In “Inspiration, Guides, Exercises,” the final section of Structure & Surprise, I offer the following suggestion to help generate a poem:
“Invent a new kind of turn by taking your writing further than it might usually go….[W]rite a poem in which you construct a fantastic object or machine, a magical mechanism called ‘The Desire Vaporizer’ or ‘The Memory Box.’ Employ lots of odd, specific details. At the end of the poem, turn the machine on and say what happens. Of course, it could be interesting if nothing, or something very unexpected, happens. If so, you may have a draft of a poem employing the ironic structure.”
Here is the poem that inspired the above suggestion:
Scale Model of Childhood
Who can say what calls me to work
these late hours
by lamplight and magnifying glass?
After the ladybug
retracts its long,
knife-point wingsbeneath its red shell,
I use the brush of one hair
to connect the black stars
stippled on its back:
who licks its teeth,
muzzle still red with Acteon’s blood,
waiting at the feet of the Twins
for crumbs to fall from their table.
In another room,
my parents sleep lightly,
as though ready always
to call my name.
When my constellation is finished,
I pierce it with a pin,
my little dog,
and place it
in a miniature box,
size of my thumbnail,
a window for the shoe box diorama
I assemble each night
from tidbits no one will miss.
When I was a child
feral dogs ran the woods
beyond our door.
Even the hound my father shot
slipped away by morning,
a line of blood pocking the snow.
My parents instructed me,
never stray outside.
Nights, my back on the bed
and my head tilted back,
I watched stars scroll past
my narrow window’s frame.
Once I thought I’d step from childhood
as from a doorway
into a night blazing with stars
they defied constellation.
I’d stride into the revealed world
away from the house
and my parents framed by a window
as they sat at a table
with no morsels pierced
near parted lips.
Pull the lever on the side of the box
and their forks will scrape
while an unseen dog
howls for its dinner
in an almost human voice.
From Renunciation (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois, 2000). Reprinted by permission of the author.
In “Inspiration, Guides, Exercises” I suggest that poetic structures can be used by working poets in many ways: to inspire, to draft, to revise. “Scale Model of Childhood” seems to me to offer a very inspiring structure for poets and for teachers of poetry, one that has a lot of creative and pedagogical potential, but one which (largely because turns have not been a systematic part of our discussions of poetry and poetry writing) has yet to be as widely employed as it can (and perhaps should) be.
And here are some other poems that employ the “build-and-activate structure,” or something very much like it (perhaps, in Hirshfield’s poem, a “preparation-and-anticipation structure”):
A few notes:
First, I have included “The Build-and-Activate Structure” in this blog’s “Pedagogy” section and not in “New Structures” because I’m reserving “New Structures” for structures which have been more widely employed. (If there are other build-and-activate poems out there, please do let me know.)
Second, note that while the turn from construction to activation is vital in “Scale Model of Childhood” and “The Room,” it is not the only turn in these poems. The construction sections have many important turns in them, as well (including, in “Scale Model of Childhood,” from construction to the sleeping parents to details of the past to the maker’s ideas of what he thought his childhood would lead to; and, in “The Room,” from the empty past to the sensed demand to the list of preparations). If you’re going to try to make your own “build-and-activate” poem, consider employing some smaller turns within your own “build” section.
Third, if you’re looking for some inspiration for what or how to build, here are a few examples of poems that construct things:
Building clearly is a big part of a lot of poems. One way to make a satisfying poem is to build something, then activate it, turn it on–and, in the process turn your reader on!
If you like “Scale Model of Childhood,” by Corey Marks (who is, among many other things, the author of the chapter on “The Descriptive-Meditative Structure” in Structure & Surprise), you might like to read his poem “Portrait of a Child,” which I’ve included on the page in this blog which I call “Voltage!,” a page that features poems that take particularly thrilling turns. And if you like these poems, of course, check out Corey’s book Renunciation.
And if you like “The Room,” by Jane Hirshfield, you should check out a number of the pages on this blog, which include links to many of her poems, and read her work, poems and criticism–which often features or is focused on the turn.