Last Lines

July 10, 2022

  This seemed like a natural follow-up to last week’s topic, First Lines  There are obviously as many and varied kinds of endings for a poem as there are beginnings.  A poem might sum up an argument the poem has been making–maybe with a twist–like a Shakespearean sonnet.  It might end with the satisfying click of a box, or the end of a scene or story.  Some sustain ambiguity and paradox, some end with questions.  Some end with images that remain vivid in our minds when we turn from the page, some with a satisfying rhyme.  Some return to the title, and repeat it or offer a variation.  Some are bangs, some are whimpers.  Or whispers.  When I was beginning to write, the ending of the first poem here, “A Blessing,” was often used as an example of the kind of leap an ending could make.  So was the Hugo poem, which he recited magnificently as he paced back and forth across the stage.  I couldn’t resist following it with the Plath poem, as a kind of response–the ferocity of its ending takes my breath away every time.  I include it even though the Nazi/ Jewish references that appear at one point still seem wildly inappropriate to me.   I also admire the ferocity of the Clifton poem, the self-knowledge and self-accusation of the Merwin, and the double-take of the McHugh.

And we can of course look at the first and last lines as pairs–are they closely connected, or is there no way you could have predicted that last line?  We talked about entering a poem with the first line.  How does the ending return us to the world?

I’d also recommend we look back at the endings of the poems we talked about last week, and for that matter any others that occur to you.  Feel free to include any of those in Comments on the blog.  If you’d like them to be available to look at during Fridays at 4, please post them or email them to me by Thursday, or have them ready on your desktop for screen share.


James Wright

Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.



Richard Hugo

You might come here Sunday on a whim.
Say your life broke down. The last good kiss
you had was years ago. You walk these streets
laid out by the insane, past hotels
that didn’t last, bars that did, the tortured try
of local drivers to accelerate their lives.
Only churches are kept up. The jail
turned 70 this year. The only prisoner
is always in, not knowing what he’s done.

The principal supporting business now
is rage. Hatred of the various grays
the mountain sends, hatred of the mill,
The Silver Bill repeal, the best liked girls
who leave each year for Butte. One good
restaurant and bars can’t wipe the boredom out.
The 1907 boom, eight going silver mines,
a dance floor built on springs—
all memory resolves itself in gaze,
in panoramic green you know the cattle eat
or two stacks high above the town,
two dead kilns, the huge mill in collapse
for fifty years that won’t fall finally down.

Isn’t this your life? That ancient kiss
still burning out your eyes? Isn’t this defeat
so accurate, the church bell simply seems
a pure announcement: ring and no one comes?
Don’t empty houses ring? Are magnesium
and scorn sufficient to support a town,
not just Philipsburg, but towns
of towering blondes, good jazz and booze
the world will never let you have
until the town you came from dies inside?

Say no to yourself. The old man, twenty
when the jail was built, still laughs
although his lips collapse. Someday soon,
he says, I’ll go to sleep and not wake up.
You tell him no. You’re talking to yourself.
The car that brought you here still runs.
The money you buy lunch with,
no matter where it’s mined, is silver
and the girl who serves your food
is slender and her red hair lights the wall.



Sylvia Plath

I have done it again.
One year in every ten
I manage it–

A sort of walking miracle, my skin
Bright as a Nazi lampshade,
My right foot

A paperweight,
My face a featureless, fine
Jew linen.

Peel off the napkin
O my enemy.
Do I terrify?–

The nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth?
The sour breath
Will vanish in a day.

Soon, soon the flesh
The grave cave ate will be
At home on me

And I a smiling woman.
I am only thirty.
And like the cat I have nine times to die.

This is Number Three.
What a trash
To annihilate each decade.

What a million filaments.
The peanut-crunching crowd
Shoves in to see

Them unwrap me hand and foot——
The big strip tease.
Gentlemen, ladies

These are my hands
My knees.
I may be skin and bone,

Nevertheless, I am the same, identical woman.
The first time it happened I was ten.
It was an accident.

The second time I meant
To last it out and not come back at all.
I rocked shut

As a seashell.
They had to call and call
And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.

Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.

It’s easy enough to do it in a cell.
It’s easy enough to do it and stay put.
It’s the theatrical

Comeback in broad day
To the same place, the same face, the same brute
Amused shout:

‘A miracle!’
That knocks me out.
There is a charge

For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge
For the hearing of my heart–
It really goes.

And there is a charge, a very large charge
For a word or a touch
Or a bit of blood

Or a piece of my hair or my clothes.
So, so, Herr Doktor.
So, Herr Enemy.

I am your opus,
I am your valuable,
The pure gold baby

That melts to a shriek.
I turn and burn.
Do not think I underestimate your great concern.

Ash, ash—
You poke and stir.
Flesh, bone, there is nothing there–

A cake of soap,
A wedding ring,
A gold filling.

Herr God, Herr Lucifer

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.



Lucille Clifton

cruelty. don’t talk to me about cruelty
or what i am capable of.

when i wanted the roaches dead i wanted them dead
and i killed them. i took a broom to their country

and smashed and sliced without warning
without stopping and i smiled all the time i was doing it.

it was a holocaust of roaches, bodies,
parts of bodies, red all over the ground.

i didn’t ask their names.
they had no names worth knowing.

now i watch myself whenever i enter a room.
i never know what i might do.



W. S. Merwin

I have been cruel to a fat pigeon
Because he would not fly
All he wanted was to live like a friendly old man

He had let himself become a wreck filthy and confiding
Wild for his food beating the cat off the garbage
Ignoring his mate perpetually snotty at the beak
Smelling waddling having to be
Carried up the ladder at night content

Fly I said throwing him into the air
But he would drop and run back expecting to be fed
I said it again and again throwing him up
As he got worse
He let himself be picked up every time
Until I found him in the dovecote dead
Of the needless efforts

So that is what I am
Pondering his eye that could not
Conceive that I was a creature to run from

I who have always believed too much in words



Heather McHugh

When Americans say a man
takes liberties, they mean
he’s gone too far.  In Philadelphia

today a kid on a leash ordered
bicentennial burger,
hold the relish.  Hold

is forget, in American.
On the courts of Philadelphia
the rich prepare

to serve, to fault.
The language is a game in which
love means nothing, doubletalk

means lie.  I’m saying doubletalk
with me.  I’m saying go so far
the customs are untold,

make nothing without words
and let me be
the one you never hold.


Share the word

You Might Also Like

1 Comment

  • Reply Susanna Rich July 15, 2022 at 9:07 am

    The most elusive and written-about dismount to a poem is in Dickinson’s
    “My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun”

    My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun –
    In Corners – till a Day
    The Owner passed – identified –
    And carried Me away –

    And now We roam in Sovreign Woods –
    And now We hunt the Doe –
    And every time I speak for Him
    The Mountains straight reply –

    And do I smile, such cordial light
    Opon the Valley glow –
    It is as a Vesuvian face
    Had let it’s pleasure through –

    And when at Night – Our good Day done –
    I guard My Master’s Head –
    ’Tis better than the Eider Duck’s
    Deep Pillow – to have shared –

    To foe of His – I’m deadly foe –
    None stir the second time –
    On whom I lay a Yellow Eye –
    Or an emphatic Thumb –

    Though I than He – may longer live
    He longer must – than I –
    For I have but the power to kill,
    Without – the power to die –

  • Leave a Reply