I’ve recently become aware of and intrigued by some new thinking and work on the turn: Peter Sacks’s “You Only Guide Me by Surprise”: Poetry and the Dolphin’s Turn.
This work was first delivered on May 7, 2004, at The University of California, Berkeley, as the Second Memorial Judith Lee Stronach Lecture on the Teaching of Poetry. (You can hear the lecture here.) 500 copies of the lecture, printed by Autumn Press, have been published by The Bancroft Library of The University of California, Berkeley. For those interested in poetic turns, this slim volume is worth getting a hold of—it contains some fascinating reflections on a new kind (or, rather, an ancient kind—just one that so far has not been theorized) of turn: the dolphin’s turn.
According to Sacks, the dolphin’s turn is “a transformative veering from one course to another, a way of being drawn off track to an unexpected destination…” (Sacks adds: “[T]his turn is paradigmatic for the transportation system of poetry itself, both in its technical “versing,” and in its thematic and figural changes.”) The dolphin is associated with such turning, of course, because it is a creature that itself is always transgressing boundaries, leaping and diving. Sacks states,
“Imagine that we are sailing, or swimming, or watching, or drowning—which we are. Suddenly (a natural adverb of the dolphin, since sudden derives from underneath, from the same sub as sub-marine, going below or above, sur-facing, by sur-prise, as from hidden depths), a creature emerges. It breaks the surface between two elements, perhaps as the poem breaks from silence to sound and back, line after line, leaping and turning through what differentiates poetry from prose: its more frequent encounters with wordlessness, its high quota of turns, both of speech and thought, and of actual lineation, its navigating according to its own frequency even as it finds its course, responsively, by echolocation, by soundings.”
The dolphin’s turn, however, is more specific than this. According to Sacks, the dolphin’s turn is signaled by the actual presence of dolphins in a poem. That is, the dolphin becomes a kind of totemic animal, a familiar whose presence marks the presence of other, larger forces: the sighting of a dolphin in a poem often announces the advent of a radical turn. As Sacks states,
“[A]s the dolphin appears, imagine it has leapt not merely into your sight, but into your blood, breath, and the primal reaches of the mammalian mind, the part of us ‘in here’ that responds and perhaps corresponds to the creature ‘out there’….[T]his partial correspondence has charged the human imagination since the earliest poems of history. As we send exploratory pulses out toward the origins of poetry itself, the soundings ripple back to us through the waters of almost three millennia, from the “Homeric Hymn to Apollo” to such twentieth century poets as Eliot, Rilke, Mandelstam and Celan, as well as Lowell, Walcott, and Bishop, whose great vocational portrait, “The Riverman,” begins “I got up in the night / for the dolphin spoke to me.” Always en route, the dolphin makes its way, and poetry’s way, via Shakespeare, Milton, and many others. You may already be recalling that the crucial turning point of “Lycidas” (1637), “Weep no more, woeful shepherds, weep no more, / For Lycidas your sorrow is not dead,” leaps from the preceding lines, “Look homeward angel now, and melt with ruth: / And, O ye dolphins, waft the hapless youth.”
Etymologically connecting dolphin via its Greek designation, delphin, to the oracular Apollo of Delphi, Sacks notes, in fact, that “[t]he link between dolphin and lyric poetry could hardly be closer.” And Sacks’s lecture, then, becomes, largely, a consideration of many of the instances of the dolphin’s turn in poetry, investigating poems such as:
“Homeric Hymn to Pythian Apollo” (“Celebrating the inauguration of the Delphic oracle, and most importantly, Apollo’s selection of his first priests, a scene of election that literally turns them from one life-course to another, the poem enacts the ur trope of poesis itself. This marks one of the first, but by no means the last, scenes of hijacking in all of literature, and we may wonder to what degree the experience of a lyric poem resembles the action of being hijacked”);
Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Delphine” (“The poem speaks completely for itself, returning explicitly to a wondrous silence which it has served to deepen, even as it has mediated between otherwise separate categories of human, animal, divine, of ocean, earth, and heaven, of language, music, wordlessness”);
Osip Mandelstam’s “There is no need for speech” (“It’s a brief poem, two quatrains, in which the Russian word delphinom becomes the literal vehicle for the metaphoric tenor of the soul, a being that swims way beyond or beneath language or pedagogy, into the furthest reaches of consciousness or of the world as we perceive it”);
Paul Celan’s “What’s written goes hollow, what’s” (from Celan’s Atemwende, or Breathturn; “[t]he dolphin here draws the poet through the surfaces of language, into a primordial form of breath and drastic luminosity, inseparable from an eternalized, as well as internalized, quadrant of shadows”);
W.B. Yeats’s “News for the Delphic Oracle” (in which “a dolphin plunges through the whole middle stanza”);
early versions of Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium” (“When the stricken, aging speaker calls to the transfigured world of the mosaics, and prays that the sages who stand in God’s holy fire might gather him into the artifice of eternity, we might want to know that earlier drafts of this passage had included the lines “O send the dolphins back & gather me / Into the artifice of eternity.” Drafts of earlier passages of the poem show more instances of the legendary creature, seen through the foam “where the dark drowsy fins a moment rise / Of fish, that carry souls to paradise”);
Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (a dolphin appears at “the moment when Melville’s prose literally turns to poetry…to pray for a specifically Delphic salvation from the threatening whale”);
Robert Lowell’s “Dolphin” (from his penultimate collection, The Dolphin; “[h]ere the dolphin, figure also for the new beloved, cuts through the speaker’s self-imprisoning net of cerebration and will, releasing him and orienting him at once toward his ongoing vitality, and thence to his capacity for acknowledging the consequences of his past”);
and Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Riverman” (“a conversionary calling of a man by a dolphin, leading him to initiation as a shamanic servant of the natural and supernatural worlds”; “It strikes me as no coincidence that Bishop’s fullest exploration of shamanic election, of initiation into a salvific region involving its own language, i[t]s own elusive journeys and trysts, its devotion to the well-being of a community, should follow the calling of the dolphin. Not a poet usually given to myth-making, Bishop here delegates a receiver by whom she can express the strongest, most mysterious reach of her own vocation. In a sense, the dolphin has surprised her and admitted her into one of her own deepest acknowledgments of the summons to poetry and to the world”).
In a final note, Sacks also acknowledges other examples of the dolphin’s turn in poetry, including Robert Browning’s “Fifine at the Fair,” Theodore Roethke’s “A Dolphin at My Door,” C. Day-Lewis’s “Boy with Dolphin: Verocchio,” and (“the magnificent close of”) Derek Walcott’s book-length poem, The Prodigal.
Original, resonant, wide-ranging, deep, and new, Peter Sacks’s thinking about the dolphin’s turn is worth careful consideration. I highly recommend it.