New Thinking on the Descriptive-Meditative Lyric

7 11 2014

otremba

Paul Otremba’s strong new thinking on the descriptive-meditative lyric is available here.

More information on the descriptive-meditative structure can be found in the essay on that structure by Corey Marks in Structure & Surprise.  Additional examples of the descriptive-meditative structure are available here.

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Six Approaches to Structuring a Poem

19 02 2012

Last month I had the honor of introducing two separate groups of writers to principles of poetic structure as put forth in Michael Theune’s extraordinary Structure and Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns.  The book made such a significant paradigm shift in the way I approach my own drafts that I wanted to share my discovery with others by offering a workshop.  My plan was to spend a full Saturday at the Writing Barn working through six of the structures with a small group of poets in my town of Austin, Texas.  I sent out emails and posted Facebook notices for the workshop.  The response to the workshop was overwhelming; within a week I had twenty people registered and had started to turn others away, but then I decided to repeat the class on a second Saturday, this one closer to my idea of a small group, thirteen.

I organized the workshop—called “Six Approaches to Structuring a Poem”—so  that we covered three structures in the first half of the day (emblem, ironic, concessional) and three structures—following lunch—in the second half of the day (retrospective-prospective, dialectical, descriptive-meditative).  As much as I would have liked to include the elegiac structures, mid-course turns, and substructures—the other structures covered in Structure and Surprise—I was glad I kept the day to the six I chose, as time was tight even for those.  We approached each structure in the same way, beginning with a short description of the basic structure; followed by an in-depth look at seven poems that exemplified the structure; followed by a short writing exercise whereby the participants could try their hands at using the structure; and ending with discussion and sharing of newly drafted works-in-progress.

The descriptions of the structures came straight from the chapters in Structure and Surprise, as did a number of the example poems, though I added a Texas touch by including a number of Texas poets throughout the day—Benjamin Saenz, Naomi Nye, Larry Thomas, myself, and others.  I was also able to find recordings for about a third of the poems I used, read by the poets themselves.  Given that we covered forty-two poems throughout the day, it was nice to hear voices other than our own, and for many, it was the first time to hear Mark Doty, Philip Larkin, Harryette Mullen, Li-Young Lee, Natasha Trethewey, and others.   The focus was on structure, form, and turns, and how different poets used the same structure to achieve very different kinds of poems.

I believe that writing is the best way to see if principles of a workshop are being learned, so with each structure I designed a brief exercise.  I gave participants no more than fifteen minutes for each exercise, but no one had to share their drafts if they did not want to (almost everyone, however, did share at least once during the day).  For the emblem structure, I brought in two dozen Gustav Klimt posters and had everyone choose one, where they were to move from description to meditation in their poem.

Here is an untitled poem from Beverly Voss, based on Klimt’s Mäda Primavesi:

 

You stare out, young beauty,

arms akimbo, your gaze bold.

Persephone in her meadow:

roses, buttercups, narcissi

awash in violet beauty, the

green world at your feet.

Glory falling on you from

the heavens, your birthright—

freedom

and a bright white innocence.

 

How will your gaze change after

the earth opens and swallows you up?

When Demeter wails, keens, laments

until the meadow freezes with her tears.

Until the earth is nearly dead?

 

She doesn’t yet know but you will return.

Having been split open

like the pomegranate you ate—

the red juice forever staining your mouth.

Your gaze, I think, will have more depth.

You will bring a dark knowing

back with you.

More woman than girl.

More witch than woman.

More goddess than the wheat.

 

–Beverly Voss

 

For the ironic structure—the one exercise which everyone in both workshops shared with the group—I handed out a list of 26 first lines, half from Sharon Olds’ Strike Sparks and half from Martín Espada’s Alabanza.  Participants were asked to respond to several of the first lines with a follow-up line (or lines) that provided an ironic turn, many of which brought howls of laughter.  I told them to keep them short, and they did.  Here are several examples (the Olds and Espada lines in italics):

 

Illumination

 

In the middle of the night,

when we get up, we navigate

by ambient light—

around the bedstead,

through the house, sure-footed,

no stubbed toes, scraped shins.

Yet, once sunlight penetrates the blinds

we stagger from our beds,

stumbling, clumsy and blind.

 

–Ann Howells

 

epidural

 

there are some things doctors can’t fix:

their own mistakes. My trust escaping out of the hole the needle made.

 

–Beth Kropf

 

No pets in the project

the lease said.

So I lost the cat.

Sold the dog.

Asked for money back

when the place came

equipped with a rat.

 

–Beverly Voss

 

Family Holidays

 

This was the first Thanksgiving with my wife’s family.

The next one will be without my wife

or without her family.

 

–Christine Wenk-Harrison

 

For the concessional structure, I had students use the same “First Lines” handout, but this time they were to choose one line, add “Suppose” to the front of it, and use that line as a concession until the turn in their poems.  Here’s Jean Jackson’s take on the structure (I told them that they could alter the first line if they needed to):

 

Mr. Fix-It

 

I suppose there are some things you can’t fix,

but you set such grand expectations

right from the beginning 46 years ago.

First there were the holes in the floor boards

of the ’57 Chevy that you repaired

by riveting cookie sheets in place.

So many holes have been fixed since then.

 

And the plumbing! How many times

have you found the leak, dug through mud

and saved a bundle, all the while

hating the job?

I admit you’re getting older

and that last time was a bear–

two days in the cold and rain.

 

I know you’ve felt put upon at times

fixing the antiques that I sell in my business

and you want me to quit since sales are down,

but there was a time when you were

as enthusiastic as I was and bought enough

fix-up furniture to last for an age–

you even said you liked making the repairs,

though you drew the line at refinishing.

 

What I’m saying is that I’m not ready to let go now.

It’s in my blood, and you’re so good at what you do,

that I know I’ll probably ask you to fix small flaws

once in a while. You do such a good job

and, well, it’s just so you!

 

–Jean Jackson

 

For the retrospective-prospective structure, I gave participants a new handout, one of “Last Lines” from the same two poets, Olds and Espada, but not necessarily from the same poems.  This time they were to use one of the last lines as a starting point for a poem that contrasted “then” with “now.”  Here is a draft by Christa Pandey that uses an Espada line to begin:

 

If only history were like your hands,
your fingers easily discerned, long and
slender bony, shapely nails, the pinky
short like last night’s TV episode.
The rivers of your veins concealed—
you are still young—unlike those
of history, full of bloody spills,
gnarled centuries like knuckles
of your coming age. The skin of our
tortured earth is deeply wrinkled.
May that stage not befall your hands.
If only history had your touch,
the thrill of your smooth soothing
on my longing skin.

–Christa Pandey

 

The dialectical argument structure proved to be the most difficult of the structures we looked at during the workshop, in part because it is a three-part structure, and in part because it is not a structure that poets tend to use as often as others.  Because I limited the time on exercises, I tried to make the move from thesis to antithesis to synthesis as easy as possible in the exercise.  For this one, I handed out a copy of Nick Laird’s “Epithalamium,” and asked the participants to follow his “you vs. I” dialectic in their drafts.  Here are two wildly different takes on this exercise:

 

Refrigerators

 

Your refrigerator is a Marine

standing at attention.

Knees locked, shoulders back.

Or art by Mondrian:  primary colors

painted with a measuring stick.

Mine is a Marc Chagall.  Capers float on high.

Mayonnaises (three kinds) dance cheek to cheek

with a concupiscence of condiments.

 

You pride yourself on order:

Top shelf:  Milk. And all things white with protein.

Middle shelf:  Leftovers and eggs.

Bottom:  Vegetables and fruit.

Beer:  always in the bin.

 

You scorn the wild Hungarian dance

of my old and humming fridge.

Where the spinach makes whoopee

with the squash and carrots compost

near the beer.

 

Ah love, dear love . . . you

let me use your toothbrush.

Share with me your bed and key.

Consider this:  I’ll line up all my juices

if you’ll set your collards free.

  

–Beverly Voss

 

uncleave

 

dried roses for a wedding  bouquet

their love already drying out, color drained

 

he raises the gun

she loads the bullet

 

he puts up his un-tired feet

she brings him slippers

 

he throws fire

she spreads gasoline

 

he punishes

she accepts

both dismantling their home, hands ripping out nails

making grenades  out of wounds

clouding mirrors until

their children cannot see

 

their vows—hollow vessels

their rings, engorged with hate

nooses around their necks

 

–Beth Kropf

 

Finally, for the descriptive-meditative structure at the end of a long day, I had participants follow the basic structure of Charles Wright’s “Clear Night,” just as Kevin Prufer had done in “Astronomer’s Prayer to the Andromeda Galaxy,” both poems we had looked at and discussed.  I asked them to write an imitation that was focused on a natural object, and here’s what Ann Howells came up with:

 

Autumn Night

after Charles Wright

Calm sea, moon reflected and reflected, endlessly.

Boat, pier and pines are monochrome—black on black.

Tidal pools drain, echo an eerie, hollow sound,

like a didgeridoo.

Gulls and crabs and snails sleep.

 

I am a tumult, a tempest moaning and shrieking,

tearing my hair.

I want to roil the waters, shatter the sky.

I want sea and moon and wind to rage.

I want the world to howl.

 

And the moon neither blinks nor winks.

And the sea is a seamless pane of smoked glass.

And the tidal pool continues its woodwind lullaby.

And the gulls and crabs and snails dream on.

They dream on.

 

–Ann Howells

 

In case you’re wondering why I used the same poets throughout this piece, it’s very simple: they are the ones who sent me their work after the workshop, though I assure you that we heard many other truly fine poems throughout the day (and keep in mind the short amount of time we had for writing).  I received many wonderful emails from the students in the days to follow, like this one from Gloria Amescua, “I gained so much from your presentation, the variety of examples, and the chance to start some poems.  I can really say it’s one of best workshops I’ve attended.”  But as I reminded them, none of the ideas presented were original on my part.  Most of the kudos must go to Michael Theune and the contributors to Structure and Surprise.  I feel honored to be able to spread the word.

Scott Wiggerman

swiggerman@austin.rr.com

http://swig.tripod.com

 

Scott Wiggerman is the author of two books of poetry, Presence, new from Pecan Grove Press, and Vegetables and Other Relationships.  Recent poems have appeared in Switched-On Gutenberg, Assaracus, Naugatuck River Review, Contemporary Sonnet, and Hobble Creek Review, which nominated “The Egret Sonnet” for a Pushcart.  A frequent workshop instructor, he is also an editor for Dos Gatos Press, publisher of the annual Texas Poetry Calendar, now in its fifteenth year, and the recent collection of poetry exercises, Wingbeats.  His website is http://swig.tripod.com





Against “Narrative”

20 07 2009

Not equipped with other helpful paradigms for what it is that poetry does, many readers come to poetry thinking that it, like the other literature with which they’re acquainted, tells stories.  Such thinking, of course, is misleading—it’s not clear such thinking would help anyone really encounter and engage many poems.  Certainly, lots of poems make use of narrative elements, but lots of poems, even poems thought to be generally “accessible,” don’t.  Readers need to be presented with a different paradigm for how poems “work,” for what it is that poems “do.”

I think that the “turn” can be that paradigm.  As I discuss more fully in “The Structure-Form Distinction”: lots of poems turn; turns aren’t always primarily associated with narrative (they also are associated with argumentation, the recording of emotional shifts, etc); and turns are, or easily can be made to seem, familiar, as familiar as storytelling.

In fact, I think the paradigm of the turn is superior to the paradigm of narrative.  Turning is itself central to narrative.  One could be said to know very little about the nature of narrative if one did not know about the nature of narrative turns—from beginnings to conflicts to climaxes to resolutions.  And, again, turning is at work in poems that aren’t primarily narrative.

However, though turning is more vital to poetry than narrative, many conversations about poetry still use the language of narrative—“narrative,” “plot”—to discuss what really are (or could more accurately be described as) turns.  Such misnaming makes it seem that, no matter what is said about narrative and the turn, narrative takes prominence over the turn.  In order to keep at trying to give the turn its proper due, this situation needs to be recognized and addressed.

To be clear: my critique here is meant to be very specific and detailed—in fact, I greatly admire the substance of the three essays to be discussed in this essay—but, hopefully, not minor: I think it would be smart to do away with the discussion of non-narrative “plots” in poetry.  Mention of “plot” will always make readers think of narrative, and thus reinforce the seeming prominence of narrative.  We need to use different terms in order to shift the conversation—and, with “structure” and the “turn,” such different terms are available to us.  Instead of “narrative” and “plot,” I think we should use the term “structure,” and mean by “structure” something very specific: the pattern of a poem’s turning.  (For more on this, again, see “The Structure-Form Distinction.”)  In this way, we can discuss a poem’s rhetorical maneuvers without (potentially) confusing those maneuvers with narrative.

hoagland

In “Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment,” Tony Hoagland corroborates my sense that there’s a tendency to lump together a number of kinds of poetry (many of which are clearly related to poetic traditions that prominently involve turning) under “narrative”; he states, “Under the label of ‘narrative,’ all kinds of poetry currently get lumped together: not just story, but discursion, argument, even descriptive lyrics.  They might better be called the ‘Poetries of Continuity.’”  Interestingly, though Hoagland himself suggests a better name for narrative, he also reveals the power of the “narrative” in discussions of poetry: his essay’s title employs the phrase “Fear of Narrative,” not “Fear of Continuity.”

(A bit off topic, but, I must add: it’s too bad that Hoagland links the poetry he does only to continuity—lots of poems that are not at all “skittery” work by means of an organized discontinuity.  As Randall Jarrell says in “Levels and Opposites: Structure in Poetry”: “A successful poem starts in 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.”  And Hoagland himself seems to recognize this; later in his essay, he states, “Narrated and associative poems are not each other’s aesthetic opposites or sworn enemies.  Obviously these modes don’t necessarily exclude each other.  They overlap, coexist, and often cross-pollinate.”)

dennis

The focus on narrative in poetry is more directly and fully addressed in Carl Dennis’s “The Temporal Lyric.”  Dennis notes, “Although lyrics are more likely to be organized rhetorically, especially those that present arguments, are much more common than those that present psychological narratives, discussion of the lyric has suffered from the fact that the oldest and most influential piece of criticism of poetry in the West, Aristotle’s Poetics, is formulated with specific reference not to lyric poetry but to drama and to epic and so presents temporal plotting as the central element of the poem.”  Dennis then notes a different way to approach lyric poems, one that comes out of speech-act theory:

“Here the poem is regarded as a dramatic event in which a fictive speaker performs a speech act that gives specific embodiment, in a particular context, to one or more of the basic tasks that we ask ordinary language to perform—explaining, questioning, demanding, promising, apologizing, praising, castigating, pleading, and the like.  Each of these acts has its particular plot if we use the term to refer not to a sequence of temporal events but to a sequence of rhetorical moves that carry out the task that the specific function requires.  Such a completed action possesses the wholeness that Aristotle demands of a poem: it possesses a proper beginning, middle, and an end, the order of incidents being such that transposing or removing any one of them will disorder the whole.”

Dennis is trying to replace a narrative orientation to poetry with a rhetorical one, and that rhetorical orientation clearly has much to do with turning: I assume that the “rhetorical moves” that comprise the “plot” of the speech act either are turns, or else clearly imply turns (turns allow the transition from one “plot” point to another).  And, indeed, the poems Dennis investigates in his essay (Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” Donne’s sonnet “At the round earth’s imagined corners, blow,” Dickinson’s “These are the days when Birds come back—,” Frederick Goddard Tuckerman’s sonnet “An upper chamber in a darkened house,” and Bishop’s “The Fish”) all feature very clear and distinct turns, and Dennis in fact refers to the turn at least twice in his examination of these poems.

Again, substantively, I greatly agree with Dennis; however, I think that the use of the word “plot” (which Dennis uses off and on throughout his essay), no matter how it is defined, tends to suggest narrative—precisely what Dennis does not want to suggest.  A more neutral and apt term, I think, for Dennis’s plot of rhetorical moves (and a term Dennis himself occasionally employs), is “structure.”

romantic

The same holds true, for the most part, in regard to Jack Stillinger’s “Reading Keats’s Plots.”

Stillinger’s essay does two things: 1) it argues that we need to spend more time examining the plots of poems in general, and of Keats’s poems, in particular, and 2) it examines the plots of some key poems by Keats (The Eve of St. Agnes, Lamia, “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” The Eve of St. Mark, and “Ode on a Grecian Urn”), helping to reveal how important attention to plot can be.

According to Stillinger, contemporary readers tend to skip over plot: “Readers and critics of poetry, even at this late date in the history of practical criticism, are still primarily concerned with idea, theme, and ‘philosophy,’ seeking in effect to replace the literary work in process (what it is, what it does) with interpretive conversion, paraphrase, or translation (what it means).”  Stillinger intends his essay to counter this trend by re-instilling in readers a sense of plot’s vital nature.

Stillinger’s essay differs from Dennis’s in that Stillinger’s, at times, in fact really discusses and examines specifically narrative plots, and so his use of the term very often is apt.  However, Stillinger also uses “narrative” and “plot” to refer to structural maneuvers it seems a bit of a stretch to label such.  This occurs most clearly in Stillinger’s discussion of “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” the least overtly narrative of the poems discussed.  According to Stillinger, the “narrative” of “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is similar to the narratives found in the “greater Romantic lyric,” or poems, such as Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight” and Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” that employ the descriptive-meditative structure (discussed in detail in an essay by Corey Marks in Structure & Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns).  While there are some plot elements in such poems, and while all aspects of a poem are worthy of consideration, the plot elements in such poems often are minimal (for example, journeys often occur in these poems, but they often are imagined or remembered journeys), and such poems are perhaps more fruitfully considered, as Dennis might argue, as speech acts involving “rhetorical moves.”

This certainly is the case with a form of poem central to Keats’s oeuvre, and which Stillinger does not discuss in his essay: the sonnet.  There isn’t any plot to speak of in, say, Keats’s “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” and yet it does turn (stunningly).  Such primarily rhetorical maneuvering tends to be excluded from Stillinger’s analysis in “Reading Keats’s Plots.”  This exclusion helps Stillinger set up a somewhat overly-simplified dichotomy between a poetry of narrative and a poetry of statement.  Stillinger writes,

“The fact that narrative analysis works more successfully with some poems rather than others is itself a valuable piece of critical information.  It is one way of illustrating the difference between lyrics that are essentially static in character and those that are essentially dynamic.  Poems such as To Autumn and Ode on Melancholy have their minds made up before they begin.  They are statements rather than processes, statements of thoughts already arrived at before the speakers begin speaking.  Poems such as Frost at Midnight, Tintern Abbey, Ode: Intimations of Immortality, and Ode to a Nightingale are more complicated.  They represent the actual processes of thinking and take their shape from the movement of the protagonist’s mind, going now in one direction, now in another.  Lyrics in this latter class are at least implied narratives, and often they are, like Yeats’s or Keats’s excursions, explicit narratives.”

While, generally, I like this way of distinguishing among different kinds of poems (for example, I can see how such a distinction could help me discuss with my students the different kinds of tasks poems undertake), I want to complicate this dichotomy using Keats’s sonnets as a test case.  It’s simply not clear where many of Keats’s sonnets would fall in this dichotomy.  They’re not narrative, and yet many of them clearly attempt to “represent the actual processes of thinking and take their shape from the movement of the protagonist’s mind.”  Perhaps this is “implied narrative,” but it’s not clear why it has to be referred to as such.  I suggest that instead of creating a dichotomy between narrative and statement, we instead create a dichotomy between the poetry of dramatic, dynamic structure (involving significant turns) and the poetry of statement.  This description of the dichotomy incorporates non-narrative turns, the “at least implied narratives” Stillinger mentions, the significant rhetorical maneuvers Dennis’s essay focuses on, and the tactics so many Keats’s poems actually deploy.

*

All of the above may seem a bit like picking nits: it’s all, I again acknowledge, largely an investigation into terminology rather than substance.  And yet terms matter.  The turn has long been a vital part of poetry (T. S. Eliot calls the turn “one of the most important means of poetic effect since Homer”), but it has not been generally recognized as such.  This is a strange situation, one which has many causes—one cause, however, certainly is the fact that we do not have set terms for what we are discussing when we discuss structures and turns.  Thus, often, structure and the turn get subsumed in other terminology.  And because of the use of such varied terminology the many conversations that involve and even focus on poetic structure and the turn often are never seen to be related.  And this, in turn, contributes to the continuing general lack of recognition of the great importance of the turn.

It is my sense that Hoagland, Dennis, and Stillinger would all be for a greater recognition of the turn in poetry—indeed, I think the three essays discussed here in fact are a part of the growing body of literature attempting to draw attention to the significance of the turn in poetry.  My effort here has been to show this link among these essays, even as I try to point out that even in such essays the turn, in some subtle yet significant ways, remains hidden, embedded in a terminology of “narrative” and “plot” that tends to downplay or even deny the larger significance of the poetic turn.





A Speaker(1)-Speaker(2) Structure (?)

30 05 2009

kidman

(Spoiler Alert: If you’ve not yet seen the movies The Sixth Sense, The Others, and Fight Club, 1) you should, and 2) you might want to skip this post til you do–some secrets vital to these movies are revealed below.)

We see it often in the movies: the characters we think we know turn out to be radically different from what we had thought.  In The Sixth Sense, Dr. Malcolm Crowe (the child psychologist played by Bruce Willis) turns out to be a ghost.  In The Others, Grace Stewart (the mother played by Nicole Kidman) also turns out to be a ghost.  In Fight Club, the narrator (played by Edward Norton) turns out to be Tyler Durden (played by Brad Pitt).

And so, prompted by some comments from Avi Akshoti over at the Structure & Surprise “Welcome!” page (thank you, Avi!), I gotta ask: are there poems that employ this kind of turn?  That is, are there poems in which the person you thought was the speaker turns out to be someone else entirely?

Now, of course, a lot of poems record a substantial change in a speaker–just check out the Dejection-Elation Structure or the Descriptive-Meditative Structure, or read Coleridge’s “This Lime-Tree Bower, My Prison,” a poem that combines these two structures beautifully, recording the speaker’s transition from despondency to joyfullness.

But this isn’t what Avi was, and now I am, asking for: what we want to know is: are there poems with speakers who turn out, in a surprising turn as radical as that found it The Sixth SenseThe Others, and Fight Club, to be radically different from what we expected?  If so, what are these poems?  (Please DO feel free to reply.)  If not, 1) write one and send it in, or else 2) theorize why this kind of poem has not been written.

The closest I can get to this kind of poem is Margaret Atwood’s “This Is a Photograph of Me,” a poem in which the speaker turns out to be dead…

Other ideas?