Interview with James Davis May

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?

James Davis May
James Davis May

James Davis May: Whether they’re right or wrong in doing so, readers (including this reader) often look to the ending to figure out whether or not the poem has been successful—that is, whether or not it’s been worth their time. What’s worth our readers’ attention? Not false grace or forced conclusions. The wrong ending can sound contractual and wooden, like ending a first date not with a kiss but a robotic statement like “I would like to continue to see you in more social settings and perhaps eventually have a long-term relationship with you.” Poems are not essays; their endings are not conclusions. Prose concludes; poetry keeps talking to us. A poem echoes. It’s an experience of language, not a law. Poems have too many qualifiers, and are filled with too much irony (and too much ecstasy, of course) to say anything final.

In his lecture “The Government of the Tongue,” Seamus Heaney declares that poetry both summons us and releases us. He’s not really discussing how a poem ends—his subject is more how Poetry (note the capital P) enters our lives. Still, I like the idea of a poem being both a summoning and a release. I’m thinking about Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” how it begins with the Ancient Mariner seizing the wedding guest’s hand. Later, we learn that the Mariner has to tell the story just like the Wedding Guest has to listen to it. “I pass, like night, from land to land,” the Mariner says…

I have strange power of speech;
That moment that his face I see,
I know the man that must hear me:
To him my tale I teach.

When the narrative is over, the Wedding Guest…

went like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn:
A sadder and a wiser man,
He rose the morrow morn.

My hunch is that every great poem acts like the Mariner: It seizes our hand and then lets it go at the right time.

Eds: Is there a specific poem that has given you insight into your understanding of poetic closure?

May: I have to go to Coleridge again. “Frost at Midnight” is archetypal in both a personal and Jungian sense. The poem begins with “the secret ministry of frost” and ends with the same image. Coleridge loved the idea of the ouroboros, the serpent with its tail in its mouth, and that’s what the poem is. He even revised the poem, chopping off six lines of the first draft to achieve that effect. It’s both a summoning, then, and a release.

Robert Hass
Robert Hass

A more recent example: Robert Hass’s poem “Consciousness” mesmerizes me, especially at the end. I read that poem the same way I watch a skilled magician perform the ring trick: I know what’s coming and yet I’m still amazed to the point of being giddy. In part, the ending is entrancing because it’s a long poem with multiple threads and we’re wondering how in the world Hass can bring them all together. The poem opens with two images from the poet’s childhood, a blue sky and then the sound of a foghorn (an auditory image). Then the poem jumps to a conversation on consciousness with two people, Dean and CD (Dean Young and CD Wright, I’ve always assumed, and at the Community of Writers’ Conference near Lake Tahoe, I’ve also always assumed). In the conversation, Dean says that he’s read a book that argues “consciousness was like a knock-knock joke.” The conversation further refracts the poem—it goes to Whitman, and then it analyzes a seemingly banal phrase Hass’s father said to him when he was a child—“it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there”—before jumping decades ahead to his father’s death. We take a quick detour to Paris, which “is a product…” Hass writes, “of human consciousness, and whatever else it is, it isn’t a knock-knock joke.” From Paris, we return to the blue sky, which we find out is a memory Hass’s consciousness assembled when he was told how as a baby he’d be happy just looking up at the blue sky above San Francisco. The poem then circles back to Hass’s father, whom the poet now realizes was just trying to express how much he didn’t like his job. Then we get this ending:

Consciousness, “that mean nothing,” Czesław wrote. “That loves itself,” George Oppen wrote.” My poor father.

The double quotation from two of Hass’s literary fathers that implies that consciousness is nothing that loves itself and then the tragic comment about his father, it all speaks to the rest of the poem. Yet, I don’t know if the final line is the final word, so to speak. It’s the sort of ending that sends me back into the poem.

Eds: Consider one of your own poems that demonstrates how you applied this insight, or gave you a different or deeper understanding of poetic closure.

May: “A Work in Progress.” The poem begins and ends with the speaker, who’s me, walking away from a party. It then makes a series of jumps from a hypothetical encounter with the Devil, to a memory of another party, followed by an imagined workshop that provides some meta-commentary on the poem itself, which then leads to what I guess I would call a rebuttal to that commentary in the form of a confession, one that analyzes my conflicting feelings over writing about depression while so many others are experiencing horrific violence, physical illness, and even death. (Side note: the lines that begin the poem’s ending—“And someone might point out that that’s just /another way of making himself feel bad”—are based on a comment Hass said to me when I told him I was hesitant about writing about depression when there’s so much else wrong with the world.) The poem doesn’t resolve those conflicting feelings, I think and hope, but it acknowledges them, before returning to the walk away from the party with a nod to Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour” and a final confession that attempts to tie all the threads together.

A Work in Progress

And maybe, he thought as he left the party—
his friends’ drunken singing becoming faint,
their voices less distinct with distance—maybe
he wouldn’t be so sad if he just accepted the fact
that he would die and then be forgotten,
as would everyone else he loved, and that nothing
he could say or do or think could go against this
ravenous oblivion, making stoic resignation
not only healthy but wise, probably the one way
to score a point in this blowout. Then again,
maybe taking nearly forty years to say this
wasn’t so much a triumph as it was pathetic,
his poor, sulky ego finally giving up
its security blanket of vague religious feelings
to wrap himself in the secular fatalism
he loathed but knew was his. So if the Devil appeared
on the dark path he considered taking home,
and, for a little fun, decided to interrogate him,
he would not admit that he once believed poetry
could somehow save himself and his loved ones
from nothingness, the way he wouldn’t confess
to having liked a band he liked but knew was bad—
that is, he believed it knowing his belief was wrong,
but not any more wrong than his friends
who tried to drink or eat or drug or fuck or pray
their way out of despair. The couple, for example,
he saw kissing in his carport at another party,
one he had hosted a few months back. Maybe
in the thrill of ditching their respective spouses
busy drinking martinis and eating cheese in the kitchen
with the other guests, they had forgotten
he had already left to walk his dog. (Who, after all,
leaves his own party to walk his dog in the dark?)
He watched them from the unlit cul-de-sac,
not wanting to ruin anyone’s life that night,
or any night, and hoped they’d stop. Instead
their mouths parted a moment and she laughed,
pulling the man’s shirtfront toward her
hard so they’d kiss again. And at this point
a workshop, exasperated, would ask, justifiably,
what this poem’s about. “You want to kill yourself,
don’t you,” one reader might speculate, to which
I’d stutter, “No.” Then someone else would ask,
“So what should we make then of the ‘dark path’
‘the speaker’ ‘considered taking home’?”
Which would prompt a third to join: “Yeah,
he’s leaving his friends to go…where?
Into the dark! But why not just say you’re empty—
why this sidestepping, metaphoric, anecdotal bullshit?
And can anyone tell me why the Devil’s there?”
What I wouldn’t say is that I tried to imagine
why anyone would care about private pain,
however acute, when, as I write this, children
are crying because the state has separated them—
children and their parents—and placed them—
children and their parents—in detention units
that many call cages because they look like cages
and are in fact cages; meanwhile, a man in Dallas
or Seattle or D.C. is living the last week of his life
because a police officer will soon shoot him
in what the state will label “an incident”
that will begin when someone, an elderly man
or woman, undoubtedly white, peers through a curtain
of cable news, sees an African American man
walking on the sidewalk, and is unable to think
anything except he’s a threat. “The state is ill;
therefore, I am ill,” my friend Paul wrote
after being diagnosed with the cancer that would kill him.
Or, if I shifted the focus of that sentence a little,
I could write instead Paul writes, because the poem
in which his lines appear, as an event in language,
is still happening. So, Paul writes. Whitman writes.
Bishop writes. Claudia writes. All while the state is ill.
All while the state murders and bombs and tortures
and seizes. Now he’s so far from the party
he can’t hear its joy or see the constellation
of string lights above the lawn. The path is dark,
very dark, the sky ridiculously crowded with stars,
and many of his friends have died and he feels
both lonely and selfish—what would the dead
and dying give to have the time he has ahead of him?
And someone might point out that that’s just
another way of making himself feel bad, the one thing
he’s certain he’s good at. The Devil doesn’t appear.
But there is a skunk rooting through the grass
for snails, looking, as skunks do, slightly serpentine,
the rising moon announcing her white stripes,
an animal no one will let me turn into a symbol
of terrifying hope, because Robert Lowell
has already done that, and I have to tell you
the couple kept on kissing and I said nothing.

Eds: Did you note a pattern among the poems in Unusually Grand Ideas and the manner in which they ended? 

May: It might be more of a trait than a pattern, but several of the poems end in contradiction. The last line of “At Mercier Orchards” is “under the endless blue sky that is not endless,” for example. A few poems also depict futile but stubborn gestures. At the end of “Red in Tooth and Claw,” I leave a bowl of milk out for a cat that a few lines earlier seemed like the embodiment of nature’s indifference and cruelty. Because so many of the poems address mental illness, I wanted to make sure that they resisted easy conclusions—you know, the sort that would say, “Now everything’s good. Yay!” At the same time, I wanted to push back against pessimism. The book has been out for about two months now, and the more I read from the second section, the section that directly addresses depression, the more I think about it as a series of odes, dark odes, yes, but still poems that move toward praise and affirmation.

Eds: Can you speak to closure in relation to the book? What was the organizing principle guiding the arrangement of poems in Unusually Grand Ideas, and how did you create a sense of closure for the larger project?

May: The book is in three sections. The first is elegiac. It navigates a number of deaths and tragedies. It also takes on some theological angst. The second, as I’ve said, directly addresses mental illness, specifically a year-long depressive episode. That section is a—to use a word I hesitate to use around depression—struggle, but ultimately, those poems move closer to life and praise. The third, I’d like to think, brings the elegiac and the impulse to praise together. “A Field of Sunflowers,” the last poem in the book, considers the gifts of both life and beauty and wonders about their source, their author if you will. The sunflowers in the field nod at the questions but don’t answer. So that last poem is a Yes. It implies rather than answers.

Eds: Do you have any prompts and/or readings (poems or poets) that you would recommend to poets who are exploring closure?

Tiana Clark
Tiana Clark

May: The first recommendation that popped into my mind was to read Tiana Clark’s poetry. Every time I read, “Soil Horizon,” for example, I have an urge to go back to the top and read the poem again. “After the Reading,” a recent poem, pulls off the same effect. When the poem is that strong, for me it’s less a matter of studying it than it is a matter of absorbing it—letting it lodge itself in my brain the way a good song does.

“A Work in Progress” by James Davis May, from Unusually Grand Ideas (Louisiana State University Press ©2023).

James Davis May

James Davis May is the author of two poetry collections, both published by Louisiana State University Press. Unquiet Things appeared in 2016, and Unusually Grand Ideas was released in 2023. His poems and essays have appeared in 32 Poems, The Georgia Review, Literary Hub, New England Review, The Southern Review, The Sun, and other journals. May has received fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Originally from Pittsburgh, he now lives in Macon, Georgia, where he directs the creative writing program at Mercer University. For more, visit