The Fourteenth Line

One of my recent blogs Attention! has covered the importance of first lines in seizing your reader’s attention, now I’d like to consider the last lines. Having set the reader’s expectations, you now must provide a pay-off. The last line, words or couplet should ensure a satisfying end to your work. They may carry real weight. They could:

  • Recall something from earlier in the poem to give a cyclical closure;
  • Pose an open question to leave the reader wondering;
  • Show something is no longer possible;
  • Transform the meaning of the initial subject into something more universal;
  • Surprise the reader with an unexpected conclusion.

First consider the length of a poem. Many competitions have a set limit of forty lines. However many lines you write, you should make sure that this really is a timely end: have you said enough or have you said too much? Could the poem have ended a couple of lines sooner, giving a more dramatic effect? I have seen many poems that seem to go on and on and that I don’t believe carry the weight of their message. Haiku are the opposite, extremely condensed forms where you have only seventeen syllables!

The beauty of the sonnet is that centuries of use has shown that those fourteen lines are just enough. The writer is bound to stop by the form. The skill of the writer is tested in finding the pacing, concentration of thought and then conclusion that exactly fill those fourteen lines. A different skill perhaps from stream-of-consciousness free verse.

One technique that you may find useful to tie things up is repetition. Repetition of a single word, phrase, or a whole line. At the end of the journey through the poem, the meaning to the reader of that repeated phrase or word may have subtly changed. This is a technique built into many poetic forms like the villanelle, pantoum and sestina, where a repeated line returns several times, each time subtly transformed in meaning as a result of its context. As an extreme example, I used the repetition of a single word “Quiet” at the beginning and ending The Arrow of Time (1):

Line 1:    Quiet. I squint across the chainmail sea through

Line 14: drive past. Why, why am I so unquiet?

Another technique to bring a sonnet to a close is to field a rhyming couplet, where second of the last two lines rhymes with its predecessor, closing the gate with a resounding clang.

There is an opportunity in a sonnet to compare two sides of an argument, both thesis and its antithesis. The volta, which has been discussed in an earler blog Volta, may be the point at which the antithesis is introduced. You can see this in Enduring Solitude Enduring Solitude poem, where the narrator having spent the morning outdoors all alone comes indoors to a place surrounded by other lonely people. The ending brings a synthesis, even if not a conclusion, enough to trigger some new insight or emotion in the reader. This sonnet also uses a rhyming couplet as a full cadence.

And of course, once you have the last line – you can begin to think of a first line for your next work …

  • The Arrow of Time has been previously published The Cannon’s Mouth Quarterly, page 48, Cannon Poets, Issue 71, March 2019, ISSN 1745-6630;
  • Enduring Solitude was published in Writers’ Forum, as a competition runner-up, page 58, Select Publisher Services Ltd., Issue 155, August 2014, ISSN 1467-2529.

20200425 The Fourteenth Line Image

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