Emblem, with Mange

28 02 2009


Knowing about poetic structures, the patterns of turns in poems, does not only help one better understand (and perhaps appreciate) poems that clearly are written within a particular structural tradition, but it also helps one to engage more deeply poems that reference particular structural traditions.

This is the case, at least, with my reading of Mark Wunderlich’s “Coyote, with Mange,” just out in the latest Poetry.

While I don’t think it’s exactly correct to call “Coyote, with Mange” an emblem poem, I do think that knowing about the emblem tradition helps one to better read the poem.

To recap a few important details from the essay on the emblem structure in Structure & Surprise…  The emblem structure moves from observation to meditation, from perception to reflection, and the emblem structure has its roots in philosophical and theological ideas about a created and an ordered world, a world that can be understood and “read,” and that, when read, can offer glimpses into the Mind of the Maker.  In some more recent emblem poems, however, particularly troubling objects have been observed in order to meditate precisely on the lack of order in the world, or the existence of diabolical order.  As discussed in Structure & Surprise, Robert Frost’s “Design” is the great example of this kind of anti-emblem-poem emblem poem.

In some ways, “Coyote, with Mange” is this kind of poem, as well.  Whereas Frost’s poem observes and meditates on death, in Wunderlich’s poem the speaker is observing a coyote with mange, an ugly and potentially dangerous parasitic infestation of the skin of animals.  (For images, click here.)  The world depicted in Wunderlich’s poem is not ordered but diseased and broken.  No wonder, then, that the god of Wunderlich’s poem’s world is called (virtually right away) “Unreadable One”–there’s nothing to be read or understood from this vision of the sick coyote.

Wunderlich’s poem, however, isn’t so much an emblem poem because it does not turn to try to meditate on what’s been observed–even, as occurs in Frost’s dark poem, to ask questions and to consider that a “design of darkness” may rule the world.  Instead (very interestingly, I think,) this poem turns to a complaint: essentially, “why did I have to see this?”  And the pronouncement of the poem is not the emblem poem’s universal declaration (typical of emblem poems) meant to ring out outside of the poem, but rather a shout that only connects the speaker and the coyote, leaving universals (and larger meanings, and other readers (that is, us)) out.

Ultimately, in large part, Wunderlich’s “Coyote, with Mange” is interesting (or powerfully disturbing) because of what it does not–or is unwilling to–do, and knowing about the emblem structure is what helps one to see this.

Poetic Structure…Poetic Form…Huh?

26 02 2009


I just put up a new page with what I think might be a helpful essay for anyone trying to sort out the difference between poetic structure and poetic form, or for anyone trying to figure out why we need to make this distinction.

Check it out here.

(Hint: it’s WAY more than tomato/tomahto.)

The essay, “Poetic Structure and Poetic Form: The Necessary Differentiation,” originally appeared in American Poet, Volume 32, spring 2007, published by the Academy of American Poets.

Q & A, Part 1

25 02 2009


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.

Ironic, Two-Line Poems

25 02 2009

So, you want to write a poem employing the ironic structure?  Or, you want a little help with teaching this structure in your creative writing class?

Check this out.

14 Lines, Turned into a Sonnet

20 02 2009

Making of a Sonnet

I recently got Edward Hirsch’s and Eavan Boland’s The Making of a Sonnet: A Norton Anthology.  Mostly, I’m enjoying it very much.  For a turnophile, of course, a book of sonnets typically is a treasure trove.

One of the things I like very much about this anthology is that it really gets the importance of the turn, or the volta, in the sonnet form.  For example, whenever the sonnet is defined, the volta is mentioned.

But, more than this, The Making of a Sonnet actually, at times, suggests that the turn may be just about the most important part of a sonnet.  In Boland’s introductory essay, “Discovering the Sonnet,” she states:

“The original form of the sonnet, the Petrarchan, made a shadow play of eight lines against six.  Of all the form’s claims, this may be the most ingenious.  The octave sets out the problems, the perceptions, the wishes of the poet.  The sestet does something different: it makes a swift, wonderfully compact turn on the hidden meanings of but and yet and wait for a moment.  The sestet answers the octave, but neither politely nor smoothly.  And this simple engine of proposition and rebuttal has allowed the sonnet over centuries, in the hands of very different poets, to replicate over and over again the magic of inner argument.”

And, indeed, in the introduction to a section of the anthology called “The Sonnet Goes to Different Lengths,” a section that features sonnets of lengths other than the standard fourteen lines, the editors, when trying to explain how the poems in this section in fact are sonnets, turn to the turn–the final paragraph of the section’s introduction states:

“The truth is that there have always been meaningful variations on the fourteen-line standard.  Almost every one of these poems defines itself as a sonnet.  It relates an experience, develops a thought, makes a case, an argument.  It takes a turn.  The poets here have gone to great lengths to give the sonnet a different length.  There have been extensions, reductions, departures, rebellions.  The full story of the sonnet ought to include them.”

While I think this focus on the turn in the sonnet is good for a variety of reasons, I wish the editors would have done a little bit more with this emphasis.  Namely, I wish the anthology had included a section of sonnets with thrilling, irregular turns.

For all of its emphasis on turns, the anthology’s discussion of turns tends to imply that turns pretty much take place where one expects them to: after the octave in a Petrarchan sonnet; after the third quatrain in a Shakespearean.  But this is not always the case.  At times (rare, perhaps, but significantly), the major turn in a sonnet comes at some unexpected location in the poem.  Consider:

George Herbert’s “Prayer” (included in the anthology).  The major turn takes place right before the poem’s last two words: “something understood.”

William Wordsworth’s “Surprised by joy…” (included in the anthology).  The major dramatic turn (though there are many turns in this poem) takes place toward the end of the second line when the speaker realizes that his companion (deceased) is no longer with him to share his joy.

Sir Philip Sidney’s “What, have I thus betrayed my liberty?” (not included in the anthology; from Astrophil and Stella).  In this poem, the truly major turn occurs in the middle of line 12.  After convincing himself he can live without Stella, at this point in the poem, Astrophil sees Stella, and falls for her all over again.

These irregular breaks are vital parts of the significance-making of each of these poems.  For Herbert, the late turn is a miracle.  For Wordsworth, the quick turn reveals how quickly the presence of death short-circuits any elation from epiphanies.  For Sidney, the turn in line 12 is disruptive, just as seeing Stella disrupts Astrophil’s plans to leave her.

How cool would it have been to have a section in this anthology called “Strange Voltas,” or something like the Voltage! feature of this blog, to see this anthology itself enact its own significance.

The turn is vital, and it is a wild, not a regular, part of poems.  To their credit, the editors of The Making of a Sonnet recognize this.  I only wish a bit more had been done to act on this knowledge, to let the wild turn, as it tends to do so well, shake things up even more.

New Ancient Ironic Poems

19 02 2009

Christopher Bakken, the writer of Structure & Surprise‘s “The Ironic Structure,” has written a collection of faux-fragments from invented Greek texts which often employ the ironic turn.  Check them out here.

Do note, though, that these fragments retain most of the ribald, carnivalesque worldliness and directness in terms of matters bodily and sexual of actual ancient Greek texts–they may not be suitable for all readers.

Over a Seascape

18 02 2009

I prefer beer.


The above is a wonderfully funny poem created via a collaboration between Kiron Fowler and Jessica Obernuefemann, two students I met and worked with on Monday while visiting the poetry classroom of the excellent Tom McCulley at Heartland Community College in order to discuss Structure & Surprise.  With its rising/falling, set-up/punch-line action, “Over a Seascape” is, of course, a fine example of the ironic structure.

Thanks, Kiron, Jessica, Tom, and all of Tom’s students–what a pleasure it was to get to discuss–and write!–poems with you!