This post is the third in a series of posts responding to questions posed to me about Structure & Surprise from a group of poets in an advanced poetry writing workshop at Hope College. (For the previous 2 posts, see Q & A, parts 1 & 2, signposted with the same bright orange anchor that tops this post.)
Today’s question comes from Jon Dean. Jon asks:
“Is it possible to mix structures? What does that look like?”
Great questions, Jon!
You bet it’s possible to mix structures. As Randall Jarrell says in his great lecture “Levels and Opposites: Structure in Poetry,” “There are many different sorts of structure in poetry, many possible ways of organizing a poem; and many of these combined in the organization of a single poem.” I’d simply add that in the same way that formal innovation can be a big part of the fun of working with form, structural innovation can be a big part of the pleasure of working with structure.
So, what does this look like?
I want to discuss two things here: structural overlap, and mixed structures.
I think, Jon, you’re NOT asking about structural overlap in your question, but I want to touch on it briefly here. By structural overlap, I’m referring to the simple fact that some structures, well, um, overlap. For example, you’ll see that I’ve added a structure on this blog called “List-with-a-Twist.” One of the things I mention about that structure is that it is one way to describe MANY poems, many of which might also be structurally described in other ways. Take, for example, Yeats’s “The Circus Animals’ Desertion.” This is categorized in Structure & Surprise as a retrospective-prospective poem, but, like many retrospective-prospective poems it also is a list-with-a-twist. Here, structures certainly are mixing.
However, I think, Jon, you may have something different in mind when you ask about mixing structures: you’re wondering about grafting parts of different structures onto each other, yes? This, also, is certainly possible. Indeed, this is something I try to get at on p. 232 of the “Inspiration, Guides, Exercises” portion of Structure & Surprise, where I suggest: “Write a poem with a hybrid structure: a descriptive-meditative poem that employs an elegiac structure for its meditation; a dialectical poem that ends with an ironic punch line instead of a synthesis; an emblem poem with a long line of concessions attached.”
I think one can see some of this hybrid nature at work in some of the descriptive-meditative poems included in Structure & Surprise. Take, for example, Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight.” While generally a three-part descriptive-meditative poem, the poem’s meditation, it’s middle part, itself has two very distinct parts: one offering some details about Coleridge’s childhood, and one envisioning Coleridge’s son’s (hopefully) happy future. This meditation, therefore, seems to participate in a kind of temporal and psychological structure we’ve come to call retrospective-prospective. Thus, “Frost at Midnight” might be understood to be a descriptive-meditative poem that employs a retrospective-prospective structure for its meditation.
We shouldn’t be too surprised by this. Meditations are not themselves static. Rather, they move, wander, develop, coalesce, break, and in the descriptive-meditative poem they need to do enough of this to provide transport, to carry a reader convincingly from one perspective on the surrounding scene to another perspective on the same scene.
I’d also add, Jon, that there are certain big poems that employ many structures within them. Take, for example, Whitman’s Song of Myself, in this long poem, many different kinds of structures are used in the poem’s various sections. Look only at section 6 of that poem and you’ll find something like an emblem poem (much meditation on the meaning of that child’s handful of grass) and an elegy, including a confident consolatory statement that the dead (referenced in the section’s emblem movement) also live on somewhere…
(Note: if you get turned on by Whitman’s Song of Myself, you might want to look at a book called The Modern Poetic Sequence, by M.L. Rosenthal and Sally M. Gall—very smart, and insightful!)
As I mention in Structure & Surprise, structure loves surprise, often aims for it. Thus, perhaps we should not be too surprised that structure itself not only leads to surprise but also can be shaped, grafted, molded, welded, and wielded in surprising ways.
Thanks again, Jon!
(A few more responses coming up in the next few days…)