Poetic Structures, Summarized

Poetic Structures

A turn is a shift in the rhetorical and/or dramatic progression of a poem.  The pattern of a poem’s turning is its structure.  The following are some of the structures that poems have, the kinds of turns that poems make.

Please note: the following list is not exhaustive—rather, it is just a beginning.  Poems are structured in a wide variety of ways, including variations on and combinations of the kinds of structures included here.  While the following list may offer some structures that can be applied directly to one’s reading and understanding of a particular poem, one should not try to force any structure on any particular poem.  While it is important to be attuned to the presence and the power of turns in poems, in terms of really trying to understand a poem nothing should replace attentiveness to the singular details of a particular poem.

Two-part Structures

The cliché-and-critique structure begins with a cliché (or clichés) then turn to critique that cliché.

The concessional structure turns from making concessions (that is, admitting the problems or difficulties in the argument one wants to make) to then, in fact, making the argument.

The dejection-to-elation structure turns (often as a result of some kind of triggering event) from sadness to happiness.

The dream-to-waking structure is a two-part structure that, first, provides a dream (or a daydream, or reverie, or a vision), and then, second, wakes from that dream.  (Note that waking has the power to confirm or to negate the power of the dream.  So, if the dream is undermined, it is likely that the poem will be structurally similar to poems that employ the ironic structure.)

The elegiac mode has three kinds of structures, each one revealing a different way of handling grief: one turns from grief to consolation; one turns from grief to the refusal of consolation; and one turns from grief to deeper grief.

The emblem structure turns from an organized description of an object to a meditation on, a consideration of, the meaning of that object.

The ironic structure turns from making an assertion to undercutting that assertion, or pulling the rug out from underneath what (one had thought) had been established in the poem.

The list-with-a-twist structure includes a list that turns–or twists–significantly toward the end.  (Note: lots of poems use the list-with-a-twist structure; many of the structures listed here are more specific varieties of the list-with-a-twist.)

The metaphor-to-meaning structure is a two-part structure that moves from supplying a metaphor for something (a thing, or a situation) to revealing the meaning of, the significance behind, that metaphor.

The question-and-answer structure.  Q. Is this structure really as self-explanatory as it seems?  A. Yes.

The retrospective-prospective structure begins with a consideration of past events and then turns to look ahead to the future or else look at a present situation differently.

The story-with-a-moral structure turns from telling a story to offering the lesson(s) of that story.

Three-part Structures

The circular structure begins in one place, then journeys away from that place, only to (as you may have guessed) circle back to the beginning.

The descriptive-meditative structure opens with the description of a scene, then (often due to an external trigger) turns to an interior meditation (for example, the expression and/or consideration of memories, concerns, anticipation), and then turns to a re-description of the scene, a scene that now seems different due to the changed mindset of the poem’s speaker.

The dialectical argument structure begins with the statement of a thesis (one argumentative position), then turns to offer an antithesis (a counterpoint to the thesis), turning once again to a synthesis, a combination of the two seemingly opposing views.

—from Structure & Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns, edited by Michael Theune (Teachers & Writers, 2007), and http://structureandsurprise.wordpress.com

3 responses

15 06 2010
Poetic Structures, Summarized « Structure & Surprise

[...] Poetic Structures, Summarized 15 06 2010 I’ve added a new page to the Pedagogy section of this blog, Poetic Structures, Summarized. [...]

8 06 2011
Helen Vendler: Approaching the Turn « Structure & Surprise

[...] Vendler then proceeds to offer a cursory list of internal structural forms.  She notes that “[s]ome poems are two-part (binary) poems, like William Wordsworth’s ‘A slumber did my spirit seal’ (which we saw changing from illusion to stern knowledge) or like Dickinson’s ‘The Heart asks Pleasure—first—’ (which we saw changing its conception of God from benevolence to cruelty” (119).  Vendler also notes that “[t]here are also many three-part (ternary) poems, which often take on the internal structure of beginning, modulation, and end (a song-form preserved in lyric),” and, additionally, that “[o]ne well-known internal structure is that of the ‘surprise’ ending, where the last few lines reverse everything that has gone before” (119).  Additionally, according to Vendler, “Internal forms are infinitely variable, since they represent emotional response, always volatile” (119).  Such a list seems like the beginning of the list (constantly under construction) of poetic structures, patterns of poetic turning, located here. [...]

4 07 2011
The Poem in Countermotion « Structure & Surprise

[...] wants fulcrums/turns to be powerful and singular, there are patterns to turns (for some, click here), to the construction of fulcrums, and these patterns can be analyzed and discussed, and so [...]

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