I’ve recently been deeply engaged by Jack Collom‘s Moving Windows: Evaluating the Poetry Children Write. The book is intriguing for a number of reasons. Perhaps chief among them is the fact that Moving Windows actually broaches and attempts to handle one of the trickiest–and therefore least discussed–topics in regard to poetry: evaluation. Also of particular interest, especially for readers of this blog, is the central role that structure and surprise play in Collom’s method of evaluation.
Surprise is key for Collom. Not only is it one of the many ways of valuing children’s poetry, it is perhaps the most important way. It certainly is a term that keeps coming up in Collom’s writing. On the first page of the book’s preface, Collom notes that “[t]he verbal juxtapositions” of children’s poetry are often “full of surprises.” Such surprise also is at the heart of grown-up poetry: “However significant the elaborate adult skills are in poetry–and this is not to deny that significance–the spirit, the vivifying spark, remains surprise, which is proof of the accuracy of the moment, of originality.”
Surprise also is personally significant for Collom. In the book’s closing paragraphs, Collom notes how he came to poetry relatively late–he wrote his first poem at the age of twenty-three–but he also notes that what kept him interested in poetry was surprise. Collom states, “What made me try [writing poetry] a second and third time was the sense of discovery. I found I wasn’t writing just what I knew…but that the movement through the poem brought variations and surprises. I felt that there was no end to it.”
In the section devoted specifically to surprise as a criterion for successful poetry, Collom again registers the primacy of its stature, stating, “Of course, surprise is the fruit of everything the poem has: tone, soundplay, and rhythm as well as ladders and twists of meaning.” Collom notes that surprise forms “a spectrum of emotions,” and that, depending on context, the areas of this spectrum reveal themselves as “humor or poetry–or both–or just plain shock.” (By “poetry” Collom means “the condensation, emphasis on measure and sound correspondences, and lack of linear thought [that] move the sources of incongruity more clearly into the physical aspects of language.”) Collom describes the poems in his section on surprise in this way:
Some of the poems in this chapter lead up to one big surprise at the end. Some even have a double surprise as a climax. In others the continuing quality of the language, when word-to-word choices are being made rather than formulae followed, may contain surprise as a recurrent, or at least occasional, characteristic. These syntactical surprises draw attention to points that may be parts of the poet’s intention…or may open up serendipitous side-issues, many of which turn out to connect meaningfully within to poems.
Noting the similarities among the evaluative criterion of surprise and other criteria, Collom further describes the poems included under “Surprise” in this way:
Surprise is definitely a manifestation of energy. And surprise is candid. What separates these poems from those in the previous two chapters is, again, emphasis rather than some fundamental difference. When the essence of the poem seems to me to lie in the way one or more phrases are “set up” to stand out, like secular epiphanies, I’ve classed it here: jack-in-the-box words and tone changes.
Collom concludes his “Surprise” section with this summation:
Many of the poems in this chapter involve the reader in a sudden alteration of perspective. These rapid changes may be between reality and appearance, large and small, love and its lack, fact and quality, talking and crying out, sound and sight, sense and nonsense, rhythm and image, inside and out, and so forth. Involved readers get a sudden shock, and also a perspective on perspectives; they can derive from these poems and their energetic transitions a sense of the utter richness of the myriads of possible viewpoints available and, as a corollary, the limits of any one. Writers of course learn likewise as they make the poems.
While, as shown above, surprise is related to a number of Collom’s evaluative criteria, the criterion with which it is more closely associated is that of “Poetic ‘Moves.'” Surprise seems to be part and parcel of poetic moves:
The plural noun ‘moves’…is used by many contemporary poets to designate a supple use of language in poems. It is more a matter of sophistication than…natural candor…, there is a sense of the deliberate play of ideas and of the flavors and impacts of words, the dance of language, the image and idea counterpoint of sheer rhythm. I’m not referring here to the extremes of surrealistic play but to a writing situation wherein some kind of logical thread is evident but is not pushed to an all-consuming conclusion; rather the perceptions of the poet dance around it, play with meaning, create slants and surprises.
Additionally, in an effort to raise the notion of the poem above that of a device for merely conveying ideas or meanings, Collom suggests that a poem is more properly a place for the play of ideas, and turns and surprise are vital parts of such play:
So in this century the play of ideas has assumed a greater importance vis-a-vis ideas themselves, though a strong case could be made that, as far as the essentials go, “it was ever thus” in poetry; that is, that the key poetic qualities in, say, Shakespeare, the “lights” that bring his writings above others, and have made them for so long a time delightful, are the humors, the almost indefinable touches and turns, the inevitable surprises, of his instant-to-instant language…, and not his ideas, which are all derivative, at the service of his art rather than presented as any kind of gospel.
Collom also signals this close association by feeling the need to differentiate between the two criteria; Collom states, “The distinction I feel between ‘moves’ and surprise is simply that with the former the emphasis is not so much on a particular verbal leap, the breathless shock of that, as it is on just what has been moved from and what to, and how these combine to set up ongoing implications.”
Specifically, Collom defines poetic moves as the criterion that covers what he calls a poem’s ability to convey or embody “psychic geometry,” which he defines as “the way ideas rise for us, when reading a poem, and form a succession of shapes that interrelate.”
Collom wants these successions to shapes to offer surprise, and this is what leads me to think that Moving Windows is largely concerned with structure–and so, of course, the poetic turn–and surprise. Consider a small selection of the poems included in the book:
A boy is
Lying to me.
My sisters sometimes
bother me. So what? I
bother them back.
This is just to say
I have eaten the ice cream
in the freezer which you were probably
saving for your boyfriend.
it was so cold and I was so angry.
My hands are
up in the air but
I don’t care.
Ugly singing birds
stand behind my uncomfortable bed.
Too much bother.
Some people are sad
And others are
Each of the above poems comes from a chapter in Moving Windows other than “surprise” and “poetic ‘moves.'” However, it’s clear that each of them contains a turn and a surprise. While not all of the poems included in Moving Windows behave like these poems, many of them do–so many, in fact, that it seems to be a large-scale trend among the included poems, and this trend, I feel, invites me to make a few observations and ask a few questions.
Collom tends to teach content-driven poems, such as “thing” poems, and formal poetry, such as acrostics and lunes. (The majority of the poems included above are such formal poems.) However, his assessments tend to have very little to do with the accomplishment of the form. Rather, they have to do with the creation of a turn and a corresponding surprise. It seems, then, that Collom himself is making a structure-form distinction and quite clearly values structure over form. If this is the case, it leads me to wonder if there might not be some better exercises to use to teach young students the power of the surprising turn. What about, for example, teaching the two-line poem? Might such a collaborative exercise be appropriate for young students? Are there other exercises that would be appropriate to young students that could make more explicit the vital value of the surprising turn?
How explicit should a teacher be about the criterion of surprise? For example, Collom notes that for the lune form–“a simplification of formal haiku,” consisting of “three/five/three [words/line], any subject, any mood”–“[s]urprise in the short, third line (especially) is a common vivifier…” But does Collom discuss this with his students? Should one? I would argue that this is a good idea, and I believe Collom would agree. Collom notes that, generally, “the simple exhortation ‘be original’ can slam things open.” I would assume this could be the case for surprise. It only takes a little encouragement to help students seek surprise, especially over what is all-too-often the alternative to that option: merely clinching meaning.
Giving some focus to surprise might also be the element that could keep the more advanced students interested in poetry. Consider the following poem–a vastly successful poem, but a poem that uses structure to create a critique of the acrostic assignment:
Teachers give us
Ai! They waste their time.
Jack Collom’s Moving Windows is a excellent book, brave, original, passionate, and pragmatic. Published over 30 years ago, it also should be considered a starting point. I hope some of my brief reflections on Collom’s work helps to signal a way forward for the education of young writers, a way forward that honors what is both explicit and implicit in Moving Windows.