On Tony Hoagland’s “Poetic Housing”

17 05 2016
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“Let us like a poem to an internal combustion engine. It is mounted, or housed, inside a sturdy frame. The structure must be sturdy because the contents of the poem are combustible; the vibrations are fierce.”

So, just a few days ago I published a post on James Longenbach’s “Lyric Knowledge,” an odd essay that goes a great distance to say something simple but vital: that the organization of a poem is significant. Longenbach goes so far as to reorder some poems to show the effect of organization, and especially to reveal the achievement of the originals. In that blog post, I argue that though he doesn’t come right out to say it, one of Longenbach’s great concerns in his essay is the vital poetic turn. When he reorders the poems under his consideration, Longenbach destroys the power and the beauty of the original poems’ turns. He then argues that the poems were fine–even great–just as they were.

Interestingly, today I read another essay that performs the same kind of critical act (reorganizing a poem) and agrees about the importance of poetic organization and the turn–though, very much like Longenbach’s, it doesn’t exactly come right out and declare its admiration for the turn. This essay is Tony Hoagland’s “Poetic Housing: Shifting Parts & Changing Wholes” (The Writer’s Chronicle 45.5 (March/April 2013): 90-99).

Here is my argument that chief among Hoagland’s concerns in fact is the turn:

1. Almost right away (in the second paragraph), Hoagland establishes the structure-form distinction: he will not be discussing form but some other aspect of poetry:

This constant threat of imbalance, of eruption, or potential amorphousness is especially present in the writing of free verse poetry. The sonneteer or a writer of villanelles has at least a pre-ordained form to fill–to tell her roughly where the poem’s beginning, middle, and end belong. But the free verse poet is always wondering about structure–guessing where the end of the poem might be, trying to detect what optimal dramatic shape might be emerging. (90-91)

2. What Hoagland means by “structure” is not something amorphous, but rather is “dramatic shape.” The next paragraphs after the one quoted above state:

The reason concise dramatic shape is important, even in “loose” associative poems, is because poems are pressurized containers. A poem must contain energy; that is, hold it in. You can’t carry water in a colander. And in order for the poem to contain, accumulate, and release pressure it must have shape, a dramatic progression.

Housing and Transmission: Let us liken a poem to an internal combustion engine. It is mounted, or housed, inside a sturdy frame. The structure must be sturdy because the contents of the poem are combustible; the vibrations are fierce. The housing contains and directs the explosive force of combustion with precision.

I know that these principles apply to fiction and nonfiction as well as poetry. But structure is an especially crucial issue in poems. Why? Because poems have so few words, and, given the small space they occupy, the relative proportion and relation of words to each other can change very fast. Suddenly, the theme turns out to be different than expected, or an image appears which is so resonant, it becomes indisputably structural. (91)

3. When Hoagland sums up “the whole of the poem-reading experience,” he states that there are “two general by useful assertions”:

  1. Each of the lines and moments in a poem has different degrees of force and prominence; each moment has a relative weight, color, intensity, and sound. And some of them are–must be–more important than others. In other words, poems are hierarchical.
  2. As soon as we decide on the primary moments, we can know what is secondary. Then, the secondary materials begin to orbit around those primary moments in a supplementary role. The primary moments define the contexts for the other moments. (91)

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.*

And I think poet-critic Jane Hirshfield also would agree. As I argue here, Hirshfield refers to the turn as a “window-moment.” As I note in that earlier, linked-to blog entry, “Though Hirshfield notes that such window-moments may be momentary elements within a poem, most often the window-moment is associated with the turn.** In my blog post about Hirshfield’s notion of the “window-moment,” I note, “The relation between the window-moment and the turn is made even clearer when one considers that many of the poems Hirshfield discusses in her essay have major turns, turns which often are equated with the window-moment.” And the same can be said not only of Hirshfield, but also of Ciardi (for whom all fulcrums really are principal turns), and Hoagland.

The poem that Hoagland attends to most closely is Jean Follain’s “The Art of War.” This twelve-line poem is largely a list. It begins, “At the window a rose / the color of a blonde’s young nipple / a mole walks underground,” and then includes two other image clusters: “Peace they say to a dog / whose life is short. / The air remains full of sunlight.” It concludes with one longer item: “Young men / learn how to make war / in order to redeem / a whole world they are told / but they still find the book / of theory unreadable.”

About this poem, Hoagland argues,

If…we were to identify the internal dominant moment of “The Art of War,” we would choose the complex final sentence, identifiable by size, grammatical momentum, and complexity, with its many turns and developments….Follain’s poem has a loose structure, and Follain’s work in general is the quintessence of the associative mode, which is to say, the relationships between its parts are largely inferential. Little is explicit, yet this last sentence in “The Art of War” carries much of the intelligence of the poem. It is a sequence in which, as the sentence unfolds across line breaks, a chunk at a time, we watch the poem’s emphasis and stance complicate and shift….We apprehend it all in a second; our cognitive process is swift, nimble, and resourceful at recognizing and adjusting the parameters of the poem, determining what is the essence of the poem, the housing. Every other inflection of the poem turns upon that structural recognition. (my emphasis)

Opening with six lines of largely paratactic listing that then accumulate in six lines of hypotactic conclusion, this brief poem is the kind of poem that Longenbach seems especially taken by in “Lyric Knowledge,” in which Longenbach investigates the same kind of paratactic-hypotactic turn in the first section of Wallace Stevens’s “The Auroras of Autumn.” And Hoagland treats this poem in a way similar to the way Longenbach treats the section from Stevens: he rearranges it in order to show, ultimately, the power of the original.

Hoagland creates a poem, called “Why I Grow Flowers,” which reshuffles “The Art of War.” “Why I Grow Flowers” begins with the sunlight, then moves to the mole, then the young men (minus the book of theory), then the dog image, and it concludes with the window-rose-nipple image cluster. About this poem Hoagland states,

This rebuilt poem has quite a different thrust. This version emphasizes the pleasures of peace, and seems to infer some sound reasons for applying for conscientious objector status. After all, it concludes with palpable arguments for peace: a flower garden and the promise of erotic adventure. In its favor, this revision is distinctly more unified than the original. Yet, unfortunately, it is a less dynamic and less interesting poem. Loose as it still is, and not without nuance, this version is a lesser poem. (94-95)

I couldn’t agree more with Hoagland’s assessment. Great poems rarely offer simple unity. Rather, they offer dynamic shifts and surprises. As Randall Jarrell notes in “Levels and Opposites: Structure in Poetry,” “A successful poem starts from one position and ends at a very different one, often a contradictory or opposite one; yet there has been no break in the unity of the poem.” (I also tend to agree with his critique, later in his essay, of the “elliptical mode,” a mode which, according to Hoagland, can be much too tolerant of structures so loose that they have no center, no key turns, at all, offering instead “only the mystique of mystification.”)

Much like Longenbach’s “Lyric Knowledge,” Hoagland’s “Poetic Housing” is important reading for anyone interested in the poetic turn–it’s full of great insights. However, as readers of this blog know, I look forward to a day when discussion of the turn is not quite so deeply and variously encoded and embedded (as housing, fulcrum, window-moment, center, torque, or swerve) and is acknowledged more explicitly as the vital feature of poetic significance- and experience-making that it is.

*I offer the following paragraph from the linked-to blog post as a glimpse of that larger argument:

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 even differentiates between “principal” and “lesser” fulcrums (“fulcrum” is the term Ciardi uses for the turn). A poem’s major turn or turns are primary moments, indeed.

**Here’s a glimpse at what Hirshfield says, which supports my belief that a window-moment really is a turn:

In the swerve into some new possibility of mind, a poem with a window stops to look elsewhere, drawing on something outside of its self-constructed domain and walls.  A window can be held by a change of sense realms or a switch of rhetorical strategy, can be framed by a turn of grammar or ethical stance, can be sawn open by an overt statement or slipped in almost unseen.  Whether large or small, what I am calling a window is recognized primarily by the experience of expansion it brings: the poem’s nature is changed because its scope has become larger.

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