Uncertain Clarity: Some Ways Poems End

Lawrence Raab

Lawrence Raab

Zbigniew Herbert’s poem, “Mr. Cogito and the Imagination,” ends with a phrase I believe Robert Frost would have liked, if he had thought of it himself.  

Mr. Cogito’s imagination
has the motion of a pendulum…

he would like to remain faithful
to uncertain clarity

Many of Frost’s best poems wrestle with the dangers of certainty as well as the deceptions of clarity. “I don’t like obscurity and obfuscation,” Frost wrote, “but I do like dark sayings I must leave the clearing of to time.” Here is the end of “For Once, Then, Something”:

Water came to rebuke the too clear water.
One drop fell from a fern, and lo, a ripple
Shook whatever it was lay there at bottom,
Blurred it, blotted it out. What was that whiteness?
Truth? A pebble of quartz? For once, then, something.

The pebble is a reasonable explanation for “that whiteness.” But the shapeless abstraction of “truth” moves us out of the visual world the poem has so skillfully managed. Is “truth” a joke? It doesn’t feel like a joke. But to take it seriously means letting the poem swerve toward the mythic. The speaker becomes a version of Narcissus, kneeling “at well-curbs/Always wrong to the light,” where he can see only the reflection of himself, “god-like/Looking out of a wreath of fern and cloud-puffs.” Only once does he see “through the picture.” Beyond himself, in the depths, he notices “a something white, uncertain.”

The poem offers a choice but doesn’t make one. Neither “pebble” nor “truth” fits that either/or equation. The speaker settles for “something,” which is vague, but not entirely abstract. After all, some thing has been seen.

Too many people expect poems to come out and say what they mean. Frost was willing to give them what they wanted—wisdom statements, aphoristic messages easily detached from their contexts. But Frost didn’t want to be “robbed of the pleasure of fathoming depths for myself,” and the aim of his poetry is to create such depths for an attentive reader.

Robert Frost (1943)

The pleasure of discovery is what I hope for when I read a poem. I’m drawn to endings that don’t exactly end, but persuade me to return, look again, find what I may have missed. At the same time I want to respect the enigmatic and the mysterious, everything designed to resist too much clarity. Unlike one of those “dark sayings,” a poem’s popular formulaic “message” confirms rather than challenges our thinking. But the words can be the same. “All the fun,” Frost writes to Louis Untermeyer in 1917, “is…saying things that suggest formulae but won’t formulate—that almost but don’t quite formulate.” The problem—and the great pleasure—of reading poems, and of writing them, is how to remain faithful to the truth of uncertainty.


There are, of course, many strategies to make the conclusion of a poem both clear and complicated. I’ll touch here on only a few. First, there’s the ending that is (or poses as) a summation, a sweeping declaration in which abstractions like “truth” sound convincing: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” These lines compel assent. In the margin of the anthology, a student is likely to write, “Yes!” or “True!” Probably not: “Really?”

But do these claims by Keats—the last two lines of “Ode on a Grecian Urn”—really make sense? Isn’t truth often ugly?  Doesn’t beauty frequently lie? And how can such questionable equations be everything we know and everything we need to know?

I would argue that Keats’s ending does not make sense, and is not intended to make sense. It’s a paradox with a purpose—to “tease us out of thought,” and then back into thought. If we accept the lines as Wisdom we miss the point, and the fun.

An opposite strategy for closure is to end so modestly and off-handedly that a reader’s response might well be: “What—it’s over?” In the final stanza of Elizabeth Bishop’s “Santarém,” the speaker admires an empty wasps’ nest hanging from a shelf in a pharmacy. It is “small, exquisite, clean matte white…” The pharmacist gives it to her.

Then—my ship’s whistle blew. I couldn’t stay.
Back on board, a fellow-passenger, Mr. Swan,
Dutch, the retiring head of Philips Electric,
really a very nice old man,
who wanted to see the Amazon before he died,
asked, “What’s that ugly thing?”

The poem provides no response to Mr. Swan’s judgment, though we know the speaker has found the wasps’ nest “exquisite.” If beauty is truth, Mr. Swan has missed both the beauty and the truth behind it. But he is “really a very nice old man,” and he does have a lovely name. Bishop has created a tangle of provocations here, though a reader can easily shrug them off, since the poem seems to. Is the wasps’ nest ugly, or not? We shouldn’t be tricked into taking up sides. As was the case with “For Once, Then, Something,” we need to think carefully about the limitations of that either/or proposition.

Bishop’s aggressive modesty is a kind of deception, though not in the way Frost can be tricky. Her poetic strategy is reticence. I don’t mean reticence in its primary definitions—diffidence, shyness, a “disinclination to speak freely,” but rather an inclination toward concealment and secrecy. Something is being held back, kept from sight. It’s like having a secret, but pretending you don’t, while at the same time hinting that you do. It’s like seeing one thing that may or may not be something else. Like a metaphor.1

Another kind of reticence-as-deception is achieved by ending on a note so quiet the poem seems to disappear into the distance, like the song of Keats’s nightingale, fading past “the near meadows, over the still stream,/Up the hill-side…” until we wonder if we heard anything, or were dreaming. Edward Thomas’s “Adlestrop” takes place in a moment of fixed or stalled or suspended time. One afternoon, the poet’s train stops for no apparent reason at Adlestrop: “It was late June./The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat./No one left and no one came.” The poet sees the sign: Adlestrop. And then he sees a little more—“willows, willow-herb, and grass…,” and then, as if in a day-dream, he hears a blackbird sing:

Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

That’s the end—our visual and auditory senses expand, and for a moment the named countryside opens in improbable wonder. Curiously, the poem does not begin with intimate revery, nor with the mundane that leads to revery—the hiss of steam, a man clearing his throat. The poem begins with a colloquial voice answering a question we’re not given, but could have been, “Do you remember Adlestrop”:

Yes, I remember Adlestrop—
The name, because one afternoon…

The absence of the question might cause us to think about how we remember, and how much of it might be invention, like the poem that pretends to be a memory. Interestingly, Bishop’s “Santarém” starts with a similar gesture: “Of course I may be remembering it all wrong/after, after—how many years?” Both poems begin in the middle of conversations, although each could be interior. (Thomas’s “Yes, I remember…” sounds more spoken than Bishop’s “Of course I may be remembering….”) But neither poem returns to those moments, and whoever prompted the speaker’s thoughts vanishes, or drifts into the poet, or becomes us.

The ending of “Adlestrop” is not unlike the strange mistiness of Frost’s “And miles to go before I sleep,/And miles to go before I sleep.” “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is also a great poem about the alluring transformation of the ordinary. And it too is about secrets—keeping them from others, keeping them from oneself. Why should this traveler, pausing to observe the snow, worry about being seen? He thinks he knows who owns that woods: “He will not see me stopping here/To watch his woods fill up with snow.” The speaker wishes not to have to explain himself, perhaps because he can’t, or because he doesn’t want to try, or because he may not know the secret he is keeping.

Mesmerized, he watches the snow falling, and the literal slips slightly to one side. Can a woods “fill up” with snow? Is there a “darkest evening of the year”? (Only if we substitute “longest” for “darkest,” and for accuracy’s sake, “night” for “evening.”) Most importantly, what kind of loveliness is “dark and deep”? What allure does it possess that is so strong the speaker must insist, “But I have promises to keep….” But, I would argue, is the most important word in the poem, the pivotal emotional and narrative turn. What would happen if the speaker did not have promises to keep?

A “but,” an “or,” or a “yet,” or any similar qualification toward the end of a poem, presses the reader to ask—why this instead of that? Go back, look again, think harder. The conclusion of “Stopping by Woods” is not the kind of calculated deception that prompts an intentional misreading, like the endings of “The Road Not Taken” or “Mending Wall.” But it is a subtle confirmation of our suspicion that the speaker has secrets as well as promises to keep.[2]


I’ve learned more about poetic closure from Frost than from any other poet—more about the possibilities of deception, the effective use of misdirection, and the challenges of staged uncertainty. Although I’ve never tried any of Frost’s extreme strategies of closure—which I regret—I do hope my poems offer the pleasures of discovery through complication. To conclude I’ll look at one poem from my latest book, April at the Ruins, and describe how its ending is designed to work.

“After the Sky Had Fallen” is constructed from recognizable elements often found in fairy tales. Two children—a brother and sister—find themselves lost in the woods. A kindly old woman offers them shelter. But she’s really a terrible witch, and plans to cook those children in the morning and eat them for dinner. First, however, she puts them both to bed, “and kisses them/just as their mother had.” Then the poem stops, returns to the forest, and offers a different possibility with “Or else”:

Or else: a snow-white bird
watches those children
sleeping in the cold forest
and is touched
by their dreams…

The bird sings. When the children wake, surrounded by that music, they believe the song will guide them through the great maze of trees

until they arrive at a meadow
where they will look up
to see the familiar stars
and not far away a little house
so much like home
they cannot help
but think: Surely
we will be happy now.

I hope that even on a first encounter a reader might worry a little about how happy this happy ending actually is. Looking back, there are qualifications. That little house is not home but like home. The last word in the penultimate line—“Surely”—expresses certainty while sounding hesitant, merely hopeful. Home in the Grimms’s fairy tales can be a dangerous place, overseen by wicked step-mothers inclined to get rid of the burden of their husband’s children. Sent into the forest, they’re unlikely to return. Most significantly, my poem’s ending, a 17-line sentence that follows the children’s journey home, doesn’t actually follow them. It imagines what they imagine—how that song will rescue them.

Lost children, the poem explains toward the beginning, “sometimes/find their way home/and sometimes do not.” The poem balances between “sometimes” and “surely.” Both words are repeated twice, and slip into each other. “Surely God will help us,” the boy tells his sister, trying to console her. “No,” she replies with surprising certainty,”the world has abandoned us.” And at the end, when what they see looks so much like what they want, they can’t help thinking, “Surely we will be happy now.” But now the poem is over, with no assurance of a joyful future, but no denial of it either.

It was all a story inside a poem, and nothing true. Or else: it was a poem about how we live in a world of stories. Can we escape their control? Or should we rely on them? Can art help us? And beauty? How easily are we deceived?

Another familiar story is invoked in the poem, the one in which three travelers set out on a long journey, guided not by music but by a star. When they reach their destination they set their dazzling gifts in the straw before the manger, and step back. But what use can the child have for such things? one of the Magi thinks. And yet:

…the firelight loved
those treasures, and would not
leave them alone
until they found their place
in the story.

Countless versions of these stories exist: loss and danger, survival and restoration. We might expect as many different endings, but in life there are really only two: sometimes they live, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes we make it home. Sometimes we are happy.


[1] More expansive considerations of the endings of “Santarém” and “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” as well as of James Wright’s “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota,” appear in an essay entitled “Teased into Thought: Three Endings” in my collection of essays, Why Don’t We Say What We Mean? (Tupelo Press, 2016)

[2] An extended reading of “Mending Wall” that takes up the issue of intentional misreading appears in my book of essays, though a somewhat earlier version of it can be found online.

Lawrence Raab

Lawrence Raab is the author of ten books of poems, including Mistaking Each Other for Ghosts (Tupelo, 2015), which was longlisted for the National Book Award and named one of the Ten Best Poetry Books of 2015 by The New York Times, and What We Don’t Know About Each Other (Penguin, 1993), a winner of the National Poetry Series and a finalist for the 1993 National Book Award. His latest collection is April at the Ruins (Tupelo, 2022). Why Don’t We Say What We Mean?, essays about poetry, was published in 2016. He is the Harry C. Payne Professor of Poetry Emeritus at Williams College.