How and What Is a Climax in Poetry

Poems, like all forms of literature, can have a rising and falling action to their narrative. And like all narratives with a rising and falling action, poems also have a climax, the point at which the tension of the rising narrative breaks and leads to a resolution. But finding the meaning in a poem can be difficult. Poems are heavy with symbolism and imagery, which can make identifying the climax difficult, too.

Reading Poetry

When you read a poem, you may not see the climax on the first pass. Poetry is always ripe for analysis, and there are a few ways to analyze a poem -- many of which ways come before understanding the narrative flow. When you first read a poem, look to understand the subject: Ask yourself who the poem is about and from whose perspective it’s written. Try to identify the tone as serious, satirical, humorous or hostile. Then look for patterns in the sound and rhythm, if any, and for divisions between the stanzas. The form -- the rhyme scheme or meter and the way the stanzas are structured -- will guide you toward the climax.

What is a Climax?

The climax of a poem, much like the climax in a story or song, is the point at which the tension breaks. Since poems cover a wide range of subjects and perspectives, identifying the tension -- and therefore the eventual climax -- can be difficult. Some poems can have many climaxes and some only one. In sonnets, for example, which always follow a form of two stanzas of eight and six lines, respectively, the climax almost always comes in the second stanza. The first part of a sonnet identifies an issue and sets up a narrative, and the second part resolves it.

How the Climax Works

A climax serves to ease the tension and change the flow of the poem. In one of T.S. Eliot’s most famous poems, “The Hollow Men,” tension builds through repetition and movement right up until the end of the poem. The narrative ends with children singing around a prickly pear, dancing and moving while repeating parts of children’s songs, until at the end of the poem Eliot simply writes, “This is the way the world ends/This is the way the world ends/This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper.” The tension of the five parts of the poem resolves instantly. While this is an example of an extreme climax, in which there is no falling action to follow, it illustrates how climaxes work: to bring about an answer to the substance of the poem.

Where is the Climax?

In a sonnet, the climax is almost always in the same place, but different forms of poetry have different structures and the climax moves around. Finding the climax is often about finding the tension in the poem and looking where it breaks. Consider William Carlos Williams' “This is Just to Say,” which mimics a note left on a fridge:

“I have eaten the plums that were in the icebox

and which you were probably saving for breakfast

Forgive me they were delicious so sweet and so cold”

The rising action begins with the apology and breaks with “Forgive me,” which is the climax of the poem. This simple poem demonstrates how the narrative builds to a point of tension and then breaks.

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