What Is Poetry?

31 07 2009


Bob Archambeau is having a little trouble over at the Samizdat blog, trying to figure out what poetry is and is not.

Here at Structure and Surprise, we don’t agonize over such questions–rather, we know: when you’re in the presence of an amazing turn, you’ve got poetry.

…Having a little fun here, of course.  I like a lot about Bob’s “Poetry/Not Poetry”–it’s a really smart post…one I don’t want to reply to so much as riff on.

I do think that consideration of the turn in the context of Bob’s post is appropriate.  Consider, for example, the poem that opens “Poetry/Not Poetry”: Howard Nemerov’s “Because You Asked about the Line between Prose and Poetry.”  According to Bob, Nemerov’s poem, which offers what he calls a “beautiful answer” to the question implied by the poem’s title, is “nice,” but ultimately “evasive, offering little more than the ‘I’ll know it when I see it’ argument that people used to evoke in the debates about pornography.”

I actually don’t think Nemerov’s poem is quite as evasive as Bob thinks it is: Nemerov’s poem says something very clear about what he thinks poems do: turn.  Nemerov’s poem not only turns, shifting its focus from the storm back to the sparrows and the drama of their flight, but is aware of its turning: as the poem states, “a freezing drizzle…turned into pieces of snow.”  Nemerov’s poem contains a self-reflexive turn.  And yet, as often is the case with turns, this vital aspect of poetry goes undiscussed.

But we should discuss the turn more–such discussion perhaps can offer us some new insights into old problems.

What’s the difference between prose and poetry?  Let me be clear: I’m not sure exactly what the difference is, but I know the turn in fact has nothing to do with it.  The turn is common to both poetry and prose.  Lots of poems turn, but so does lots of prose–stories, arguments, etc.  Indeed, as I argue in “The Structure-Form Distinction,” what’s exciting about the turn largely is the way the turn connects poetry and prose.

However, a great turn often is what (pardon me) turns prose into “Poetry,” that is, turns ordinary prose into great writing.  There is a turn, for example, in Obama’s speech accepting the nomination for Democratic presidential candidate that is sublime.  (You can find a link to it here.)  There are turns in Keat’s letters that are so amazing that some of the letters should be considered prose poems.  (Here is a link to one.)

The above use of the term “Poetry,” of course, is merely colloquial, but it shows how the turn is a unique link between poetry and prose.  Attention to the turn, a resource for both poetry and prose, emphasizes the overlap of poetry and prose.  Additionally, while great writing–poetry or prose–does not necessarily have to have a turn, writing that contains a great turn necessarily is great writing (or contains a core of greatness).  This is not the case with other aspects of poetry or prose, with, say, versification or character–one can easily imagine a poem that is technically formally flawless or a story that has great characters, but this wouldn’t be a guarantee that either is interesting writing–for example, there would be no guarantee that that poem or the story goes somewhere.

Now, the above is not exactly the “trans-historical, absolute” truth Bob mentions some are after when they seek the distinction between poetry and prose (or, as I think I’m trying to (a bit playfully) get at here: the distinction between poetry-and-prose and Poetry (that is, great poetry-and-prose)), but I think it is interesting: writers from many cultures and many different eras have been intrigued by and made great use of turns.  T. S. Eliot calls the turn “one of the most important means of poetic effect since Homer.”  Indeed, for all the upheavals Romanticism brought with it, the turn is still featured in a great deal of Romantic writing–I mean, Coleridge invented the descriptive-meditative structure.

And even lots of Elliptical poets make use of the turn.  In our chapter on “Substructure” in Structure & Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns, Prageeta Sharma and I argue that the advice Stephen Burt gives in “Close Calls with Nonsense: How To Read, and Perhaps Enjoy, Very New Poetry” largely comes down to: “attend to turns.”  And check out Jorie Graham’s comments on the turn, and Hank Lazer’s comments on the turns in Rae Armantrout’s poems here.  Perhaps, by attending to turns, we can see that (post-)Romantic poetry and prose are not so different, after all…

Ultimately, though, I generally don’t care one jot if something is called poetry or prose–I care mostly if it has a great turn or turns at the heart of it.  You tell me that, and I know you’ve got an essay, or a story, or a poem I want to read.

Now, to figure out where the great turns are…

See Jane Turn

30 07 2009

A cheeky post title, but I couldn’t resist.  For my wordplay, however, I trade in some degree of accuracy: actually, for the past few hours, I’ve been immersed in, and mightily impressed by, Jane Hirshfield‘s poetic turns.

As I note in yesterday’s post, Hirshfield is a writer for whom the turn is of great importance.  In that post, though, I focus on Hirshfield’s criticism.  Having since read much more carefully Hirshfield’s Given Sugar, Given Salt and After, I can also confidently claim that Hirshfield is a poet for whom the turn is of great importance.  Evidence of this can be found on a number of this blog’s pages devoted to discussion of particular kinds of poetic structures (or patterns of turning in poems): Hirshfield has poems that employ the dialectical argument structure, the metaphor-to-meaning structure, the dream-to-waking structure, and a few others.

In fact, in After‘s “Articulation: An Assay,” Hirshfield plainly states:

“…thought is hinge and swerve, is winch, / is folding.”

And this certainly is the case, at least, in her own thoughtful poems.

Poetry and Uncertainty, and the Turn

28 07 2009


 In a recent post, I outlined how the July/August 2009 issue of Poetry, though officially the Flarf/Conceptual Poetry issue, also is, like so many other issues of Poetry, the turn issue.  That is, though unacknowledged, Poetry actually features a large number of poems that themselves feature turns.

This situation is not at all unique to Poetry.  Turns are virtually ubiquitous in poetry, but we (poets, critics, teachers, readers) have barely attended to them.  It’s for this reason that one of the tasks of this blog is to point out some of the discussions of turns that do occur–especially those discussions, like the recent issue of Poetry, in which the turn is present but not named.  We need to see how much we in fact do focus on the turn so that we can become conscious of our attention, and so that we can be encouraged to think more deeply about the role of the turn in poetry.

One of the poems in the recent issue of Poetry that employs a distinct turn is “Perishable, It Said,” by Jane Hirshfield.  While I don’t think it is accurate to say that some poets are poets of the turn more than others, there do seem to be some poets (A. R. Ammons, Billy Collins, Rae Armantrout, and Jorie Graham, to name a few) who are really taken by the turn, and employ it often in significant ways in their poetry and, at times, criticism.  Hirshfield, also, is this kind of poet…and critic: turns often are significant features of the poems Hirshfield discusses in her criticism, though they typically are not remarked upon in her commentary on those poems.

This certainly is the case with Hirshfield’s essay “Poetry and Uncertainty” (from The American Poetry Review 34.6 (2005): 63-72).  In this essay, Hirshfield considers the ways in which poetry incorporates and communicates uncertainty.  Though Hirshfield never mentions the turn as one of the key tools for such undertakings, it is clear that the turn is central in these efforts.  Of the eleven poems Hirshfield cites in full, nine contain clear and significant turns.  These poems are:

“It is true…,” by Izumi Shikibu (click on the link, and looking under “Gate 1. Permeability”);

“Poetry Reading,” by Anna Swir;

“When I Heard the Learned Astronomer,” by Walt Whitman;

“Encounter,” by Czeslaw Milosz;

“They spoke to me of people, and of humanity…,” by Fernando Pessoa (see p. 85);

“A Great Tranquility: Questions and Answers,” by Yehuda Amichai;

Ode I. 11 (“Leucon, no one’s allowed to know his fate…”), by Horace (located under “Gate 4. Horace’s Zen”);

“This may be the last day of my life…,” by Fernando Pessoa (on p. 92); and

“The Fly,” by Miroslav Holub

Though Hirshfield does not discuss the turn, the turn is implicit in her discussion of these poems when she notes their connection to jokes, stating, “[A] good poem, like a good joke, doesn’t allay anxiety with answers–it startles its readers out of the general trance, awakening an enlarged reality by means of a close-paid attention to its own ground.”  Jokes, of course, have clear turns in them: from set-up to punch line.  And Hirshfield acknowledges that poems often have this kind of movement, leaping from ground to larger reality, from trance to wakefulness–maneuvers that are featured in the Ironic Structure and the Dream-to-Waking Structure discussed on this blog.  (Hirshfield in fact notes that irony is at work in a number of the poems she cites, stating, “This is why lyric poems are so rife…with irony–good poems undercut their own yearning to say one thing well, because to say one thing is simply not to say enough.”)

Clearly, the turn is present, if largely unacknowledged, in Hirshfield’s essay–but why is this important to recognize?  The answer is simple: descriptive accuracy.

Hirshfield’s essay not only tries to show the relations between poetry and uncertainty but also wants to offer some insights into how good, moving poems are made out of such relations.  For example, Hirshfield states, “The making of good poetry entails control; it also requires surrender and a light hand.”  However, upon seeing how centrally the turn is featured in the poems she presents and how the turn is implicit in so many of her remarks on those poems, it seems that Hirshfield also could say: the making of good poetry entails a knowledge of turns, and skill in employing them in your poems.

Against “Narrative”

20 07 2009

Not equipped with other helpful paradigms for what it is that poetry does, many readers come to poetry thinking that it, like the other literature with which they’re acquainted, tells stories.  Such thinking, of course, is misleading—it’s not clear such thinking would help anyone really encounter and engage many poems.  Certainly, lots of poems make use of narrative elements, but lots of poems, even poems thought to be generally “accessible,” don’t.  Readers need to be presented with a different paradigm for how poems “work,” for what it is that poems “do.”

I think that the “turn” can be that paradigm.  As I discuss more fully in “The Structure-Form Distinction”: lots of poems turn; turns aren’t always primarily associated with narrative (they also are associated with argumentation, the recording of emotional shifts, etc); and turns are, or easily can be made to seem, familiar, as familiar as storytelling.

In fact, I think the paradigm of the turn is superior to the paradigm of narrative.  Turning is itself central to narrative.  One could be said to know very little about the nature of narrative if one did not know about the nature of narrative turns—from beginnings to conflicts to climaxes to resolutions.  And, again, turning is at work in poems that aren’t primarily narrative.

However, though turning is more vital to poetry than narrative, many conversations about poetry still use the language of narrative—“narrative,” “plot”—to discuss what really are (or could more accurately be described as) turns.  Such misnaming makes it seem that, no matter what is said about narrative and the turn, narrative takes prominence over the turn.  In order to keep at trying to give the turn its proper due, this situation needs to be recognized and addressed.

To be clear: my critique here is meant to be very specific and detailed—in fact, I greatly admire the substance of the three essays to be discussed in this essay—but, hopefully, not minor: I think it would be smart to do away with the discussion of non-narrative “plots” in poetry.  Mention of “plot” will always make readers think of narrative, and thus reinforce the seeming prominence of narrative.  We need to use different terms in order to shift the conversation—and, with “structure” and the “turn,” such different terms are available to us.  Instead of “narrative” and “plot,” I think we should use the term “structure,” and mean by “structure” something very specific: the pattern of a poem’s turning.  (For more on this, again, see “The Structure-Form Distinction.”)  In this way, we can discuss a poem’s rhetorical maneuvers without (potentially) confusing those maneuvers with narrative.


In “Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment,” Tony Hoagland corroborates my sense that there’s a tendency to lump together a number of kinds of poetry (many of which are clearly related to poetic traditions that prominently involve turning) under “narrative”; he states, “Under the label of ‘narrative,’ all kinds of poetry currently get lumped together: not just story, but discursion, argument, even descriptive lyrics.  They might better be called the ‘Poetries of Continuity.’”  Interestingly, though Hoagland himself suggests a better name for narrative, he also reveals the power of the “narrative” in discussions of poetry: his essay’s title employs the phrase “Fear of Narrative,” not “Fear of Continuity.”

(A bit off topic, but, I must add: it’s too bad that Hoagland links the poetry he does only to continuity—lots of poems that are not at all “skittery” work by means of an organized discontinuity.  As Randall Jarrell says in “Levels and Opposites: Structure in Poetry”: “A successful poem starts in one position and ends at a very different one, often a contradictory or opposite one; yet there has been no break in the unity of the poem.”  And Hoagland himself seems to recognize this; later in his essay, he states, “Narrated and associative poems are not each other’s aesthetic opposites or sworn enemies.  Obviously these modes don’t necessarily exclude each other.  They overlap, coexist, and often cross-pollinate.”)


The focus on narrative in poetry is more directly and fully addressed in Carl Dennis’s “The Temporal Lyric.”  Dennis notes, “Although lyrics are more likely to be organized rhetorically, especially those that present arguments, are much more common than those that present psychological narratives, discussion of the lyric has suffered from the fact that the oldest and most influential piece of criticism of poetry in the West, Aristotle’s Poetics, is formulated with specific reference not to lyric poetry but to drama and to epic and so presents temporal plotting as the central element of the poem.”  Dennis then notes a different way to approach lyric poems, one that comes out of speech-act theory:

“Here the poem is regarded as a dramatic event in which a fictive speaker performs a speech act that gives specific embodiment, in a particular context, to one or more of the basic tasks that we ask ordinary language to perform—explaining, questioning, demanding, promising, apologizing, praising, castigating, pleading, and the like.  Each of these acts has its particular plot if we use the term to refer not to a sequence of temporal events but to a sequence of rhetorical moves that carry out the task that the specific function requires.  Such a completed action possesses the wholeness that Aristotle demands of a poem: it possesses a proper beginning, middle, and an end, the order of incidents being such that transposing or removing any one of them will disorder the whole.”

Dennis is trying to replace a narrative orientation to poetry with a rhetorical one, and that rhetorical orientation clearly has much to do with turning: I assume that the “rhetorical moves” that comprise the “plot” of the speech act either are turns, or else clearly imply turns (turns allow the transition from one “plot” point to another).  And, indeed, the poems Dennis investigates in his essay (Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” Donne’s sonnet “At the round earth’s imagined corners, blow,” Dickinson’s “These are the days when Birds come back—,” Frederick Goddard Tuckerman’s sonnet “An upper chamber in a darkened house,” and Bishop’s “The Fish”) all feature very clear and distinct turns, and Dennis in fact refers to the turn at least twice in his examination of these poems.

Again, substantively, I greatly agree with Dennis; however, I think that the use of the word “plot” (which Dennis uses off and on throughout his essay), no matter how it is defined, tends to suggest narrative—precisely what Dennis does not want to suggest.  A more neutral and apt term, I think, for Dennis’s plot of rhetorical moves (and a term Dennis himself occasionally employs), is “structure.”


The same holds true, for the most part, in regard to Jack Stillinger’s “Reading Keats’s Plots.”

Stillinger’s essay does two things: 1) it argues that we need to spend more time examining the plots of poems in general, and of Keats’s poems, in particular, and 2) it examines the plots of some key poems by Keats (The Eve of St. Agnes, Lamia, “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” The Eve of St. Mark, and “Ode on a Grecian Urn”), helping to reveal how important attention to plot can be.

According to Stillinger, contemporary readers tend to skip over plot: “Readers and critics of poetry, even at this late date in the history of practical criticism, are still primarily concerned with idea, theme, and ‘philosophy,’ seeking in effect to replace the literary work in process (what it is, what it does) with interpretive conversion, paraphrase, or translation (what it means).”  Stillinger intends his essay to counter this trend by re-instilling in readers a sense of plot’s vital nature.

Stillinger’s essay differs from Dennis’s in that Stillinger’s, at times, in fact really discusses and examines specifically narrative plots, and so his use of the term very often is apt.  However, Stillinger also uses “narrative” and “plot” to refer to structural maneuvers it seems a bit of a stretch to label such.  This occurs most clearly in Stillinger’s discussion of “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” the least overtly narrative of the poems discussed.  According to Stillinger, the “narrative” of “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is similar to the narratives found in the “greater Romantic lyric,” or poems, such as Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight” and Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” that employ the descriptive-meditative structure (discussed in detail in an essay by Corey Marks in Structure & Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns).  While there are some plot elements in such poems, and while all aspects of a poem are worthy of consideration, the plot elements in such poems often are minimal (for example, journeys often occur in these poems, but they often are imagined or remembered journeys), and such poems are perhaps more fruitfully considered, as Dennis might argue, as speech acts involving “rhetorical moves.”

This certainly is the case with a form of poem central to Keats’s oeuvre, and which Stillinger does not discuss in his essay: the sonnet.  There isn’t any plot to speak of in, say, Keats’s “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” and yet it does turn (stunningly).  Such primarily rhetorical maneuvering tends to be excluded from Stillinger’s analysis in “Reading Keats’s Plots.”  This exclusion helps Stillinger set up a somewhat overly-simplified dichotomy between a poetry of narrative and a poetry of statement.  Stillinger writes,

“The fact that narrative analysis works more successfully with some poems rather than others is itself a valuable piece of critical information.  It is one way of illustrating the difference between lyrics that are essentially static in character and those that are essentially dynamic.  Poems such as To Autumn and Ode on Melancholy have their minds made up before they begin.  They are statements rather than processes, statements of thoughts already arrived at before the speakers begin speaking.  Poems such as Frost at Midnight, Tintern Abbey, Ode: Intimations of Immortality, and Ode to a Nightingale are more complicated.  They represent the actual processes of thinking and take their shape from the movement of the protagonist’s mind, going now in one direction, now in another.  Lyrics in this latter class are at least implied narratives, and often they are, like Yeats’s or Keats’s excursions, explicit narratives.”

While, generally, I like this way of distinguishing among different kinds of poems (for example, I can see how such a distinction could help me discuss with my students the different kinds of tasks poems undertake), I want to complicate this dichotomy using Keats’s sonnets as a test case.  It’s simply not clear where many of Keats’s sonnets would fall in this dichotomy.  They’re not narrative, and yet many of them clearly attempt to “represent the actual processes of thinking and take their shape from the movement of the protagonist’s mind.”  Perhaps this is “implied narrative,” but it’s not clear why it has to be referred to as such.  I suggest that instead of creating a dichotomy between narrative and statement, we instead create a dichotomy between the poetry of dramatic, dynamic structure (involving significant turns) and the poetry of statement.  This description of the dichotomy incorporates non-narrative turns, the “at least implied narratives” Stillinger mentions, the significant rhetorical maneuvers Dennis’s essay focuses on, and the tactics so many Keats’s poems actually deploy.


All of the above may seem a bit like picking nits: it’s all, I again acknowledge, largely an investigation into terminology rather than substance.  And yet terms matter.  The turn has long been a vital part of poetry (T. S. Eliot calls the turn “one of the most important means of poetic effect since Homer”), but it has not been generally recognized as such.  This is a strange situation, one which has many causes—one cause, however, certainly is the fact that we do not have set terms for what we are discussing when we discuss structures and turns.  Thus, often, structure and the turn get subsumed in other terminology.  And because of the use of such varied terminology the many conversations that involve and even focus on poetic structure and the turn often are never seen to be related.  And this, in turn, contributes to the continuing general lack of recognition of the great importance of the turn.

It is my sense that Hoagland, Dennis, and Stillinger would all be for a greater recognition of the turn in poetry—indeed, I think the three essays discussed here in fact are a part of the growing body of literature attempting to draw attention to the significance of the turn in poetry.  My effort here has been to show this link among these essays, even as I try to point out that even in such essays the turn, in some subtle yet significant ways, remains hidden, embedded in a terminology of “narrative” and “plot” that tends to downplay or even deny the larger significance of the poetic turn.

Two (More) Great Essays on the Turn

16 07 2009

Two excellent, and relatively new–certainly new to me–essays that discuss poetic turns (though without calling them such) have appeared in some recent publications.  They are worth note–and worth reading by anyone interested in the turn in poetry.  They are:


“The Temporal Lyric,” by Carl Dennis (in Poet’s Work, Poet’s Play).

Dennis suggests that lyric poetry has suffered from the tendency to read lyric as narrative.  He suggests, instead, that we think of lyrical poetry in terms of speech acts, viewing the poem “as a dramatic event in which a fictive speaker performs a speech act that gives specific embodiment, in a particular context, to one or more of the basic tasks that we ask ordinary language to perform–explaining, questioning, demanding, promising, apologizing, praising, castigating, pleading, and the like.”  Furthermore, according to Dennis, “Each one of these acts has its particular plot if we use the term to refer not to a sequence of temporal events but to a sequence of rhetorical moves that carry out the task that the specific function requires.”

Those “rhetorical moves,” of course, are turns, and Dennis does a great job of mapping out the moves (which he in fact twice refers to as “turns”) in some terrific poems: Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” Donne’s “At the round earth’s imagin’d corners, blow,” Dickinson’s “These are the days when Birds come Back–,” Frederick Goddard Tuckerman’s “An upper chamber in a darkened house,” and Bishop’s “The Fish.”


“Reading Keats’s Plots,” by Jack Stillinger (in Romantic Complexity: Keats, Coleridge, and Wordsworth).

Noting that “[r]eaders and critics of poetry, even at this late date in the history of practical criticism, are still primarily concerned with idea, theme, and ‘philosophy,’ seeking in effect to replace the literary work in process (what it is, what it does) with interpretive conversion, paraphrase, or translation (what it means),” Stillinger argues that poems’ “plots” often are dropped from the conversation about what the poem in fact is and does.

By performing some close readings of the plots of some poems by Keats (The Eve of St. Agnes, Lamia, “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” The Eve of St. Mark, and “Ode on a Grecian Urn”), Stillinger reveals the significance of plot in poetry.

While some of the plots Stillinger discusses are in fact narrative plots, others are much more what are refered to on this blog as structures, particular patterns of turns in poems.  Stillinger, for example, discusses what is called here the dialectical argument structure, stating, “There are numerous ‘binary’ oppositions and conflicts, with resolutions involving the triumph of one side, a merging of the two sides, or the introduction of some third term.”  Additionally, he examines “Ode on a Grecian Urn” in light of its connections with the greater Romantic lyric, that is, the descriptive-meditative structure.

Very smart, yet simultaneously very accessible, Dennis’s “The Temporal Lyric” and Stillinger’s “Reading Keats’s Plots” have, among many other things, contributed substantially to the growing body of literature concerned with the poetic turn.

Taking Turns (for Granted) in Sijo and Haiku

14 07 2009


According to a recent article in The Boston Globe, another poetic form seeks the attention of contemporary American poets, readers, and educators.  The sijo (pronounced SHEE-jo) is a Korean form that has three lines, a total of 43 to 45 syllables, and a third line that “contains a twist on the theme developed in the first two.”

Two points (very much related, I think) in this article are of particular interest.  First is the way that the sijo is clearly being proposed as an alternative to the Japanese haiku.  The two forms are considered similar, but also significantly different.  As this article states, “With its three lines, sijo resembles haiku, but the sijo poet has more room to develop a theme, narrative, or image before twisting and resolving it in the final line.”  One scholar notes, “Sijo is much more flexible than haiku….If you have 15 syllables per line, that’s much more than the haiku.”  And a teacher who had her students write sijo instead of haiku states, “‘The sijo was really fun and different.  With haiku, they would have gone, ‘Oh, another haiku.’”  The second point of interest (naturally, as this blog focuses on the poetic twist, or turn, or swerve) is the focus, in discussion of the sijo, on the twist in the third line.

What’s problematic about this article, however, is that it seems to imply that the twist is a feature of sijo more than it is of haiku.  Largely, this implication is a result of the way this article characterizes haiku: as merely a “three-line, 17-syllable” form, without any reference to any kind of structural development (i.e., a twist or turn…).  And this characterization seems to result from the ways haiku are more largely considered: as primarily a form consisting of three lines of 5-7-5 syllables.  (…A characterization which itself likely (at least in part) results from a general, pervasive tendency to focus on form rather than structure in poetry.)

The notion of haiku as form, as a three-line poem of 5-7-5 syllables, respectively, is problematic in that it is radically incomplete.  Among other things, good haiku almost always also contain twists.  In Haiku: A Poet’s Guide, Lee Gurga—who at one point states plainly: “Haiku is often mistakenly thought to be a form”—discusses the use of “the Japanese device of kake kotoba (“pivot word”), or, more commonly in American haiku, the pivot or swing line.”  According to Gurga, “This [the pivot/swing] is a word or phrase that combines with the foregoing text in one way and with the following text in another.  In contemporary English-language haiku this device [is] used to add dynamism to haiku images.”  More generally, but perhaps even more importantly, Gurga also acknowledges the central role juxtaposition plays in haiku, noting that “[William J.]Higginson has called this interaction between two images the ‘heart of haiku.’”

The pivot or swing line and the juxtaposition it often indicates and serves are central to haiku, but they are rarely dealt with as such.  Instead, focus on form typically manages to take precedence over such structural issues and maneuvers.

This large-scale lack of discussion of structural maneuvers—pivots, swings, twists, turns, swerves, etc—in poetry was the occasion for the creation of Structure & Surprise and this blog.  The lack of discussion of such structural maneuvers in haiku was the occasion, it seems, for Jane Reichhold’s “Haiku Techniques” (in The New Writer’s Handbook 2007: A Practical Anthology of Best Advice for Your Craft & Career; a (just) slightly different version of the essay appears here).

In her essay, Reichhold discusses the frustration she felt due to the fact that, for some time, she was unable to sort out how successful haiku came together–until she read Betty Drevniok’s Aware: A Haiku Primer.  According to Reichhold, “Among the many great tips for writing haiku I came away with this: ‘Write [haiku] in three short lines using the principles of comparison, contrast, or association.’  [Drevniok] used an expression I had been missing in the discussion of haiku when she wrote: ‘This technique provides the pivot on which the reader’s thought turns and expands.’”

This information was transformative for Reichhold, who states, “Technique!  So there are tools one can use!  I thought joyfully.  And I practiced her methods with glee and relative (to me) success and increased enjoyment.  Suddenly I could figure out what was wrong with a haiku that failed to jell.”

Reichhold’s essay is very good—it provides much practical assistance for anyone starting to write and/or teach haiku, offering 18 techniques for maneuvering through a haiku, including the techniques of comparison, contrast, association, riddle, sense-switching, narrowing focus, metaphor, simile, close linkage, leap linkage, and humor.  But beyond its practical aspects, it also is important for the way it stands as another marker of how important it is to talk about the structural maneuvers in poetry.  Such maneuvers indeed are at the heart of the power and intrigue of so many poems—they need to be identified, taught, and employed.

I hope those who currently are promoting the sijo in America as a friendly alternative to haiku will not give lip service to the sijo’s twist but rather foreground it, offer specific instruction for engaging the sijo’s swing.  That is, I hope that, if the sijo does catch on, there will be no need down the road for an essay like Reichhold’s to be written about someone having to feel like she has had to work hard to discover for herself the structural maneuvers at the core of sijo–such maneuvers should be highlighted from the outset, and easily available to all.  The twist is not some incidental part of poems–sijo, haiku, sonnet, or otherwise.  Rather, it often is one of the most crucial parts, and one of the most difficult parts to pull off.  As Randall Jarrell says in “Levels and Opposites: Structure in Poetry”:

“We must remember that it is essential relationships, not any entities or external forms or decorations that are really poetic; all the clouds and flowers and Love and Beauty and rhyme and metre and similes and alliteration that ever existed—not to mention all the logic and unity and morality—are not, in themselves, enough to make one little poem.”


Click here for information on teaching short (two-line), collaborative poems that focus on the turn.  Instructive and productive in and of itself, this exercise also can help students prepare to engage and employ turns in all manner of poem, including sijo and haiku.

Poetry Magazine & the Turn

4 07 2009


There has been a great deal of fuss made over the latest issue of Poetry.  The July/August 2009 issue contains a section of poems by poets who are a part of the Flarf and Conceptual Poetry movements, movements which, because of their challenge to the concepts of poetry held by many, tend to cause a stir–especially among those who read Poetry, a magazine generally not given to publishing such work.  (Indeed, Stan Apps’ recent analysis of Poetry‘s latest issue suggests that while the issue (obviously) includes Flarf and Conceptual poetry it also quarantines this, to use Poetry‘s term, “writing,” from the much lengthier collection of what Poetry calls “poems” that opens magazine.)

The debate is intriguing, and worth looking into.  (Some places to start: Kenneth Goldsmith’s introduction to Poetry‘s F-Con Po issue, and Dale Smith’s response.)

I want to take a slightly different tack, though, and argue that this latest issue of Poetry does not only feature F-Con Po: it also features the poetic turn.  Even employing a rather strict definition of what a turn is (here, I’m only counting poems that employ a very clear and significant major turn), I count at least nine poets in the current issue of Poetry who make use of a significant turn in at least one of their poems.  These poets include Tony Hoagland (in “At the Galleria Shopping Mall” and “Personal”), Jane Hirschfield (in “Perishable, It Said”), Charles Simic (in “The Melon”), John Poch (in “The Llano Estacado”), John Hodgen (in “For the man with the erection lasting more than four hours”), Ange Mlinko (in “This is the Latest”), David Bottoms (in “The Stroke”), Robyn Sarah (in “Blowing the Fluff Away”), Jordan Davis (in “Poem for a Sixth Wedding”), and Caroline Bergvall (in “The Not Tale (Funeral)”).  This number (again, the result of very conservative estimations and estimates) means that in the current issue of Poetry there are more “turners” than there are either Flarfists or Conceptual Poets.

To say the above is not to say that all the poems that have significant turns in them are great–this is by no means true.  (I think about three of the turns in the above poems are pretty great; a few are good; a few are so-so; and a few are weak.  The ones I really like are the turns in the poems listed above by Hodgen, Mlinko, and Davis.)

What I personally like, however, I think (and I trust you, not being me, will agree) is much less interesting than some systematic inconsistencies that arise once the prominence of the turn is noted.

For example: why isn’t the current issue of Poetry called “The Turn” issue?  I’m being a bit cheeky here, of course, but noticing both the presence of the turn in the recent Poetry and the absence of any real mention of the turn reveals an inconsistency near the heart of Poetry, the magazine, and poetry, in general.

The presence of the turn in an issue of Poetry is not at all surprising.  Poetry seems to really like turns.  (Important information for those who might have interest in submitting their work to Poetry.)  What’s interesting about this phenomenon is the following:

Though the turn is a real presence in Poetry, it is a largely unacknowledged presence.  Not only has there not been a special section of the magazine devoted to poems with great turns (ahem…), but the Poetry Foundation’s “Poetry Tool”–which allows one to search the Foundation’s extensive poetry archive by various means, including “By Glossary Term”–does not recognize the turn, or particular types of turns, as aspects of poems for which people might want to search.  This is oddly inconsistent: to supply regularly in the magazine an element of poetry which is absent from the Foundation’s other venues and discussions.

What’s happening in terms of turns over at Poetry, of course, happens more generally in poetry.  Though the turn is a vital part of a lot of poetry (T.S. Eliot says that the turn is “one of the most important means of poetic effect since Homer”–a means of poetic effect important even for some Flarf and Conceptual Poetry, it seems), we tend to not talk about it, and focus instead on other matters, often, especially, form.  As I suggest in “The Structure-Form Distinction,” we need to realize the significance of poetic structure (the patterns of turns in poems), and find ways to act on that realization…

What I’m suggesting here is that we at least see the significant role of the turn in the lastest issue of Poetry.  What exactly might be done with such knowledge remains to be seen…

The Turn-to-Another Structure

3 07 2009


A new structure has been added to this blog.  It’s called the Turn-to-Another Structure, and it features a number of poems that turn (often very surprisingly, at poem’s end) to speak to a specific addressee who has been absent, hidden, or secret for most of the poem.  Lots of great poems are included in this structure–check ‘em out!


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