For me, one of the most effective ways to achieve closure in a poem is to end with a resonant image.
The temptation when you are ending a poem is to try to tie up every loose end. You want to tell the reader exactly what it is that you’re trying to say, what you’ve been building up to for the entire poem. That strategy is very likely to put the reader off. No one likes being lectured to, least of all fans of poetry. The chances are, if you have written the entire poem with a particular emotion or idea in mind, the reader has gotten the message by the time the poem is almost done.
One way to end a poem that doesn’t hit the reader over the head, but reinforces and/or expands on what the poem has explored, is to finish with an image that lingers in the reader’s thoughts and echoes other elements in the poem. Ending with a particularly vivid and haunting image changes the tone so that the poem has closure at the end.
The best way to explain this is to give an example. The classic instance of this is John Keats’s sonnet, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”:
Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
Basically, the speaker of this poem is saying that he’s read a lot about Homer’s Greece, but he never really got it till he read George Chapman’s translation of The Odyssey. Now he understands the beauty and majesty of Homer’s poetry and the world he describes.
But instead of saying that flat out, in the poem’s sestet, or final six lines, Keats gives us two seemingly unrelated images. The first is an astronomer discovering a new planet when it “swims” into view (you gotta love that verb, “swim”!). The second is the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés, leading an exploratory party to a cliff in Panama, where for the first time, Europeans gazed on the world’s largest ocean, the Pacific, from the Americas.
More than any didactic conclusion, these two images give a sense of the incredible wonder that Keats felt when he read Chapman’s translation of Homer. That last image, of the ocean that was undreamed of by Cortés and his men, just rolls on and on in the mind, like a long chord, as vast and inspiring as the Pacific.
What provides the closure here is that we have switched from Homer to another realm, but one that vibrates with Keats’s feelings about discovering Chapman’s version of The Odyssey. The poem has shifted, but is still in the mode of awe, in fact, deeper in that mode because of the resonant image, so much more expansive than someone sitting in a library reading a translation from ancient Greek, but reflecting on how amazing that experience can actually be.
One contemporary poet who has mastered the art of ending on a resonant image is Joseph Millar. Millar has a way of finding a final image that engages the reader, brings together threads in the poem, but opens the door to deeper emotion or contemplation.
In his poem “Labor Day,” for instance, Millar describes all the ways that labor is not being done on that holiday. The speaker is celebrating all those who have earned a day off because of their hard work. Instead of winding up with this theme, though, he ends with a cinematic image that encapsulates and expands the poem’s ideas and emotions:
the tuna boats rest on their tie-up lines
turning a little, this way and that.
This last image is a symbol of Labor Day itself, with the boats docked and not in use (and you know tuna boats see some serious fishing!). But that image also lets in another range of ideas and emotions, because of the restlessness of the boats in the water. This motion might suggest that Labor Day may be a time of repose, but it also highlights unresolved issues about those who work with their hands, and those who manage or profit from their labor.
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Poetic Forms: Introduction; The Sonnet, The Sestina, The Ghazal, The Tanka, The Villanelle
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