Sink the Shot and Save the Poem

Basketball hitting rim

Let’s talk about ending poems.

Reading through slush I’m always looking for a kick-ass ending to a poem. It’s like watching a close basketball game. Last quarter, 2 seconds on the clock, poet racing down the page. Here’s the throw at the buzzer and Ohh… bounces off the rim. 

I hate that. 

I want the poet to succeed, make me slump back in my seat, stunned with awe and envy. Rock my world. That is why I read poetry, to savor what a deft turn of phrase does to my head. Too often a poem just sort of sputters and reclines on the floor, panting with effort. It tried its best. 

As writers, we need to pat those endings on the head and boot them out the door. Is a flabby ending what you really intended? Ask yourself, what image do you want to leave the reader with? What was the goal when you started the poem? 

The inspiration came from somewhere. It’s hard, but try to recapture that feeling. What sent sparks from your brain to your fingers? That’s where more often than not the disconnect happens. Fingers like to caress and rework, shape a poem like clay until it collapses under the weight of expectations. Override the impulse. I tend to overthink and all of a sudden I’m editing hard and strangling the life from the poem. I bet that happens to a lot of poets. Write and walk away. Ignore the screaming child on the page until YOU are ready to edit. Like every writing book says, put it away for a while. It grows without you or shrivels and dies. You’ll know which way it went when you take it back out of the drawer. 

Editing is a time to dig deep and confront yourself. Maybe the poem ends too abruptly and the perfect ending is dangling just another stanza or two down the road. Maybe the poet got caught up in the story and didn’t realize the perfect ending happened much earlier in the poem and now it’s lost on the road not taken. 

Leave the reader thinking and wanting more. Be that stock movie image, someone walking away from an explosion with nary a look back. You can do it. Dig deep and sink that shot at the buzzer. I can’t wait to read it.