Erica Dawson: Moses Moment

December 19, 2014

It’s the moment when you’re finishing up the first draft and you’re second-guessing every decision you’re made so far. Will readers understand or be confused? You want them to understand, so you’ve got to nail the ending. You have to close the door on any questions, and all future discussions of your subject.


You know good and well that your voice isn’t commanding enough to do that. You need something like the late Charlton Heston as Moses in the 1956 masterpiece of melodrama, The Ten Commandments. This voice has the boom of bass; it rings with resonance. Nobody’s going to question the tone that parts the Red Sea.


If you haven’t seen the film, watch Mr. Heston in action here.


If William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow” had a Moses Moment, it’d be something like this:


so much depends



a red wheel



glazed with rain



beside the white



so sayeth



tomorrow, we

will see


the light of



Don’t let this happen to your poem.


Chances are, you didn’t need any voice other than your own—especially not that of the greatest over-actor of our lifetime. The new stanzas overturn everything the first four try to do. The new ending’s diction doesn’t match that of the rest of the poem. The tone is wrong. While the first four stanzas have a kind of delicacy, the new stanzas sound grandiose. Williams’ images focus on our everyday world. This moment can and will happen an infinite number of times: spontaneity coupled with consistency. The suggested moment of Freedom, on the other hand, in the new ending, is a very finite, case-closed, moment.


Of course, in many situations, we want a poem to turn. Frost did indeed say, “A poem…begins in delight and ends in wisdom;” but, this doesn’t have to be wisdom with a capital W. Wisdom lies in even the smallest moment of discernment, the briefest instance of action or insight. This is very different from slapping an inauthentic conclusion on the poem in hopes of achieving some kind of unquestionable clarity, some large “meaningful” Moses Moment of truth.


Trust the white chickens. And trust yourself to find the best ending for your poem. I often think of the ending as a beginning for a reader. Cheesy, I know. But think about it: the reader can leave the poem with curiosity, stimulated so much they just have to read the poem again, think about it, talk about it, dream about it even.   Miraculous? Maybe not. But pretty damn cool.

Erica Dawson recently finished work on her 2nd collection of poems, Cottontail, as well as an essay, “The Fictive Who: Abjection, Authorship, and Inwardness in Astrophil and Stella.”  Her debut collection of poems, Big-Eyed Afraid, was published in the US and UK in 2007. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Best American Poetry 2008VQRAlehouse ReviewHarvard ReviewBarrow Street, the Swallow Anthology of New American Poets, and other journals and anthologies.

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