On January 22, I gave a talk (“Voltage!: Engaging Turns in Poetry”) about the ideas behind Structure & Surprise at my undergraduate alma mater, Hope College, in Holland, Michigan. The experience was a real treat for me for a variety of reasons (getting to see my former professors and long-time friends, getting to share my ideas, getting to continue to learn from the excellent conversations I had, etc). One key reason, though, was that I got to visit a few classes at Hope (including Curtis Gruenler’s literary theory class, and Pablo Peschiera’s advanced poetry writing class) to meet and interact with some current Hope students.
What can I say? I was mightily impressed. All of the students I met were extremely perceptive and smart, deeply sincere, brightly funny, and truly engaged…
So engaged, in fact, that some from advanced poetry writing have sent me some further questions to consider. I plan to supply responses to (or artfully dodge!) a number of these questions via blogpost over the next (approximately) two weeks.
The first question I want to address really is a cluster of questions, a cluster, if I read them correctly, growing out of one central concern: the place of poetic structure in the process of composition. The questions in this cluster are:
–From Jon Dean: “How aware of structure do you think the poet should be while writing? Should we set out thinking ‘This topic would work well in emblematic structure’ in the same way we set out saying ‘I will write this as a ghazal?’”
–From Karly Fogelsonger: “As a writer, do you think structure should come out of a poem (is it inherent in a poem from the poem’s genesis, and just needs to be identified and developed) or do you personally usually begin with an idea of structure, and model the form and content of a poem accordingly?”
–From Stephen Herrick: “The book [Structure & Surprise] is more of a critical work…so I wonder how its view of poetry affects the process of writing.”
Great, vital questions, all. My intention here is to give a few straight answers to the above questions, but then I hope to complicate and develop those answers.
As I discuss a bit in the introduction to “Inspiration, Guides, Exercises” in S&S, the focused consideration of structure can enter into the poetic process at almost any stage, from inspiration and pre-writing, to drafting, to revision.
I tend to think of the close consideration of structure as a significant part of the revision process–that is, once you have a draft of a poem, you can, if you are aware of poetic turns and some of the pivotal maneuvers you can make with them in poems, examine your poem for many things: to see if it has structural interest (if there’s no turn in the poem, is this okay? is this intentional? does the poem need a turn? if so, where, and what kind?); to see if your poem, if it has any, is taking its turn(s) well (or if the turn is sloppy and might be improved). (Here, in a little more detail, is how I think structure can aid with revisions.) So, what I’m saying here, Karly, is that, in this view of poem-making, structure begins to emerge as the poem emerges–structure doesn’t have to be decided upon prior to the growth of the poem.
HOWEVER, I also am certain that structures can inspire and encourage poetry writing in just the way that, as Jon suggests, ghazals can. Check out this page I recently put up on the blog, on writing collaborative, ironic, two-line poems. In an hour or two of playful collaboration, you (and a friend or two) can probably make 20 really good ironic, two-line poems. (That is, you’ll probably make about 40-80 poems; of which 25-50% of them will potentially be keepers.) Here, poetic structure directly informs and feeds into the process of poem-making.
I think there remain to be discovered and shared many more such exercises/activities to promote the creation of poems-with-turns. As this blog continues to grow, I anticipate posting many more.
Here’s one I’ll develop a bit more and post soon:
1) For your subject, decide on a process from nature (think of any branch of the sciences to help you come up with ideas: astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology) or technology (industrial processes, demolitions, etc)–note that this will work best if it’s a process you may be intrigued by but don’t know much about (you may need to do some research–that’s fine!);
2) Describe this process in GREAT detail; and then…
Well, try this first, they I’ll tell you the turn in, say, two days…!
Jon (and Karly…aw, heck, and Stephen!), you (all, essentially) ask if a poet should set out thinking s/he is going to write in a poem employing a particular structure. As the above indicates, I think that’s a very fair way to begin crafting a poem. However, I would of course add that at some point you cease drafting, examine what you have, and start revising, and just as your draft of your ghazal may in fact be the seed of a great villanelle, your draft of an ironic structure poem may turn out to be a dialectical argument poem… Just as one should not force that poem to be a ghazal if it’s greatness resides in another form, so one should not force a poem to take a kind of turn if its greatness lies elsewhere.
I’d also add that just as some forms are tough (even downright scary) to write (and so it would probably be a mistake to try to start a poem using them) and others (such as the ghazal) are more productive and inviting, so, too, with structures: some, at least (right now) to me, seem tough (I’m looking at you, Emblem!) to write, but others (like some versions of the ironic) seem easier, more approachable.
And I’d add, lastly, that I hope that S&S and this blog will assist and encourage the development of creative pedagogy which might serve, more and more, to reveal how cool, funny, smart, revelatory, &c, &c poems can get written using the turn as a major building block of the poem. We’re just at the start of this important conversation.