Leda and the Swan- Poets.org - Poetry, Poems, Bios & More
Yeats’ ominous conclusion, masquerading as a question, made me think about endings in poems, including Robert Lowell's "Skunk Hour," discussed here July 1:
a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail.
She jabs her wedge-head in a cup
of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,
and will not scare.
We’ve heard, at least from Princeton’s James Richardson, that a poem should end standing on one foot. I think he means that poems’ endings should avoid a bass drum message and clang of truth-cymbals implying that the rest of the poem hasn’t been worth much, has mostly been a charade that was only meant to prep for the fat lady's song of Truth as the curtain falls.
Here again is Keats at the end of “Ode on a Grecian Urn”:
'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is allI tend to agree with James Richardson; poets should not moralize bombastically or condescendingly to their readers. But I excuse Keats here because: he was Keats; he was young (25); he was writing under a different aesthetic (English Romanticism, around 1819); and I probably agree with his aphorism—Beauty (capitalized) probably is as close as we can come to Truth.
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.'
But as I tell myself I want poems to end with a touch of humility, obliqueness, standing on one foot, I think too other endings of poems.
Would I want these or “Leda and the Swan” muted, turned sideways, forced to wobble on one foot, pretending to be tentative about any Truth they offer?
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.
(Dylan Thomas, “Fern Hill”)
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.
(Sylvia Plath, “Mirror”)
Or how about this chunk of magnificence from Richard Ford’s “Rock Springs,” a short story about a ne’er-do-well trying to set his ship aright, but for now, he's stranded in Wyoming:
What would you think a man was doing if you saw him in the middle of the night looking in the windows of cars in the parking lot of the Ramada Inn? Would you think he was trying to get his head cleared? Would you think he was trying to get ready for a day when trouble would come down on him? Would you think his girlfriend was leaving him? Would you think he had a daughter? Would you think he was anybody like you?
(Rock Springs, 27)
These might not be great examples of ending on two feet; but if they are, maybe we shouldn’t be in such a hurry to ask for one-foot landings. The closures above present big music and state, or strongly imply, big Truths; if that renders the rest of the works insignificant by comparison, maybe we should ask for more from the beginnings and middles, rather than less from the endings.
My own jury on this, is, as usual, still out, enjoying fried chicken under a giant tulip tree. Besides, it's almost certainly a case by case matter. Does anyone out there feel strongly about this, one way or the other?