In a recent post, I outlined how the July/August 2009 issue of Poetry, though officially the Flarf/Conceptual Poetry issue, also is, like so many other issues of Poetry, the turn issue. That is, though unacknowledged, Poetry actually features a large number of poems that themselves feature turns.
This situation is not at all unique to Poetry. Turns are virtually ubiquitous in poetry, but we (poets, critics, teachers, readers) have barely attended to them. It’s for this reason that one of the tasks of this blog is to point out some of the discussions of turns that do occur–especially those discussions, like the recent issue of Poetry, in which the turn is present but not named. We need to see how much we in fact do focus on the turn so that we can become conscious of our attention, and so that we can be encouraged to think more deeply about the role of the turn in poetry.
One of the poems in the recent issue of Poetry that employs a distinct turn is “Perishable, It Said,” by Jane Hirshfield. While I don’t think it is accurate to say that some poets are poets of the turn more than others, there do seem to be some poets (A. R. Ammons, Billy Collins, Rae Armantrout, and Jorie Graham, to name a few) who are really taken by the turn, and employ it often in significant ways in their poetry and, at times, criticism. Hirshfield, also, is this kind of poet…and critic: turns often are significant features of the poems Hirshfield discusses in her criticism, though they typically are not remarked upon in her commentary on those poems.
This certainly is the case with Hirshfield’s essay “Poetry and Uncertainty” (from The American Poetry Review 34.6 (2005): 63-72). In this essay, Hirshfield considers the ways in which poetry incorporates and communicates uncertainty. Though Hirshfield never mentions the turn as one of the key tools for such undertakings, it is clear that the turn is central in these efforts. Of the eleven poems Hirshfield cites in full, nine contain clear and significant turns. These poems are:
“It is true…,” by Izumi Shikibu (click on the link, and looking under “Gate 1. Permeability”);
Ode I. 11 (“Leucon, no one’s allowed to know his fate…”), by Horace (located under “Gate 4. Horace’s Zen”);
“This may be the last day of my life…,” by Fernando Pessoa (on p. 92); and
Though Hirshfield does not discuss the turn, the turn is implicit in her discussion of these poems when she notes their connection to jokes, stating, “[A] good poem, like a good joke, doesn’t allay anxiety with answers–it startles its readers out of the general trance, awakening an enlarged reality by means of a close-paid attention to its own ground.” Jokes, of course, have clear turns in them: from set-up to punch line. And Hirshfield acknowledges that poems often have this kind of movement, leaping from ground to larger reality, from trance to wakefulness–maneuvers that are featured in the Ironic Structure and the Dream-to-Waking Structure discussed on this blog. (Hirshfield in fact notes that irony is at work in a number of the poems she cites, stating, “This is why lyric poems are so rife…with irony–good poems undercut their own yearning to say one thing well, because to say one thing is simply not to say enough.”)
Clearly, the turn is present, if largely unacknowledged, in Hirshfield’s essay–but why is this important to recognize? The answer is simple: descriptive accuracy.
Hirshfield’s essay not only tries to show the relations between poetry and uncertainty but also wants to offer some insights into how good, moving poems are made out of such relations. For example, Hirshfield states, “The making of good poetry entails control; it also requires surrender and a light hand.” However, upon seeing how centrally the turn is featured in the poems she presents and how the turn is implicit in so many of her remarks on those poems, it seems that Hirshfield also could say: the making of good poetry entails a knowledge of turns, and skill in employing them in your poems.