To Get to the Marrow, Turn

8 10 2019

For poet Adam O’Riordan, a sonnet stripped down to its most essential form is a sonnet focused on the turn. In “The Sonnet as a Silver Marrow Spoon,” O’Riordan recounts how, as a young sonneteer, he was overwhelmed by the demands of the sonnet form, and so he focused instead on the sonnet’s structure, which swerves around the volta.

It’s a lovely short essay on the power of the turn, one that emphasizes structure over form–an endeavor shared with this blog’s posts and pages. (See especially “The Structure-Form Distinction.”)

After you’ve read O’Riordan’s essay, be sure to read Richard Wilbur’s amazing “This Pleasing Anxious Being,” referred to by O’Riordan. And then be sure to check out some of O’Riordan’s own sonnets, which take some lovely, intricate turns. Two can be found here.

 





Elaine Scarry on Poetry’s “Deliberative Push”

15 07 2019

In her essay “Poetry, Injury, and the Ethics of Reading” (collected in The Humanities and Public Life, ed. Peter Brooks, with Hilary Jewett (New York: Fordham UP, 2014): 41 – 54)), Elaine Scarry seeks to discover “[w]hat is the ethical power of literature?” She additionally inquires, “Can it diminish acts of injuring, and if it can, what aspects of literature deserve the credit?” Scarry largely sidesteps the first question in order to make space to address the second; she states, “If we assume…that literature in fact helped to diminish acts of injuring…what attributes of literature can explain this? Three come immediately to mind: its invitation to empathy, its reliance on deliberative thought, and its beauty.”

Here, I wish to share Scarry’s thinking on the deliberative thought to be found in literature, or, as Scarry states, focusing her subject, “the deliberative push embedded in poetry.” I do this because it is most relevant to the concern of this blog: the poetic turn. Poetry’s deliberative push sounds a great deal to me like the dialectical organization that Randall Jarrell recognized in so many poems. (Jarrell’s discussion of the dialectical nature of so much poetry can be found in his essay “Levels and Opposites: Structure in Poetry,” and it is quoted here. [Scroll down.]) Those interested in considering Jarrell’s ideas about poetry’s largely dialectical nature will want to know about Scarry’s ideas about the deliberative push, and vice versa.

Here’s Scarry (with some of my own noted emphasis) on the historical contours of poetry’s deliberative push:

The connection of poetic composition to deliberation–to the “pro” and “con” of debate–is in the very first description we have of the Muses singing, the one Homer gives at the close of the first book of the Iliad. Thomas Hobbes, who was acutely interested in deliberation, wrote in his 1676 translation, beginning with the feasting of the gods, “And all the day from morning unto night / Ambrosia they eat, and nectar drink. / Apollo played and alternately / The Muses to him sung.” The alternating voices of the Muses are audible in Alexander Pope’s later translation, as in John Ogilby’s earlier one. Ogilby’s annotation to the lines states: “The Muses sung in course answering one the other…Anthem-wise; [the Greek Homer uses] being such Orations as were made pro or con upon the same argument.” He then invokes Virgil’s Eclogue, “The Muses always loved alternate Verse,” and Hesiod’s Theogony, “Muses begin, and Muses end the Song.” The argumentative structure enacted by Homer’s Muses is registered in every English translation, with the exception of George Chapman’s. Samuel Butler writes, “The Muses lifted up their sweet voices, calling and answering to one another”; in Richard Lattimore’s edition, we read of the “antiphonal sweet sound of the Muses singing”; and Robert Fagles has the “Muses singing / voice to voice in chorus.”

The Iliad is an epic ignited by the dispute between Achilles and Agamemnon, and we are more likely to associate dispute with epic poetry or with plays, as in the drama contests of fifth-century Greece. But many other genres of poetry have the debate structure built into them, as we can see by the word “anthem”–derived from “antiphons” or “verse response”–which surface in the translations. That an anthem, or hymn of praise, holds disputing voice within it reminds us that there is nothing anti lyric about this deliberative structure (my emphasis).

Many styles of poetry bring us face to face with acts of deliberation. The eclogue is a dialogue poem about the act of choosing, as in Virgil’s Third and Seventh Eclogues when a judge is asked to choose between the arguments of two shepherds. The word “eclogue” is derived from eklegein, meaning ” to choose.” Another example is the tenzone, in which two poets argue “in alternating couplets,” as Urban Holmes describes in Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. The ten zone eventually took on other forms, such as the partiman or jeuparti, in which one “poet proposes two hypothetical situations.” One of the positions is then defended by that poet and the other by a second poet, each speaking in three stanzas. In his translation of Dante’s Vita Nuova, Mark Musa explains, “The Italian troubadours invented the sonnet form [of the tenzone], still a mode of debate in which the problem is set forth in a proposta inviting a riposta (using the same rhymes) from another poet.

While in the tenzone two distinct sonnets are placed in dispute, an oppositional mental act is also interior to the sonnet itself, particularly the Petrarchan sonnet form with its division into an octave and a sestet. While the volta, or “turn of thought,” is most emphatic in the Petrarchan form, it is also recognizable in Spenserian and Shakespearean sonnets (my emphasis).

Holmes directs attention not only to the poetic forms just enumerated but to others that entail a contest structure, such as the lauda, which calls for “responsive participation” and hence for dialogue, as well as the pastourelle, in which an aristocrat or knight attempts to seduce a shepherdess and is often outwitted by her of by her fellow shepherd.

The inseparability of poetic and disputational thinking is registered in the titles of many Middle English poems: “Parlement of Foules,” “Parliament of Devils,” “Parliament of the Three Ages,” “Dialogue between Poet and Bird,” “The Cuckow and the Nightingale,” “The Thrush and the Nightingale,” “The Owl and the Nightingale,” “The Clerk and the Nightingale,” “The Floure and the Leafe,” “Dispute between the Violet and the Rose,” “The Holly and the Ivy,” “The Debate of the Carpenter’s Tools,” “Wynnere and Wastoure,” “Ressoning betuix Aige and Yowth,” “Ressoning Betuix Deth and Man,” “Death and Liffe,” and, last but not least, “A Disputacion betwyx the Body and Wormes.”

Medieval debate poems occur in many languages, starting with the eighth-century Carolingian poem “Conflictus Veris et Hiemis.” John Edwin Wells, an early twentieth-century scholar of Middle English, notes that versions of the “Debate between Body and Soul,” which first occurs in English between 1150 and 1175, “are extant in Latin, Greek, French, Provencal, German, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, Danish, and English.”

There are also parallels in the Eastern tradition. Titles in Sumerian, Akkadien, Assyrian, and Babylonian poems often resemble those above. “Summer contra Winter,” “Bird contra Fish,” “Tree contra Reed,” “Silver contra Leather,” “Copper vs. Leather,” “Ewe vs. Wheat,” “Herdsman vs. Farmer,” and “Hoe vs. Plough.” Describing ancient Near Eastern dispute poems as “tools and toys at the same time,” Herman Vanstiphout argues that a serious lesson is at the center of these poems: “All coins have two sides.” Much later English counterparts share this lesson. Thomas L. Reed shows that although many Anglo-Saxon and Middle English poems feature a “right” position to which the wrong thinker can be converted, in many others the disputants are equals, and no final decision is made.

Reed demonstrates that in addition to all of the explicitly titled dispute poems, many of the major English works are debates: Beowulf with its “sparring” and formal flytings; Piers Plowman with its wayward and “enigmatic” path; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with its disputations between green and gold, winter and summer, Christianity and chivalry, youth and age, sinner and mercy, discourtesy and treachery. The Canterbury Tales also features a “debate on marriage” extending across the tales of the merchant, the Clerk, the Wife of Bath, and the Franklin; the “flytings” between the Reeve, Miller, Summoner, and Friar,; and the overall “narrative competition” among the taletellers to be judged by Harry Bailly.

 





Blas Falconer’s “Ghost Turn”

26 06 2019

The following essay by Blas Falconer was originally published in Diane Lockward’s Poetry Newsletter. I thank Blas and Diane for allowing me to reprint this essay here. If you wish to read more such insightful essays, sign up for the Poetry Newsletter here (scroll down for the link). And, if you think Blas’s thinking about turns is engaging, you should check out his poems! Lots of links here.

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As the online resource Voltage Poetry demonstrates, there are countless ways that a poem can turn, but when I was a student, we talked about poetic turns most often and most clearly when we talked about sonnets. In the Petrarchan sonnet, of course, the change in rhyme scheme after the octave usually encourages a turn in perspective. In the Shakespearean sonnet, the change in the rhyme scheme after the third quatrain often encourages a rhetorical shift in the final couplet. 

Bruce Smith’s contemporary sonnet “After St. Vincent Millay” demonstrates a typical Shakespearean turn:

When I saw you again, distant, sparrow-boned
under the elegant clothes you wear in your life without me,
I thought, No, No, let her be the one
this time to look up at an oblivious me.

Let her find the edge of the cliff with her foot,
blindfolded. Let her be the one struck by the lightning
of the other so that the heart is jolted
from the ribs and the rest of the body is nothing

but ash. It’s a sad, familiar story
I wish you were telling me with this shabby excuse:
I never loved you any more than
I hated myself for loving you.

And about that other guy by your side
you left me for. I hope he dies.

Years ago, one of my professors pointed out that the Shakespearean sonnet, in addition to its turn in final couplet, usually has a lesser turn, a “ghost turn,” after the eighth line, too, a nod to the Petrarchan tradition. As an editor and as a teacher, I have noted that one common difference between a good poem and a great poem is that the good poem, regardless of the form, so often mistakes a ghost turn (“It’s a sad familiar story”) with a final turn (“And about that other guy by your side”). To end a poem, free verse or otherwise, on the ghost turn means to end it prematurely. With the ghost turn, the poet senses a shift in the poem and shuts the poem down before it is fully realized, so the poem comes across as facile, less rich, less dynamic, less ambitious than it could be. 

Consider the poems you love, poems that have been celebrated for years to see how often they push beyond the first temptation of closure, the first disruption of a pattern, the first turn. Imagine, for example, if Richard Wilbur’s poem “The Writer” ended with the starling and not the daughter. 

It lifted off from a chair-back,
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.

It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten.  I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.

Imagine if Thomas James’s poem “Mummy of a Lady Named Jemutesonekh” ended with a description of the mummification and not the dead beloved, not the question about the lies that we tell each other.  

Shut in my painted box, I am a precious object.
I wear a wooden mask. These are my eyelids,
Two flakes of bronze, and here is my new mouth,
Chiseled with care, guarding its ruby facets.
I will last forever. I am not impatient—
My skin will wait to greet its old complexions.
I’ll lie here till the world swims back again.

When I come home the garden will be budding,
White petals breaking open, clusters of night flowers,
The far-off music of a tambourine.
A boy will pace among the passionflowers,
His eyes no longer two bruised surfaces.
I’ll know the mouth of my young groom, I’ll touch
His hands. Why do people lie to one another?

Then, read the featured entries in Voltage Poetry to see how brilliantly poets create turns in their poems.  Read Arielle Greenberg’s take on Shane McRae’s “We married in a taxi.” Read Craig Santos Perez’s essay on Anne Perez Hattori’s “Thieves.” Read David Wright’s critique of “When the Neighbors Fight” by Terrance Hayes. Identify the ghost turn. Consider how the poet resisted the easy ending.

Finally, with an open mind, look at your own poems. Do they end with a ghost turn? Have you mistaken an ending for the ending, for closure, when what the poem is really asking for is another beginning, another turn? Test your poems. Push yourself. Turn from description to reflection or from question to answer. Turn with a rhetorical shift. Turn from one story or image or idea to another, from statement to contradiction. Offer your reader a new voice. Push your poems past your comfort and what you already know. To write the great poem, I have come to believe, that’s what it takes. 





Mission: Stunning Poetic Turns

24 06 2019

Well, this is kind of awesome: in the description of the creative writing minor at NYU-Shanghai, the creation of “a stunning poetic turn”–along with “a perfect metaphor…an apt description, or a living character”–is listed among the components that constitute “great writing.” Check it out here!





Middle Management: “Take Me to the Bridge!”

16 09 2018

If you’ve had an inkling that the turn plays an important role in contemporary music, check out Scott Timberg’s “Middle management” (LA Times, 9/12/2004), and you’ll be convinced. “Middle management” is a succinct exploration of the bridge (sometimes called the “middle-eight) as “a key songwriting structure,” and Timberg goes so far as to note the relation between the bridge and the sonnet’s “volta, or ‘turn.'” Bridges do much of the same kind of work as the turn; they:

  • often create tonal shifts (including more “rueful” and more “assertive,” or “harrowing” or “nostalgic”);
  • create “counterpoint”–including even, in the words of music critic Ira Robbins, “a 90-degree turn in the middle of the song”;
  • play “devil’s advocate”; and
  • allow the song “to go somewhere else.”

While just as every poem does not have or need a turn, not every song has or needs a bridge. But many do make use of the bridge, and for many singer-songwriters and music critics the bridge is a key part of a song:

  • “I sort of regard the bridge in a magical way. It separates the men from the boys. It’s a mark of hanging in there, finishing the job, making sure it’s a real song.” —Aimee Mann
  • “The art of the bridge is that it’s an exciting place to go, and the unexpected can result.” —Richard Thompson
  • “It’s the hardest part of the song to write…and a place for really good songwriters to show off.” –Benjamin Nugent, author of Elliot Smith and the Big Nothing

At the end of “Middle management,” Timberg offers ten examples of songs with great bridges. Check them out! Then be sure to check out some poems with great turns here and here. Happy reading! Happy listening!





Air Traffic’s Turns

17 07 2018

air-traffic-smaller

I am a poet. Poetry and civic duty share a porous border in my mind….Poetry is useless to me in all but one way. Reading it makes me a nicer person.

Reading poetry has improved my ability to intuit, and thereby negotiate more effectively, the needs and desires of others. I’m no mind reader, but poetry puts me in tune with the unarticulated registers of language… Especially in diversity-poor environments, poetry is the best supplement to help getting out of one’s own head.

Poetry teaches me this because in order to “get” a poem, you need to find its fulcrum, a tipping point that is rarely obvious. Most poems have a moment when something shifts. It may be midway through or at the end. This is the moment of transformation–we call it a volta, or “turn.” The turn could be a plot twist or a change in tone. You can identify the turn by comprehending first the poem’s overall patterns and prevailing logic. There might be many patterns in a single poem, and some or all of them might get broken or disrupted over its course, but the volta is special in that it marks the moment when the poem breaks its deepest and most characteristic habit. There is rarely a single turn that everyone can agree on, and who cares if everyone agrees. Reading is a solitary exercise, a union of one. The detective work of looking for the volta is what gets us into the poem, makes us rewrite the poem in our own voice and consciousness.

Some poetry lovers claim that poems don’t have to have a turn. This is usually what people say in defense of shitty poems. Of course there has to be a transformative moment, a moment in which we experience not just the characters or speaker in the poem, but the poet herself in crisis. The turn doesn’t have to bring the reader to any grand epiphany or catharsis, but if–whether I’m writing the poem or reading it–I walk away from the poem without feeling like I’ve just survived a vicarious encounter with some unqualified measure of intensity that I could not have created on my own, if I feel like the placid surface of my consciousness has suffered not so much as a ripple, then I’d say that poem owed me an apology for having wasted my time. If there is not turn, no transformative moment, then the poem is a journal entry, at best a laundry list of reflections and anecdotes, or what I think of as a “litany of relapses”–the barren passage of time unthwarted, moving predictably toward a predictable end. “The moment of change is the only poem,” says Adrienne Rich.

There is no feeling in monotony. We have to establish something before and something after.

–Gregory Pardlo, Air Traffic: A Memoir of Ambition and Manhood in America





The Political Turn

26 06 2018

Jessica_Morey-Collins

“[P]oems that function on a turn require a kind of internal pluralism…”

Jessica Morey-Collins’s “(Don’t) Stop Hitting Yourself: Poetic Turns and Perspective-Taking” is a brief but bright (and, today, necessary) reflection on the political possibilities of the poetic turn. Check it out!

And then check out some of Morey-Collins’s own poetry, with their openness and challenge–