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View PointOpinion: Poetry...to what end

Opinion: Poetry…to what end

Published: 13th Oct 2021 11:54 pm

By Pramod K Nayar

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Envisioning the end of the world, a favourite theme in apocalyptic fiction, also finds interesting enunciation in poetry. The ending of the world and the ending of the poem are not, of course, equivalent. But the ending of poems, especially in the 20th century and after, has almost always delivered a sense that humanity seeks: a return to order, of stasis after chaos and drama. 

The Beginning of the End

In fiction, writes the critic Paul de Man, all the elements needed for a novel’s conclusion are already present in its beginnings. One starts reading a novel, argue other critics, because we want to know how it ends. All beginnings are haunted by what the critic Frank Kermode termed ‘the sense of an ending’. Some poets have positioned this sense of the ending in their very opening. In ‘When the Vacation is Over for Good’, Pulitzer winner poet Mark Strand opens with an anticipation of the end:

It will be strange 
Knowing at last it couldn’t go on forever… 

In his The Four Quartets, Nobel laureate TS Eliot begins with 

         In my beginning is my end.

Eliot’s interest was in the cyclical nature of things. The poem concludes with what was heralded at the opening:

In my end is my beginning

These first and last lines are also, appositely, on Eliot’s gravestone. 

Kermode writes in The Sense of an Ending: ‘In fictions, whose ends are consonant with origins, and in concord, however unexpected, with their precedents, satisfy our needs’.It is in the poem’s conclusion, that the reader achieves a sense of completion. Says Barbara Herrnstein Smith in Poetic Closure: A Study of How Poems End: the end of a poem is about cessation of expectations. 

Futher, it is almost as though, Kermode claims, the end of the fiction is a figure of their, artist or poet’s, own death. That is, when there is nothing more to be said, the life of the poem and poet conclude. We see this theme in Mark Strand’s ‘The End’ in the very first line, where ‘sing’ is poetry, speech, writing:

Not every man knows what he shall sing at the end,

Watching the pier as the ship sails away…

Life is in the saying/writing: and what will one say at the end? 

In the end was the beginning

More conclusions exist. Many end with an aphoristic construction. In his short ‘Epitaph on a Tyrant’, Auden begins with

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,

And the poetry he invented was easy to understand.

After this positive image of the poet, Auden reverses it to deliver a punch:

When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

In his more famous ‘Funeral Blues’, Auden writes of a life ending when love ends:

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good

Marianne Moore concludes ‘Silences’ with a pertinent point about the sense of place and belonging:

          But inns are not residences.

This choosing a place aware of its limitations concludes Nissim Ezekiel’s luminous ‘Background, Casually’

          My backward place is where I am.

Philip Larkin, vaguely troubled by ‘the serious house on serious earth’ — the  Church — does not feel a sense of belonging in the premises. Larkin ends with:

A hunger in himself to be more serious, 

And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round. 

The presence of the dead determines the sense of place, and may be liberating. In Sylvia Plath’s famous ‘Daddy’, the father-figure (and even lover) morphs into the Nazi, but finally is exorcised:

There’s a stake in your fat black heart   

And the villagers never liked you.

They are dancing and stamping on you…   

Daddy, daddy… I’m through.

Mark Strand ponders over how a life of absences ends in ‘Coming to this’:

Coming to this

has its rewards: nothing is promised, nothing is taken away.   

We have no heart or saving grace,

no place to go, no reason to remain.

In ‘When the Vacation is Over for Good’, Strand has kept up with the theme of absence right to the end:

And even then, 
Because we will not have changed much, wondering what 
Will become of things, and who will be left to do it 
All over again, 

And somehow trying, 
But still unable, to know just what it was 
That went so completely wrong, or why it is 
We are dying.

In ‘The End’ a life’s ending is no more significant than the life itself.

When the weight of the past leans against nothing, and the sky

Is no more than remembered light.

This is precisely the end of the life, and the poem:

Not every man knows what is waiting for him, or what he shall sing

When the ship he is on slips into darkness, there at the end.

 A cinematic fade out is the last lines of Strand’s ‘The Way It Is’:

Everything dims

         The future is not what it used to be

The graves are ready. The dead

Shall inherit the dead.

Strand resonates with Eliot: the dead inheriting the dead is cyclical and the poem concludes with the inevitability of this. 

Perhaps the poets understand better: when the poetry ends, the universe ends.

(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)                      

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