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.