The Poem in Countermotion

4 07 2011

Over the past few weeks, I’ve written some posts on the situation of the turn in some recent 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 opinion–strong interest in the turn, that interest either–in the case of Tambling–is not sustained or–in the case of Vendler–is not dealt with systematically enough to be as useful and revelatory as it could be.  Put another way: though these books should be praised for at least putting forward and at times actively teaching about (something like) the turn, they are somewhat problematic in that they do not discuss the turn as fully as did John Ciardi over fifty years ago in his textbook How Does a Poem Mean?

The importance of the turn is clear in Ciardi’s book.  Though Ciardi discusses the turn in the last chapter of How Does a Poem Mean?, “The Poem in Countermotion,” this chapter is the ultimate chapter, the chapter which Ciardi in his introduction calls “the important one.”  Additionally, Ciardi states, “The present volume sets out simply to isolate some of the characteristics of poetry and to develop criteria by which parts of the poetic structure may be experienced in a more comprehensive way.  The final chapter suggests a method whereby all the criteria developed in the preceding chapters may be applied to the comprehension of the total poem.”

Ciardi also registers the significance of the turn in “The Poem in Countermotion,” equating the poem’s turn, its shifting from motion to countermotion, to what, essentially, a poem is.  Ciardi states, “Such countermotion is inseperable from “what  the poem is” and “what the poem means”; it is in fact “how the poem means.”  In briefest form, a poem is one part against another across a silence.  To understand this characteristic of the poem is to understand the theory of poetic form.  To be able to respond to it in a poem is to understand the practice of poetry.”

For Ciardi, the turn is so much at the center of what a poem is and how a poem means that it is the turn that the (potentially problematic) paraphrase of a poem mainly destroys:

“…though paraphrase may be useful in helping to explain a specific difficulty in the paraphrasing of a poem, it is unfailingly a destructive method of discussion if one permits the illusion that the paraphrase is more than a momentary crutch, or that it is in any sense the poem itself.  No poem “means” anything that a paraphrase is capable of saying.  For…the poem exists in time and it exists in balance and countermotion across a silence.  That timing and that counterthrust are inseparable from the emotional force of the poem, and it is exactly the timing and counterthrust that paraphrase cannot reproduce.  The question to put to the poem is not “What does it mean?” but “How does it mean?”  “What does it mean?” inevitably invites paraphrase and inevitably leads away from the poem.  “How does it mean?” is best asked by absorbing the poetic structure as poetic structure, i.e., as a countermotion across a silence, and thus leads the analysis to the poem itself.”

The turn, which Ciardi calls the “fulcrum,” also is, as one might expect, central to the reading–which entails interpretation and performance–of poems.  According to Ciardi, to read a poem correctly, one must identify the various turns in the poem and register the poem’s shifts.  Ciardi states,

“One simple rule seems to apply to the play of all such countermotions: whenever in the course of a poem the poet changes either his tone or his attidude, some change will occur in the handling of the technical elements.  That change in the technical  handling of the poem may be slight or it may be marked, but some change must occur.  Conversely, any change in the handling of the technical elements in the course of the poem will indicate that a change has taken place in the poet’s tone or attitude.”

Ciardi additionally states,

“If every poem is constructed on such countermotions across a fulcrum [i.e., a turn], and if the handling of the technical elements always changes from one unit of poetic structure to another, the method of analysis here suggested must inevitably lead to a fuller understanding of that poetic structure.  One need only locate the principal fulcrum [i.e., the location of a turn], the lesser fulcrums within the main units of the structure, and then analyze the differences in the handling of the poetic elements within each unit and sub-unit.  To do that much, however, is not to have achieved the poem, but rather to have prepared oneself to achieve it.  Any method of analysis is designed only to assure one that he is giving his human attention to the poem itself rather than to some non-poetic paraphrase of its unenacted “meaning.”  In every good poem there is some final echo of nuance and feeling that lies beyond explanation and analysis.”

“The Poem in Countermotion” is filled with excellent, careful discussions of poems, discussions aided by the fact that Ciardi makes clear where the turns/fulcrums of each poem are located by marking them with a “<“.  Ciardi even goes so far as to discuss poems that do not “make their countermotions immediately apparent.”  He refers to such poems as “truncated poems,” citing Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz” as a prime example of a kind of poem in which “the fulcrum occurs after the last line.”  He also cites Yvor Winters’s “Before Disaster” as what should be a truncated poem that (problematically) exceeds what should be its final fulcrum by six lines.  This is masterful, insightful criticism.

Which begs the question: why wasn’t Ciardi’s idea of the poem in countermotion, along with its fulcrum, picked up on by subsequent textbooks?

I can only speculate on some answers.

First, Ciardi’s terminology is somewhat problematic.  Having had no deep roots in poetic terminology, and not at all explicitly connected to the turn and/or the volta, the term “fulcrum” perhaps can seem, at best, disconnected to discussions about poetry and, at worst, so idiosyncratic as to seem irrelevant.

Second, Ciardi does not suggest that there are certain ways in which poems’ fulcrums behave.  According to Ciardi, the fulcrum is a vital part–perhaps the heart–of the poem, but he seems to imply that the fulcrum is always some singular event.  However, this is not the case–while one certainly wants fulcrums/turns to be powerful and singular, there are patterns to turns (for some, click here), to the construction of fulcrums, and these patterns can be analyzed and discussed, and so taught, replicated, and used, deployed.

Third, and finally: there may be (in general, though certainly not in Ciardi’s writing) some obfuscation about the fulcrum / turn not because the fulcrum / turn is unimportant but precisely because it is so important.  Could it be that there is some anxiety about clearly naming the turn as a central part of what makes a poem a poem, some fear that by naming this vital feature of poems we might somehow explain away the magic of poems?  Perhaps…  Again, for now, just a speculation…

What is beyond speculation, though, is the fact that John Ciardi’s “The Poem in Countermotion” is one of the great essays on the poetic turn.  Anyone interested in the turn should acquaint her/himself with its excellent ideas.

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5 responses

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23 09 2013
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[…] the turn, pointing to essays that have addressed the turn–under its various names, including Ciardi’s “fulcrum”, Rosenthal’s “torque,” Lazer’s “swerve,” and Ullman’s […]

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

[…] its own chapter, as it received in John Ciardi’s How Does a Poem Mean? (which I discuss here). Such focus is, alas, extremely rare, but it shouldn’t be: it’s simply a matter of […]

17 05 2016
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[…] Here, before turning to clinch my case, I want to pause for a moment to argue that the turn is one of the most primary moments a poem has. It certainly is the case that poet-critic John Ciardi thinks this. I make the case about this here.* […]

5 06 2016
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[…] the introduction to How Does a Poem Mean?, the only introduction to poetry textbook that contains a chapter on the turn (though this book […]

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