Poems turn in a variety of ways, and the effects they create can be just as various. Some turns are drastic; some are subtle. Some draw clear conclusions; some shock. There is no necessarily right or wrong way to turn–it all depends on what the poet wants to do with the turn.
That said, there is a growing conversation valorizing a specific quality of turn: the turn that both fits the poem and yet surprises, does something unexpected. Such fitting and surprising turns are rare, and, so, rightfully prized.
This page contains a constantly-evolving collection of key remarks on fitting surprise–in poetry, fiction, art, and music. Many of the following comments speak directly to fitting surprise as a quality of a text’s structural development; others speak more broadly about fitting surprise.
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When I was a teenager, I was given an anthology and the poets I loved most were William Carlos Williams and Emily Dickinson. I was drawn to poems that seemed as if they were going to vanish or explode–in other words, to extremes, to radical poetries. But how do we define “radical”? Perhaps by how much is put at risk in the text, how far the arc of implication can reach and still seem apt. But so much rides, as always, on that word “seems.” (24)
–Rae Armantrout, “Cheshire Poetics,” in American Women Poets in the 21st Century: Where Lyric Meets Language, edited by Claudia Rankine and Juliana Spahr. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2002. 24-6. Also available here.
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A good story may tease, as long as this activity is foreplay and not used as an end in itself. If there’s a promise held out, it must be honored. Whatever is hidden behind the curtain must be revealed at last, and it must be at one and the same time completely unexpected and inevitable. It’s in this last respect that the story (as distinct from the novel) comes closest to resembling two of its oral predecessors, the riddle and the joke. Both, or all three, require the same mystifying buildup, the same surprising twist, the same impeccable sense of timing. If we guess the riddle at once, or if we can’t guess it because the answer makes no sense–if we see the joke coming, or if the oint is lost because the teller gets it muddled–there is failure. Stories can fail in the same way. (1425)
–Margaret Atwood, “Reading Blind,” the introduction to The Best American Short Stories 1989. Reprinted in Ann Charters’s The Story and Its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999), pp. 1422-26.
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I think every writer takes his or her own experience and tries to get enough distance from it that it becomes material, and then you can shape that material. Such material, which may itself not be intrinsically interesting, like my life, which is similar to so may other people’s lives, hopefully, when put under pressure (again, that’s what I think poetry is, is language under pressure) then I think it takes on qualities which I hope readers will find attractive. There’s certainly one thing I’ve tried, I don’t get to decide if I’ve been successful or not, but one thing I’ve tried to do here, which is another thing I take from the sonnet, is a tradition of wit. I take wit to mean more than cleverness, but to go back to the idea of the conceit, the idea one is able to take unlike things and juxtapose them in such a way that they seem startling and true.
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While there is debate over the guidelines for judging creativity, two things remain: novelty and appropriateness. These two things may be viewed in the product, the tools, the people, the motivation, and/or the processes, but these are the two necessary ingredients.
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Any juxtaposition may be startling. Narrative collage is a cheap source of power. An onion ring in a coffin! Paul of Tarsus and Shelly Hack! We can do this all day. But in the juxtapostion of images, as in other juxtapositions, there is true and false, says Magritte. Magritte says we know birds in a cage. The image gets more interesting if we have, instead of a bird, a fish in the cage, or a shoe in the cage; “but though these images are strange they are unhappily accidental, arbitrary. It is possible to obtain a new image which will stand up to examination through having something final, something right about it: it’s the image showing an egg in the cage.”
–Annie Dillard, in Living by Fiction (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), 28-9.
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Not everything can be described, nor need be. The choice of what to evoke, to make any scene seem REAL to the reader, is a crucial one. It might be just those few elements that create both familiarity (what would make, say, a beach feel like a beach?) and surprise (what would rescue the scene from the generic, providing the particular evidence of specificity?). (116)
–Mark Doty, in The Art of Description
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“Having read this poem hundreds of times, I remain startled by that final gesture. I feel something has taken place that I am and am not prepared for.”
–Mark Doty, in “On ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’”
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Drift and counterdrift seem central to the way many of my poems behave. It’s also the way my mind works. I can hardly make a statement without immediately thinking of its opposite. At their best, my poems enact and orchestrate mixed feelings and contrary ideas. So when “Desire,” for example, found its counterdrift (“I walked the streets desireless”), it was on its way to discovering its ending, which of course was not available to me before the poem began. That small clarification (“the body…never learns”) was, when I wrote it, the happiest of compositional moments: when we arrive at what we didn’t know we knew, and it seems inevitable. (95)
–Stephen Dunn, in “‘Artful Talk’: Dunn on Drift and Counterdrift” (in Contemporary American Poetry: Behind the Scenes, edited by Ryan Van Cleave (New York: Longman, 2003), pp. 95-7.)
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The most difficult part of writing, I think, is contriving a way to be open to surprise. Not surprise in general, of course: that’s merely another kind of sameness–but the right surprise: the realignment of attention or the rip in consciousness that will advance the argument or the meditation.
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The primary poetic technique of the haiku is the placing of two or three images side by side without intepretation….A space is created between the images in which the reader’s emotions or understanding can lodge and grow. How these images relate to one another is a matter of some delicacy. The relationship cannot be too obvious or the poem will be trite, but if it is too distant the association of images will appear forced or arbitrary….
[William J.] Higginson has called the interaction between two images the “heart of haiku.” Others have likened the space between the images to the gaps in a spark plug: if the space is too small, the charge leaks out. If it is too wide, there is no spark. When the gap is just right, the result can be electrifying….
Good haiku achieve what [Robert] Spiess terms “the serene fusion of disparate elements.”
–Lee Gurga, in Haiku: A Poet’s Guide (Lincoln, IL: Modern Haiku Press, 2003), pp. 38-42.
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”What ‘purely aesthetic’ qualities can we distinguish in such theorems as Euclid’s and Pythagoras’s? I will not risk more than a few disjointed remarks. In both theorems (and in the theorems, of course, I include the proofs) there is a very high degree ofunexpectedness, combined with inevitability and economy. The arguments take so odd and surprising a form; the weapons used seem so childishly simple when compared with the far-reaching results; but there is no escape from the conclusions. There are no complications of detail – one line of attack is enough in each case; and this is true too of the proofs of many much more difficult theorems, the full appreciation of which demands quite a high degree of technical proficiency. We do not want many `variations’ in the proof of a mathematical theorem: `enumeration of cases,’ indeed, is one of the duller forms of mathematical argument. A mathematical proof should resemble a simple and clear-cut constellation, not a scattered cluster in the Milky Way.”
–G.H. Hardy, in A Mathematician’s Apology, chapter 18.
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“The adding of haiku to haibun prose is akin to the experience of linking in the communal poetry called renku. I’ve always enjoyed writing renku, a process that requires one to come up with verses that move away with respect to each preceding verse, but still connect in mood, tone, image, theme. Renku writers refer to this process as link and shift. If the haiku in a haibun work well, they both anchor the piece and let it go. They simultaneously frame and break the frame, allowing the content to spiral outward in ripples of association.”
–Penny Harter, “Circling the Pine: Haibun and the Spiral Web,” in Wingbeats: Exercises and Practice in Poetry, edited by Scott Wiggerman and David Meischen (Austin, TX: Dos Gatos Press, 2011), p. 183.
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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.
–Randall Jarrell, “Levels and Opposites: Structure in Poetry,” in Georgia Review 50.4 (Winter 1996): 697-713.
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And though by the end of the poem we have become quite used to the aural pleasure of these rhymes, something astonishing happens in the final quatrain: the content of its last line…is potentially overpowering. Nothing in the preceding eight stanzas prepares us for it, and even if the Holocaust seems in retrospect to be everywhere in “‘It Out-Herods Herod. Pray You, Avoid It,’” the poem’s final lines continue to surprise. When we hear the first half of the final stanza…we are fully prepared for the aural experience of the stanza clicking into place with a rhyme on “childermas.” We don’t necessarily expect the poem to jump to a new register…, but the expected rhyme makes the leap seem horribly inevitable. (99-100)
–James Longenbach, in a chapter called “Composed Wonder,” the final chapter of The Resistance to Poetry (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2004).
Read Anthony Hecht’s poem here.
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Great short stories and great jokes work toward a moment of insight. We call that either a punch line or an epiphany, depending on whether we’re Henny Youngman or James Joyce. This is the most luminous of similarities between a joke and a story: narrative with a firework built in. (181)
We laugh [after hearing a punch line], having just experienced a sudden cognitive reorganization.
This reorganization is triggered by perception of an appropriate incongruity….Humor is rooted in what is called “appropriate incongruity,” the understanding of an appropriate intermingling of elements from domains that are generally regarded as incongruous. (182)
“I often ask myself what makes a story work,” Flannery O’Connor says, and then she answers herself by stating that “it is probably some action, some gesture of a character that is unlike any other in the story, one which indicates where the real heart of the story lies. This would have to be an action or a gesture which was both totally right and totally unexpected.” Could there be a more fitting definition of appropriate incongruity? The inevitable surprise? (182-3)
Humor depends upon surprise, but that surprise must be crafted. This seeming paradox is at the heart of great humor. Humor is fundamentally ambiguous. It is grounded in an ambiguous system of relations–relations that are simultaneously incongruous and appropriate. (183-4)
Perhaps that is the difference between a competent short story and a masterful one. It is not the degree of surprise but the degree of the correctness of the surprise. (185)
–Antonya Nelson, in “‘Mom’s on the Roof’: The Usefulness of Jokes in Shaping Short Stories” (in Bringing the Devil to His Knees: The Craft of Fiction and the Writing Life, edited by Charles Baxter and Peter Turchi (Ann Arbor, MI: U of Michigan P, 2001), pp. 180-93).
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Of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” McGill professor Dan Levitin states:
At about the point when the right hand starts playing the melody four measures into the piece there’s this burst of feeling. In general, what’s going on is that what we want as listeners is for music to surprise us but not too much. If the music was completely surprising we’d be disoriented. On the other extreme, if the music was completely predictable, we’d grow bored of it, and it would seem banal. And hat the composer has to do is find that balance and get it just right: the Goldilocks zone.
Brooke Gladstone translates this as “the just-right amount of surprise.”
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Ultimately, the devices of surprise may set up the pins, but they don’t guarantee the strike. The essence of surprise is in its timing and execution: fast, graceful, and apt. Aptness is paramount. The best surprise of all may be how precisely an unexpected word or image pops a message. Unexpected is easy; unexpectedly perfect helps separate writers from hacks.
–Arthur Plotnik, in Spunk & Bite: A Writer’s Guide to Bold, Contemporary Style (New York: Random House, 2007), p. 15.
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The Image is a pure creation of the mind. It cannot be born from a comparison, but from two realities, more or less distant, brought together. The more the relation between the two realities is distant and accurate, the stronger the image will be—the more it will possess emotional power and poetic reality.
Two realities that have no relation whatever cannot be brought together effectively. No image is created. An image is not strong because it is brutal or fantastic—but because the association of ideas is distant and accurate.
–Pierre Reverdy, in Nord-Sud (March, 1918).
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The first step is the hardest–says the popular adage. But in dramaturgy the reverse is true: the last step is the hardest. Evidence of this is the countless dramas the first half of which promises well but which then become confused, halt, waver, especially in the notorious fourth act, and finally come to a forced or unsatisfying end, or to one everybody has long since foreseen….This difficulty of denouement is the result partly of the fact that it is easier to confuse things than to straighten them out again, but partly too of the fact that at the beginning of the play we allow the dramatist carte blanche, while at the end we make certain demands of him….We then demand that this outcome shall be achieved naturally, fairly and in an unforced way—and yet at the same time not have been foreseen by the audience.
–Arthur Schopenhauer, in Essays and Aphorisms (edited by R. J. Hollingdale (New York: Penguin, 1970), pp. 164-5.
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A hyperdetermined conclusion will have maximal stability and finality; and when these qualities occur in conjunction with unexpected or in some way unstable material…the result will be wit–which, as many have observed, occurs when expectations are simultaneously surprised and fulfilled.
–Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Poetic Closure: A Study of How Poems End (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968).
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We’ve come a long way from the days when you could end a story by revealing that the diamonds were fake. Yet the best short fiction still pleasures us with the unexpected, and when stories fail, it’s often exactly because they don’t surprise. This panel of short story writers, fiction editors, and teachers will investigate the kinds of surprises that give the reader that sense of the floor dropping away, while maintaining the organic integrity of the fictional dream.
–description of a panel for the 2012 AWP Annual Conference & Bookfair, pp. 120-1 of the conference program. The panel featured presentations by Edward Porter, Robin Black, Tracy Winn, and Erin Stalcup
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The kind of metaphor I most delight in, however…estranges and then instantly connects, and in doing the latter so well, hides the former. The result is a tiny shock of surprise, followed by a feeling of inevitability.
–James Wood, in How Fiction Works
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To read about the ways I think fitting surprise can be used to challenge some recent thinking about poetry, click here.