The Gauntlet

9 04 2011

 

…has been thrown.

An acquaintance of mine recently suggested to me that my fascination with poetic turns results from my having a mistaken picture lodged in my noggin, and that I’m letting myself be too-decisively (mis-)guided by this picture, and that I should be freed from it…

Well, after the police came, and we washed the pepper spray from our eyes, my acquaintance and I decided that we should work to see what’s really what.

My acquaintance asked to be pointed to everything there was to read about structure.  Thus, I recently updated the “Further Reading” page of this blog so that it contains a much more complete listing of work related to the turn.  I told my acquaintance it’d be a lot of reading; he said he was up to the challenge.

I also told my acquaintance this: that he needed to be clear on my claims about the significance of the turn–I don’t want my position to be turned into a straw man.

On the one hand, on one level, I believe simply that turns are significant enough that they should be given much more due than they typically are.  Just as there are chapters on metaphor and alliteration in intro to poetry textbooks so should there be a chapter on turns.  Just as there are chapters on the sonnet and the ghazal in poetry writing handbooks so should there be chapters on kinds of turns.  I have no idea how my acquintance will argue against this portion of my belief, which seems self-evident.  QED.  Moving on…

On the other hand (and this, admittedly, is where my acquaintance can have some more fun), it seems as though I may believe that turns are really important parts of what makes poems worth reading.  I really do want to read poems that feel like they go somewhere, that they do something–and turns are the clearest markers of these activities.  As I look over some of my critical writing, it looks like I believe something like the following: a good poem needs to have an interesting turn in it; a great poem needs to have a turn in it that is both fitting and surprising.  (However, I’m not the only one to think this–as I note in some of my critical writing, this criteria for greatness actually crops up in the writing of a number of critics: Longinus, the theoriticians of wit, James Longenbach, Jorie Graham–not bad company to be in at all.)

This much more speculative position is, of course, open to critique.  There may be great poems without structure, without turns.  I’d think that my acquaintance’s central method of argument would need to include trying to develop a list of great poems that dont’ turn, or have really significant turns.  I’ll be interested to find out what he comes up with.

…And I will certainly keep readers of this blog informed as to the progress of this conversation.

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One response

10 04 2011
Matt Katch

I agree that it seems very difficult to counter the first part; though certain classical turns are talked about in classes aka the volta, &c. I do, myself, enjoy some poetry that is more static, and creates an ambiance, such as in most traditional haiku, or through a series of images conjures a particular feeling, such as in a good deal of cubist poetry. I know we discussed haiku at IWU, and there are haiku that use turns, but not all of them — and not only the good ones; good here being what people like and read in Japan. Many people in Japan seem to love the ones with turns, as a few classics that everyone learns in school include them (such as the frog jumping into water), but the same can be said of some of the more static haiku. One of the actual key components to a traditional haiku is a seasonal/nature word — there’s a huge list of these, but they’re essentially special vocabulary that refers to particular things about seasons or nature; in Japanese these words seem to help conjure a greater sense of wonder, and while the scenery not might change, it is a joy to stand in it for but the briefest of moments.

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