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…