Closure is generally defined as the state of being closed: a definition looping back on itself. Closed can mean: having boundaries, explicitly limited, restricted, self-contained, and self-sufficient. These definitions all say that being closed is to be inside; that closure exists within a specified time and space. How does this notion of closure, then, apply to the writing of poetry? How, as a poet, can you tell that your poem has reached closure? Or, should it?
There aren’t a lot of academic sources that deal specifically with poetic closure. Of these limited resources, the 1968 book Poetic Closure: A Study of How Poem Ends by Barbara Hernstein Smith is the most substantial. How does Smith define poetic closure? Surprisingly, and perhaps appropriately for the post-modernists, Smith doesn’t provide a definitive definition. If I had to pull a definition from her book, however, it would be this, “Closure, then, may be regarded as a modification of structure that makes stasis, or the absence of further continuation” (Smith, 34). The closing portion of a poem, therefore, should create, “in the reader a sense of appropriate cessation. It announces and justifies the absence of further development” (Smith, 36).
Smith’s analysis of poetic closure largely revolves around formal poetry. She writes, “a more common source of the sense of formal completeness, in poetry and elsewhere, is, in fact, that use of repetition that we refer to as symmetry” (Smith, 27). The use of rhyme figures prominently in Smith’s discussion which makes sense given that before the popularity of free verse most formal poetry found closure, at least in part, through the use of rhyme. Smith uses the poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay” by Robert Frost to illustrate successful formal poetic closure:
Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay. (Smith, 223)
“Nothing Gold Can Stay” uses a simple rhyme scheme made up of couplets with the first two lines and the last two lines also rhyming with each other. Smith writes that, “rhyme provides, in fact, . . . an additional ‘grouping’ factor [which] binds them even more closely as a single perceptual form” (49-50). Using rhyme, therefore, in a poem gives the reader a structure, an expectation for the poem. A rhymed poem promises a pattern that will be fulfilled. If the pattern is not continued than one would assume there was a purpose for the deviation.
Beyond the use of rhyme, Frost also sets up a circular structure for this poem. The title and the last line of the poem are the same, which creates an echo. Between these lines Frost poses the thesis that, “Nature’s first green is gold / her hardest hue to hold” (1-2) which he then explains by the final line with the truth that “Nothing gold can stay” (8). There is a sense of satisfaction reached with this “answer.”
Why do we seek this satisfaction? Smith turned to Gestalt psychology in an attempt to address this question. Gestalt psychologists argue that humans fundamentally seek a “need,” and that once we assimilate that need we reach a sense of equilibrium. Gestalts believe humans are always seeking equilibrium (Smith, 32). Is that true for everyone? Do all cultures and people seek that kind of balance? Would all cultures and people find satisfactory closure with “Nothing Gold Can Stay”?
Perhaps one can find an answer to the cultural question by looking to another genre. Christopher Vogler writes in The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structures for Writers about the mythic journey as it pertains to cinema. He states that Americans see “a circular form in which there is a sense of closure and completion.” But in Asian, as well as some Australian and European, movies there is a more open-ended approach to storytelling that may include “unanswered questions, ambiguities and unresolved conflicts” (Vogler, 217).
How then can we define acceptable closure when, as a people, we don’t see endings the same? Smith’s definition of poetry definitely comes across as more traditional—American. Smith’s work helps the reader to find closure in formal poetry, or one can at least justify that a poem satisfies the form. What are we then to do with free verse? Smith says that “although the line in a free-verse poem is not constant, it usually reflects a limit of variability” (86). This means that the poet often develops a norm within each individual poem whether it is through such devices as syllabics, sound, or syntax. Smith goes on to say, “the sense of closure in much modern poetry is not very strong, and there is a good reason to suppose it is often not intended to be” (95).
Lyn Hejinian addresses some of the issues around free verse endings in her two essays on closure. Hejinian approaches the issue of poetic closure from a more European/International and post-modern outlook. In May 1985, she published an essay entitled “The Rejection of Closure” in Poetics Journal. (The essay, as well as Hejinian’s other essay which I will reference, are now online and excerpts are quoted from those online sources). Hejinian writes, “Whatever the pleasures, in a fundamental way closure is a fiction—one of the amenities that fantasy or falsehood provides.” She argues for an openness of a text versus closure. Hejinian continues her conversation against closure in the 2001 essay “Continuing Against Closure” when she writes that, “a pet and a pot have much in common, but it’s the fact that they have something not in common (i.e., one has an e where the other has an o) that allows us to recognize each and say something with and about either” (Jacket Magazine/Salt Magazine).
While Smith and Hejinian’s arguments seem to contradict each other, they actually serve as excellent juxtapositions on the topic of poetic closure. They are both responding to the poetic tradition, just from different sides of Frost’s theoretical fence.
Are there only these two types of closure: the circular, formal and/or modern writing and the more post-modern, open-ended approach? I don’t think closure can be so black and white. I pull again from Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structures for Writers for additional examples of how one might define closure. Vogler writes that there are four ways to look at film endings just as there are four ways to end a sentence: the period, the ellipses, the question mark, and the exclamation point (225).
The period—full stop—is the most direct and common way to end a sentence and may be the most common way to end a story or poem. “Nothing Gold Can Stay” is an example of this type of ending. To examine the other three possible ways to end a poem I will discuss poems from the award winning contemporary poet Ocean Vuong’s chapbook, Burnings. There are many reasons I chose to study Vuong’s work for this essay which include: the quality of his writing, the variety of poems even in a quite short collection, and my interest in his take on closure as a Vietnamese-American poet who is also young and openly gay.
In Vuong’s poem “More Than Sex,” the images pull the reader through a very specific sexual event with lines such as, “His body trembling / in the brilliant ripples / of orgasm” (1-3). But, as the poem progresses, I feel the speaker is wanting more than just that singular sexual experience, and perhaps by extension, from the poem and/or life itself as he begins to question, “Is it right to love / this hunger which binds” (8-9). By the end of the poem the speaker says he gets what he came for, but what he came for is described as, “a sea of lilacs / unfurling / their withered petals” (21-23).
Vuong presents an image/situation, analyzes that item and the implications surrounding it before he provides a conclusion. Vuong’s poetic presentation in “More Than Sex” fits a standard well-thought out argument, and yet, what do those last few lines mean? What exactly has the speaker of Vuong’s poem found? The mystery of this final image is more open-ended. There is more than one possible interpretation, even tone, you can take away from those three short lines. Is the speaker now happy? Is he, in fact, satisfied with his closure/decision/sexual moment? This type of open-ended closure has more in common with Hejinian’s anti-closure arguments than Smith’s discussions of the matter. This particular poem ends with an implied ellipses. For Hejinian this open (elliptical) ending is the preferred form of poetic closure versus what she calls “the unimaginable closed texts” that if they could contain everything “would be insufferable” (Rejection of Closure).
In addition to the period and ellipses as ways to end a sentence/story/poem, there is also the question. A question invites inquiry. A poem that ends with a question, much like one with an ellipses, may not specifically end with a question mark. Having a question (or an implied question) at the end gives the reader a moment to think again about the work presented before the poem ended. A question poem leans more toward avoiding closure as it asks for the reader to reflect on the question the poem raises.
Returning to Vuong we find the poem, “In Defense of Poverty,” which ends with a question. In fact, each of the poem’s two stanzas end with a question. In the final stanza we find the two characters in the poem “curled in front / of the oven’s mouth” (12-13) “listening to rats” (14) in the walls. And yet there is music and comfort in these scenes of seeming lack. The final question Vuong poses is:
Darling, in that absolute darkness.
why did you try to hide it, when I knew,
by the way your finger twitched
inside my palm, that you were smiling? (17-20)
The answer I found from this final question is that the poem’s speaker finds safety and satisfaction in simplicity, but I doubt that is the only interpretation. Throughout Burnings, Vuong raises implied questions as the speakers of his poems deal with questions of identity.
The final type of closure is what I discovered to be my own poetic demon: the exclamation point. There probably aren’t a lot of poets who use many exclamation points in their poems and especially not at the end of their poems. I’m not the only one, however, who has the desire to end a poem with the effect of an exclamation point. The effect of an exclamation point is usually described as an attempt to show strong emotion and/or surprise. Vuong does not use any exclamation points to end his points and, in fact, I don’t think he often goes for that type of ending but I think he comes close with the poem “My Mother Remembers Her Mother.”
This is a dark poem that opens with, “My eyes close into night / thickened with ash and blossoms” (1-2). This is a poem that takes place in a war zone. There is a woman giving herself up to a GI, a soldier that is part of the speaker’s heritage. The speaker of the poem has to reckon with that soldier’s DNA when he says, “a white man / rages in my veins” (28-29) . The words throughout the poem burn, and the poem ends with the very dramatic, “I tell them I was born / because someone was starving” (30-31).
This ending satisfies me as a reader. The starkness of this final image is a revelatory moment that makes me want to reread the poem. With each reading I find more subtle examples of how the hunger ending was inevitable. Vuong writes “hunger neglects pride” (11) and he shows soldiers leaving what we can assume are payments for sexual services via “liquor, salt” (15). The poem’s strong use of imagery creates a pattern that Smith mentions in her discusses of modern poetic forms of closure that don’t involve rhyme and/or other forms/rhythms.
An exclamatory ending can definitely work as Vuong’s poem clearly shows, but a problem arises when the drive to do so, as it is often for me, becomes overused to the point that your work becomes predictable and your readers may find themselves only reading your work to try and find the punch line. I think the tendency to the surprise/twist ending, for me, comes out of a desire to tell a story or to spin an anecdote. Perhaps it is part of my Southern childhood that makes me want to be the best storyteller at any given family gathering.
Some may ask if there is anything wrong with being predictable, especially given that that is the kind of poetic closure that it seems Smith’s study of Gestalt psychology would favor. I would argue that there isn’t anything wrong with being known for a particular type of writing, but if that is the only thing we do are we really growing and/or adding much to the conversation of poetics? Who wants to be a one-trick poetic pony?
When, therefore, is the poem over? This is still a question I struggle with in my own writing. Having these four possible ways to evaluate the endings of poems gives me at least a small light to shine upon my own work. As I try to revise my poems, I can think of the period, the question mark, the ellipses and the exclamation point and ask myself if the particular poem I’m examining is leaning toward one of these types of endings. Not all poems will or should be placed into one of these four categories, but they can be a guide to move one toward the best poetic closure possible for each individual poem because the last thing you want to do is have a poem end just because it has reached the end of the page.
Smith, Barbara Hernstein. Poetic Closure: A Study of How Poems End. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1968. Print.
Vogler, Christopher. The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, 3rd Edition. Studio City: Michael Wiese Publications. 2007. Print
Vuong, Ocean. Burnings. Alexander: Sibling Rivalry Press. 2011. Print
Jessie Carty's writing has appeared in publications such as, MARGIE, decomP and Connotation Press. She is the author of five poetry collections that include An Amateur Marriage (Finishing Line, 2012) as well as the award-winning full length poetry collection, Paper House (Folded Word 2010). Jessie is a freelance writer, teacher, and editor. She is also the managing editor of Referential Magazine. She can be found around the web, especially at http://jessiecarty.com.