Completely Subjective: Ada Limón’s “The End of Poetry”

I love poetry, but sometimes it frustrates me in the way it inevitably falls short, language unable to measure up to reality. Good poetry is a good approximation of the real world, but it’s still an approximation.

Ada Limón’s “The End of Poetry” rejects that approximation — or, at least, it approximates a rejection (how much more meta can you get than writing a poem about the insufficiency of poetry?). “Enough,” she says. Enough of beauty, enough of pain, enough of human joy and weariness and sorrow. “Enough of pointing to the world” and pretending that it is our outstretched fingers which give it its meaning. 

In her rejection of it, Limón remarkably encompasses poetry, in a skilled approximation of its beauty and “drama.” To declare its end, she must first say what poetry is. She begins: “enough of osseous and chickadee and sunflower/and snowshoes, maple and seeds, samara and shoot.” She lines up all the beauty of nature to do away with it, but “osseous” and “snowshoes” are the outliers in this list. Perhaps she means to say that poetry is like bones in its strength and delicacy, in its ugliness concealed by a beautiful word. The snowshoes, though, seem random — unless they’re there to help you glide across terrain otherwise difficult to navigate. There is no obvious coherence to Limón’s list, but there’s no obvious coherence to the genre of poetry, either.

What else? “Enough of… the stoic farmer and faith and… skin and god/not forgetting.” Limón has curated this perfect list, not to describe a poem, but to write one. She chose the stoic farmer and god’s recollection, right next to skin, delicate and human. And yet all of this, all of the beauty she describes and creates, she rejects. That stoic farmer is not a person, in the end. He is only words, and that is not enough. So she has had enough of him.

She addresses pain as well as beauty. “Frozen birds,” creatures stopped mid-flight, their beauty transformed into horror; “the gun,/the drama, and the acquaintantance’s suicide,” which she maybe discounts a little — they were merely an acquaintance, this is merely melodrama. But perhaps that is the only way to deal with the pain, to distance oneself from it, to view it from behind a “brutal… border.” Yet she has had “enough of… the border” too.

As the poem goes on, Limón builds in more contradictions. She has had “enough of the will to go on and not go on,” of “the ego and the obliteration of the ego.” These contradictions are the parts of the poem that feel truest to me. Of course she’s fed up with them, but of course they still exist. Of course people write poems about them. Of course Limón wrote a poem about them. Both sets of opposites are about identity, personhood, and the destruction of it. That’s what poetry is about, too (or what it strives to be about, what it approximates). And Limón is destroying — not identity, or personhood — but the approximation of it.

Why? What’s the point in writing a poem that simply rejects poetry? I think she’s decided the approximation simply isn’t good enough, but this is the only way good enough she has of expressing that.

The poem turns desperate toward the end. If you ignore Limón’s insistence that she has had enough, it reads like this: “can you see me, can you hear me…/I am human… I am alone and I am desperate.” This is Limón’s poem, and even if she claims she has had enough of “I am human,” she is the one continuing to write it. Really, that’s the point. She is human, and she has had enough of writing about that. She is a person more than she is a poet.

And so she ends with a simple plea: “I am asking you to touch me.” Trying to remember this poem, I thought she said “I am simply asking you to touch me.” But maybe her plea isn’t so simple after all. Without all the intricacy and complexity and beauty of language to help her approximate, it’s difficult to ask for the human connection she longs for. But in the end, that is what she wants. More than poetry, she wants someone to touch her, because, in all its beauty, poetry is only ever an approximation, and touch is real.

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