We don’t know when it will happen — whether some April or July or December will be the cruelest month — but we know poets are fascinated with the end of the world. Novelists and essayists ponder the apocalypse, but poems are particularly suited toward capturing the anxiety of the end.
Consider Robert Penn Warren’s “Evening Hawk,” which narrows from the grand expansive — a hawk’s wing that “scythes down another day” along the “crashless fall of stalks of Time” — to the airless and anxious: “If there were no wind we might, we think, hear / The earth grind on its axis, or history / Drip in darkness like a leaking pipe in the cellar.” The relative brevity of Warren’s poem enables its power. We don’t need volumes upon volumes to proclaim the end: we need one final, focused gasp.
In a letter dated May 16, 1945, Wallace Stevens posed a question as a statement: “At the moment, the war is shifting from Europe to Asia, and why one should be writing about poetry at all is hard to understand.” Faced with destruction and death, the action of criticism feels cold and academic. Poetry, on the other hand, becomes necessary as the world crumbles. After 9/11, poetry seemed natural; many of us in New York City and its shadow carried folded copies of W.B. Yeats’s “The Second Coming” and “September 1, 1939” by W.H. Auden.
If we accept Stevens’s definition of the poetic act as “the desire to contain the world wholly within one’s own perception of it,” then poems about the end are simultaneously selfish and heroic attempts at survival. Here are 10 poems to prepare us for the end of the world.
1. “Perhaps the World Ends Here” by Joy Harjo
“The world begins at a kitchen table,” Harjo starts. “No matter what, we must eat to live.” Communion and community thread throughout her poem. “It is here,” at a table, where “children are given instructions on what it means to be human.”
Harjo thinks our end has been foretold: “We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here.” Her poem concludes with resigned hope: “Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.” Her focus on a shared domestic space helps us forget about the enormity of the poem’s backdrop.
2. “Fire and Ice” by Robert Frost
Is Frost’s poem a microcosm of Dante Alighieri’s Inferno? Maybe. Yet I also like the origin story from astronomer Harlow Shapley: while Frost was a poet-in-residence at Harvard, he twice in one night asked Shapley how the world would end. Shapley’s response formed the polarities of the poem.
Read by countless middle-school students in requisite units on American poetry, “Fire and Ice” is heavier than its nine lines appear at first glance, and like much of his other work, darkly comic. Equally apocalyptic in spirit, and perhaps even more final in its small-town sadness, is Frost’s poem “Out, Out,” which ends with a minor apocalypse: a boy’s injury leads to amputation and then death, but the townspeople, “since they / Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.”
3. “Try to Praise the Mutilated World” by Adam Zagajewski
The September 24, 2001, issue of The New Yorker had a black cover, and on its back page waited this poem. Zagajewski wrote the poem before 9/11, but like the verse of Yeats and Auden, sometimes words need to wait for their proper moment.
Note the evolution of the titular statement throughout the poem: we are called to “try to praise,” and then “you must praise,” “you should praise,” and finally the exasperated, exhausted, and yet somehow calm final “Praise the mutilated world / and the gray feather a thrush lost, / and the gentle light that strays and vanishes / and returns.” Zagajewski said there was not one particular event that birthed the poem, rather, “it’s the way I have always seen the world” — on the brink, and yet beautiful.
4. “Disappointments of the Apocalypse” by Mary Karr
Maybe we will be laughing at the end. Mary Karr seems to think so. “Warring factions” will set the date for the end of the world. Physicists will send “copies of the decree to paradise / in case God has anything to say.” A lunar eclipse portends the end, and “Those who hated the idea stayed indoors” but will step out “onto porches and balconies to see / the human shapes twist and rise / through violet sky and hear trees uproot / with a sound like enormous zippers / unfastening.”
Karr’s lines unfurl toward hilarity and back again, and yet her lines capture quite what we’d expect an absent God to sound like as he watches his creation combust: “where the last spreadeagled Xs clung like insects, / then vanished in puffs of luminous smoke, // which traveled a long way to sting his nostrils, / the journey lasting more than ten lifetimes.”
5. “A Song On the End of the World” by Czeslaw Milosz
“Those who expected lightning and thunder / are disappointed” on the day the world ends. From bees circling clovers to fishermen mending nets to vegetable peddlers shouting in the street, the world moves on, unknowing of its end. We almost certainly will not know when the end will come, and Milosz especially thinks those who expect “signs and archangels’ trumps” will be disappointed at the lack of ceremony.
If Harjo thinks our end is our beginning — or perhaps symbolic of one of our daily customs — then Milosz thinks our end will be a surprise for most. Except one: “Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet / Yet is not a prophet, for he’s much too busy, / Repeats while he binds his tomatoes: / No other end of the world will there be, / No other end of the world will there be.”
6. “How it Ends: Three Cities” by Catherine Pierce
Three iterations of the end of the world: Austin, Texas; New York, N.Y.; Okemah, Okla. In Austin, grackles line the pavement, “tails oil-black.” Nobody calls out of work. Instead, they “just sleepwalked to the Red Pony Lounge and dropped into silence.” There a man “reaches into his coat pocket and pulls out a bird.” The narrator wants to wake it up. On the east coast, at lunchtime, the city smells sweet. Everyone hunts for one last taste. Even a “feuding couple falls silent in front of a window display of petit fours, chocolate tortes, marzipan apricots.” Finally, in the Midwest, the animals slowly become strange. “Goldfish leap down the street’s puddles. Hermit crabs scuttle over lawns, and cockatiels preen dirt from their wings.” A horse gallops down the street. The narrator’s dog “dives into her lap, and as the stars go black she is laughing.”
7. “End of Winter” by Louise Glück
All stories about the end of the world are really about the end of our own worlds, the little, often unnoticed deaths that surround us daily. Glück’s poem has always felt strangely personal and interrogative for me. It begins with a bird’s call during the “still world” of the winter, but then immediately becomes direct in the second stanza: “You wanted to be born; I let you be born. / When has my grief ever gotten / in the way of your pleasure?”
Later: “never imagining the sound of my voice / as anything but part of you— / … only / persistent echoing / in all sound that means good-bye, good-bye.” Is this a mother? Is it God? It might be both: creators alike, after all.
8. “Econo Motel, Ocean City” by Daisy Fried
I love the skill and restraint needed to develop a poem in a single room — a motel room, no less. Who among us has not felt that his or her particular end would come in some aberrant motel room, “Korean monster movie on the SyFy channel, / lurid Dora the Explorer blanket draped tentlike / over Baby’s portacrib to shield us from unearned / innocence.” If we are to believe Pierce and others, the end will arrive with a bit of blurring: “Grease-dusted ceiling fan / paddles erratically, two spars missing. Sheets whirled / to the polluted rug.” The family is splayed in this comfortably uncomfortable place: “My glasses on the side table / tipped onto scratchproof lenses, earpieces / sticking up / like arms out of disaster rubble. Your feet hooked over my feet. What miasma / lays gold dander down on forms of temporary / survivors wandering the promenade?” They are at peace in this “Sad Armageddon / of marriage: how pretty much nice / we meant to be, and couldn’t make a difference.”
9. “The End of the World” by Dana Gioia
We should lighten up a bit as we near the end of the list — a little poetic calm before the concluding storm. The narrator and his companions “stopped the car where the river curled,” at what is called the end of the world. They “scrambled down” beneath a bridge, cross the “gravel track of a narrow ridge” and thread the woods to reach the actual river. The narrator stands alone where the “white water goosetailed with eddying swell.” As in many of Gioia’s poems, he brings us to the final resting place of the poem and then steps back. We are with the narrator at the end of this world, looking downstream, where “There was nothing but sky, / The sound of the water, and the water’s reply.”
10. “The End of the World” by Archibald MacLeish
This is how the world ends: at a circus. MacLeish’s sonnet is actually a single swollen sentence. “Quite unexpectedly,” it begins, as Vasserot, the “armless ambidextrian” lit a match between his toes, and the lion is biting a performer’s neck — while the theater of the absurd reaches its pinnacle, “Quite unexpectedly the top blew off.”
The final stanza is masterful, garbled, clunky, recursive, and as close as our inadequate minds can image to the real, messy end. Most likely then, above our paled faces and “our dazed eyes,” there will be “nothing, nothing, nothing — nothing at all.”
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