Saturday, May 2, 2020
Marin Poetry Center Online Covid Confinement Writing Retreat: Last Lines
Day 6: Last Lines
Today we will explore last lines in a lyrical-narrative poem.
What My Father Told Me
Always I have done what was asked.
Melmac dishes stacked on rag towels.
The slack of a vacuum cleaner cord
wound around my hand. Laundry
hung on a line.
There is always much to do and I do it.
The iron resting in its frame, hot
in the shallow pan of summer
as the basins of his hands push
aside the book I am reading.
I do as I am told, hold his penis
like the garden hose, in the bedroom,
in that bathroom, over the toilet
or my bare stomach.
I do the chores, pull weeds out back,
finger stinkbug husks, snail carcasses,
pile dead grass in black bags. At night
his feet are safe on their pads, light
on the wall-to-wall as he takes
the hallway to my room.
His voice, the hiss of lawn sprinklers,
the wet hush of sweat in his hollows,
the mucus still damp
in the corners of my eyes as I wake.
Summer ends. Schoolwork doesn't suit me.
My fingers unaccustomed to the slimness
of a pen, the delicate touch it takes
to uncoil the mind.
History. A dateline pinned to the wall.
Beneath each president's face, a quotation.
Pictures of buffalo and wheat fields,
a wagon train circled for the night,
my hand raised to ask a question,
Where did the children sleep?
By Dorianne Laux. From Awake (Carnegie Mellon, 1990)
I could have easily used this poem yesterday when we were discussing emotional connection. I saved it for today because, although she is a master at writing poems that connect with her readers emotionally, Laux is so intentional about building the intensity right up to her ultimate line that is often the strongest line in the poem. In her words, "In poetry there is no such thing as denoue-effing-ment. In other words, the final line(s) should be the knock-out punch--every time. This, according to Laux, is one of the features that distinguishes poetry from other literary genres.
On day 1 of this series, we looked at what Suzanne Buffam had to say about opening lines in her short poem that not only told us, but also enacted what opening lines should do: engage the reader's senses and make an emotional connection. Her poem about closing lines is also spot-on and echoes Laux's belief.
On Last Lines
The last line should strike like a lover's complaint.
You should never see it coming.
And you should never hear the end of it.
From The Irrationalist (Canarium Books, 2010)
Buffam's three-lined poem is a good description of Laux's final line "Where did the children sleep?" Notice how it would not be as strong if we could see it coming, if somehow the poet gave it away with a title "Where the Children Slept," or earlier in the poem, without the distance from the father that the back-to-school narrative provides. Buffam refers to this kind of surprise as "subverting the reader's expectations," which is precisely what Laux's last line does. And that subversion is married to the strong emotions we feel for a child asking an innocent-sounding question that is, in reality, a question informed by horrific experience.
Buffam's description also applies to Michael Ryan's final line in "Not The End Of The World" from Day 5. (If you're dropping in without having read yesterday's post, click back to it and read the poem.) The power of the line, of course, lies in the fact that the lines right before the final lines appear to be winding down to a "happy ending" with the wounded "bird gone. All the birds were gone." And we think yay! our little guy survived. But then the poet shows us a desolate space in the circle where they were--"a space so desolate / that for one moment I saw / the dead planet." Boom! We never saw it coming. And we will continue to hear the line ringing for a long time.
Li-Young Lee's poem, "Persimmon" (see Day 3 in this series), builds more and more lyricism between and among his narrative-driven stanzas, until in the final stanza his diction sings in a register higher than any other time in the poem.
The only time Waters (see Day 4 in this series) lets go of his tight reign on concrete imagery is in his final line that relaxes its hold and allows abstraction to help convey a universal truth: "while the power gathered in his thigh / surged like language into my thumb."
Saving the best line(s) for last is an effective way to end a poem. But that doesn't mean that the final lines tie everything up in a bow. Leaving some mystery is usually far stronger than resolving every conflict and solving every problem in a neat, tidy manner. That is why Dorianne Laux repeats several times during her workshops: "In poetry, there is no deneou-effing-ment."
Sometimes that means that in revising a poem the poet must cut their way back to the strongest line because the poet kept writing after the poem was finished. When workshopping a poem, some poets will resist changing a poem in this manner. "But that's not the way it happened," they may say. I love Dorianne Laux's response to those poets: "We love you, but we really don't care. This is not about what did or did not happen, it's about making a better poem."
New Work Prompt:
Write a narrative-lyrical poem about a difficult experience (can be 100% from your imagination or part experience / part imagination). When you feel the poem has come to an end, look to see whether the final line(s) are the strongest in the poem. If they are not, cut your way back to what feels like the strongest lines and see what you have. If you cut so far that you don't have much of a poem left, then think about how you can strengthen the final lines with stronger imagery, metaphor, or some other poetic device.
Look at one of your poems whose ending doesn't seem to be working. Put a + beside the strongest lines in the poem; an = beside the acceptable lines in the poem, and a - beside the weak lines in the poem. 1) Cut all of the weak lines; 2) distribute your strong lines so that the first 3 lines are all strong lines and the final 3 lines are the strongest lines. If the strong lines don't work in that role, rework them until they do.
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Easy-to-Make, Healthy Pecan Pie
Prep Time: 10 min
Cook Time: 35 min
Total Time: 45 min
Servings: 8 slices
Calories: 410 / slice
Author: Lacey Baier
1/2 cup raw honey
2 tbsp coconut oil, melted
1/2 tsp fresh orange zest
1/8 tsp sea salt
1 tbsp unsweetened almond milk
1 tsp ground ground cinnamon
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
3 tbsp whole wheat pastry flour
2 cups raw pecans
1 bottom pie crust
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
2. In a large bowl, combine raw honey, coconut oil, eggs, fresh orange zest, sea salt, unsweetened almond milk, ground cinnamon, pure vanilla extract, and whole wheat pastry flour. Stir to combine.
3. Arrange the raw pecans into the prepared 9-inch pie crust.
4. Pour the liquid filling mixture over the pecans, spreading some with a spoon if necessary.
5. Place into the oven and bake for 10 minutes at 400 degrees, then reduce the temperature to 350 degrees and bake for 20-25 minutes.
6. The pie will rise in the oven. You'll know it's done then it has small cracks in the top and is no longer giggly.
7. Remove from oven and allow to cool, preferably overnight.
was born in the Midwest, grew up in New Mexico, and has lived in the San Francisco bay area for two decades. Terry's work has appeared in numerous literary journals, including Alaska Quarterly Review, Best New Poets 2012, Crab Orchard Review, Green Mountains Review, Great River Review, New Millennium Writings, and The Comstock Review. His work has garnered seven Pushcart Prize nominations. He is the winner of the 2014 Crab Orchard Review Special Issue Feature Award in Poetry. His chapbook, Altar Call, was a winner in the the 2013 San Gabriel Valley Literary Festival, and appears in the Anthology, Diesel. His chapbook, If They Have Ears to Hear, won the 2012 Copperdome Poetry Chapbook Contest, and is available from Southeast Missouri State University Press. His full-length poetry collections are In This Room (CW Books, 2016) and Dharma Rain (Saint Julian Press, 2017). Terry is a 2008 poetry MFA graduate of New England College. When he is not writing he is teaching as a regular speaker in the Dominican University Low-Residency MFA Program and as a free-lance writing coach. For more information about Terry and his work see www.terrylucas.com.