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Poetic Thinking 2016 | January 24, 2020

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Scott Weiss

We ended class today by talking about the ending of The Seventh Seal and whether it was satisfying.  Some people thought that the film “over-ended,” i.e. it should have ended with the image of the girl’s face (ironically, this discussion occurred after our class time had ended, as if we were playing out the very phenomenon we were discussing!).  I personally prefer the ending as it is because I think the image of the dance of death is so central to to the film’s message, but I do sympathize with the sense that sometimes a work of art can end past its right moment.  I remember thinking this as a kid when I first read the Lord of the Rings (What’s all this business with Saruman in the Shire? They already destroyed the ring!).  In antiquity, a school of readership thought that the Odyssey really ended at 23.296: Odysseus and Penelope reunited, “They then gladly went to the place of their bed of old.”  Happily ever after.  Never mind all that stuff that happens in book 24.

The problem of over-ending is one side on the issue of closure.  The other side is a lack of (proper) ending.  Two other ancient epics come to my mind.  Vergil’s Aeneid ends in book 12 with its hero Aeneas brutally killing his enemy who is begging for his life.  This ending has troubled readers, some of whom point to the epic’s unfinished state; in the Renaissance, Maffeo Vegio wrote a thirteenth book to give the poem a better sense of closure.  A more persuasive argument is that the poem ends exactly as Vergil intended in order to problematize the Roman imperial project.  Similarly, Lucan’s Pharsalia ends abruptly with no resolution for its narrative.  The general explanation is that Lucan died before finishing the poem.  As it is, however, the ending fits so perfectly with Lucan’s discordant poetics– civil war is endless, the world makes no sense– that some have argued the ending is exactly how he wanted it to be.

In our broader discussion of poetic thinking, we have generally rejected the idea of a telos.  Unlike logical thinking, poetic thinking does not require a goal.  What does this mean for poetic closure?


  1. I’m glad you continued our class discussion with this post, Scott (and I will also point out that you are perhaps also playing out an “over-ending” of your own? And now I do so as well?). Your comparisons to ancient epics make me think of so many things. In the spirit of anti-teleology, I think I’ll give a list:

    1. I completely agree, w/r/t LOTR. I don’t remember it too much, but I was and am surprised with how long it lasted after the ring was destroyed. I know little about Tolkien; I wonder if he was attempting to pay homage to an ancient epic like The Odyssey with its arguably superfluous 24th book.

    2. Many plays through history–Macbeth, A Doll’s House (Ibsen), I know there are others–have been revised in production, because their originally written endings outraged too many people. Usually the revisions made the ending much less ambivalent and/or ambiguous, closing off the possibility (I would argue) for poetic thinking in the audience. There is something dangerous of the idea of an audience potentially coming to many different conclusions, each member disagreeing with the next. An audience of Zarathustras, perhaps?

    3. Georg Buchner, a German playwright and physician in the early 19th century, famously wrote an unfinished play when he died at just 23 from typhus. The scenes were found in his desk drawer, unnumbered, and editors have tried to impose an order on them ever since. Avant-garde heater director and essayist *loved* the play for that reason, and saw enormous potential in using it for a piece in his hypothetical “theater of cruelty.” He was vehemently anti-narrative, anti-closure, and yet the original play (Woyzeck) may very well have “meant” to have that closure. I’m not sure what point I’m making here… maybe as a caution to myself against conflating works that allow for poetic thinking with the idea of the single, solitary artistic genius who has a *vision*.

    4. I think I said it in class, but I want to rearticulate this thought: I think I too “prefer” the ending as it is–I think its parody of a happy ending is simultaneously convincing and absurd. Kind of like the ending of The Graduate? But part of me–the part that’s a pleasure seeker, that wants absorption–wants the early ending so that I can pretend for a moment that I too can have a sublime moment, like the girl. *This* makes me think about art that makes us think poetically is maybe not something that we want, but maybe something that’s good for us. And that maybe we acquire this want over time, with practice.

  2. Scott–thanks for sharing! Love the meta analysis of our discussion of endings at the end. While I feel like our class has discussed beginnings and starts a lot, we haven’t been so preoccupied with ends, even though they are equally as fascinating. I think your comments bring up for me the idea of art/poetry as being something that is by definition finite — it must begin and end, even if the ending is not clear. Poetic thinking might be a way of approaching the world, while art and poetry itself is not a mode but an object or work.

  3. also you’re right — dance of death is the best part, I stand corrected!

  4. Pensiero Liquido

    Thanks for the post! I totally agree that the dance of death is a powerful scene and bring to a closure the narrative of the movie…
    Nevertheless, I thought that the dissatisfaction in class emerged from the scenes after, of Mia and her husband, that kind of happy handing feeling. What do you think about that?

    Thinking about the issue later, I remembered the controversial ending of Blade Runner. There are two version of the movie and they leave the audience with a totally different sensation… Which one is better? I would say the director’s cut, that is, the dark end, but then I wonder whether I am too biased against happy endings…

    To return to the seventh seal, that “second” end after the dance might point to a sort of open-endless, of giving space to the audience.

  5. Vivian Lam

    Thank you for this, Scott! Interesting distinction between poetic thinking and poetic closure–is the idea of a telos and our need for closure antithetical to the “space” or “opening” required for further creation or poetic thinking (at least, perhaps, on the part of the author)? Perhaps a work might start without a particular end in mind, but in writing the last sentence, surely this work has been completed to a certain extent?

    I find Sylvia and Yinshi’s points helpful–the artwork itself may have its own defined ending, but an opening is always left for the audience to continue forward with. We’ll have an ending to a story, but it’s never really quite an ending–life goes on. Perhaps it’s just a convenient point of disengagement, leaving space for refiguration…

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