In my Beginning is my End

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OK – I wrote about poems’ endings. How about the beginnings? Can I find any lessons from my own opening lines?

 

I’ve reversed Eliot’s well-known line here, but his was deliberately contrary. All beginnings imply some kind of end and the characteristics of a beginning – whether it’s a poem, a revolution, a product launched or a child conceived, carry information which can determine how it will end.

 

DEATH AND THE MAGICIAN

 

One day the magician came to me and said,
The fish are leaping in the yellow stream
The oak has turned into an acorn small
And I saw Death in dream.

And I saw Death in dream, he said,
And Death was very kind
He showed me where the roses grow
Though I’m old and blind.

I’m old and blind and lame, he said,
The sea is out of sight
The shell is empty on the shelf
Through the woken night.

The night is all around, he said,
It closes hour by hour
The voices make me fear, my friend,
Should a proud man cower?

But should a proud man cower, my friend,
I think perhaps he should
The wine is turning sour, my friend,
But the bread is good.

The bread of death is good, my friend,
The bread of life is fine
And now I’ve understood, my friend,
Will the starlight shine?

And will the starlight shine, my friend,
And will the starlight shine?
Now let us touch the vine, my friend,
And we will drink the wine.

 

How does this beginning work? Well, in fact you could say the beginning is actually the title, which tells you death will feature and suggests something rather archetypal. Then the first line is in ordinary language and chatty, quite misleading really for a poem that becomes ballad-like and rather distant from everyday speech. But that’s a way of as it were luring the reader in. Compare with a Hitchcock thriller. It normally starts with things seeming ordinary.

 

VISITORS

Here are the shoes and here the photographs,
The shaven heads, expressionless eyes or defiant.
These are the notices: washroom, joy, be honest.
Joy was the brothel. Here the camp commandant’s children played,
Getting used to the occasional screams.
We are done now. Ten minutes’ rest break: the toilets are over there,
Hot drinks and snacks in that corner. The coach is ready.
Thankyou for listening, thankyou for coming here.

The people are quiet in the coach until a phone rings.
The old Jew answers it. “Yes, we’re fine. No, you’re joking.
It’s raining here, just like Manchester.”

 

Once you’ve realised this poem is about a concentration camp, the first line is very specific and plummets you right in. These are shoes piled up from people who were gassed. The title is ambiguous: is it about the visitors to the modern exhibition, to present-day Auschwitz, or does it describe the murdered people as visitors, perhaps because they didn’t stay long? The first line is straightforward and there is no twist from first line to second, just progression.

 

Here there is a twist though:

 

DISENCHANTMENT

The world is disenchanted
We have walked in the dark places
And found no ghosts or elves
No dragons roam the forests
The real fearsome beasts
Of the forest we have shot
And made a diagram of their bodily systems.

But now the sabre-toothed beasts from the forest myths
The giant wings, the parallel cunning people
With their invisible cities and hidden spells
Are coursing through the streets of the flooded city.

Come with me to the sea.
We know the source of its power, waves and tides
There’s not a grain of sand disturbed
By the last thrash of the wave
I cannot analyse;
I can tell when a star will disappear.

Hunting elusive messengers in your mind
You may find useful this neat chart
We can identify
The electromagnetic impulses for love or hate
We’ve come a long way, you and I
Perhaps it is too late
To search back for some thing we have forgotten.

 

The title and the first line introduce the words DISENCHANTED and DISENCHANTMENT, which normally mean serious disappointment (“He became disenchanted with his leader,”), but immediately you wonder how the WORLD can be disenchanted. Gradually you realise the word is being used perversely if logically to be the opposite of ENCHANTED. We’ve lost enchantment.To me too the very sound of DISENCHANTED is right: it has a kind of mournful music.

 

I don’t mean this as self-praise – just picking out some openings I believe work quite well. Maybe I’ll do this for poems by better-known poets – but that’s harder work as I have my own poems all on one word file!

 

See you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The End Again

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I said I’d talk about some more last lines. That’s Land’s End in Cornwall above, by the way.

 

CULTURE SHOCK

The cat is serious
It has its ways
So do I.
It came miaowing to me; under the bed it went
Where it scrabbled and rushed around
I bent down and looked it in the eye
I said,
“Hello, puss-cat – what are you up to?”
In reply, the dextrous cat
Threw a rat in my face.

 

Well, that’s obviously a surprise ending, just as the real event was a surprise to me. Not much more to say except that this is much the same as a surprise twist at the end of a novel or short story.

 

But what about this?

 

APPROACH

As I came through the automatic door
And found that it was raining
As I paused to deal with that
This shabby man caught me.
“Do you want to see
The future? It’s amazing, genuinely squire,
Believe me, every customer is
Satisfied. Only five quid,
I’m ruining myself.”
I handed him the money
Went round the side and looked.
And he was right:
All customers were satisfied.
No argument!
No play of light and dark, no life.
Against the rain I pulled my collar up.

 

Here, I’d suggest, I’m imagining a bleak vision of the future, of nothingness. The last but one line might seem to be the punchline. But the last one shows me doing what people tend to do, retreating from something unwelcome into daily life and ordinary, comprehensible concerns. At the same time, I’m seeking protection from my clothes against something not stopped by rainproof clothing.

 

I don’t want to suggest that all good poems end with a final line that’s obviously strong, and there’s another issue about the ending – the conclusion it suggests. Here’s the poem that led to me returning to writing poetry, the first of my new poetic life:

 

SPIRIT MOUNTAIN

“Said to be haunted”
“Source of strength and madness”
Alone on the night mountain
I wait, curious.

Screeches and groans
Tear the night, only I
Know they’re ravens
Not demons.

Harbour lights, town lights, wandering
Headlights shine and
Are gloved into mist

Pale flame of sunrise
Seascape afire
Ghosts? Then within us

But a trickle of
Welsh blood speaking:
Perhaps in the soil
Out of time, sleeping.

 

I wrote this poem about a night out on a Welsh mountain said to be holy and haunted. A couple of hours later, the poem still running through my mind, I added an extra verse. The original ended at “Ghosts? Then within us.” Why did I change the ending? Because I was uneasy and increasingly felt it was too neat and promoted a firm conclusion where I was really unsure. So the last verse rejects a rational certainty for doubt.

 

Happy Easter!

 

Simon

 

 

THE END

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I looked for an apocalyptic picture of The End, but strangely, they’re hard to find on the net. This is actually the Great Fire of London, but it looks pretty apocalyptic.

Actually, this isn’t about that kind of End, or about this kind.

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It’s about the end of a poem.

 

When I started writing poetry again, I felt for a long time that endings were a weak point for me. Just as the Monty Python team found they often didn’t know how to end a sketch (hence those sudden shifts to And Now for Something Completely Different), I was aware that the last line of a poem had huge impact but struggled to find words that were up to the task.

 

Secretly, without realising it, I’ve changed. Last month I took part in an organised poetry reading at the Poetry Cafe in London, set up as a Colchester team against a London team (though actually there was no competition). Thinking about my own selection later, and also some poems I shared in a poets’ group not long after, I realised some of the endings worked particularly well (I think).

 

Here are some examples from the Poetry Cafe event. These are all poems I’ve posted here before.

 

TOMORROW

After a month of night, a reddish moon
Illuminates a new world, smoothes
The slivers of metal, softens the swathes
Of jagged concrete to
A pebble beach. The clumps of bodies become
A silvered sleeping army of dancing elves.
Nothing human moves,
But deep rats scrabble towards the surface
In the wounded rivers
Dragonfly larvae wait, and where the great trees stood
Fern spores survive. There will be
Another turn.
Tomorrow the relentless sun will rise.

WEYMOUTH BAY
The moonlight over the sea in a narrow, shimmering dark-speckled band
Links the horizon with the stony beach
To the left the town lights strung along the esplanade
In yellow and red do not shift
Being precise, defined; round the dark sea are the sounds of a town night
A drunken argument, a covey of old people chattering
Taxis’ irregular engine rumble;
A few late white gulls flap and swivel;
The glittering causeway is untrodden.

NIGHT VISION

Dark shape of a man against the drifts of white
The pale watching lights on concrete walls
The crump of boots in the untrodden snow
The short scream of an owl in the hidden wood.

No lights show in the sky, but the steady throb
Of a heavy heaving plane in the opaque air;
The dogs begin to bark; a light goes out.

THE TOWER

Looking out over the silent sea
Knowing of another hidden country
She dreamt of unicorns and fiery dragons
(The island in the bay was Avalon)
And when the sailors laughed, cursed them to be blind.

Older, more cautious, richer, more powerful,
She bought the island, poisoned all the rats
And built a tower like one that might have stood
To watch for pirates in the China seas
And spent some few nights there watching whales and slow-burning
Stars that spread eerie magic over the black waves.

But when a dying dragon came to her in a dream
Dragging smeared scales over the revengeful rocks
She left the island and the tower fell slowly into ruin
Peopled by spiders and by mad-voiced seabirds
Haunted by silent, searching unicorns.

 

So what works about these endings? I should say I read some other poems whose endings I didn’t feel were so strong.

 

In the first poem, “Tomorrow, the relentless sun will rise” reminds us of the title “Tomorrow”. It marks the first time the sun will be visible after a month of night. But the key word, I suggest, is “relentless”. The sun is relentless. “Relentless” suggest cruel and ruthless as well as strong and persistent. Most life forms, including humanity, have been destroyed by some cataclysm, but “There will be another turn”. The sole word “relentless” raises the question, “Do we want another turn, when it may be no better?”.

 

In “Weymouth Bay” the last line again relates back to the beginning, this time to the first line instead of the title. It reminds us of the glittering band of light from the moon shining on the dark sea. But whereas the first line describes this fairly straightforwardly, the last line turns the band of light into a causeway people could walk on, but choose not to, setting off the magical against the mundane (a drunken argument, chatter, idling taxi engines, street lights).

 

In “Night Vision”, I think the reader begins to realise what is being described is a prison, a concentration camp or a prisoner of war camp. There is an atmosphere of menace, even in the big bomber or transport plane being hidden in cloud. “The dogs begin to bark” could suggest an escape attempt has been discovered. “A light goes out” could be just another piece of atmosphere – or it could mean the light of a human life has been extinguished. People seem to get this double meaning quite easily.

 

The last line of “The Tower” appears just to introduce more mythical things (we’ve had unicorns before, in the third line, and also dragons and the island of Avalon). But the poem describes the death of a dream. The woman dreams, becomes able to implement her dream, enjoys it briefly, then is shocked by the dream becoming threatening and retreats. But not only does the tower fall into ruin – her dream creatures do not die, but continue on the island searching for her. I think that comes as quite a shock.

 

Next time I’ll look at a few endings from other poems I read recently.

 

Sorry, by the way, for being silent for some time. Usual excuses.

 

Take care.