The following interview is part of an issue on poetic closure. Writers were asked to respond to W.B. Yeats’s, Robert Frost’s, or Marianne Boruch’s ideas about ending a poem, and to discuss poetic closure within their own work. All the interviews were conducted over email in the spring and summer of 2023.
The Editors: Robert Frost says, “I think a poem should have doors. I wouldn’t leave them open though,” and Marianne Boruch says, “Closure must open, must give us back the world somehow.” These feel like contradictory statements, but we can see how both might resonate with a particular poem. How do you define or think about poetic closure?
Alina Ștefănescu: That’s quite a doozie from Frost. When I think of poems with tightly-shut doors, the tombeau comes to mind. Marianne Boruch’s comment feels truer in expressing the paradoxical nature of poetic closure, the simultaneity of opening and ending.
I love how Diane Seuss thinks about poetry, and how (in an interview with Lunch Ticket) she draws a connection between poems that “end up with light” and the formal mode created by therapy, by “doing it and having it.” Like Seuss, I’m not wild about “poems that push towards or try for redemption.” The poem doesn’t have to rise from the couch with its self-esteem and integrity intact. It doesn’t have to resolve, or “save the situation,” to quote Seuss. What emerges intact from the encounter is not a fixed human but something messier— the warring interior selves, the failure of best intentions—all that junk David Bowie called “the heart’s filthy lessons.”
No filthy lesson can prepare us for the horror of the next one. No filth has the finality of a map that redeems or resolves humanity. Against redemption, salvation, quick-fixes, and resolution, poetry permits the irredeemable. And it forces us to think about the expectations buried in language; it requires me, for example, to articulate my discomfort with the word closure, and to consider why this word connotes a sort of psychologism to me. And then, to interrogate the association between psychologism and late-capitalist worldviews which sell us a Complete Self, a Fixed Self, a Perfect Self, a Found Self, thus valorizing a certain kind of ending, namely, a complete one.
Does anything end completely? Is “closure” critical to a good ending? Can a relationship of romantic love evolve into one of trust in co-parenting? How can we talk about endings that aren’t simple closures? Taking this further, I wonder if a poem has to situate itself in the horrific or traumatic, or in the sort of experience that demands psychological closure and therapy?
“Poetry is the honeymoon of my eyes, and when the honeymoon is over, I am even more at home in the world,” wrote Donald Revell. The honeymoon may be over, but one’s relationship to the world is changed by it—it is, I think, opened out and up and into. And I should thank Dylan Willoughby for adding Revell to my stacks, particularly The Art of Attention: A Poet’s Eye, for that’s where I learned that Revell had his students take a little piece of music (often Erik Satie’s Gymnopedies) and then “translate” each note into a word. How do the words anticipate or argue with what we want from an ending? What is the final note, or the sound with which the poem leaves the reader? Maybe what we call closure can also be read as leave-taking. Ultimately, the poem leaves—the ending formalizes the leaving—the reader with something, or with a new awareness of lacking something; it establishes a relationship to that lack.
What is the imperative of the poem? What does it value or consecrate? What does it resist or curse? The poem’s horizon may ask us to look up from the blaze and tangle of the poem towards the parenthetical gesture and its significance—towards an ending that doesn’t need to be neat and sweetly-knotted. The poem may end in an entire new opening, an erotic gape, an uncornered grin, the vestige of burning violins. I crave that. I want the impossible from the poem’s ending. I want to be ruined by the thing I already knew in the new desiring.
Eds: Consider a specific poem that has given you insight into your understanding of poetic closure.
Stefanescu: Seeking strategies of radical inconclusiveness leads me back to elegiac modes, specifically to a series of laments staggered through Rosmarie Waldrop’s The Nick of Time: Poems. These laments seam the collection: each one walks like an elegy but talks like a dialogue. What are these poems trying to do? Waldrop answers this question in her dedications (each lament to a different dead friend) and use of the dialogic form. The poet is trying to speak with the dead.
The dialogue is a way of continuing a conversation. Using the words of the dead to re-call them, to re-summon them to the scene, Waldrop recollects the dead to the selves of their own speaking—to the life within their words—in the space where poetics of quotation refuses to deny its metaphysical hungers.
Her lament for Michael Gizzi, for example, is titled “No Both,”after a book he authored. By titling the lament after his book, Waldrop draws Gizzi into the poem’s framing and then enacts a refusal of his book’s argument by arguing towards a both-ness. Her own words are interspersed with his words, his sayings, his ideas, as in the fourth stanza (which I quote in its entirety):
Expect to wrestle an angel, you wrote, holes in socks, not fit for history
books, the heart is a cliff, we’d prefer not to speak about our feelings.
The choice of a title speaks directly to the choice of the ending: the relationship is promising, which is to say, it is reframing the stakes of the conversation in an altered temporality while also illuminating the potential of such title-last-line relationships to working poets. Waldrop’s final lines also address Gizzi in quotation, in the recollecting of his own words (though they aren’t italicized).
On the other hand, the book’s final lament is untitled, or its category is its title, simply: “Lament” inscribed to “Edmond Jabès, 1912 – 1991,” the dates announced like brackets on a tombstone. Waldrop begins from inside the poem’s reason:
I wanted to write a poem to Edmond Jabès. To call him across the
border of death. And, at the same time, to comfort myself.
With that, the exposed narrator begins to recount her poetic efforts to call him across that border. First, she inventories phrases that crossed her mind (“a rift in the air,” for example) to describe how his absence relates to what is present. Then, she gives up and switches to lineated stanzas:
I tried: I would call you with so close a name
as makes the dark
. . .
I would line up the blank space
that is the matter
so that a yeast of questions
. . .
The lineated stanzas are uttered in the future conditional tense, as if he has not died; Waldrop uses tense to complicate temporality, shifting between tenses without quite reconciling the shift. She invokes him even in punctuation! In Edmond Jabès writing, the ellipsis marks silence as a gesture towards the eternal. Here, I think, is where the poet’s love for her subject first inches into the use of Jabès’ own language as a mode of address.
Next, Waldrop attempts to call the absent through etymology:
The word “preempt” began to preoccupy me. I found: “Latin prae=
pre- and emere= to buy, more at REDEEM.”
The poem ends in quotation, a lament whose last word belongs to Jabès:
The only way I can call to Edmond Jabès is with the weight of his own
words, impersonating them in a different language. With what the
black of fire carved into the white of fire.
There is no source, no citation, at the page’s bottom; Waldrop’s italics insist on the presence of the speaker rather than the book from which it was taken. The poem takes leave with an invocation, an echolocation that refuses closure while also loosening the boundary of endings to include oblivion. There is something so radically inconclusive in that. Of course, Waldrop doesn’t want to say goodbye to Jabès; she wants to resurrect him. How strange to think that, after we die, all our books—everything we have sent to others on paper—will be read as a singular selfhood. The poem of the life discloses without closing: our books may not agree with each other, or with the self who wrote them.
Eds: Consider one of your own poems that demonstrated how you applied this insight, or gave you a different or deeper understanding of poetic closure. A follow-up question: how did writing “21 ways to end a poem or leave your lover” change how you think about poetic closure?
Ștefănescu: Sometimes, the belief that a poem will reveal its own ending to me becomes a limitation. The poem may want the blue flower growing in a neighbor’s yard across the street; the ending may be located outside the boundaries we erect around the poem, or the spaces we claim as our own. First drafts of “Celibidache, Your Mahler Has Followed Me” aimed towards a spectacular leave-taking—a show of fireworks to represent how this Romanian conductor changed Mahler for me. I wanted the gargantuan, but the gargantuan ignored the subtlety of the affective relation. How to leave the reader with a sound that feels like an ending, but actually asserts an ongoing hauntedness?
Since the poem consists of long, heavily-enjambed sentences, I played with different ways of un-smoothing the final stanza, and settled on tacking sharply with a claim (“Evolution never resolves”), and then trying to amplify this sudden shift by nailing a voiced labiodental fricative inside each word. From there, I returned to the unstable relationship between hearing and understanding, and carried on in that direction a bit before ending abruptly in that eerie sensation of hauntedness. So:
Evolution never resolves. We hear what we want,
and convince the music to believe someone else said
this singed thing first. Your Mahler hounds me.
I don’t know if these lines take leave in the right place, or the best way. I’m not sure one can be sure of such things? If anything, “21 ways to end a poem or leave your lover” scraped the surface of the extraordinary creativity poets bring to ending, both as a formal device and as an idea (or ideal). Keeping such lists shows me what is possible by example, in the risks taken by others. Poets are dangerous—they inspire dangerous feats. Reading poetry gives us permission to imagine new ways of leaving. Dan Beachy-Quick wrote: “I find myself on loan to the material I’ve borrowed, using words to build a hut that uses me to keep being built.” All poetry builds on language formed in the mouths of others. All endings have happened to someone, somewhere, before. Even this word I’ve chosen to use, leave-taking, implies a sort of theft— a taking of leave rather than a giving of it.
Eds: Do you have any prompts and/or readings (poems or poets) that you would recommend to poets who are exploring closure?
Ștefănescu: Any riveting book, regardless of genre, offers countless prompts and possibilities. Allow me to use a book as an example: Delmore Schwartz’s journals. While reading them, I was reminded how shifts in syntax make shimmery endings. Schwartz’s fragments change length and subject rapidly, with no transitional phrases. He takes a simple lyrical surface (i.e. the description of a meal) and juxtaposes a brisk, open clause (i.e. “Slept on Dwight’s sofa”). It feels final but unanswered; Schwartz never explains why he slept on Dwight MacDonald’s sofa. Or how this decision was made.
Reading these journals also underscored that an image with a glowing finish is a great way to leave a poem. “The snow outside, trying to get into the Bruegel,” Schwartz scribbled on January 31, 1942. The image has a finish to it, a quality which elongates the temporal expanse of the poem. A poem doesn’t have to leave us with the accumulated inventory of its prior business—sometimes the eye sees more closely by looking away suddenly. Schwartz is a demon at this, at managing the juxtaposition of sharp shifts.
Schwartz again: “The wine tocked as it came from the bottle.” And: “The pigeons rose with a sound like a deck of cards being shuffled.” Language presses up against its own boundedness or reference. Using the word against itself, Schwartz often breaks away from an extended metaphor rather than fulfilling it. He inverts word order to turn the subject on its side and change the way we see it by revealing the complexity. He torques the tension inside homophones and synonyms. He leverages the implications of each word, and closes poems with a word that has multiple meanings.
At one point, Schwartz describes the work of a poem as attempting to be “a stained glass window.” A stained glass window is one which doesn’t show us the world outside: it shows the interior as glimpsed by a particular angle of light shining through colored glass. We don’t see clearly—we see something else entirely. In my writing, despair of language often appears in a propensity to be glib and get the end over with. Schwartz’s stained-glass gives me freedom to focus on sound, on light, on coloration, on the stained refractions rather than the window of clear visibility.
Endings exist in relation to expectation. Each poem, like each person, wants something different from the world or desires differently. As Susan Stewart observes in On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, for each desire, there is a varied “structure of desire.” What the poem wants is not identical to what the poet wants. The poet, for example, may want justice, but the poem’s desire may be more palpable, more inhabited, like planting a peach tree in a disabled veteran’s yard. Poetry asks the poet’s ego to step aside and pass the mic to the Poem. This is the challenge and the ecstasy of writing—disappearing long enough to imagine something else. If the poem cannot solve the problems of the world, it can yet stain the glass and reveal the extraordinary within the ordinary.
And yes, closing the door and locking it may offer a sense of safety. One may even add the deadbolt of redemption, but finitude freezes the distance between the room of the poem and the world it imagines continuously. There is safety. And safety is an expensive product—safety is a luxury that the vast majority of humans cannot afford to purchase or even imagine. The poem shudders to think of itself as a savior for our misdeeds.
Alina Ștefănescu was born in Romania and lives in Birmingham, Alabama with her partner and several intense mammals. Recent books include a creative nonfiction chapbook, Ribald (Bull City Press Inch Series, Nov. 2020) and Dor, which won the Wandering Aengus Press Prize (September, 2021). Her debut fiction collection, Every Mask I Tried On, won the Brighthorse Books Prize (April 2018). Alina’s poems, essays, and fiction can be found in Prairie Schooner, North American Review, World Literature Today, Pleiades, Poetry, BOMB, Crab Creek Review, and others. She serves as poetry editor for several journals, reviewer and critic for others, and Co-Director of PEN America’s Birmingham Chapter. She is currently working on a novel-like creature. More online at www.alinastefanescuwriter.com.