US critic Brian Henry writes about the terminal form, one invented in the 20th century by Australian poet John Tranter. He notes that “the terminal as a poetic form is vastly open to possibility. But because the existence of a terminal depends on a prior poem, it has the ultimate limit: the single poem. Thus, the terminal raises various issues about poetic form, conservation, usurpation, influence, and composition that no other form can raise” (https://www.poetrylibrary.edu.au/poems-poetic-form/terminals). Interesting. And a challenge. A form that raises questions NO other form can raise? What about the glosa? Or the cento? One drawing from four direct lines of another poet and the other ENTIRELY composed of lines from other poems. Wouldn’t those forms equally (if not more so) allow such queries to rear their influenced heads than this form that ONLY takes its end words from the end words of another’s poem?
I must admit, being the form junkie I am, that I had never before attempted a terminal poem, even though my always-to-remain-unpublished MS “A Crackhead’s Book of Forms” claims to contain ALL the forms known to humanity. And so, when I first sat down to read Peter Norman’s collection (A Buckrider Book, 2018), I was a bit perplexed about the form: why anyone would write it, what it could reveal content or cadence-wise. So, of course, I had to write my own terminal poem as the only way to learn is to do. I based mine on the exact end words of John Ashbery’s piece Homeless Heart (apart from altering the word “cir/cumstances” to “cirrus” to keep the word on one line – a perfectly valid alteration as Norman himself points out in his useful NOTES section that not only names each “starter” poem but shows the changes in words or sounds on occasion.) And thus, I present you with my own process, the piece:
Terminal Poem on Ashbery’s Homeless Heart
Everyday she accomplishes her work,
whether the clouds are cumulus or cirrus.
It is no use to chastise her, a
failure of successes, a woman caught
between her gender and her task, her predecessors
the rich who cut down trees to build boats, a situation
she is not to blame for, her guilt covered
by her own errors, the way, each morning, stumbling
towards routine, she re-inscribes her life on an inner blackboard.
Now what did I learn about the terminal form by writing just one poem? I learned it is a form that requires one to re-read the “starter” poem a number of times during the composition, thereby sinking the work in at a deeper level, that, of course, as with any limitation, I was guided towards writing content that likely wouldn’t have otherwise emerged, and also, that a terminal poem, for me anyway, is very easy to write. You don’t have to remember metre, the number or sequence of word repetitions or any other kind of stricture than just “use the end word” (or a variation thereof). I wonder how Peter Norman feels about the form after composing an ENTIRE book of terminal poems?
Ugh, I must say it bothers me when the standardization of texts means that pieces often don’t get printed in their original forms. So that, for instance, the first poem that really “got me” in this book, “I know I am (or, Think Basic),” which was supposed to feature couplet stanzas, has to be broken randomly and messily in places, due to the format, leaving bits of unintended triplets and quartets on the page. And ESPECIALLY when the form is END WORDS, the shifts throw the whole pursuit off. Regardless, there are some true zingers in this collection. Namely the neatly-rhymed sonnet, “Excavation of the Pointless,” the wonderful eco-piece “Scoured Shore” whose segments begin with the alluring line, “Waves lick rock and turn it dark,” “Through a Portal Darkly,” which successfully mingles an archaic scene with modern diction: “But knowing’s always virtual./We knew fuck all, my dearest. Word. That’s life,” the brilliant “Cannibal,” a terminal poem composed using end words from one of Norman’s own prior pieces: “This feast is base. No way to make it noble:/me the cannibal, exhuming victim me,” “Chairman in Crisis,” “The Luxury to Which you are Entitled,” and the stirringly melancholic, “Lost Beyond the Reach of GPS” where the narrator turns “into a cul-de-sac, uncertain where I’ve come,/or even where it is that I came from./The only certainty is eyes and windows.” Yes, sometimes I was bored and just plain disbelieved the material; it felt like an exercise, not an entrance. But that is inevitable in any exploration of form. Kudos to Norman for extending the entree into an entire oeuvre of sorts, his words always reaching towards the words of others, as a real poet’s should.