Sunday, September 17, 2017

Ending Somewhere Different Than Where You Began

One of the key strategies in a work of literature is to start deliberately from a certain polarized place, and then end somewhere opposite by the end. In fiction or drama, this could involve a character or characters having a certain goal or outlook, and then finishing with an almost opposite state of mind by the climax of the story. An example would be George Orwell’s Animal Farm, where the animals begin with an idealistic and egalitarian rebellion, and then their revolution becomes increasing compromised until the leaders of the farm are chowing down with the same farmers they overthrew.

In poetry, this transition from Point A to Point B often involves starting with a certain mood, emotion, or idea, and then shifting almost 180 degrees by the end of the poem. An example of a poem that does this beautifully is Robert Hass’s “Meditation at Lagunitas.” 

Robert Hass

At the start of the poem, the speaker defines a way of thinking that is current and popular in intellectual and artistic circles: “All the new thinking is about loss.” Hass goes on to describe how this sense of belonging to a fallen world without meaning has become pervasive:

The idea, for example, that each particular erases
the luminous clarity of a general idea.…

…Or the other notion that,
because there is in this world no one thing
to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,
a word is elegy to what it signifies.

At this point in the poem, we have hit a low point, a world in which even common words no longer seem to have any fixed or real significance, an idea that many contemporary writers and philosophers have propounded, such as the structuralist thinker Jacques Lacan, whose work became trendy in universities in the 1980s and 90s. 

But even as Robert Hass describes this idea, he starts to inch the poem in a different direction. Notice how carefully he describes the “bramble of blackberry.” The precise and original language he uses throughout builds a foundation that words actually are capable of describing something real.

The turning point in the poem comes in the next section:

After a while I understood that,
talking this way, everything dissolves: justice,
pine, hair, woman, you and I. There was a woman
I made love to and I remembered how, holding
her small shoulders in my hands sometimes,
I felt a violent wonder at her presence
like a thirst for salt, for my childhood river
with its island willows, silly music from the pleasure boat,
muddy places where we caught the little orange-silver fish
called pumpkinseed.

It’s one thing to give some credence to the idea that the word blackberry has lost its meaning, but when Hass adds the phrases woman, you and I, this suddenly calls up a memory for the speaker of an actual romantic encounter, with its unforgettable and remarkable particulars. Hass conveys the specifics of how that lovemaking felt on an emotional and spiritual level so clearly that we are no longer in the bloodless realm of philosophical skepticism. We are in a world where certain realities are too specific and compelling to be denied, and those facts sweep along with them even the almost trivial memories of the pleasure boat and the fish called pumpkinseed, the way a river’s current carries in it all sorts of flotsam.

The poem then concludes with almost a complete reversal of the world as initially described. Now the undeniable reality of that romantic episode ripples through all words, giving substance to the smallest mundane things:

There are moments when the body is as numinous
as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.
Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,
saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.

Initially the blackberry was the perfect example of how words have become trivial and have lost their meaning. In just 31 lines, Robert Hass has taken us all the back way around to a state of grace where an everyday occurence, such as saying the word blackberry, testifies to the possibility of goodness and meaning in the world.

To make this point more generally, often when we writers are struggling with a draft, we haven’t yet found the potential opposites in the work. Those opposites can be implicit in an early draft, but buried. The challenge is to heighten and bring forward those contrasts, even if they seem extreme and scary. By emphasizing those polarities, and by being open to ending at a completely different point than where we started, we can surprise ourselves and the reader with a realization that can suddenly appear at the end, as unlikely as a rabbit popping out of a top hat.

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies
Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe

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Types of Closure in Poetry