Turning the Bad Poem into the Great

16 01 2014

gabbert

Over at The French Exit, Eliza Gabbert critiques Danielle Cadena Deulen’s “The Needle, the Thread,” a poem included in the most recent issue of Crazyhorse.  Gabbert’s critique is multifaceted–from noting grammatical problems to registering that the poem “oozes sentimentality”–however, the heart of Gabbert’s critique, it seems to me, is the poem’s lack of a turn.  Gabbert notes that the poem contains a “pretty flat register of emotion: awe all the way through.”  And, as a result, “there’s no real tension.”  What Gabbert would prefer is more drama; she states, “Give me a big Rilkean ending any day. But in a Rilke poem, you get 13 staid lines about a bust of Apollo before the flushed demand of the ending. There’s a sense of subtlety, a sense of balance.”  Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” of course, is famous for presenting a particularly stunning act of turning, of, in the words of M. L. Rosenthal, poetic “torque.”

In her contribution to the “Endless Structures” section of Structure & Surprise, Rachel Zucker discusses “Archaic Torso of Apollo” as a kind of turn that she calls “the Epiphanic structure.”  About poems using this kind of structure, this pattern of turns, Zucker states, “The pleasure in this kind of poem lies in the surprise (an ambush really) of the turn and the following resolution.  The sudden utterance at the end of the poem, sounding very much like a non sequitur, collides with description like a driver running a red light.  Whiplash, double-take, brief confusion ensues, but in this case, almost as soon as confusion registers, the rhetoric of the last line aggressively co-opts the description and defines the entire scene.  What seemed at first a rogue bit of language is suddenly manifested as the essence of the poem.  Dissonance gives way (rather quickly) to a feeling of rightness, of inevitability.”

Sure, some interesting poems don’t turn much at all–consider Ron Padgett’s “Nothing in That Drawer” or Peter Gizzi’s “Protest Song.”  And, of course, it’s a tall order for any poem to approach the strange majesty, the authority, of Rilke’s poem.  And there certainly are ways to value “The Needle, the Thread” outside of its relationship with the turn.  However, it also generally is the case that most successful poems work the way that Randall Jarrell says they do–Jarrell states, “A successful poem starts from one position and ends at a very different one, often a contradictory or opposite one; yet there has been no break in the unity of the poem.”  That is to say, they, as Gabbert notes in the comments section of her post, “surprise.”

*

Danielle Cadena Deulen’s “Corrida de Toros, it seems to me, is a Jarrellian “successful poem”–check it out here.





Billy Collins on “The Ride of Poetry”

6 11 2013

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I recently read with great interest “The Ride of Poetry: Collins on Metaphor and Movement,” by Billy Collins (in Contemporary American Poetry: Behind the Scenes, edited by Ryan G. Van Cleave (New York: Pearson, 2003), pp. 66-69).  In this essay (a brief afterword to a selection of his poems), Collins discusses his desire for poems to present him an opportunity for “imaginative travel,” to transport him “into new territory.”

Though Collins does not specifically mention the turn in this essay, it’s clear that the turn is implied.  Turns simply are the ways that poems travel.  Collins states, “In teaching or reading poetry, a question I habitually ask my students or myself is how does the poem get from its alpha to its omega.”  And this sounds a great deal like Randall Jarrell, who states (in “Levels and Opposites: Structure in Poetry,” a lecture focused on issues related to the turn), “A successful poem starts from one position and ends at a very different one, often a contradictory or opposite one; yet there has been no break in the unity of the poem.”

Additionally, Collins simply seems to be a fan of the turn.  He employs the turn again and again in his own work.  (Many poems by Collins appear on this blog’s pages devoted to specific kinds of turns, including “Duck/Rabbit” and “Marginalia.”)  And, as an anthologist, Collins tends to select works that feature prominent turns–I don’t think it’s coincidental that the subtitle to Collins’s influential Poetry 180 is “A Turning Back to Poetry.”

Collins’s “The Ride of Poetry” simply further confirms Collins’s interest in, and deep and abiding engagement with, the turn.  Here are some selections from this essay:

“Of the many pleasures that poetry offers, one of the keenest for me is the possibility of imaginative travel, a sudden slip down the rabbit hole.  No other form can spirit the reader away to a new conceptual zone so quickly, often in the mere handful of lines that a lyric poem takes to express itself.  Whenever I begin to read a new poem, I feel packed and ready to go, eager to be lifted into new territory….

“If we view poetry as an affordable–cheap, really–means of transportation, we can see the development of a poem as a series of phases in the journey, each of which has a distinct function.  The opening of the poem is the point of departure; the interior of the poem is the ground that will be simultaneously invented and covered through a series of navigational maneuvers; and the ending of the poem is the unforeseen destination–international arrivals, if you will….I am hardly alone in saying that the poem can act as an imaginative vehicle, a form of transportation to a place unknown.  But I expect my company would thin out if I admitted that I usually fail to experience the deeper, more widely celebrated rewards of poetry, such as spiritual nourishment and empathetic identification, unless the poem has provided me with some kind of ride….

“I do not mean to suggest that poetry is a verbal amusement park (or do I?) but I do hold up as a standard for assessing a poem its ability to carry me to a place that is dramatically different from the place I was when I began to read it.

“To view a poem as a trip means taking into account the methods that give a poem vehicular capability.  It means looking into the way a poet manages to become the poem’s first driver and thus first to know its secret destination.

“In teaching or reading poetry, a question I habitually ask my students or myself is how does the poem get from its alpha to its omega.  Obviously, the question does not apply to the many poems that exhaust themselves crawling in the general direction of beta….”





Q & A, Part 3

6 03 2009

orangeanchorsolid1

 

This post is the third in a series of posts responding to questions posed to me about Structure & Surprise from a group of poets in an advanced poetry writing workshop at Hope College.  (For the previous 2 posts, see Q & A, parts 1 & 2, signposted with the same bright orange anchor that tops this post.)

 

Today’s question comes from Jon Dean.  Jon asks:

 

“Is it possible to mix structures?  What does that look like?”

 

Great questions, Jon!

 

You bet it’s possible to mix structures.  As Randall Jarrell says in his great lecture “Levels and Opposites: Structure in Poetry,” “There are many different sorts of structure in poetry, many possible ways of organizing a poem; and many of these combined in the organization of a single poem.”  I’d simply add that in the same way that formal innovation can be a big part of the fun of working with form, structural innovation can be a big part of the pleasure of working with structure.

 

So, what does this look like?

 

I want to discuss two things here: structural overlap, and mixed structures.

 

I think, Jon, you’re NOT asking about structural overlap in your question, but I want to touch on it briefly here.  By structural overlap, I’m referring to the simple fact that some structures, well, um, overlap.  For example, you’ll see that I’ve added a structure on this blog called “List-with-a-Twist.”  One of the things I mention about that structure is that it is one way to describe MANY poems, many of which might also be structurally described in other ways.  Take, for example, Yeats’s “The Circus Animals’ Desertion.”  This is categorized in Structure & Surprise as a retrospective-prospective poem, but, like many retrospective-prospective poems it also is a list-with-a-twist.  Here, structures certainly are mixing.

 

However, I think, Jon, you may have something different in mind when you ask about mixing structures: you’re wondering about grafting parts of different structures onto each other, yes?  This, also, is certainly possible.  Indeed, this is something I try to get at on p. 232 of the “Inspiration, Guides, Exercises” portion of Structure & Surprise, where I suggest: “Write a poem with a hybrid structure: a descriptive-meditative poem that employs an elegiac structure for its meditation; a dialectical poem that ends with an ironic punch line instead of a synthesis; an emblem poem with a long line of concessions attached.”

 

I think one can see some of this hybrid nature at work in some of the descriptive-meditative poems included in Structure & Surprise.  Take, for example, Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight.”  While generally a three-part descriptive-meditative poem, the poem’s meditation, it’s middle part, itself has two very distinct parts: one offering some details about Coleridge’s childhood, and one envisioning Coleridge’s son’s (hopefully) happy future.  This meditation, therefore, seems to participate in a kind of temporal and psychological structure we’ve come to call retrospective-prospective.  Thus, “Frost at Midnight” might be understood to be a descriptive-meditative poem that employs a retrospective-prospective structure for its meditation.

 

We shouldn’t be too surprised by this.  Meditations are not themselves static.  Rather, they move, wander, develop, coalesce, break, and in the descriptive-meditative poem they need to do enough of this to provide transport, to carry a reader convincingly from one perspective on the surrounding scene to another perspective on the same scene.

 

I’d also add, Jon, that there are certain big poems that employ many structures within them.  Take, for example, Whitman’s Song of Myself, in this long poem, many different kinds of structures are used in the poem’s various sections.  Look only at section 6 of that poem and you’ll find something like an emblem poem (much meditation on the meaning of that child’s handful of grass) and an elegy, including a confident consolatory statement that the dead (referenced in the section’s emblem movement) also live on somewhere…

 

(Note: if you get turned on by Whitman’s Song of Myself, you might want to look at a book called The Modern Poetic Sequence, by M.L. Rosenthal and Sally M. Gall—very smart, and insightful!)

 

As I mention in Structure & Surprise, structure loves surprise, often aims for it.  Thus, perhaps we should not be too surprised that structure itself not only leads to surprise but also can be shaped, grafted, molded, welded, and wielded in surprising ways.

 

Thanks again, Jon!

 

(A few more responses coming up in the next few days…)





Q & A, Part 2

2 03 2009

orangeanchorsolid

In this post, I’m continuing the process of answering a series of questions posed to me by members of an advanced poetry workshop at Hope College.  (For Part 1, see below, or in the February 2009 archives–look for the orange anchor.)

For this post, I want to think a bit on the following question posed by Karly Fogelsonger:

“In the Intro [to Structure & Surprise], Theune says, ‘structure’s primary goal is to lead to surprise.’  Could you talk a little bit about what ‘surprise’ means to you, and why it’s so important in a poem?”

Great question, Karly!  One of the things I like so much about this question is that it gets me to investigate my own assumptions–I just kind of figured that surprise is one of the things poems are after…it’s good to be pushed to try to give reasons to my assumptions.

What do I mean by surprise?  I mean by it, largely, what everyone means by it: that vital encounter with the unexpected.  We humans seem to love and crave this.  (Well, not Angela from The Office, who says (I think I’m quoting her correctly) that she doesn’t like surprises because she doesn’t like to be “titillated.”  Of course, Angela has always seemed to me a bit more Vulcan than human.)  And one big job of art is to feed that crave–art, not just poetry.  Surprises, reversals, revelations, punch lines, ironies–these simply are at the heart of so many of the arts.  Tragedy: Oedipus: “I slept with whom?!”  Comedy: you want an example of structure and surprise?–watch Curb Your Enthusiasm…in the best episodes, all the pieces of the plot are organized to lead to a wild, surprising orchestration of occurrences at show’s end.  The surprising twist is a key feature of many pop songs.  It’s also huge in detective fiction.  (I get my fix via Law and Order.)  And in the movies (especially–but not only–thrillers: The Prestige, The Sixth Sense, The Others, etc, etc.)

Though surprise is such a big part of so much art, I think it tends to get downplayed in poetry.  I don’t know why, but we often don’t talk a lot about surprise in poems, but, at least for me, the element of surprise is a huge part of the phenomena of reading and experiencing great poetry.  The poems I love take me to new, often unexpected places.

Now, let me be clear: this doesn’t mean that I expect something to “jump out at me” at the end of every poem.  In fact, a poem can surprise by reducing, by downshifting, its energy.  Very often, what’s important (among the many things important in poems) is that some kind(s) of shift, swerve, or twist (in short, a turn) occur(s).

And I’m not the only one to think so.  As I mention in the intro to Structure & Surprise, Randall Jarrell says that “a successful poem starts from one position and ends at a very different one, often a contradictory or opposite one; yet there has been no break in the unity of the poem.”  And contemporary critic Hank Lazer (in “Lyricism of the Swerve: The Poetry of Rae Armantrout”) states, “The lyric, to sustain our interest, to have complexity and beauty, and to remain compelling, requires ‘torsion’–that is, motion, tension, torque, and a twist.”  (For more on the necessity and even primacy of the turn in lyric poetry, click here.  And if you want to read some more poems (besides so many of those in Structure & Surprise) that have some pretty thrilling turns, click here.)

Poems turn and surprise in a variety of ways, but there is a quality of turn that I admire very much: I love the quality of fitting surprise.  I love surprises that at once fit their occasions, that clearly evolve from the parts of the poem which preceded it, while also doing something unexpected.  Here, I agree with Barbara Herrnstein Smith, who, in Poetic Closure, states, “…effective closure will always involve the reader’s expectations regarding the termination of a sequence–even though it will never be simply a matter of fulfilling them.”  Such fitting and surprising turns are the essence of both wit and the sublime.

While, as I’ve tried to show above, I really do value surprise, I also value surprise as a part of poems for what it allows me to not say.  By saying I value surprise, I do not have to say, for example, that structure must lead specifically to an epiphany, or a logical conclusion, or a punch line, or a decision, etc.  Poems are various and lead to many things.  By saying that poems (often) should surprise, I get to remain open regarding the many kinds of developments, turns, and arrivals poems have.

That’s it for now…  Thanks, again, Karly, for your good question.  Stay tuned, all, for more surprises…








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