How often — and especially when I was editor of a soi-disant “literary” magazine — have I read a nearly passable poem that was ruined by its last line. This exposed the rest of the composition. With practice, one could see it coming: the cumbersome set-up for the long-anticipated punch line, often itself flubbed. Vers libre slips naturally into this joke format. It appeals to the poet because, it doesn’t have to be funny. Standard prose rhythms are also acceptable, with the addition of a few unnatural pauses, leading to a commonplace that was often thought, and e’er so ill-expressed. With one poet, I used to argue that his stature as a great Canadian worthy of the governess-general’s ordure and every other public prize of our exalted democracy would be enhanced if he would only re-issue his collected poetical works with all the last lines excised.
He was on to me, however. He had received all those prizes already. He pointed out that the prizes are for the sentiments expressed in the last lines. And having friends on the prize committee who would agree with them.
There are innumerable contemporary accredited academic philosophers who would appear much deeper, to me, if they would cancel their last chapters. These would be the chapters in which the purpose of all the preceding incomprehensible jargon is plainly revealed, by the insertion of a few tawdry clichés. At least take out the last paragraph, which can only enable the reader to omit reading the preceding book. For that is the paragraph that gives the whole story away: of how the man got tenure. Spare us that.
But the man who had followed this advice would hardly have gotten past the tenure committee.
One could be ambitious, and consult dictionaries of quotations for the famous last words of famous people: little tags placed on the ends of lives that leave us wondering if they were truly worth living. All those decades of hard-earned human experience ending in … a lame tweet? … Of course you need more light, Wolfgang. You probably need more oxygen, too.
Perhaps I should do it myself in these essays. Go back through them and delete the endings. When I wrote for newspapers I would often find a sub-editor had performed this service for me. He’d remove the last sentence to make the column fit the space. Sometimes not the whole sentence, just what came after the comma. This must have happened to me a dozen times before I learnt always to write a little short of the word-count, leaving the frustrated sub-editor with a line to fill, in which he could write, “Mr Warren’s column appears Wednesdays and Saturdays.” Or if that wasn’t enough, he could add, “And Sundays.”
Reading Charles Krauthammer’s column this morning, I was inspired to write the above. He does what the Canadian poets do, but with flair. A fellow obnoxious rightwing lunatic like me will be nodding all the way through, agreeing with everything he says — yes, I thought today, the leftists are becoming more and more totalitarian. Yes, this example; and yes, that example; and yes, the other example, too. Well said, Charlie, I totally agree. He adds, this morning, “Long a staple of academia, the totalitarian impulse is spreading. What to do? Defend the dissenters, even if — perhaps, especially if — you disagree with their policy.”
Good man, and a commendable liberal impulse, in the fine old sense of that word. Voltaire would smile, and look at his pocket watch. Talleyrand would wonder at the indiscretion. But then Krauthammer adds:
“It is — it was? — the American way.”
Oh please. You’ve spoilt it. All these small and simple truths, ending in a flourish of … bosh. It was never the American way. That’s not how a democracy ever worked. It works by consensus. The people may or may not have a few opinions, but they wait for the consensus to form in their immediate environment, and then everyone against it shuts up. That is, and has been, the American way, from the income tax to gay marriage. Also the Canadian way (but more so), the British (but with sly humour), the French (while eating), the German (to a fault), the Swedish (beyond it), but — God bless them, it is not the Italian way. No, the Italians don’t care what they say. They don’t even know what a consensus is in that country.
Let me conclude by mentioning that I really like Italians.