And in the End

by Michael Milburn



Paul: "Have you got your loud pedal down, Mal?"

Mal: "Which one's that?"

Paul: "The right hand one, far right.  It keeps the echo going.

John: "Keep it down the whole time."

Paul: "Right.  On four then.  One, two, three..."


    Captured on a studio tape, this exchange between Paul McCartney, John Lennon, and Beatles assistant Mal Evans preceded the playing of the majestic, lingering E chord that concludes “A Day in the Life,” the final song on the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album.  The chord not only yokes together the song’s disparate parts, but gives the impression of extending beyond the record, continuing to echo as the listener resumes his or her own day in the life.  In its combination of conclusiveness (ten hands strike three grand pianos simultaneously) and resonance (the tone lasts for over forty seconds as the engineer continually boosts the recording level) the chord serves as my useful point of reference in a discussion of literary endings.


    Endings are the part of writing I dread most—reading over first drafts of my poems and essays, I always hope to come across a striking line that I can transplant to the last stanza or paragraph.  Failing this, I know I’ll have to compose a fitting closing to the piece, and that the harder I try to get it right, the more elusive the ideal language and wording will be.  These struggles have turned me into a connoisseur of other writers’ endings, and made me wonder how much these most conspicuous of lines affect or are affected by what precedes them.          
    Beginnings don’t occupy me as much.  Because they’re followed by a piece’s concentrated effect, they don’t hold my attention long enough to dictate an overall impression.  They’re like signposts I pass on my way in—they may beckon or warn me off, or hardly catch my eye, but they rarely determine whether I’ll proceed or what I’ll be thinking ten pages later.  I may find a first line inviting, but that’s beside the point unless the piece impresses me as a whole.  Then the beginning becomes a factor in that opinion and I’ll go back and analyze its contribution.
    Last lines, on the other hand, stick in the mind and ring in the ears, coloring reflection on what has come before.  A flawed ending can ruin a piece of writing, not by making the rest less good, but by exposing what looked like a deepening, tightening edifice as a fragment that the author couldn't bring to completion.  For example, some contemporary poems and short stories seem to stop short, forcing the reader to puzzle over what has happened.  When this strategy works, it invests the piece with resonance and complexity.  But too often writers create an illusion of these qualities, as if masking the fact that they couldn’t achieve them.
    These concluding lines from Gary Snyder’s poem “A Spring Night in Shokoku-jiare” demonstrate a successful “stop short” ending—the poem manages to seem done even as it also seems poised to go on:  


Here in the night
In a garden of the old capital
I feel the trembling ghost of Yugao
I remember your cool body
Naked under a summer cotton dress.


    By themselves Snyder’s last two lines sound better suited to the beginning or middle of a poem than its conclusion.  Positioned at the end, however, they demand more attention and take on more meaning than they would elsewhere, evoking more than they describe—the sensuality of temperature and fabric, the lover’s naked body concealed to the eye yet visible in memory.  
    I’m curious to know whether Snyder worked toward this ending by cutting backward in his draft until he arrived at appropriately conclusive (or inconclusive) lines, or tailored the ending to the rest of the poem and inserted it like a final stone in a structure.  However he arrived at it, I bet the route wasn’t easy.  In my own writing, a desirable last line or even stanza or paragraph will occasionally leap out at me from the body of a rough draft, and I’ll feel lucky and relieved, but my endings usually require extensive trial and error based on what I want the piece to say and the effect I want it to have.  I have folders full of unfinished poems and essays waiting for me to figure these two questions out.  
    In editing Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” Gordon Lish cut the last six pages to end the story at the midpoint of Carver’s original version.  

    “I’ll put out some cheese and crackers,” Terri said.
    But Terri just sat there.  She did not get up to get anything.
    Mel turned his glass over.  He spilled it out on the table.
    “Gin’s gone,” Mel said.
    Terri said, “Now what?”
    I could hear my heart beating.  I could hear everyone’s heart.  I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.


    Carver’s original ending is more discursive and reflective; he even emphasizes these qualities by crossing out two terse, monosyllabic last sentences in his manuscript:


I wanted to imagine horses rushing through those fields in the near dark, or even just standing quietly with their heads in opposite directions near the fence.  I stood at the window and waited.  I knew I had to keep still a while longer, keep my eyes out there, outside the house as long as there was something left to see.  Then it would get better.  I knew if I closed my eyes, I could get lost.

    Whereas Lish strives for a cinematic blackout effect, Carver favors a gradual denouement, as if a curtain is falling over the scene—it’s the kind of ending one finds in literary classics such as The Great Gatsby ("So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past") or “Little Gidding” (“When the tongues of flame are in-folded/Into the crowned knot of fire/And the fire and the rose are one”).  By ending his story in this way, Carver seems to be proclaiming his ambition for it, and Lish’s edit has the effect of diminishing not just the story but the ambition as well.    
    There’s a self-conscious grandeur to the “curtain” endings quoted above, as if the writers are calling attention to the significance of what has come before.  If what has come before doesn’t measure up, the writer looks pompous.  It’s hard to imagine the finale of Henry Roth’s novel Call It Sleep being preceded by ordinary writing.


It was only toward sleep one knew himself still lying on the cobbles, felt the cobbles under him, and over him and scudding ever toward him like a black foam, the perpetual blur of shod and running feet, the broken shoes, new shoes, stubby, pointed, caked, polished, buniony, pavement beveled, lumpish, under skirts, under trousers, shoes, over one and through one, and feel them all and feel, not pain, not terror, but strangest triumph, strangest acquiescence.  One might as well call it sleep.  He shut his eyes.

These majestic closing sentences are consistent with the rest of Roth’s book, which Irving Howe said “achieves an obbligato of lyricism such as few American novels can match.”
    My favorite kind of ending, and the hardest for me to achieve, is one where the piece seems to click shut with a satisfying finality, sending the reader away admiring the performance just finished, but also eager to study how the contraption works.  These endings are common in formal poems where the fulfillment of the meter and chime of the rhyme meet the reader’s expectations of closure, as in this closing couplet drafted by Yeats.  


Tension is but the vigour of the mind,
Cannon the god and father of mankind.

    With their stately iambs, masculine rhyme, and confident message, these lines sound final, but they’re hardly memorable, and Yeats eventually replaced them with the following:


I must lie down where all the ladders start

In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

            (from “The Circus Animals Desertion”)    


    According to Curtis Bradford, author of Yeats at Work, these new lines were “apparently struck off at white heat.”  Such facility was unusual for Yeats, especially in “The Circus Animals Desertion,” one of his most extensively revised poems.  To judge from the poet’s manuscripts, these lines are the only ones that came easily.  Up to this point he seems to have lacked a clear idea of where the poem was going or what he wanted it to say, an aimlessness that he acknowledges in its first line: “I sought a theme, and sought for it in vain.”  Once he had his ending in place, the rest of the final stanza followed.  “I think Yeats had invented his splendid final line before he began this draft,” Bradford says, “the handling of detail in the middle of the stanza seems to point toward it unmistakably.”  
    Another of Yeats’s famous endings is more representative of his painstaking process.  In his analysis of the manuscripts for “The Second Coming,” Jon Stallworthy writes, “Inexorably, we watch Yeats’s pen pursuing the poem’s magnificent and sinister conclusion:


And now at last, (            )

It slouches toward Bethlehem to be born

It has set out for Bethlehem to be born

And now at last              knowing its hour come round

It has set out for Bethlehem to be born
                  wild thing          its hour come round at last
And what at last          knowing the hour come round
                 rough beast
Is slouching toward Bethlehem to be born

    The drafts for these two poems suggest that for Yeats a successful ending demands not just finality of language, statement and rhythm, but an intangible quality that the poet doesn’t so much envision as feel his way toward.  He only recognizes it when he sees it, whether it emerges fully formed as in “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” or is chiseled out word by word as in “The Second Coming.”
    In the following free verse poems the click shut effect arises mainly from context, the relation of the last line to the ones preceding it.  Both poems could end adequately on their penultimate lines, but it’s the subsequent turn—from lyrical narration to blunt despair in Wright’s, and from singsong address to flat statement in Gluck’s—that makes the first poem so shattering and the second so terrifying.

I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.

A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.

I have wasted my life.

            from James Wright’s “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota”


And the wife leaning out the window
with her hand extended, as in payment,
and the seeds
distinct, gold, calling
Come here
Come here, little one

And the soul creeps out of the tree.

            from Louise Gluck’s “All Hallows”


    Gluck has said that one of her goals in The House on Marshland, the book in which “All Hallows” appears, was to “figure out a way to end a poem without sealing it shut.”  One could make equally convincing arguments for the finality and the open-endedness of that last line.  It brings the poem to a dramatic conclusion, but also (like the Beatles’ piano chord) extends its air of ominousness.
    Click shut endings occur in prose, too, as when William Trevor concludes his story “In Isfahan,” about a chance meeting abroad between a man and a woman, with the sentence “She had quality, he had none.”  Arriving at this verdict, the reader realizes that Trevor has been steering the couple’s relationship toward it all along.  The sentence not only completes Trevor’s argument, its syntax and rhythm signal the story’s end.  In contrast, the stop short ending of Grace Paley’s “A Woman Young and Old” conveys little finality: “She is a real cuddly girl.”  Hearing this story read aloud for the first time, one would wait expectantly for a few seconds before realizing it was over, like an audience at a contemporary music concert wondering if it’s time to applaud.  This moment of uncertainty invites one to reflect about the way things have been left.  Trevor’s two-fisted ending also invites reflection, but through a closed door rather than the one Paley leaves ajar.
    The final quatrain of Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening” combines Paley’s openness with Trevor’s finality, clamping closed like a submarine hatch while inviting in an ocean of speculation.  

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.


Each of the last three lines anticipates fulfillment and rest, and ends on a word pronounced by closing one’s mouth.  Yet all resolution is deferred to the future, and the poem ends teeming with uncertainty, albeit one expressed in the reassuring cadences and vocabulary of a lullaby.
    When I come across a good ending, I clip or type it out and slip it into my wallet, rereading it both for enjoyment and with an eye toward appropriating the syntax or word choice.  Writing endings is such an ordeal for me that I’ll try anything to make my work easier.  Here are a few I’m carrying at the moment.  From Alice Munro’s short story, “Face,” in which a man imagines reuniting with a woman with whom he shared a traumatic experience as a child:


You think that would have changed things?  
The answer is of course, and for a while, and never.

These two sentences make a poem on their own, but also contain so much plaintive wisdom that if the rest of Munro’s story had been missing from the magazine I clipped them from, I’d have tracked it down.  The same goes for the ending of Yiyun Li’s novel The Vagrants, about the actions, some noble and some reprehensible, of a group of people in the days surrounding the execution of a young woman who has renounced her faith in Communism:

Heaven’s door is narrow and allows only one hero at a time, but those
going down to hell, Kwen said, always travel in pairs, hand in hand.

    This ending, too, works as an aphorism while illuminating the pages that precede it.  I actually found reading those pages to be a slog until this final proclamation upgraded my assessment from “a slog” to “worth the trouble.”  But I doubt that even a brilliant last line can improve a mediocre piece of writing or make it seem better than it is, the way a generous tip might color a waiter’s impression of a cranky diner.  At least, neither my memory nor my wallet contains any endings like this, perhaps because I never make it through such pieces in the first place.
    My inability to remember the endings of certain pieces I admire makes me wonder whether memorable endings are just that—sentences that stick in the mind for their pithiness rather than because they complement what has come before.  One of my favorite novels, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, ends with the narrator, an English butler, vowing to improve his bantering skills:  “I should hope, then, that by the time of my employer’s return, I shall be in a position to pleasantly surprise him.”  This unassuming sentence may not stand out from the rest of the book, but it is consistent with the personality of a servant trained not to call attention to himself.  
    My amnesia for the last sentence of Barry Hannah’s story “Testimony of Pilot”—“That is why I told this story and will never tell another”—perplexes me because it’s no less arresting than that of “In Isfahan” or The Sound and The Fury (“They endured”), which I’ve never forgotten.  “Testimony of Pilot” is about two boys growing up in Mississippi.  After high school the narrator stays home while his friend ends up flying jets in Vietnam and ultimately dies of his war injuries.  Rereading the story now, I can see why its last sentence failed to stay with me.  As much as it once thrilled me, it now strikes me as ostentatious and tacked on, as if Hannah is trying too hard to sound memorable—what story wouldn’t that ending add novelty to?  I might like it better if Hannah had ended on his penultimate sentence: “He died with his Arabian nose up in the air.”  
    Many nonfiction writers love to end with quotations.  Delivering a piece’s last words in a voice other than the author’s produces a snappy, resonant effect; the shift in style adds freshness, and the speaker often serves as a proxy for the reader by commenting on what has come before.  The drawback to this strategy is that the effect can be very similar from one piece to another.  Besides, quotes can always be counted on to produce lively last lines, which tempts writers to substitute them for endings in their own words.  The lack of resolution compromises the entire piece, as if the writer had handed off the burden of making it cohere.  At their best, however, quoted endings achieve precision and profundity.     Concluding his review of a Grace Kelly biography, Anthony Lane captures the essence of the movie star’s allure with eight words quoted from a fan letter: “In the next world, will you marry me?”
    In the issue of The New Yorker that Lane’s review appears in, four of the five “Talk of the Town” articles end with quotations.  In another recent issue, five of six do.  A further check confirms that quoted endings are a recurrent feature of the magazine’s nonfiction style.  They give the “Talk of the Town” vignettes much of their off-hand good humor, and keep the longer, expository articles from coming across as too impersonal and inaccessible.  
    Even though quoted endings can be just as penetrating as composed ones, completing a piece in my own words often forces me to realize it more fully than if I plug in someone else’s.  This principle also applies to my reading.  For example, Susan Orlean ends many of her essays with witty quotes:


The man let out a beery burp and said, “That’s what they say.”  
          from “The Outsiders”

He took a huge breath and then grabbed his phone, hit the speed dial, and shouted, “Hey! Louie! I got a bird!”
          from “Little Wing”

"Do not handle the dog," Bank repeated. "He's working."
"I think he knows I'm a masseuse," the woman said, looking crestfallen.
"Maybe so," Bank said. "But he's working."
          from “Animal Action”

“The big issues are what it means to deal with so many kids, whether I will ever figure out how to make a recognizable Barney balloon, and what is the meaning of life."
          from “Seriously Silly”

“Riding High,” Orlean’s article about the use of mules in the military, is full of her trademark whimsy and inquisitiveness.  Coming to the end of it, I readied myself for a closing quote that would make light of the animal’s single-minded stoicism.  Instead, Orlean chose to embody this quality in her own rhythmic clauses:

The captain was amazed at the animals’ endless composure, how they just kept going, carrying whatever needed to be carried, trudging up and over the ragged ridges, then turning around and walking back, to be loaded and sent on their way again.

Orlean wouldn’t necessarily have diminished the article by ending with a quote, but I believe she enhanced it by crafting her own conclusion.
    Quoted endings often appeal through their abruptness (“’Oh, fuck you!’ yelled Applebaum” ends one of my favorite "Talk of the Town" pieces), but an ending in the writer’s own words only works if it’s fused with the whole.  In Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance,” it’s hard to pinpoint the ending because every sentence in the last paragraph gains force from the one before.  One can’t quote the final sentence (“Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles”) without wanting to add the previous one (“Nothing can bring you peace but yourself”), and the one before that (“Do not believe it”), and so on.
    Emerson’s essay contains other sentences with as much rhetorical and rhythmic finality as these last ones.  One could suspend reading at the ends or even in the middles of several paragraphs without feeling truncated.  This is similar to how one “reads” visual art.  Apart from their frames and surfaces, paintings and sculptures have no definable ends other than the moment the viewer stops looking and walks away.     Until then, the object never ends because the eye never stops traveling back into and over the whole.  For most museum-goers the decision to stop looking is prompted by circumstances—weariness, time constraints, a jostling crowd—rather than by a feeling of fulfillment or arrival at a visible terminus.  
    This isn’t so different from the experience of reading.  In these busy times we tend to read literature in installments, stopping because the bus arrives or the dentist summons us from the waiting room or we fall asleep.  We even read poems on the installment plan in the sense that if they’re good we reread them, making the last line less a parting than a pause.  This subjects us to a multitude of ends—we stop and reflect on what we have read so far, holding that temporary whole in mind until we resume, or come to the end a first, second, third, and fourth time with different perspectives gained from each rereading.
    Alice Munro takes this episodic approach further, claiming to read stories by plunging in at random points and reading backward or forward.  

A story is not like a road to follow … it’s more like a house.  You go inside and stay there for awhile, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows.  And you, the visitor, the reader, are altered as well by being in this enclosed space, whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns, or sparsely or opulently furnished.  You can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time.  It has also a sturdy sense of itself, of being built out of its own necessity, not just to shelter or beguile you.

    I thought of Munro’s statement recently during one of my ninth grade English classes.  I had discouraged my students from reading ahead in their assigned book so as not to give away its plot twists during discussion.  Amid heated speculation about the main character’s fate, a boy suddenly turned to the last page and announced the denouement.  The vehemence with which his classmates and I reproached him made me wonder how important the initial discovery of information is to appreciating art.  Was the knowledge that the protagonist reunited with his sister any more ruinous than hearing the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony before the first, or seeing a picture of the Sistine Chapel in advance of the real thing?  “I’m not reading—at least in an efficient way—to find out what happens,” Munro says.  “I do find out, and I’m interested in finding out, but there’s much more to the experience.”
    According to this view, literary endings matter less than their prominent position would suggest; in fact, it’s often the ones that don’t work that have the most significant overall impact on a piece of writing.  Anyone who has finished reading a poem and realized that it adds up to no more than a fragment, or turned a page on a propulsive short story only to discover that there are no more pages, or tried to draft the last paragraph of an essay that resists summary or synthesis, knows that a weak ending undermines a piece of writing as a faulty foundation destabilizes a house.  A strong ending, on the other hand, gives confidence to both writer and reader that these words bear weight, and are ready to be lived in.


Michael Milburn teaches high school English in New Haven, CT.  He is the author of a collection of essays, Odd Man In, and two books of poems.  A new book of poems, Carpe Something, will appear from Word Press in 2012.