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?
Orlando Ricardo Menes: It is hard to say whether keeping the final line, or perhaps the final utterance in a poem closed or open is necessarily a choice that a poet must make. We should ask instead what the poem needs, what the poem must do in its final moments of existence? I perceive in Frost’s statement a sense of reticence, while Boruch’s is more exuberant. The former seems more concerned with craft, the making of a poem, which cannot be reduced to a formula or dogma, while the latter seems to be suggesting that closure when closed, whatever that means, reduces the poem to a manipulative rhetoric or an overt and reductive finality—that somehow a “closed” closure limits human freedom or denies us an experience of the world in all its multiplicity and variety. An elliptical ending, for example, might be perceived as open and even free of the weight of discourse, yet it cannot be nebulous or random and thereby disconnected from the rest of the poem. It must somehow be resonant even if it enters into a space of emptiness or near emptiness. Any ending must mean something rather than nothing, and it must be integrated into the poem as a whole. In other words, the last line in a poem does not exist in isolation. If we are talking about poems in either free verse or formal verse (the prose poem is an entirely different structure), every line must somehow lead to the final utterance. The poems must build toward that moment of release or letting go—its last breath, its last step, its last gaze.
As a poetry editor, I have come across many poems that have a strong beginning, strong middle, but then end with some flat statement, usually in a conversational idiom, or a confused image, as if the poet had not sufficiently inhabited that last line. Or the poet might also craft a revelation or an epiphany that is heavy-handed and cumbersome. A singular image or an eloquent phrase or a combination of both will often lead to a satisfying closure that balances out ambiguity and definitiveness. Nonetheless, I like to think of closure more in terms of sewing or stitching as my father was an upholsterer by trade, from whom I learned a great deal about the art of making an artifact, whether of fabric or of words. In that final stitch one must loop, knot, and cut/release with the required skill and attention to hide the art, to give a sense of sprezzatura that gives the impression of ease and inevitability.
Eds: Is there a specific poem that has given you insight into your understanding of poetic closure?
Menes: Over the years quite a few poets have taught me the importance and necessity of closure to exit the poem—or to surrender the poem to the reader or to give farewell to the poem as one’s offspring. There are so many metaphors to consider in a poet’s relationship to the poem. During the 1980s as I was learning the craft of poetry—on my own, by the way—I had the good fortune of coming across the work of Galway Kinnell who inspired me to keep writing, to have hope, because of the beauty of his language and the copiousness of his feeling. He is a Romantic very much in the tradition of William Wordsworth for whom nature was sacred, so much so that he was accused of being a pantheist. Indeed, it is not so common to find such a rhapsodic poet as Kinnell among Americans, especially today as so many are drawn to a versified political discourse. (Please do not take this as a judgment or statement of disapproval. I am merely being descriptive rather than prescriptive.😀)
Anyway, one such poem by Kinnell that is instructive about closure is his “Vapor Trail Reflected in the Frog Pond.” I wrote an exclamatory beautiful next to the title and continued with excellent next to the stanza that makes up part 2. Yes, I was lovestruck. Let us take a look at the last two lines: “as they gaze up at the drifting sun that gives us our lives, / seed dazzled over the footbattered blaze of the earth.” As in other poems that exhibit a satisfying and necessary final line, this one is an appendage to the penultimate line that lays out the action for the poem can conclude with imagery. This is a common technique among poets to end with evocative language but without an intrusive explanation or an overt statement. Keep it light but keep it tight, I say. But Kinnell’s last line is rather heavy, an impasto of euphonious language, which I happen to adore, so there is room to maneuver and explore and roam in the realm of aesthetics.
For such a long time verbal density has been my idiom for the ecstatic. Nevertheless, my impulse seems to be changing in my current work. The poems that I am writing now for Birthright, my eighth collection, are sparer, more meditative and speculative, more metaphorical and self-contradictory. So I would say the following: Above all, be loyal but not servile to your own poetics. Octavio Paz says the same about a translator’s relationship to the original poem.
Another poet who can teach us about closure is Anthony Hecht whose work I encountered in the early 1990s—or was it the 1980s? I do not remember. The poem is entitled “Envoi,” and it consists of five metrical quatrains rhyming abab. Consider the last two lines of the final stanza: “Posterity’s faint echo of its past, / And payload lifted into haloed air.” (This last line rhymes with “Bear” in line two, by the way.) I happen to admire the terse eloquence of that last line and how the iambic pentameter skips with a controlled and subtle panache. Notice the ecstatic image of the “haloed air” and how it counterpoints with the plainness or ordinariness of “payload,” a word that belongs to the language of freight. There’s an interesting dissonance between the sublime and the quotidian here. I would like to add that rhyming is not something to be feared (as inimical to creativity), but rather as a form that tracks a line toward the possibility of surprise or even transformation as it requires the poet to look for a word, whether in exact or near rhyme, that fits the pattern not necessarily as in a circle within a circle, but how about an octagon within a circle? Play and deviate are two of my mottos.
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.
Menes: I prefer to end my poems with a resonant image that loops, knots, and cuts the stitch of words. My sense is that this approach creates a middle space between open and closed, one that allows the poem to end with a pliant eloquence. Take, for example, my poem “Grace” from The Gospel of Wildflowers and Weeds whose last three lines employ rain as a metaphor for grace: “like some rain bands, copious cumuli, / That appear astray, unbidden, in stagnant skies / To drench at last the drought-scourged earth.” In terms of rhythm, I did some slight counterpointing with “drought-scourged” to slow down the line toward its final descent. As you can see, I like to use alliteration and assonance to create texture in a poem—to have the words soak the ear of the mind with the enchantment of the chant. A poet like Kinnell would revel in such language, but, of course, someone like George Oppen would chastise the poet for this kind of exuberance. I can hear him say: Tell it straight and never, ever curled or curlicued.”
Eds: Did you note a pattern among the poems in Gospel of Wildflowers and Weeds and the manner in which they ended?
Menes: Now that I am taking a look at these poems, which I wrote over several years, the endings tend to emphasize the image that gives the poem its final exhalation. I like to think of poems as physical things, by the way. I take to heart what Wallace Stevens writes in “Esthétique Du Mal”: “The greatest poverty is not to live / in a physical world.” There is, for example, the crackle of angel’s wings under moonlight” in “Skin,” “the blood of your banana blossom at break of dawn” in “Letter to José Lezama Lima,” as well as the “chirping congas in caverns of bromeliad” from “Lorca in the Forest of Goatskin Trees.” Nevertheless, I also deviate from this approach in “The Sacrifice of Isaac,” which consists of rhymed couplets in a flexible iambic pentameter. Its last line, which rhymes with “divine,” reads: “This ragged, restless world my only shrine.” Besides the textured alliteration, I was aiming for the kind of lyrical eloquence—the last words in a prayer, for instance—that one finds in the poems of William Butler Yeats and Seamus Heaney. I appreciate how Heaney perceives Yeats’s “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” as an “elevated chant.” I like for words to rise, to soar, and then to float as if gravity did not exist. Yes, there is the metaphor of the shrine in that last line of “The Sacrifice of Isaac,” but to me it is more a conceptual artifact of language than the sweeping brushstroke of an image.
Eds: Can you speak to closure in relation to the book? What was the organizing principle guiding the arrangement of poems in Gospel of Wildflowers and Weeds, and how did you create a sense of closure for the larger project?
Menes: Most of the poems in sections I to IV move in a kind of sweeping motion from the personal to the cultural, the aesthetic to the sacred, the polemical to the celebratory, memory to the present, the New World to the Old World, the mythic to the historical, and so on. More often than not, however, these different modes get combined. My poems tend to exist in waves of imagined language rather than straight lines plumbed by reason. The last section (number V) consists of poems whose poetics are more disparate and even experimental. And thus riskier for me, which made me leave them for last after having gained (I hope) the confidence and goodwill of the reader. They are much more Afrocentric and devoted more to matters of race and Otherness. With the exception of “Nonce Sonnet for Rosseau,” they all live on the island of Cuba where my parents were born and where I was conceived to be later born in Lima, Perú. Cuba is where my heart palpitates, where my sadness breathes, where memory exists in the imagination.
Eds: Do you have any prompts and/or readings (poems or poets) that you would recommend to poets who are exploring closure?
Menes: I would suggest the following just for the sake of play and discovery. List the last lines from twenty poems that inspire you or even poems that you actually dislike, then go back to your own last lines and think about how they can help you to reconceive what it means to “leave a poem.”
Orlando Ricardo Menes
An NEA Fellow, Orlando Ricardo Menes was born in Lima, Perú, to Cuban parents but has lived in the U.S since the age of ten. He considers himself Cuban-American. Since 2000 he has taught in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Notre Dame where he is Professor of English and Poetry Editor of the Notre Dame Review. Menes is the author of seven poetry collections, including the most recent The Gospel of Wildflowers & Weeds (University of New Mexico Press, 2022), as well as Memoria (Louisiana State University Press, 2019), Heresies (University of New Mexico Press, 2015) and Fetish, winner of the 2012 Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry. His poems have appeared in several prominent anthologies, as well as in literary magazines like POETRY, Harvard Review, The Yale Review, Prairie Schooner, Hudson Review, Colorado Review, The Cincinnati Review, Hotel Amerika, The Southern Review, and Hayden’s Ferry Review, among many others. In addition, Menes is editor of Renaming Ecstasy: Latino Writings on the Sacred (Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingüe, 2004) and The Open Light: Poets from Notre Dame, 1991-2008 (University of Notre Dame Press, 2011). Besides his own poems, Menes has published translations of poetry in Spanish, including My Heart Flooded with Water: Selected Poems by Alfonsina Storni (Latin American Literary Review Press, 2009). For more, visit www.orlandoricardomenes.com.