Richards’s Reversals

25 06 2018

Today I stumbled upon a fine little essay I feel compelled to share: I. A. Richards’s “Reversals in Poetry,” collected in his Poetries: Their Media and Ends, edited by Trevor Eaton (The Hague: Mouton, 1974): 59-70.

In this brief essay, Richards examines a number of ballads and ballad-like poems. (He notes that “[t]he title of the original talk [of which his essay is a transcription] was Ballads” (65).) However, as his essay’s title indicates, Richards was intrigued by the structural reversals that he found in a number of the poems he was examining, and so he decided to focus on that. The structure Richards investigates is one “which often seems fundamental in poetic composition and really important: the way verses can be ABOUT a many-stepped hierarchy of situations simultaneously: up, up, up or, if you like, down, down, down, deeper deeper (63).”

“Down, down, down, deeper deeper” is right. Richards offers a number of poems that seem to be headed on way, but then, oddly, surprisingly, turn to either keep going in a downward (negative) direction or else, shockingly, simply turn negative. Here’s the first poem, a lullaby sung to former Atlantic Monthly editor Ellery Sedgwick by his mother:

White was the sheet
That spread for her lover,
White was the sheet;
And embroidered the cover.

But whiter the sheet
And the canopy grander
When he lay down to sleep
Where the hill-foxes wander. (59)

As Richards asks, and answers: “It has a powerful plot–hasn’t it? The pull and tension are pretty strong between the expectations generated by the opening…and the grimness of the last five words…” (60). He calls this turn a “violent grim reversal” and “an extreme reversal–sprung upon us as suddenly and unpreparedly as possible” (60).

About Sir Walter Scott’s “Proud Maisie,”  Richards notes, “Here are the same grim surprises: the same sudden reversals and the same polarities of Love and Death” (61). Then Richards offers this terrifying little gem, a motto from the beginning of a chapter from chapter ten of Scott’s A Legend of Montrose:

Dark on their journey frowned the gloomy day.
Wild were the hills, and doubtful grew the way.
More dark, more gloomy and more doubtful showed
The mansion which received them from the road. (62)

Glorious! Terrifying! Terribly ironic! Ah! This is how so many great horror movies have begun…! While I’m very glad my bookshelf wanderings led me to this today, I wish a bit that I’d discovered this in autumn, closer to Halloween. Ah, well: we are a few days past the solstice’s turn, so, even though it’s not yet fully registered, the days are getting shorter–down, down, down, deeper deeper…

Richards closes with two additional ballads. I’ll close with them, as well. I hope you enjoy the strange, dark gifts of these grimly surprising plots–!

“The Unquiet Grave” [The version Richards uses differs slightly from this one, but you’ll get the gist…]

“Faithless Nelly Gray”

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Saigyo’s Turns

16 06 2018

西行法師

Two weeks ago, I wrote about my encounter with the waka of Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu through Jane Hirshfield’s translations in The Ink Dark Moon, focusing on the vital presence of the turn in those poems. I’ve recently finished reading William LaFleur’s wonderful Awesome Nightfall: The Life, Times, and Poetry of Saigyo, and again I find myself largely taken with the poetry, and largely because of the various and fascinating turns at work (and play) in it.

Born Sato Norikiyo, Saigyo (1118-1190) was first a warrior, but then in 1140 set aside secular life to become a Buddhist monk, at which point, as W. S. Merwin notes, “[T]he remainder of his life was devoted to the relation between the secular world and Buddhist practice, between Buddhist ideals and poetry and the love of nature.”

Saigyo’s poems often revolved around, turned upon, the tensions, paradoxes, difficulties, and occasional glorious insights cast upon and/or afforded him by his own life’s turn to Buddhism. He writes about the contrast and painful continuations of his former life. He often writes of seeing in the world the vast power of transience, and he often acknowledges the irony of this.

There are dialectical argument turns:

Those promises
made in the past to you
now run up against
this recoiling heart of mine:
suffering lies in the conflict. (122)

*

A ricefield, a hermitage, and a deer:

Quiet mountain hut
by a rice patch…till a deer’s cry
just outside startles me
and I move…so startling him:
we astonish one another! (93)

[Concerning the above prose preface and the many others found in Saigyo’s oeuvre, LaFleur notes, “[T]o a degree not seen in any other poet of his time, he prefaced many of his verses with prose introductions that located his writing in time, space, and occasion” (2).]

*

There are negative dialectical argument turns:

In spring I spend day
with flowers, wanting no night;
it’s turned around
in fall, when I watch the moon
all night, resenting the day. (77)

There are ironic turns:

Propped up by my cane,
I hobble along remembering
my boyhood when
I loved playing horseman
on a piece of long bamboo. (58)

*

Each and every spring,
blossoms gave my mind its
comfort and pleasure:
now more than sixty years
have gone by like this. (131)

*

Lovers’ rendezvous
slowly ends with many vows
to let nothing come
between them…then, as he moves off,
rising mists hide him from her. (92)

*

When, at this stage
of world-loathing, something captures
the heart, then indeed
the same world is all the more
worthy…of total disdain. (104)

*

Here in these mountains
I’d like one other who turned
his back to the world:
we’d go on about the useless way
we spent our days when in society. (150)

*

People pass away
and the truth of the passing world
impresses me
now and then…but otherwise my dull
wits let this truth too pass away. (129)

*

A great calamity shook society, and things in the life of Retired Emperor Sutoku underwent inconceivable change, so that he took the tonsure and moved into the north quarters of Ninna-ji Temple. I went there and met the eminent priest Kengen. The moon was bright, and I composed the following poem:

Times when unbroken
gloom is over all our world…
above which still
presides the ever-brilliant moon:
sight of it casts me down more. (27-28)

And, just as in The Ink Dark Moon, there are many poems that attempt to read the lessons of impermanence in the natural world, and so they employ the metaphor-to-meaning turn or else the turn of the emblem structure:

When a man gives no
mind to what follows this life,
he’s worse off than
that tree trunk standing in a field:
no branch or twig anywhere. (113)

*

My body will somewhere fall
by the wayside into a state of
sleep and still more sleep–
like the dew that each night appears,
then falls from roadside grasses. (108)

*

Delicate dewdrops
on a spider’s web are the pearls
strung on necklaces
worn in the world man spins:
a world quickly vanishing. (128)

*

On a mountain stream,
a mandarin duck made single
by loss of its mate
now floats quietly over ripples:
a frame of mind I know. (147)

*

I thought I was free
of passions, so this melancholy
comes as a surprise:
a woodcock shoots up from marsh
where autumn’s twilight falls. (68)

*

Passion for a blossom that still has not fallen:

Hidden away
under leaves, a blossom
still left over
makes me yearn to chance upon
my secret love this way. (97)

*

Love like fallen leaves:

Each morning the wind
dies down and the rustling leaves
go silent: was this
the passion of all-night lovers
now talked out and parting? (98)

*

A garden sapling
when long ago I saw this pine–
now so grown, its high
branches in their soughing say
time goes and a storm comes. (151)

*

For many springs
I’ve come here to meet
and unite my mind
with the opening blossoms–so
I’m made of many recollections. (142)

*

Scaling the crags
where azalea bloom…not for plucking
but for hanging on!
the saving feature of this rugged
mountain face I’m climbing. (82)

*

I visited someone who had renounced the world and now lives in Saga. We conversed about the importance for our future lives of daily and uninterrupted practice of our Buddhist faith. Returned, I took special notice of an upright shaft of bamboo and wrote this:

Linked worlds,
linked lives: on an
upright shaft
of bamboo, every joint
is strong and straight. (120)

*

I also was intrigued by two poems that employ a “trigger,” that is, that begin in one state and then, due to a triggering incident, end in a different kind of state. (I’ve yet to more fully define this structure, and I’m still identifying more examples; however, one very well-known one is Shakespeare’s “When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,” in which the trigger is the speaker’s happening to think of the beloved.)  Here’s one:

No pock or shadow
on the moon’s face, so just then
I recalled yours–clear–
till tears from my own mind
defaced the moon once more. (101)

And here the trigger is also an amplification:

In deep reverie
on how time buffets all,
I hear blows fall
on a temple bell…drawing out more
of its sound and my sadness. (102)

I’m also very intrigued by a handful of poems that clearly employ the dynamics of the turn, but do so in ways that are more difficult to describe. I’ll, of course, continue to think about them, and perhaps later on may try to describe them, but for now I’ll close with them, letting them speak for themselves.

“Detached” observer
of blossoms finds himself in time
intimate with them–
so, when they separate from the branch,
it’s he who falls…deeply into grief. (80)

*

Finding a cool place in summer at North Shirakawa:

Next to murmuring waters
we’re a circle of friends, no longer
minding summer’s heat,
and cicada voices in the treetops
mix in well with all the rest. (83)

*

On the [hanging] bridge near Oku-no-In at Mount Koya, the moon was unusually brilliant, and I thought back to that time when the priest Saiju and I spent a whole night together viewing the moon from this same bridge. It was just before he left for the capital, and I will never forget the moon that night. Now that I am at exactly the same place, I wrote this for him:

Somehow stretched
from then to now is my love
for you, held on this
bridge of tension between tonight’s
moon and the one I saw here with you. (121)

*

I was in the province of Sanuki and in the mountains where Kobo Daishi had once lived. While there, I stayed in a hut I had woven together out of grasses. The moon was especially bright and, looking in the direction of the [Inland] Sea, my vision was unclouded.

Cloudfree mountains
encircle the sea, which holds
the reflected moon:
this transforms islands into
emptiness holes in a sea of ice. (36)

 

 

 

 

 

 





The Ink Dark Moon

30 05 2018

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While preparing to team teach a course in Japanese poetry and poetics, I have had the great fortune to read The Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Court of Japan, translated by Jane Hirshfield, with Mariko Aratani. The poems (in translation) are marvelous. They are so for a variety of reasons, but key among them is that fact that, through and through, The Ink Dark Moon is a treasure trove of turns.

There are turns of all sorts. There are concessional turns:

Although the wind
blows terribly here,
the moonlight also leaks
between the roof planks
of this ruined house. (124)

There are ironic turns:

I think, “At least in my dreams
we’ll be able to meet…”
Moving my pillow
this way and that on the bed,
completely unable to sleep. (129)

There are questions and answers:

You ask my thoughts
through the long night?
I spent it listening
to the heavy rain
beating against the windows. (107)

There are ironic questions and answers:

If the one I’ve waited for
came now, what should I do?
This morning’s garden filled with snow
is far too lovely
for footsteps to mar. (132)

There are cliche and critiques:

I used to say,
“How poetic,”
but now I know
this dawn-rising men do
is merely tiresome! (63)

However, because the poets often use the natural world as a prism through which to observe and try to understand their inner lives, there are a great number of emblem and metaphor-to-meaning structures:

As pitiful as a diver
far out in Suma Bay
who has lost an oar from her boat,
this body
with no one to turn to. (33)

*

Night deepens
with the sound
of a calling deer,
and I hear
my own one-sided love. (9)

*

A string of jewels
from a broken necklace,
scattering–
more difficult to keep hold of
even than these is one’s life. (141)

*

The dewdrop
on a bamboo leaf
stays longer
than you, who vanish
at dawn. (108)

*

If, in an autumn field,
a hundred flowers
can untie their streamers,
may I not also openly frolic,
as fearless of blame? (39)

*

Like a ripple
that chases the slightest caress
of the breeze–
is that how you want me
to follow you? (25)

*

Last year’s
fragile, vanished snow
is falling now again–
if only seeing you
could be like this. (88)

*

Watching the moon
at dawn,
solitary, mid-sky,
I knew myself completely,
no part left out. (89)

*

The emblematic nature of many of these poems is underscored by the fact that the poems in The Ink Dark Moon often accompanied gifts (acknowledged in headnotes to the poems), and use those gifts as lyric occasions:

Written for a current wife to send to an angry ex-wife, attached to a bamboo shoot

The bamboo’s
old root
hasn’t changed at all–
Is there even one night
he sleeps alone? No. (71)

The drive to make connections between the inner life and the external world is so powerful that it can’t be stopped, despite (supposedly) knowing better:

This heart is not
a summer field,
and yet…
how dense love’s foliage
has grown (103)

*

While all of the above poems employ the emblem or the metaphor-to-meaning turn, I want to share two poems that have at their core the relationship between the inner life and the natural world (conveyed as metaphor) but that turn in different kinds of ways.

The following poem is included among a group of poems mourning the death of Prince Atsumichi:

Remembering you…
The fireflies of this marsh
seem like sparks
that rise
from my body’s longing. (145)

And this particular poem, and the haunting metaphor at its core, terrifies me:

How sad,
to think I will end
as only
a pale green mist
drifting the far fields. (28)

*

I’ve written elsewhere (including here, here, here, and here) of Jane Hirshfield’s important engagements with the turn. In “On Japanese Poetry and the Process of Translation,” an afterword in The Ink Dark Moon, Hirshfield reveals that the turn was an important consideration for her as she translated. Analyzing the ways that one of the poems employs “some of the means by which Japanese poetry attains remarkable depth within a brief utterance,” Hirshfield notes the emblematic / metaphoric element at the core of so many of these poems, stating, “There is the all-pervasive device of intertwining human and natural worlds, in which the natural illuminates the human to keenly felt effect” (166). And Hirshfield goes on to explicitly identify the turn as one of the tools  for making great verse: “There is the two-phase rhetoric, in which occurs the movement of human heart and mind that is essential to any good poem” (166-167).

The front matter of The Ink Dark Moon includes a list of poetry by Hirshfield, and, published in 1990, it contains only two books: Alaya and Of Gravity & Angels. It, thus, is likely the case that Hirshfield’s work with The Ink Dark Moon was an important step on her own journey to understand and craft compelling turns. It certainly feels this way.

Fans of the turn, of Japanese poetry, of Hirshfield, and/or of poetry that, as the book’s introduction states, “illuminate[s]” our lives will find much to admire and investigate in The Ink Dark Moon. Do check it out!





“Beauty”–Full of Turns

25 03 2018

I’m loving this poem: J. Estanislao Lopez’s “Meditation on Beauty.” I admire it for a number of reasons, but chief among them is its wild willingness to turn. This relatively short poem (20 lines) is chock full of twists.

The poem opens with a concessional turn: it’s true, I thought we were done with beauty, but… And then, at “[s]o maybe there’s room…,” the asserted beauty shifts into a kind of emblem’s meditation or moral. The poem, however, is unwilling to rest content here, and challenges its own conclusions, becoming, at “[o]r maybe such beauty…,” ironic, or else entering the condition of negative dialectics. And then the poem turns directionally, to the South, and then it goes deeper, further South and under the Gulf, to end somehow on an image that’s beautiful, and then suddenly, and finally, disconcerting.

What a journey! Check out the poem, and take the ride!





“That electric charge”: Melville Cane’s Turns

7 07 2017

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Some recent research into the history of the structure-form distinction sent me into the stacks, where, as I wandered about, as is my wont, I came across poet Melville Cane‘s Making a Poem: An Inquiry into the Creative Process (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1953). In this book (the full text of which is available here), the poet attempts to offer glimpses into his creative process, from initial inspiration / inkling / idea to drafting, through discussions with friends (I love the record of some of these conversations!–this is such a vital part of the composition process, but also is so often overlooked) and subsequent revisions, to final product.

Of course, I was intrigued to see if there was any discussion, specifically, of the turn in Cane’s book. I’ve been intrigued by the discussion of the navigation of the turn in reflections by poets such as Linda Gregerson, Billy Collins, and Mark Doty. I wanted to see if Cane had similar interests. He does–often Cane reveals that an important part of the art of poem-making is the work to make compelling turns.

In chapter one, “Making a Poem,” Cane describes his process for making his short poem “One by One.” When most of the poem, which describes falling leaves, is complete, Cane notes that it still needs something:

I had induced the mood, found the right line-by-line pace, suggested the low, seasonal disintegration, but had yet to infuse the whole with that emotional glow, that electric charge without which a poem fails to come off and to be memorable to the reader. I needed a vivid, poignant image to sum up and crystallize the sense of pain and beauty, an image which must be relevant and extracted from the materials at hand. And so, as I refelt the experience and brooded on it, there came to me this picture:

Golden birds
With broken wings.

I had done what I set out to do. (7-8)

In chapter two, “Threshold to Creation,” Cane discusses creating his poem “Too Deleble, Alas!” While the chapter focuses on the poet’s efforts to achieve a state of detachment and receptivity, the focus at chapter’s end turns to the poem’s end, the making of the turn. The poem describes night descending and the fading of light, and then, at line 14, this sonnet-like poem turns to offer a final summation:

Not a thing the eye can shape
Can escape. (14)

Believing the poem essentially done, Cane shows it to his friend John Erskine who likes it but also offers some feedback. Erskine states:

It’s about those last two lines. You’re dealing here with the swift, almost imperceptible, transition from light to dark, and you’ve registered this fleeting change in the right tempo until you come to the final couplet. Then, instead of closing sharply you slow down with “can shape” and “can escape.” The lines are too leisurely. Instead, they should move with the utmost rapidity. You need to accelerate the speed. (14)

Thus, the last two lines become:

Not a thing the eye shapes
Escapes. (15)

Cane sums up his chapter by saying that it “is the story of the application of my theory that psychological preparation and adjustment of the poet is a prerequisite to composition” (15). But the chapter also is about being open to revision, especially when that revision will help make your poem better make its turn.

In chapter four, “Random Observations,” Cane remarks, “And of course one must be sure to know when to stop. One is often too close to the poem to realize that the final stanza is superfluous and weakening” (24-5). (I’m intrigued by how much of Cane’s thought and work aligns with John Card’s thinking about the turn. Read about Ciardi and the turn here.)

In chapter nine, “Slow Germination,” describes Cane’s process of making the poem “A Harvest to Seduce.” Yet again, a crucial part of the process seems to have been the negotiation of a turn. Much of what gave rise to the poem was negative, and much of the poem is a dark meditation on what time takes from us. Crane realized his thinking, and the poem itself needed to be re-oriented:

…I concluded that I had been obsessed by a sense of defeat and that the moment had arrived when I must come to grips with time and no longer be its slave. How to overcome its beguilement was the problem….My previous turn of mind had been negative, self-destructive. I must loosen its seductive grip. (50)

This is what happens in the poem, which describes the poison fruit of “the tree of time,” with its “harvest to seduce, / Lacking joy or juice,” but then turns in its final stanza to an admonition that begins, “Beware the vain lament, / The hunger for what’s spent…” (51).

In chapter ten, Cane offers “The Story of ‘Bed-Time Story,” a key element of which was closure: “Now I was faced with the task of coming through with an effective ending.” (55) For Cane, this was different from other poems: “‘Bed-Time Story’ is a poem that found its punch line at the very finish; it grew out of the situation as it developed. In this respect the poem differs fundamentally in origin and construction from those which start from a tempting last line and build up hindwise” (55). Cane did go a bit beyond his punch line, adding two-lined footnote to the poem. Cane felt like the poem should “hint that civilization progresses not through the formation of institutions but through the spirit which animates them” (55). He adds, “Besides, I wanted to return to the blissful state of my opening” (55). (I think the the footnote actually is the biggest turn in “Bed-Time Story,” but I disagree about what it does. I think it’s incredibly ironic: I fear the future does not bode well for the animals gathered in the poem’s too-sweet tale. The speaker of the poem, a father, knows this, as well, and when his daughter asks what happens, he leaves it until the next night to put off telling her.)

The book’s final chapter, “‘The Fly’ and Its Problems,” also is primarily about navigating the poem’s turn. The poem considers some different versions of a poem called “The Fly.” “The Fly” is, essentially, a sonnet. It’s got 14 lines (in its second iteration), and it turns sharply between the octave and the sestet. Indeed, in Cane’s poem, there’s a stanza break between lines 8 and 9 (even in its first and final versions, which are 13 lines each). The turn, essentially, is metaphor-to-meaning: the poem begins as being about the plight of a fly bumping into a window, but then turns to reveal that the fly also is largely symbolic of the poet’s own struggle…in large part, to complete the poem. Cane was satisfied with the octave; he states, “Here then, were eight lines, assembled in a compact shape, tentatively, perhaps permanently congenial to me” (101). But where to turn? Cane asks, “What to do next? What sort of structure to build on this base? Should the poem confine itself to the case of the fly? Or should it aim at a wider significance, with general human implications?” (101-2) According to Cane,

The answer came quite unforced as I pondered. It arose out of my own quandary over the next step. Sitting at my desk, with eight lines on the paper before me, I felt stuck, powerless to proceed, yet unwilling to admit failure. And then suddenly it dawned on me that my sense of frustration was basically no different from the fly’s; though the one was physical and the other psychological, we were both in the same boat. And with this flash of recognition came the decision to put myself briefly into the poem, exactly as I appeared to myself at the moment. (102)

I love this! Here we get some more information about the phenomenon of turn creation! In a manner very different from Gregerson’s, which seems largely willed, here Cane’s turning, his arrival at his next two lines (“I sit in my desk to write, / Entrapped by the creature’s plight”) seems more spontaneous and organic. Cane himself emphasizes this point:

Here it should be remembered that this poem did not start from an idea or subject capable of logical development and with the end in constant view from the beginning; on the contrary it grew out of an initial phrase which moved waywardly, gathering accretions with growing concentration on the material. It represents a case where the material, as it develops and hardens, tends to determine or suggest what the poem may be about; thus the theme of the poem, the point of view, comes late. (102)

(It should be noted, though, that in many poems, the point often comes late, regardless of the manner by which it was composed.)

After some clarifying conversations with friends, Cane comes to realize that his poem’s final lines (“It has lost the power of sight; / It has missed the invisible crack, / The gate to the pathway back” (102)) are too “rushed” and thus leave out “an essential element” (105). To slow up the poem, and to allow in some more ambiguity, to leaven the poem’s despair, Cane adds a line, moves some lines, and concludes with two questions. Some important tinkering leads to a third and, perhaps, final version of the poem.

Melville Cane’s poems may not be to the liking of many today. To my knowledge, he is no longer widely read. However, it was a treat to come across his Making a Poem and to see this poet, too, wrestle with the sinewy demands of the turn, to learn a bit about how his turns came into being.

 

 

 

 





Major Turn A”head”!

25 05 2016

SPOILER ALERT: Major ironic turn a”head”!

 





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…!