Last month I had the honor of introducing two separate groups of writers to principles of poetic structure as put forth in Michael Theune’s extraordinary Structure and Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns. The book made such a significant paradigm shift in the way I approach my own drafts that I wanted to share my discovery with others by offering a workshop. My plan was to spend a full Saturday at the Writing Barn working through six of the structures with a small group of poets in my town of Austin, Texas. I sent out emails and posted Facebook notices for the workshop. The response to the workshop was overwhelming; within a week I had twenty people registered and had started to turn others away, but then I decided to repeat the class on a second Saturday, this one closer to my idea of a small group, thirteen.
I organized the workshop—called “Six Approaches to Structuring a Poem”—so that we covered three structures in the first half of the day (emblem, ironic, concessional) and three structures—following lunch—in the second half of the day (retrospective-prospective, dialectical, descriptive-meditative). As much as I would have liked to include the elegiac structures, mid-course turns, and substructures—the other structures covered in Structure and Surprise—I was glad I kept the day to the six I chose, as time was tight even for those. We approached each structure in the same way, beginning with a short description of the basic structure; followed by an in-depth look at seven poems that exemplified the structure; followed by a short writing exercise whereby the participants could try their hands at using the structure; and ending with discussion and sharing of newly drafted works-in-progress.
The descriptions of the structures came straight from the chapters in Structure and Surprise, as did a number of the example poems, though I added a Texas touch by including a number of Texas poets throughout the day—Benjamin Saenz, Naomi Nye, Larry Thomas, myself, and others. I was also able to find recordings for about a third of the poems I used, read by the poets themselves. Given that we covered forty-two poems throughout the day, it was nice to hear voices other than our own, and for many, it was the first time to hear Mark Doty, Philip Larkin, Harryette Mullen, Li-Young Lee, Natasha Trethewey, and others. The focus was on structure, form, and turns, and how different poets used the same structure to achieve very different kinds of poems.
I believe that writing is the best way to see if principles of a workshop are being learned, so with each structure I designed a brief exercise. I gave participants no more than fifteen minutes for each exercise, but no one had to share their drafts if they did not want to (almost everyone, however, did share at least once during the day). For the emblem structure, I brought in two dozen Gustav Klimt posters and had everyone choose one, where they were to move from description to meditation in their poem.
Here is an untitled poem from Beverly Voss, based on Klimt’s Mäda Primavesi:
You stare out, young beauty,
arms akimbo, your gaze bold.
Persephone in her meadow:
roses, buttercups, narcissi
awash in violet beauty, the
green world at your feet.
Glory falling on you from
the heavens, your birthright—
and a bright white innocence.
How will your gaze change after
the earth opens and swallows you up?
When Demeter wails, keens, laments
until the meadow freezes with her tears.
Until the earth is nearly dead?
She doesn’t yet know but you will return.
Having been split open
like the pomegranate you ate—
the red juice forever staining your mouth.
Your gaze, I think, will have more depth.
You will bring a dark knowing
back with you.
More woman than girl.
More witch than woman.
More goddess than the wheat.
For the ironic structure—the one exercise which everyone in both workshops shared with the group—I handed out a list of 26 first lines, half from Sharon Olds’ Strike Sparks and half from Martín Espada’s Alabanza. Participants were asked to respond to several of the first lines with a follow-up line (or lines) that provided an ironic turn, many of which brought howls of laughter. I told them to keep them short, and they did. Here are several examples (the Olds and Espada lines in italics):
In the middle of the night,
when we get up, we navigate
by ambient light—
around the bedstead,
through the house, sure-footed,
no stubbed toes, scraped shins.
Yet, once sunlight penetrates the blinds
we stagger from our beds,
stumbling, clumsy and blind.
there are some things doctors can’t fix:
their own mistakes. My trust escaping out of the hole the needle made.
No pets in the project
the lease said.
So I lost the cat.
Sold the dog.
Asked for money back
when the place came
equipped with a rat.
This was the first Thanksgiving with my wife’s family.
The next one will be without my wife
or without her family.
For the concessional structure, I had students use the same “First Lines” handout, but this time they were to choose one line, add “Suppose” to the front of it, and use that line as a concession until the turn in their poems. Here’s Jean Jackson’s take on the structure (I told them that they could alter the first line if they needed to):
I suppose there are some things you can’t fix,
but you set such grand expectations
right from the beginning 46 years ago.
First there were the holes in the floor boards
of the ’57 Chevy that you repaired
by riveting cookie sheets in place.
So many holes have been fixed since then.
And the plumbing! How many times
have you found the leak, dug through mud
and saved a bundle, all the while
hating the job?
I admit you’re getting older
and that last time was a bear–
two days in the cold and rain.
I know you’ve felt put upon at times
fixing the antiques that I sell in my business
and you want me to quit since sales are down,
but there was a time when you were
as enthusiastic as I was and bought enough
fix-up furniture to last for an age–
you even said you liked making the repairs,
though you drew the line at refinishing.
What I’m saying is that I’m not ready to let go now.
It’s in my blood, and you’re so good at what you do,
that I know I’ll probably ask you to fix small flaws
once in a while. You do such a good job
and, well, it’s just so you!
For the retrospective-prospective structure, I gave participants a new handout, one of “Last Lines” from the same two poets, Olds and Espada, but not necessarily from the same poems. This time they were to use one of the last lines as a starting point for a poem that contrasted “then” with “now.” Here is a draft by Christa Pandey that uses an Espada line to begin:
If only history were like your hands,
your fingers easily discerned, long and
slender bony, shapely nails, the pinky
short like last night’s TV episode.
The rivers of your veins concealed—
you are still young—unlike those
of history, full of bloody spills,
gnarled centuries like knuckles
of your coming age. The skin of our
tortured earth is deeply wrinkled.
May that stage not befall your hands.
If only history had your touch,
the thrill of your smooth soothing
on my longing skin.
The dialectical argument structure proved to be the most difficult of the structures we looked at during the workshop, in part because it is a three-part structure, and in part because it is not a structure that poets tend to use as often as others. Because I limited the time on exercises, I tried to make the move from thesis to antithesis to synthesis as easy as possible in the exercise. For this one, I handed out a copy of Nick Laird’s “Epithalamium,” and asked the participants to follow his “you vs. I” dialectic in their drafts. Here are two wildly different takes on this exercise:
Your refrigerator is a Marine
standing at attention.
Knees locked, shoulders back.
Or art by Mondrian: primary colors
painted with a measuring stick.
Mine is a Marc Chagall. Capers float on high.
Mayonnaises (three kinds) dance cheek to cheek
with a concupiscence of condiments.
You pride yourself on order:
Top shelf: Milk. And all things white with protein.
Middle shelf: Leftovers and eggs.
Bottom: Vegetables and fruit.
Beer: always in the bin.
You scorn the wild Hungarian dance
of my old and humming fridge.
Where the spinach makes whoopee
with the squash and carrots compost
near the beer.
Ah love, dear love . . . you
let me use your toothbrush.
Share with me your bed and key.
Consider this: I’ll line up all my juices
if you’ll set your collards free.
dried roses for a wedding bouquet
their love already drying out, color drained
he raises the gun
she loads the bullet
he puts up his un-tired feet
she brings him slippers
he throws fire
she spreads gasoline
both dismantling their home, hands ripping out nails
making grenades out of wounds
clouding mirrors until
their children cannot see
their vows—hollow vessels
their rings, engorged with hate
nooses around their necks
Finally, for the descriptive-meditative structure at the end of a long day, I had participants follow the basic structure of Charles Wright’s “Clear Night,” just as Kevin Prufer had done in “Astronomer’s Prayer to the Andromeda Galaxy,” both poems we had looked at and discussed. I asked them to write an imitation that was focused on a natural object, and here’s what Ann Howells came up with:
after Charles Wright
Calm sea, moon reflected and reflected, endlessly.
Boat, pier and pines are monochrome—black on black.
Tidal pools drain, echo an eerie, hollow sound,
like a didgeridoo.
Gulls and crabs and snails sleep.
I am a tumult, a tempest moaning and shrieking,
tearing my hair.
I want to roil the waters, shatter the sky.
I want sea and moon and wind to rage.
I want the world to howl.
And the moon neither blinks nor winks.
And the sea is a seamless pane of smoked glass.
And the tidal pool continues its woodwind lullaby.
And the gulls and crabs and snails dream on.
They dream on.
In case you’re wondering why I used the same poets throughout this piece, it’s very simple: they are the ones who sent me their work after the workshop, though I assure you that we heard many other truly fine poems throughout the day (and keep in mind the short amount of time we had for writing). I received many wonderful emails from the students in the days to follow, like this one from Gloria Amescua, “I gained so much from your presentation, the variety of examples, and the chance to start some poems. I can really say it’s one of best workshops I’ve attended.” But as I reminded them, none of the ideas presented were original on my part. Most of the kudos must go to Michael Theune and the contributors to Structure and Surprise. I feel honored to be able to spread the word.
Scott Wiggerman is the author of two books of poetry, Presence, new from Pecan Grove Press, and Vegetables and Other Relationships. Recent poems have appeared in Switched-On Gutenberg, Assaracus, Naugatuck River Review, Contemporary Sonnet, and Hobble Creek Review, which nominated “The Egret Sonnet” for a Pushcart. A frequent workshop instructor, he is also an editor for Dos Gatos Press, publisher of the annual Texas Poetry Calendar, now in its fifteenth year, and the recent collection of poetry exercises, Wingbeats. His website is http://swig.tripod.com