Merwin’s Turn

13 06 2011

A recent issue of The New Yorker contains a new poem by W. S. Merwin, called “Turning.”

The publication of “Turning” draws attention (as we will see, once again) to the fact that the turn is vital to this major poet.

Much has been made of the fact that Merwin has a very specific poetic vocabulary.  In “The Present Voices: W. S. Merwin since 1970” (in W. S. Merwin: Essays on the Poetry, edited by Cary Nelson and Ed Folsom), Thomas B. Byers notes that Merwin deploys a particular set of “disembodied icons,” including “doors, birds, glass, clouds, eyes, hair, ash, dust, statues, wings, water, stone, feet, bells, fire, veins” (251).  And, in their introduction, Folsom and Nelson note that “[Helen] Vendler identified a ‘Merwin dictionary’ of word-talismans” (14).  Most of the lists drawn up of Merwin’s word-talismans are lists of nouns, of things.  However, were one to include in these lists verbs (or words that are most often used by Merwin as verbs) deployed by Merwin, “turn” would definitely make the cut. 

“Turn” and derivations of the word (“turns,” “turned,” “turning”—not to mention all the versions of the word “return”) are conspicuously present in Merwin’s poetry.  Dozens of Merwin’s poems employ the word, or derivations of the word, “turn.”  Many of Merwin’s poems employ “turn” or its derivations multiple times; an incomplete list of these poems includes: “Song” (The First Four Books of Poems 62-3), “On the Subject of Poetry” (First Four 109), “Canso” (First Four 131-35), “River Sound Remembered” (First Four 190), “Fog” (First Four 212-13), “The Frozen Sea” (First Four 227), “Sailor Ashore” (First Four 228), “Blind Girl” (First Four 257-8), “Cuckoo Myth” (The Second Four Books of Poems 200-201), “A Door” (Second Four 245-7), “Fox Sleep” (The Vixen 3-6), “Gate” (The Vixen 7), “End of a Day” (The Vixen 25), “The Shortest Night” (The Vixen 57), “The Marfa Lights” (The Pupil 11-13), “Migrants by Night (The Pupil 14-15), “To the Morning (1)” (Present Company 71), “To a Friend Turning Fifty” (Present Company 118-19), “To Paula” (Present Company 131), and “Near Field” (The Shadow of Sirius 83).  Additionally, the second section in Finding the Islands, named for one of the poems in the section, is called “Turning to You,” and Travels contains another poem called “Turning” (135).

Turning has multiple meanings for Merwin.  Turning very often is an important part of the subject of Merwin’s poems.  For the Buddhist Merwin, turning—the turning of the world from day into night into day again, the turning seasons, transformation / turning into, returning / turning back, and the way in which turning away invariably turns into turning toward—is an essential part of the transient, ever-changing world.  

Turning in Merwin’s poetry also often means formal turning.  Merwin’s poems, like almost all poems, turn at the end of their lines to the beginning of the next line—it is precisely this movement that allows poetry to be called “verse.”  (The formal turn is perhaps more palpable in Merwin’s poems than in the work of most poets due to the unpunctuated run of his lines—the line break’s turn, thus, is clearer because punctuation creates no other competing breaks in the line.)

However, while Merwin’s formal accomplishments, including his mastery of formal turning, have been widely commented on, much less commented on has been the structural turning of Merwin’s poems: the turn in Merwin’s poem also often refers to the enactment of a major shift in a poem’s rhetorical and/or dramatic trajectory. 

Sometimes, Merwin even acknowledges this kind of turn by employing the word, or, again, derivatives of the word, “turn” as he makes this kind of structural maneuver.  Such self-reflexive turning occurs in poems such as “Proteus” (First Four 110-12), “Fog” (First Four 212-13), “Sailor Ashore” (First Four 228), “The Different Stars” (Second Four 136-37), “Ascent” (Second Four 188), “To the Hand” (Second Four 267-8), “The Flight” (Flower & Hand 66), “To the Dust of the Road” (Present Company 48), “To the Margin” (Present Company 75), and “To the Morning (2)” (Present Company 121).

It is time we follow Merwin’s lead, and recognize more consistently how invested in the structural turn he is.  Of course, some critics already have recognized this aspect of Merwin’s craft.  Helen Vendler and Marjorie Perloff, each recognize Merwin’s tendency to turn and skill with structural turning. 

In her review of The Shadow of Sirius, Vendler feels moved to see some of that book’s poems—“One of the Butterflies” and “Youth in Grass”—as sonnets even though, formally, the poems, of 13 and 15 lines, respectively, are not sonnets.  Vendler recognizes these poems as sonnets in part because they look like sonnets but also because they act like sonnets, because they have structural turns, which, in sonnets, are called voltas.  Of “One of the Butterflies,” Vendler notes, “I could print these thirteen lines as a quasi-sonnet…thereby suggesting it European lineage and its division into a problem (the timing of pleasure) and a conclusion (its elusiveness past and present)” (37).  And Vendler describes “Youth in Grass” as “a fifteen-line sonnet-like meditation…on the rapidity with which…a year turns from spring to autumn” (38).  Vendler states, “The most salient aspect of the Merwin mind in meditation is its tenacity to its perplexity.  Nothing can interrupt it once it has located its chosen difficulty—whether in perception, in thought, in human relations, or in memory” (38).  I think Vendler’s insight is accurate; I would only add that a major part of Merwin’s tenacity is the accomplishment of the turn.

In her own way, Marjorie Perloff makes a similar case.  In her 1987 essay “Apocalypse Then: Merwin and the Sorrows of Literary History,” Perloff critiques the notion that Merwin’s work might accurately be linked to or described with “phrases like ‘prophecy’ or ‘negative mysticism’ or ‘naked poetry’ or ‘the opening of the field’” (Essays 143).  Instead, Perloff makes the case that Merwin’s poetry “carried on the tradition of the well-made poem,” a kind of poem marked by “authorial control” (134).  While Perloff comments on Merwin’s formal control, she consistently roots Merwin’s authorial control in structural control, in the management of turns.  For example, Perloff initiates her examination of the “strong sense of closure” in Merwin’s “For the Anniversary of My Death” by discussing the structural motion of the poem, stating, “The first stanza (five lines) describes what happens “Every year”; the second (eight lines) refers to “Then” (when I will be dead)” (134).  Further on in her analysis, Perloff makes the case that “[t]he poem’s closure is reflected in its formal verse structure” (135).  Perloff concludes her analysis with the claim that “‘For the Anniversary of My Death’ is thus a very elegant, well-made poem; it has a finish that would be the envy of any number of poets…” (136). 

And the other two poems Perloff scrutinizes also have turns.  Perloff makes this clear in her discussion of “Beginning of the Plains,” about which she notes that the first line of that poem’s final stanza “marks the turn” (140).  And “Dusk in Winter,” the poem that Perloff suggests is exemplary of Merwin’s accomplished work, also contains a clear turn, one that pivots at the beginning of the fourth line, on the transition from day to night: “The sun sets in the cold without friends / Without reproaches after all it has done for us / It goes down believing in nothing / When it has gone I hear the stream running after it / It has brought its flute it is a long way” (qtd. in Essays 142).

What is it that Merwin is after with his deployment of structural turning?  Surprise.

Surprise is vital to Merwin.  In a 1947 letter to Ezra Pound, Merwin offers the reason he prefers Personae to The Cantos, claiming that there is more “sheer poetic magic” in Personae, and he defines poetic magic as “that element of perpetual and delicious surprise” (qtd. in Essays 358).  And surprise is a key element of Merwin’s poems.  In “Reading Merwin Semiotically,” Robert Scholes, who states that a semiotic reading, in part, views the poem as “achieving poetic status by violating certain kinds of expectation” (Essays 65), reads three earlier poems by Merwin and shows the way in which they all deliver (often multiple) surprises.  In a discussion of some of Merwin’s earlier poems in his Understanding W. S. Merwin, H. L. Hix notes that these poems employ myth “as a set of expectations to subvert” (33).  In Merwin’s “To Dido,” what the poem is made out of–or what the poem is–is, in part, “a still place of perpetual surprise” (First Four 139).  Merwin’s “The Blind Seer of Ambon,” in which the blind seer is a figure for the poet, concludes: “everything takes me by surprise / it is all awake in the darkness” (Travels 4).

W. S. Merwin is one of the great poets of the turn, of structure and surprise.  I’m at work on developing these ideas in an essay, focusing on Merwin’s The Shadow of Sirius, which I’m co-authoring with Mark Halliday for a book on Merwin’s more-recent poetry, a book edited by Kevin Prufer and Jonathan Weinert, forthcoming from WordFarm Editions.  I hope you’ll check it out.

Peter Campion’s “Sparrow”

10 06 2011

A gorgeous new emblem poem from Peter Campion, called “Sparrow.”  Check it out here.

Among its many virtues, Campion’s The Lions is replete with such sophisticated structural maneuvers, some of which I’ve included in the pages of this blog.  Explore here, and then, or or else just, read The Lions.

Helen Vendler: Approaching the Turn

8 06 2011

One of this blog’s key arguments has been that more concerted efforts to differentiate poetic structure and poetic form and to more systematically examine poetic structure would benefit the practices of conceptualizing, reading, writing, and teaching poetry.  (For information on the structure / form distinction, click here.)

I’m not the only one to think this.  Many of those who write poetry textbooks agree.  However, though they agree, their books often fall short of advocating for increased attention to poetic structure, and its attendant turn–and not only to the extent that I hope for but also to the extent that their own texts seem to suggest is proper.

Here, I would like to consider Helen Vendler’s Poems, Poets, Poetry: An Introduction and Anthology.  In this textbook, Vendler maintains the structure / form distinction—though her maintenance of the distinction involves some overlap in terminology—recognizing that, on the one hand, “[a] poem can…be classified according to various aspects of its outer form, having to do with meter, rhyme, and stanza-form” (117) and that, on the other hand, “[b]esides its outer form (“This is a poem in quatrains in falling rhythm rhyming aabb”—a description of Blake’s “Tyger”), every poem has internal structural form” (119).  (Please note that though Vendler’s book is in its third edition, I cite from my copy of the second edition.)

Vendler describes inner structural form as a poem’s “dynamic shape, which derives from the curve traced by the emotions of the poem as they change over its duration” (119).  Though Vendler never uses the word “turn,” this shape clearly concerns a poem’s turning; according to Vendler, “That emotional curve is plotted by connecting two, three, or more points of the poem, a rise from depression to hope to joy, for instance—or a decline from triumph through doubt to despair.  Very few poems represent an unchanging steady state of the same emotion all through” (119).  The emotional trajectory Vendler cites here is a pattern of poetic turning that I call the “Dejection-Elation Structure.”  Additionally, Vendler notes, “In investigating the internal structure of a poem, one should try to divide it into parts along its ‘fault lines.’  Where does the logic of the argument seem to break?  Where does the poem seem to change from first person to second person?  Where does the major change in tense or speech act take place?” (120)  In asking readers to locate a poem’s “fault lines,” Vendler seems to ask readers to identify and track the poem according to its turns.

Vendler then proceeds to offer a cursory list of internal structural forms.  She notes that “[s]ome poems are two-part (binary) poems, like William Wordsworth’s ‘A slumber did my spirit seal’ (which we saw changing from illusion to stern knowledge) or like Dickinson’s ‘The Heart asks Pleasure—first—’ (which we saw changing its conception of God from benevolence to cruelty” (119).  Vendler also notes that “[t]here are also many three-part (ternary) poems, which often take on the internal structure of beginning, modulation, and end (a song-form preserved in lyric),” and, additionally, that “[o]ne well-known internal structure is that of the ‘surprise’ ending, where the last few lines reverse everything that has gone before” (119).  Additionally, according to Vendler, “Internal forms are infinitely variable, since they represent emotional response, always volatile” (119).  Such a list seems like the beginning of the list (constantly under construction) of poetic structures, patterns of poetic turning, located here.

Indeed, for Vendler, mapping a poem’s internal structural form, and an inner structural form very much focused upon the turn, is key to the process she refers to as “Exploring a Poem” (125).  In this process, in which Vendler names a total of 13 elements of the poem for a reader to examine in order to explore a poem—including 1. Meaning; 2. Antecedent Scenario; 3. A Division into Structural Parts; 4. The Climax; 5. The Other Parts; 6. Find the Skeleton; 7. Games the Poet Plays with the Skeleton; 8. Language; 9. Tone; 10. Agency and Speech Acts; 11. Roads Not Taken; 12. Genre, Form, Rhythm; 13. Imagination—at least five have to do very directly with deciphering and determining the poem’s internal structural form: the division into structural parts; the climax; the other parts; find the skeleton; and games the poet plays with the skeleton.  For example, regarding “The Other Parts,” Vendler states, “About each part it is useful to ask how it differs from the other parts.  What is distinctive in it by contrast to the other members of the poem?  Does something shift gears?” (127)  And, regarding “Find the Skeleton,” Vendler essentially instructs readers to decipher the poem’s inner structural form; she asks, “What is the dynamic curve of emotion on which the whole poem is arranged?” (128)

While Vendler’s book does an admirable job of trying to advance structure alongside form, there are, however, problems with this aspect of Vendler’s textbook.  One problem is that it does not advance structure consistently.  “Structure,” or “structural,” means many things to Vendler.   “Inner structural form,” remember, is “dynamic shape, which derives from the curve traced by the emotions of the poem as they change over its duration.”  However, in the section called “Structure,” structure is defined as something more intellectual or logical; Vendler states, “The structures of a poem are the intellectual or logical shapes into which its thoughts are dynamically organized” (82).  Additionally, according to Vendler, one discovers a poem’s structures—according to Vendler, “Any overarching structure can have many substructures” (82)—by looking for patterns, but these patterns are everywhere and on every scale: “Patterns occur at many levels in poetry, just as they do in the physical universe: one can look for patterns in subatomic behavior, in atomic behavior, in molecular behavior, and so on, all the way up to the patterns of the planets and the stars” (83).  And, in the end, structure can be just about anything, including form; Vendler concludes her discussion of “Structure,” stating, “The important thing is to be accustomed to looking, in any poem, at several levels—the sound, the rhythms and rhymes, the grammar, the images, the sentences, the plot, the assertions, the allusions, the self-contradictions.  Somewhere the energy of the poem awaits you.  The moment you see the main and subordinate patterns, you smile, and it ‘all makes sense’” (87).

Another problem with Vendler’s advocacy of structure is that, for however much Vendler recognizes the importance of the non-formal organizational elements of a poem, she tends to give form precedence over these elements, including structure and its turn.  For example, the discussion of “Structure” comes after discussions of both “Rhythm” and “Rhyme”—and a discussion of “Argument” comes even later.  Additionally, in the section called “Classifying Lyric Poems” in the chapter “Describing Poems,” Vendler notes that “[l]yric poems themselves are generally classified in three ways: by content, by speech act, and by outer form” (110).  This, however, also is the section of the book that includes discussion of “Inner Structural Form,” a discussion that, with little commentary, simply gets tacked onto the previous discussion of “Outer Form.”

A final problem—or, perhaps, difficulty—with her advocacy of structure is that, perhaps as a result of the shiftiness of what structure is, Vendler never manages, in my opinion, to be clear about how knowing about structure can deeply inform one’s reading of a poem.  That is, though Vendler suggests that the main pattern, the structure, seems to have a lot to do with major transitions in a poem, how the poem moves, she is not explicit about what a poem’s “main pattern” is.  And, beyond this, there is never any detailed discussion of what the significance of these shapes are, why they are worth examining.  In large part because it never embraces structure and the turn—not even to the extent that I might want it to, but even, only, to the extent that its own discussion of poems suggests that it should—and because it never gets clear on the centrality of the turn for its system, Vendler’s discussions of “structure” and the “structural” tend to be a bit confusing, both offering imprecise or simply too numerous tools for finding structure and not offering enough for people to actually know what they are looking for when looking for structure, or exactly why they are looking for it.

Vendler’s Poems, Poets, Poetry reveals the desire of one major critic to differentiate structure and form.  It also reveals, however, that this desire alone is not quite enough to do the job of significantly differentiating structure and form.  For this, I believe more needs to be done.

I believe we–readers, poets, critics, teachers–have to get very clear in our use of the terms “structure” and “form,” or else things will continue as they so far have, with structure seeming some amorphous, secondary derivative of form.

I believe structure has to be linked to something vital and distinctive—something singular—in poetry, and that is the poetic turn.

I believe that we need to present the turn not only as something that is important in what poems are and how poems work but also as something that—just as form has its own vocabulary and grammar, or, if you will, its own lingo: iambic, trochaic, pentameter, slant rhyme—has its own vocabulary and grammar, its own intricacies.  My reasons for believing this are, on the one hand, substantive—I think that the developing vocabulary and grammar of the turn describes real and significant aspects of poems—and, on the other hand, pragmatic—form may tend to get more attention in our textbooks largely because it has a well-developed terminology, and thus, a more well-developed terminology (beyond Vendler’s cursory list of inner structural forms) may help give structure the attention it deserves.

I believe that, for as much work as the above seems, once this work is done it will greatly open up–and deepen–the conceptualization, reading, writing, and teaching of poems.  What is a poem?  Language that turns.  How do I read a poem?  Track the turns.  How do I write a great poem?  Create language that turns thrillingly.  How do I teach poems?  Take the turn into account.  Of course, these answers are incomplete, but they are vital and new, and I believe such answers will add significantly to the appreciation and creation of, the conversation about, poetry.