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.

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3 responses

4 07 2011
The Poem in Countermotion « Structure & Surprise

[…] poetry textbooks–including Jeremy Tambling’s RE: Verse–Turning towards Poetry and Helen Vendler’s Poems, Poets, Poetry: An Introduction and Anthology.  Overall, I’ve found that while these textbooks have–to their great benefit, in my […]

20 01 2016
The Hidden Turn in X. J. Kennedy’s Introduction to Poetry | Structure & Surprise

[…] Though I did not make this case in the linked-to essay, it also is the case that discussions of form often hide discussions of structure (by “structure,” I mean specifically the pattern of a poem’s turning). Something like this happens in Helen Vendler’s Poems, Poets, Poetry: An Introduction and Anthology, and I write about this here. […]

11 07 2017
Alden’s Structure-Form Distinction | Structure & Surprise

[…] structure and the turn often struggle to articulate their significance. This is the case with Helen Vendler’s Poems, Poets, Poetry, as well as Robert Hass’s A Little Book on Form. Also, while Alden is very consistent, he is […]

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