Billy Collins on “The Ride of Poetry”

6 11 2013

alphaomega

I recently read with great interest “The Ride of Poetry: Collins on Metaphor and Movement,” by Billy Collins (in Contemporary American Poetry: Behind the Scenes, edited by Ryan G. Van Cleave (New York: Pearson, 2003), pp. 66-69).  In this essay (a brief afterword to a selection of his poems), Collins discusses his desire for poems to present him an opportunity for “imaginative travel,” to transport him “into new territory.”

Though Collins does not specifically mention the turn in this essay, it’s clear that the turn is implied.  Turns simply are the ways that poems travel.  Collins states, “In teaching or reading poetry, a question I habitually ask my students or myself is how does the poem get from its alpha to its omega.”  And this sounds a great deal like Randall Jarrell, who states (in “Levels and Opposites: Structure in Poetry,” a lecture focused on issues related to the turn), “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.”

Additionally, Collins simply seems to be a fan of the turn.  He employs the turn again and again in his own work.  (Many poems by Collins appear on this blog’s pages devoted to specific kinds of turns, including “Duck/Rabbit” and “Marginalia.”)  And, as an anthologist, Collins tends to select works that feature prominent turns–I don’t think it’s coincidental that the subtitle to Collins’s influential Poetry 180 is “A Turning Back to Poetry.”

Collins’s “The Ride of Poetry” simply further confirms Collins’s interest in, and deep and abiding engagement with, the turn.  Here are some selections from this essay:

“Of the many pleasures that poetry offers, one of the keenest for me is the possibility of imaginative travel, a sudden slip down the rabbit hole.  No other form can spirit the reader away to a new conceptual zone so quickly, often in the mere handful of lines that a lyric poem takes to express itself.  Whenever I begin to read a new poem, I feel packed and ready to go, eager to be lifted into new territory….

“If we view poetry as an affordable–cheap, really–means of transportation, we can see the development of a poem as a series of phases in the journey, each of which has a distinct function.  The opening of the poem is the point of departure; the interior of the poem is the ground that will be simultaneously invented and covered through a series of navigational maneuvers; and the ending of the poem is the unforeseen destination–international arrivals, if you will….I am hardly alone in saying that the poem can act as an imaginative vehicle, a form of transportation to a place unknown.  But I expect my company would thin out if I admitted that I usually fail to experience the deeper, more widely celebrated rewards of poetry, such as spiritual nourishment and empathetic identification, unless the poem has provided me with some kind of ride….

“I do not mean to suggest that poetry is a verbal amusement park (or do I?) but I do hold up as a standard for assessing a poem its ability to carry me to a place that is dramatically different from the place I was when I began to read it.

“To view a poem as a trip means taking into account the methods that give a poem vehicular capability.  It means looking into the way a poet manages to become the poem’s first driver and thus first to know its secret destination.

“In teaching or reading poetry, a question I habitually ask my students or myself is how does the poem get from its alpha to its omega.  Obviously, the question does not apply to the many poems that exhaust themselves crawling in the general direction of beta….”





Writing a Metaphor-to-Meaning Poem

8 05 2012

Though in my intro to poetry writing class I typically do not focus on the turn until the second half of the semester (there is so much to cover prior to this: creative process, artistic recklessness, the poetic leap, the many means to create surprise, etc), I recently have taken to providing students with an exercise focused on the turn in the first day of class.

After performing the rituals of the beginning of the semester (taking roll, handing out and discussing the syllabus, etc), I introduce my students to the metaphor-to-meaning structure.  We examine a couple of key examples (often Whitman’s clear “A noiseless, patient spider” and Rod Smith’s wild “Ted’s Head”)—I describe the metaphor-to-meaning structure, and I ask students to locate and explain the turn, which they can, and do.  We then examine a handful of metaphor-to-meaning poems in which the turn reveals that the metaphor was meant to stand for or say something about poetry, or the poem, or that poet.  Baudelaire’s “The Albatross” and Zbigniew Herbert’s “The Hen” work very well for this.  We take some time, explore and appreciate these poems, and then I give my students their assignment: write a poem like these—write a poem that opens with a metaphor and closes by revealing that the metaphor (somehow) relates to poetry, poems, or the figure of the poet.  The main bit of advice I give my students is to try to come up with a description of something very different from poetry to serve as the metaphor—much of the fun of reading a metaphor-to-meaning poem about poetry is the surprise that comes with finding out that, in fact, it is in some way about poetry.

This, of course, seems like a lot to give students, especially on the first day.  However, perhaps because it’s the beginning of the semester and everyone is excited to get underway, and/or because students want to begin to describe their orientation to poetry, and/or because, in fact, I keep this a low-stakes assignment (due the next class meeting, in which it is read but not workshopped—if students want to workshop it, they can later in the semester), and/or because no one has yet given such demanding assignments, my students typically have taken this assignment and run with it, and they’ve made some very nice poems as a result.

Here are two student poems that ended up fitting the metaphor-to-meaning structure perfectly.  Yet, even though these poems closely engage the structure, they do so in very different ways.  With the metaphoric status of the blister(-as-poem) remaining a mystery until the end, Anjelica Rodriguez’s “Blister” makes a beautiful kind of surprising sense.  However, the turn in Stephen Whitfield’s “Maturity” is more sudden, more shocking—it resonates with what Rachel Zucker calls the epiphanic structure.

 

Blister

by Anjelica Rodriguez

 

You think only of the pain,

When there is only healing.

 

And now you know how it feels

To write a poem.

 

***

 

Maturity

by Stephen Whitfield

 

Shining vaguely under the water,

She is like the ghost I claimed to see in the attic

Swimming in circles she will never understand

 

She cannot sit still

She cannot close her eyes

She is looking for something anonymous and vital

 

Something absurd and perfect

It catches her eye and she ascends like a raptured priest

Gasping, fighting an inconceivable pull

 

She is alive again only when released

Already semi-desperate to fight it again

 

I miss the urgency of my first poems.

 

***

Some students used the metaphor-to-meaning structure as more of a launching pad.  They ended up creating strong poems, but poems that, in the end, are not actually metaphor-to-meaning poems.  Brittany Gonio’s “My Kind of Poetry” ended up as more of a cliché-and-critique poem.  And I’m frankly not sure what to call Colleen O’Connor’s “Where We Sleep.”  While it clearly is in dialogue with the metaphor-to-meaning structure, it is not, strictly speaking, a metaphor-to-meaning poem.  But, of course, in the end this does not matter—what matters is that it, like the other poems gathered here, is a thrilling, engaging poem.

 

My Kind of Poetry

by Brittany Gonio

 

My kind of poetry

is not an ornate object

on display in an upper class suburban home.

It is not the family jewels

hidden away in a safety deposit box,

for which the children

have only a false appreciation.

My poetry will never cradle me

like goose feathered bedspreads

and waterbed mattresses,

nor will it be the pillow talk

my lover whispers to me

(whether his intention be from his heart

or his groin).

It is not a hospital recovery room

with extended visiting hours

and the promise of being

“just like brand new”

in a couple of days.

 

My poetry is a boxing match

where I never have to look

to the jumbotron to channel

the intensity in my chaotically

coordinated opponent.

Every punch that grazes only air

depletes my resolve and loses support

of my knees.

Every jab met with hard muscle

sends a surge of endorphins

through my knuckles and veins.

I flit through the entirety

of the human spectrum of emotion

in the rounds between bell chimes,

and leave the ring

swallowing tears,

grinning through migraines.

 

My poetry breaks me

repeatedly,

and I,

like a teenage lover,

consistently return to it,

because I am married to it

in a way that has nothing to do

with religion

or income laws,

but in that

“bigger than yourself”

tidal wave revelation.

My poetry has made me

an adrenaline junkie;

I dread building up tolerance,

fear calluses that will hinder sharp stings,

loathe the body’s natural instinct

to protect itself.

For I yearn to sustain

and possess

the awe of aftershocks

each morning as

my fingers glide over

word-shaped bruises,

and chart muscles and flesh

I didn’t know

could feel.

 

***

 

Where We Sleep

by Colleen O’Connor

 

In the field behind his childhood home,

He buried two dogs,

A baby bird,

A stray cat,

The fish he wouldn’t flush,

A few chewed up toys,

And the rabbit

He never got to name.

 

It’s been thirty years.

In a different house,

A different dog skitters on the wood floors.

It growls at the rumbling washing machine,

Sleeps between him and the woman

Who reminds him of his mother.

 

He comes back to the field sometimes,

When the woman is at work and the dog has been fed

And the new backyard feels too small.

 

In the silence, the prairie grass mumbles,

Shifts in the wind,

Soft as the belly of a sleeping bear.

 

In the desk beside his end table,

He buried his poems.

 

He pulls them out sometimes, years later,

Once the woman is asleep and the dogs have been dead for years

And the bed feels too big.

 

In the silence, she mumbles,

Shifts in her sleep,

A shape in the shadows.

 

Under the light of his end table,

He flips the pages,

Unearths six girls,

One man,

A year in Amsterdam,

A tour with the coast guard,

Four bouts of depression,

And the daughter

He never got to name.

 

He holds the poems gently,

Like baby birds.

 

Tiny coffins, they are strangely light

For how much they hold.

 

***

If you like the poems you see here, I hope you’ll give this assignment a try.

For a variant of this assignment, see “Extended Metaphor as Ars Poetica” in Tom C. Hunley’s The Poetry Gymnasium: 94 Proven Exercises to Shape Your Best Verse (30-33).  In this assignment, Hunley suggests simply creating an extended metaphor (using anything that’s not poetry) and then calling the poem “Poetry” or “Ars Poetica.”  A kind of meaning-to-metaphor poem, which can have great result, as well.

***

My thanks to Anjelica, Stephen, Brittany, and Colleen for granting me permission to use their poems.





Close Reading “Close Reading: Windows”

9 01 2011

As I have stated elsewhere on this blog (such as here, and by including many of her poems as exemplars of particular types of turns), poet-critic Jane Hirshfield is one of today’s great advocates and practitioners of the poetic turn.  Hirshfield’s advocacy for the turn continues in her latest, excellent essay on poetry, “Close Reading: Windows” (The Writer’s Chronicle 43.4 (Feb. 2011): 22-30).

Hirshfield begins her essay, stating, “Many good poems have a kind of window-moment in them–a point at which they change their direction of gaze or thought in a way that suddenly opens a broadened landscape of meaning and feeling.  Encountering such a moment, the reader breathes in some new infusion, as steeply perceptible as any physical window’s increase of light, scent, sound, or air.  The gesture is one of lifting, unlatching, releasing; mind and attention swing open to newly peeled vistas.”

Though Hirshfield notes that such window-moments may be momentary elements within a poem, most often the window-moment is associated with the turn.  Hirschfield states, “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.”

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. 

The turn in the final stanza of Philip Larkin’s “High Windows” is the major window-moment in the poem, the place where, according to Hirshfield, the poem “suddenly turns.”  (In Structure & Surprise, Christopher Bakken considers “High Windows” a poem employing an ironic structure.)  

A vital window-moment in Emily Dickinson’s “We grow accustomed to the Dark–“ (a poem that employs a Metaphor-to-Meaning Structure) occurs at the poem’s major turn from metaphor to meaning; as Hirshfield notes, “‘And so of larger–Darkness– / Those Evenings of the Brain– / When not a Moon disclose a sign– / Or Star–come out–within–‘  With these lines, the poem moves into charged terrain.”

In Wislawa Szymborska’s Some People, a poem employing a List-with-a-Twist Structure, the window-moment occurs at the poem’s final twist.  As Hirshfield notes of the poem’s third-to-last line, “With that line’s grammatical knife-twist, certain kinds of awareness we were not even aware had been supressed rush back into the poem.”

The major turn in Czeslaw Milosz’s “Winter,” again, turns out to be its window-moment.  Hirshfield, in fact, calls the poem’s “mid-point turn to the vocative ‘you'” one of “the most breathtaking transitions and window-openings to be found anywhere in poetry, in its intimacy and in what it summons.”

I learned a great deal from “Close Reading: Windows.”  Not the least of this learning came from being introduced to (or reminded of) of some excellent poems with amazing turns in them.  I added Dickinson’s poem to the Metaphor-to-Meaning Structure page and I added Szymborska’s poem to the List-with-a-Twist Structure page after reading Hirshfield’s excellent, informative essay.  Inspired by and agreeing with Hirshfield, I also decided to add Milosz’s poems to the list of poems on Voltage!, the page of this blog devoted to poems that have truly shocking and amazing, truly electric, turns.

I’ve been deeply impressed by some vital new writing on issues intimately related to the turn, writing such as Peter Sack’s “‘You Only Guide Me by Surprise’: Poetry and the Dolphin’s Turn” and Hank Lazer’s “Lyricism of the Swerve: The Poetry of Rae Armantrout” (collected in Lyric & Spirit: Selected Essays 1996-2008).  Jane Hirshfield’s “Close Reading: Windows” certainly takes its place among these important works, doing its part to help reveal the relevance and the significance of the turn in poetry today.





Ted’s Hen

5 07 2010

I’ve included two new poems on the Metaphor-to-Meaning page:

“The Hen,” by Zbigniew Herbert

“Ted’s Head,” by Rod Smith

They’re pretty ironic, as well–good fun…check ’em out!





See Jane Turn

30 07 2009

A cheeky post title, but I couldn’t resist.  For my wordplay, however, I trade in some degree of accuracy: actually, for the past few hours, I’ve been immersed in, and mightily impressed by, Jane Hirshfield‘s poetic turns.

As I note in yesterday’s post, Hirshfield is a writer for whom the turn is of great importance.  In that post, though, I focus on Hirshfield’s criticism.  Having since read much more carefully Hirshfield’s Given Sugar, Given Salt and After, I can also confidently claim that Hirshfield is a poet for whom the turn is of great importance.  Evidence of this can be found on a number of this blog’s pages devoted to discussion of particular kinds of poetic structures (or patterns of turning in poems): Hirshfield has poems that employ the dialectical argument structure, the metaphor-to-meaning structure, the dream-to-waking structure, and a few others.

In fact, in After‘s “Articulation: An Assay,” Hirshfield plainly states:

“…thought is hinge and swerve, is winch, / is folding.”

And this certainly is the case, at least, in her own thoughtful poems.





Metaphor-to-Meaning Poem

8 03 2009

A few posts back, I offered the first two steps of a poem-writing exercise:

“For your subject, decide on a process from nature (think of any branch of the sciences to help you come up with ideas: astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology) or technology (industrial processes, demolitions, etc)–note that this will work best if it’s a process you may be intrigued by but don’t know much about (you may need to do some research–that’s fine!);

2) Describe this process in GREAT detail; and then…”

And here are the final steps:

3) Read about the “Metaphor-to-Meaning Structure,” paying close attention to Baudelaire’s “The Albatross” and Kinnell’s “The Bear”;

4) After your description, turn your poem in the manner of “The Albatross” and/or “The Bear” so that your poem concludes by referencing poetry (and so turns your initial description into a metaphor for poetry).

You may need or want to do some revising–perhaps you can/want to now adjust your initial description a little bit so that it more smoothly “fits” its role as a metaphor for poetry.

For those playing along: sorry to keep you in the dark about what you were going to do with your description, but I think not knowing this is an important part of this process–otherwise, one might write too much with the notion that the description is a metaphor in mind, and so leave out a lot of details and specifics that might help the poem to be of interest.

If you tried this exercise, and you wrote something you liked and want to share, send along a copy–!