Poetic Turns in the Lyric Essay

1 02 2016

wilson

Over at Assay: A Journal for Nonfiction Studies, Diana Wilson has published “Laces in the Corset: Structures of Poetry and Prose that Bind the Lyric Essay”, an essay that uses poetic structures to examine the movements in a number of lyric essays. Wilson uses the emblem structure to read Richard Selzer’s lyric essay “The Knife”; the retrospective-prospective structure to read Brian Doyle’s lyric essay “Leap”; the ironic structure for Robin Hemley’s “Twirl/Run”; and the elegiac structure for Lia Purpura’s “Autopsy Report.”

In her penultimate paragraph, Wilson notes:

I often think of the lyric essay as a mysterious sea creature, its structure hydrostatic, like a jellyfish that appears, to the casual observer, to be nonexistent.  The lyric essay, a subgenre of creative nonfiction, is a wild thing born of poetry and prose, the prose sentences appearing to wave and dance willy-nilly like tentacles of jellyfish while poetic elements flicker and flash through the sentences like neon luminescence. Only careful study reveals the muscular structure that propels the lyric essay forward.

I love this insight: that by carefully attending to structure’s turn we can see how the lovely, odd creature that is the lyric essay moves.

I love, too, that Wilson has begun to find broader application for thinking about and with the poetic turn. I’ve long thought that one of the turn’s attractions is the way in more closely connects poetry and prose–how completely appropriate, then, to employ the turn to examine and think more deeply about the lyric essay’s prose poetry.

According to her author’s note, “Laces in the Corset” is Diana Wilson’s first publication. My thanks, then, to Ms. Wilson for taking the time and effort at the start of her publishing career to consider so carefully, and use so creatively, the turn. I look forward to seeing how her thinking and writing continues to develop–develop and turn…!





Super, Smart!

15 11 2013

FULL DISCLOSURE

The wise old
beginner—an applecheeked boy

practically—
born

laughing
into a huge white beard

is a sometime
friend and weird-

ly potent little
notion of mine

when-
ever I feel—that one

too many
lids are closing—

*

Since I don’t know how long, my friend and former student Dan Smart has been posting (at least!) a poem / day on Facebook.  Just at the level of quantity, it’s an impressive project.  What makes the project truly awesome, however, is the quality of the poems–so many sudden revelations and glorious surprises!

As with so many of Dan’s poems, “Full Disclosure” grabbed my attention.  And, as it seemed to me to be a new emblem poem, I thought I’d post it here for fans of the turn.

Many thanks to Dan for granting permission to reprint the poem, and for sharing his daily discoveries over on Facebook.





“The Snail,” a new emblem poem

3 01 2013


snailemblem

 

–by Aaron Crippen

*

Aaron Crippen is a poet and educator.  He is the translator of Nameless Flowers: Selected Poems of Gu Cheng (George Braziller, 2005), a project for which he received an NEA Literature Fellowship, and for which he received a PEN Texas Literary Award for Poetry.  His poems have appeared in numerous journals, including Verse and the Beloit Poetry Journal.

For more on emblem poems, click here.

 





The Turn in A Poet’s Craft

6 03 2012

Cover Image for A Poet's Craft

Annie Finch’s A Poet’s Craft: A Comprehensive Guide to Making and Sharing Your Poetry is now out.  It’s a big (almost 700-pages!) compendium that combines the genres of textbook, poetry guide, and guide to poetic forms.  It’s totally worth getting because it contains so much: great discussion, exercises, and poems.  It’s wide-ranging and insightful.

And I’m happy to report that Structure & Surprise makes a couple of appearances in it.  Structure & Surprise is included in “A Poet’s Bookshelf: For Further Reading,” the lone book listed under “Syntax and Rhetoric.”  Additionally, Structure & Surprise makes an appearance at the end of the chapter called “Syntax and Rhetorical Structure: Words in Order and Disorder,” in a section called “Rhetorical Structure and Strategy.”

In this section, Finch writes, “Every time you write a poem, and probably before you even begin, you make a myriad of even more fundamental choices about its rhetorical stance and structure.  Many of these choices are unconscious, based on ideas of ‘what a poem is’ that you have absorbed long before.  To make these choices conscious, at least once in a while, can be refreshing and even eye-opening.”  Finch then offers a list of questions to ask regarding a poem’s rhetorical structure and strategy, the last of which asks, “And finally, what are the rhetorical turns taken in the poem?  How does the poem shape itself so that, when one has finished reading, one feels the poem is over, that something has happened, that something has changed?”

And Finch continues:

“For example, Michael Theune’s book Structure and Surprise describes nine kinds of rhetorical turns, the most important of which are the ironic turn, the dialectical turn, and the descriptive turn.  In a poem using the ironic turn, the second part of the poem (which can be any length, from half the poem to just a line or two) undercuts or alters what has come before, like the punch line of a joke.  In a poem using the dialectical turn, the first part of the poem sets up one voice or attitude, and the second offers a very different tone of voice or perspective (the ‘turn’ in the sonnet is often of this type).  In a poem using the descriptive turn, the speaker describes a scene, object, or memory, and then turns to meditate on its meaning.”

I hope you’ll check out A Poet’s Craft.  And I hope that anyone reading A Poet’s Craft will look further into the possibilities of poetic structure by reading Structure & Surprise.  However, this blog also is a good place to start.  Check out the structures covered in Structure & Surprise here.  And check out nine additional structures here.

Happy reading!





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





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.





Jorie Graham at Illinois Wesleyan

20 02 2011

Poet Jorie Graham will speak at this year’s Founders’ Day Convocation at Illinois Wesleyan University.  Graham’s address (a reading/talk) is titled “The Role of Poetry in a Living Culture.”  The Convocation takes place on Wednesday, February 23, at 11 a.m. in Presser Hall’s Westbrook Auditorium.  The event is free and open to the public.

There also will be a conversation/q&a with Graham on Tuesday, February 22, at 4 p.m. in the Hansen Student Center.  This event, also, is free and open to the public.

One further event associated with Graham’s visit: I’m going lead a conversation called “How To Read a Jorie Graham Poem.”  This event, also free and open to the public, will take place on Monday, February 21, at 4 p.m. in the English House’s Seminar Room (located on the English House’s garden level).

My talk, of course, will have a lot to do with turns.  How do you read a Jorie Graham poem?  You listen for the turns…

I don’t believe this is an imposition on my part.  Graham loves the turn.  It is everywhere in her poetry; in Structure & Surprise, for example, I discuss Graham’s great poem “Prayer” in terms of its relation to the emblem poem tradition, a tradition in which poems turn from a description of a thing to a meditation on the meaning of that thing. 

The turn also is central to Graham’s poetics.  Here are some key passages from “Something of Moment,” the introduction to an issue of Ploughshares she edited:

“In a poem, one is always given, I would argue, a sense of place that matters–a place on suffered the loss of, a place one longs for–a stage upon which the urgent act of mind of this particular lyric occasion (be it memory, description, meditation, fractured recollection of self, or even further disintegration of self under the pressure of history, for example) ‘takes place.’

…A break…can constitute trigger occasions, or situations, or kinds of place from which the spirit in language springs forward into the action of poetry.

All such moments–where we are taken by surprise and asked to react–are marked places in consciousness, places where a ‘turn’ is required.”

And, in “At the Border,” an essay that appears in American Women Poets in the 21st Century: Where Lyric Meets Language, edited by Claudia Rankine and Juliana Spahr (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2002), Graham writes,

“The capacity to ‘express’ the ineffable, the inexpressible, the emissary of the nonverbal territories of intuition, deep paradox, conflicting bodily impulses, as well as profoundly present yet nonlanguaged spiritual insights, even certain emotional crisis states–these are the wondrous haul that the nets of ‘deep image,’ ‘collective emotive image,’ haiku image-clusters, musical effects of all kinds (truths only introduced via metrical variation, for example), and the many hinge actions in poetry (turns, leaps, associations, lacunae) bring onto the shore of the made for us.  The astonishments of poetry, for me, reside most vividly in its capacity to make a reader receive utterable and unutterable realities at once.”

Indeed, I first became conscious of the poetic turn a powerful force in poetry when taking a poetic forms class with Graham at the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop, in the fall of 1994.  During the third week of that class, while discussing haiku, Graham introduced me and my classmates to the following haiku by Basho: “Deep autumn– / my neighbor, / how does he live?”

Graham deeply admired this poem because it contained what she thought were the two vital aspects of a poem: an occasion, and a Stevensian cry of its occasion.  In Basho’s poem, the occasion is deep autumn, when the leaves have fallen, allowing one to see the neighbor’s house, and the cry (notice: not statement, or explanation, but, rather, cry) is the urgent, surprising act of the human voice arising from this occasion.

This single lesson struck me to the bone.  It gave me a whole new way to begin to approach reading poems, something new to look for in, and even demand from, poems.  This single lesson was, in retrospect, the kernel of the idea that grew into Structure & Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns, and this blog.  Knowing turns certainly will help anyone who really wants to engage Graham’s work.

Work, of course, very worth engaging for many, many reasons.  Jorie Graham is one of the great poets and poetic thinkers of our day.  I invite and encourage you to come to any and all of her Founders’ Day events on the Illinois Wesleyan campus.