others were after not artifice but reality, in their case the reality of a struggling working class in wartime. And so Rome, Open City, ends not when a group of children see Don Pietro being executed — that would have been the ka-pow ending in the bourgeois poem adaptation — but with the children returning to the city, their life going on. The idea is that end of the movie is not the end of the story.
Are poems written as part of extended sequences, or a book-length project, under less pressure to End with repeating tropes, or with what Mary Biddinger calls "the full brass section"? As with chapter books or TV episodes, there is something that came before, and something coming next, so less weight rests on the poem's ending. An unscientific study of book-length poems and series on my shelves both supports and refutes this idea. Two sections of Bernadette Mayer’s Midwinter Day end with repeating language. The ends of poems in Ronald Johnson's ARK feel much less like endings I know and expect. And then, in Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror: "My wife / Thinks I'm in Oslo — Oslo, France, that is."
Ashbery is a poet who plays around with the idea of ending, though. More on that later.
Maybe one reason poems in translation are so refreshing to read, if one reads mainly journals or books of poetry in English, is that other literatures have other structures, including end structures. Not that Nguyen Quang Thieu or Markku Paasonen never repeat at the end of their poems, just not as often (more unscientific analysis).
The publishing and submitting system might pressure the ends of our poems, too. Editors are always short on time and room. When so many poems come in, and an editor can pick just one, she may unconsciously pick the one that feels “complete in itself,” with an ending that sounds like an ending as she knows it. Editors like to be surprised. And they don’t like to think they have biases. But familiarity when it comes to structure (not so much with language) probably influences how screeners read the slush pile. Not that that's a reason to keep to old habits. More a reason poetry editors should read good journals of translation.
Can poems end in medias res? Need the end of the poem be end-of-the-poemlike? Can a poem end with an interruption, an ellipsis, and still feel satisfying — and what about when it's read out loud? Should we be a little suspicious of our repeating-endings? I think the answer to the last question, and I implicate my own poems when I say this, is yes. Some of my favorite endings play with the idea of ending. I will talk about poems that end differently later in the week. In other words: to be continued.