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An Exit Strategy
I’ll be posting an AM(A)A opportunity later this week, when paid subscribers can pick my brain and ask me (almost) anything. One thing people ask about a lot is endings: How do you know when a poem or essay is done? How do you find the right moment to step out of a piece? How do you avoid either stopping short or overshooting the target?
The short answer is intuition. With experience, you often feel when the piece has found its most resonant, compelling landing. But it’s also true that some exit strategies work better than others, so today I’m sharing one of my favorites.
Whether you’re working on a poem, a story, or an essay—or even a longer form piece like a novel or memoir—experiment with ending on a significant image. Let the detail release meaning.
You can use a new image at the end of the poem, or return to an earlier image, so that the piece is somewhat bookended. I like how this move gives a sense of coming full-circle—a sense of closure and cohesiveness—without relying on exposition. You don’t want to oversell the closing or spoon-feed the reader; after all, a poem isn’t a fable with a moral at the end.
Flipping through my second book, The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison, I noticed this kind of bookending in “Freedom Colony.” The poem opens with the image of the moon, likened to a parade float, and closes with a return to that metaphor. The “bad cover of a song” from line 2 is also returned to in line 15: “I had to close my eyes to hear ‘Blue Bayou.’”
In your poem or essay, you might consider transforming an earlier image to provide more detail or show a shift in the piece. For example, if you return to a tree from earlier, is it still full and green, or is it bare at the end of the piece? Consider this imagistic shorthand that allows you to communicate without explaining. For example, I love the return of the rain in Stanley Plumly’s “In Passing,” and the rising at the end as a foil to “the Falls” at the beginning of the poem.
My two cents: As an exit strategy, try offering a significant image, one that feels metaphorically freighted, as the poem’s “last word.” Resist the impulse to explain. Let the reader sit with that image and participate in making meaning.
Happy writing (& revising)—
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