One of the most dramatic methods of creating closure in a poem is to include a last line that is a dramatic revelation, a surprising or even shocking disclosure or insight that switches the entire mood of the poem. Poets often refer to this type of closure as a “killer ending.” This is the type of writing Emily Dickinson was describing in her famous letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson: “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”
The killer ending takes the top of your head off because it says something so deep and so true in an artful way. The poet I think of first in the context of the killer ending is Sharon Olds, who has succeeded so many times in writing poems that end with deep revelations, often incredibly honest and personal.
In Sharon Olds’s “I Go Back to May 1937,” the speaker of the poem imagines traveling back in time to the period when her parents met and became a couple. Instead of being a happy and nostalgic moment, though, it is almost unbearably painful for the speaker:
I want to go up to them and say Stop,
don’t do it—she’s the wrong woman,
he’s the wrong man…
you are going to do bad things to children,
you are going to suffer in ways you have not heard of,
you are going to want to die.
That is one of the darkest moments I can imagine. But the poem doesn’t end there. The speaker instead opts not to tell her parents what will happen, she even pushes her mother and father to conceive her, like a child playing with paper dolls. Olds finishes with this stunning line:
Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.
When I first typed that line, I accidentally typed it as, “and I will write about it.” But no, that’s not the verb in the poem. The speaker is going to tell the story, like a parent speaking to a child. Telling is a more direct form of communication than writing.
That action of the speaker seems to redeem all the pain of her parents’ lives and of her own life. And all of that happens in the last line. Of course, Sharon Olds is an incredibly skillful poet, and she has been preparing us for this redemptive ending even before the poem’s first line. The poem’s title situates us in the month of May, in the renewing season of springtime. In the very first line of the poem, the speaker positions the parents, “standing at the formal gates of their colleges.” By placing the parents at gates, Olds both evokes the myth of Adam and Eve being expelled from Paradise for their sins, and creates a sense of something beginning, an entrance as well as an exit/exile. She is so brilliant!
In other words, the killer last line may seem totally unexpected the first time we hear it, but a good poet will subliminally create the possibility of that revelation from the very start of the poem. Otherwise a disclosure unrelated to the rest of the poem can seem as if it doesn’t belong. The perfect killer ending is one that the reader could never guess, which seems to come out of nowhere. And yet the killer ending feels moving, authentic, and connected to the rest of the poem in a way that is anything but obvious.
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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