50 Ways to End a Poem

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When T.S. Eliot wrote, “April is the cruelest month,” he was not talking about trying and failing to meet the 30 poems in 30 days National Poetry Month challenge. But you could be forgiven for repeating this phrase ominously to yourself as you start to lose your stride around day 6, staring into your Notes app as you try to decipher what “death as a wall of cornflakes!!!” meant to the 3 AM self who urgently transcribed this line straight from the muse.

As National Poetry Month challenges go, I recommend following Taylor Byas, who publishes a calendar of formal challenges every April. If 30 poems in 30 days still sounds a little daunting, that’s because it is. But to quote Karyna McGlynn in her craft essay from Marbles on the Floor, “You LIKE writing poems, remember??”

As a teacher, I want my students to appreciate that you can find inspiration for a poem anywhere, but giving yourself a few obstacles to work around will help you write this ONE poem rather than every conceivable poem there is. That’s why I created the Poetry Prompt Generator, an online resource for poets that randomizes potential features for a poem. Using a prompt—even if you stray from it—is a great way to kickstart a poem. But how do you finish a poem, especially a problem poem that needs something you can’t yet see?

Ending a poem was something of a mystery to me as an MFA student. My poetic instincts, whatever they were, could not be relied upon to deliver solid gold, and this was distressing to me. I am a Gemini and my rising sign is Scorpio, so I volunteer this as context for my appetite for sustained intensity in poetry. To my dismay, however, I would often start a poem strong and then just peter out at the end, as if awkwardly backing offstage. I remember my former MFA professor Marianne Boruch crossing out the ends of several of my poems and telling me in workshop that I’d overshot my landing. “This part down here is just tacked on, like ‘P.S., Don’t forget the mayonnaise,’” she said.

I became curious about all the possible ways to end a poem. What is the right ending for this particular poem, and how will I know it when I see it? In Adrienne Rich’s tradition of revision as “re-seeing,” I invite the poets I teach to try out as many alternate variations of a poem as possible, to think of revision not as correction but as a remix, a companion to the original.

Presumably, just as there are infinite ways to start a poem, there are infinite ways to finish it and get the hell out of dodge.

These 50 are just the start.

50 Ways to End a Poem

1. End on an image (the classic choice)

2. Use a two-part ending: set yourself up in one line and then kick the door in with the other

3. End with a question, like Hayden: What did I know, what did I know / of love’s austere and lonely offices?

4. End with a dramatic shift in dynamics. Move from run-on to fragment, from concrete to abstract. Turn the volume knob. Introduce yourself to the other margin. Disturb your punctuation. Get breathless or let more air into the poem

5. End with a punchline

6. End with epiphanic closure—suddenly now you see it, lightning strikes the tower of the self, etc.

7. Name something that previously felt difficult to name; call it up out of the darkness

8. End by going back to the beginning (circle back to an image, replicate your syntax, repeat a thesis, return to the start of the story)

9. Leave something out, end mysteriously, or give a little hint and invite the reader to figure it out

10. Find what you said you were looking for, say you’ll keep looking, or announce that you’ve given up looking

11. End with a remix, like the envoi of a sestina—condense and reconfigure your key ideas in a new order

12. End with a reversal: invert the story, flip the power ratio, change the point of view, or literally reverse the poem’s order from the bottom up

13. End with a prophecy or by fulfilling a prophecy

14. Write two endings and let the reader pick their favorite

15. Use a refrain—like the pantoum or duplex, begin and end with the same line

16. End with a non sequitur and make your reader really wonder about you

17. Cut yourself off—perhaps you’ve already written the real ending and it’s a few lines up

18. End with a pattern of three, which makes everything sound lyrical and profound (looking at you, Bob Hass: blackberry, blackberry, blackberry)

19. End in the style of a cento: borrow (but also cite) lines by other poets arranged in a new order

20. Distill your imagery into its essential parts and close out the poem in the compressed style of haiku

21. End with a litany or prayer

22. In a tribute to Márquez, have the last line of the poem carried away by ants

23. Take a look at your first and last lines—are they in the right places? Is your end really your beginning and your beginning really your end (not to get too philosophical or too #Semisonic)?

24. End in the style of a ghazal: refer to yourself by name and end with a patterned rhyme and refrain

25. Try a Hercule Poirot ending: gather all the suspects in the drawing room & rule them out one by one until the least likely ending is left

26. Change the direction of the poem’s gesture—if it’s an internal kind of poem, then gesture outward at the world, or vice versa: go introspective at the end

27. Summarize what has come before, “And so…” or “In short…” or “In other words” or “I said what I said”

28. Change your tone—for example, by making fun of something you may have taken very seriously until now

29. Write an imitation of The Monster at the End of This Book and, like Grover, beg your reader to stop turning pages; promise them they don’t want to know how this ends

30. Let AI, dice, or the n+7 method decide how to end your poem

31. Go ekphrastic—end with the description of a work of art

32. End with the revelation of an important secret

33. End with a pithy piece of wisdom or even (borrowing from Shakespeare) with a smug little proverb in a rhyming couplet

34. Outsource your metaphors and involve dreams, fairy tales, fables, or myths

35. End with an erasure of your own words

36. “Maybe the real treasure was the friends we made along the way”

37. Shape your poem like a monologue in a Shonda Rimes show: first state your metaphor, then fully explain it, then repeat it again vehemently while crying

38. End with existential dread, death, the sun swallowing the earth, other cheerful topics

39. End with a second turn—surprise! Your reader thought they knew where this was going

40. End with rebirth, like Plath’s bees who “taste the spring”

41. Disagree with your own conclusions, change your mind, refute what has come before, reject your epiphany

42. Be like Rilke and suddenly confront your reader with “You must change your life”

43. Argue with someone: yourself, someone in the poem already, a new person, a famous person, a secret person, a loved one, a critic, the reader, the world, God, the moon, history

44. Issue an elaborately detailed thousand-year curse upon your enemies

45. Undermine yourself, go Prufrock and say that wasn’t what you meant at all

46. If the poem has been primarily narrative in mode (scene, character, plot, dialogue), end with a lyric strategy (repetition, music, imagery, figurative language)

47. Suggest that your lawyer has redacted your real ending to protect you from going to jail

48. If the poem has been sure of itself up until this point, concede the limits of the speaker and switch it up by introducing the unknown, the unanswerable question or ongoing worry

49. If the poem has been working in unanswerable worries already, switch it up by making the speaker more certain of some insight

50. Refuse to end, resist closure, tell your reader it’s a lifelong poem project and threaten that you’ll see them around

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