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

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Poetic Structures Workshop

2 01 2012

If you live in or around Austin, Texas, and you want to explore how the poetic turn might encourage new poems or sharpen some drafts you already have, you may want to consider attending “Six Approaches to Structuring a Poem,” a day-long writing workshop led by poet Scott Wiggerman.  Check it out!





Add Excitation to Your Recitation: Attend to the Turn

27 08 2011

W.W. Norton & Company is organizing The Norton Anthology Recitation Contest.  This contest is open to college and high school students worldwide.  Additional information, including rules, can be found here.

Recitation is a demanding–but also very rewarding–art.  At poets.org, John Hollander’s “Committed to Memory” offers some helpful insights into and advice about recitation.

Here, I’d like to offer a simple but also powerful bit of advice to anyone preparing to recite a poem: attend to the poem’s turn.

A turn is a major shift in a poem’s rhetorical and/or dramatic trajectory.   Most poems–certainly most great poems–have turns.  And almost all of the recitation contest’s eight authorized poems have turns in them.  Any skilled recitation needs to communicate the power of the turn.

Writing about the volta–that is, the turn in a sonnet–Phillis Levin states, “[t]he reader’s experience of this turn (like a key change) reconfigures the experience of all the lines that both precede and follow it.”  Thus, when reciting a poem, the performer must know where the turn is–or, turns are–and must be aware of, and communicate, the nature of the turn’s key change: what is the argument and tone of the poem prior to the turn?  how does the argument and tone shift after the turn?

To assist potential performers with this aspect of their recitation, I offer a few notes on the turns in some of the authorized contest poems.  Links to some of the contest’s authorized poems are below.  Each link is followed by a brief discussion of the poem which locates and describes each poem’s major turn(s). 

A few details:

While there certainly are numerous minor–yet still significant–turns in each of the following poems, I will only discuss the major turns, offering what I hope will be a helpful orientation to the poem and introduction to some of the poem’s demands on the performer.

Additionally, I suggest that if you plan to participate in the contest, you should use the versions of these poems found in the Norton anthologies listed on the contest webpage–the Norton judges may be very particular about what edition of a poem is recited.

Sonnet 12 (“When I do count the clock that tells the time”), by William Shakespeare

This poem has two major turns: one at the end of line 8, and one at the end of line 13.  (Notice that there is no major turn at the end of line 12, where one might expect one in a Shakespearean sonnet.  For information on the mobile volta, click here.)

The first turn turns from an account of the omnipresence of aging and death to then consider the beauty of the person to whom the sonnet is addressed, which also will be subject to aging and decay.  The turn here goes from serious to even more serious, from general considerations of mortality to the mortality of the sonnet’s addressee.

The second turn turns from an impossible situation–the truth of the addressee’s mortality–to offer some hope: breed (this word requires a lot of emphasis), that is, have children so that you may brave death when it comes to take you away.

“Death be not proud,” by John Donne

The major turn of Donne’s sonnet occurs right before the sonnet starts.  One needs to imagine Donne’s speaker hearing someone (such as the speaker of Shakespeare’s sonnet, above) talk about how all-powerful death is, making claims the speaker recounts in lines 1 and 2: “some have called thee / Mighty and dreadful…”  

A kind of cliche-and-critique poem, Donne’s whole poem is a turn from thinking death is powerful to offer an alternative vision.  And it needs to be read this way, with emphasis on the words that stress the speaker’s alternative viewpoint.  Take, for example, the first two lines–they need to be read with the following rhetorical stresses:

“Death, be not proud, though some have called thee / [“]Mighty[“] and [“]dreadful[“], for thou art not so…”

(One can imagine scare quotes around “Mighty” and “dreadful”…)

So, the major turn occurs before the poem even starts, but there are some vital, minor turns in the poem.  The speaker turns at the end of line 4 from his almost mocking introduction to offer a picture of how peaceful death–which is no worse than rest or sleep–must actually be.  This new, softer kind of mockery of death ends at the end of line 8.  Lines 9-10 become heavy again, a direct attack on death.  And then comes, again, that softer approach to critiquing death in the next line-and-a-half.  The rest of the poem is explanatory, showing the reasons death should not “swell’st,” that is, get all puffed up with pride, and it is (for the poem’s speaker) glory: death is just sleep until the resurrection.

A great question for anyone thinking about reciting this poem is how to perform its final four words, “Death, thou shalt die.”  Certainly, as the end of the poem is making clear a paradox, “thou” must get a good deal of rhetorical stress, as in, “Surprise, Death: YOU are the one who will die.”  But what’s the voice here?  Is it heavy, growling, antagonistic?  Or is it already victorious, and, so, matter-of-fact?  Try it many ways, and see what works for you.

“Here Follows Some Verses upon the Burning of Our House, July 10th, 1666,” Anne Bradstreet

Bradstreet’s poem has three major turns: one in the midst of line 13, another at the end of line 20, and another at the end of line 36.

The first part of this poem is filled with distress and despair, fright and sadness, mixed with pleas for God’s assistance.  One must imagine a long pause at the end of line 12: the speaker has just realized that her whole house has been destoyed by fire.  But, in line 13, a virtual miracle is in the making: the speaker collects herself and realizes that, even in the midst of such (seeming) loss, she is participating in the playing out of the will of God, of the way things should be.  Again, one needs to pay attention to the rhetorical stresses in this section, especially those needed to make clear the speaker’s new realizations: that all that she had thought she had owned actually all along was God’s.

The next major shift occurs at the end of line 20.  There’s a temporal shift–the poem has moved beyond the night of the fire.  And there’s also an emotional shift: the confidence the speaker felt in the Lord’s will slips when she looks sadly upon the ashes of her house and remembers what life had been like in the house. 

But then, in the pit of despair–having acknowledged that it seems to her that “all’s vanity”–the speaker moves again to acceptance, and even to praise.  This final section–perhaps up until the final two lines, which might be read as summation–should largely be read as an ever-growing crescendo; the speaker, after all, is delivering a sermon, sharing a vision.

“How do I love thee,” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

The major turn in this poem occurs in the middle of line 13.

While any performer will have to work out how to modulate the voice while performing this list, it’s clear that there’s some crescendo from the middle of line 12 to the middle of line 13.  This crescendo suddenly stops, and the speaker, in the space between the words “life!” and “and” (one imagines there must be a significant pause here), realizes that death could end her love, and so prays quietly that God (whom she seemed earlier to have given up on) allow her and her beloved to live on after death.

* * *

Enjoy exploring these poems!  And, if you decide to participate: best wishes in the recitation contest!





Merwin’s Turn

13 06 2011

A recent issue of The New Yorker contains a new poem by W. S. Merwin, called “Turning.”

The publication of “Turning” draws attention (as we will see, once again) to the fact that the turn is vital to this major poet.

Much has been made of the fact that Merwin has a very specific poetic vocabulary.  In “The Present Voices: W. S. Merwin since 1970” (in W. S. Merwin: Essays on the Poetry, edited by Cary Nelson and Ed Folsom), Thomas B. Byers notes that Merwin deploys a particular set of “disembodied icons,” including “doors, birds, glass, clouds, eyes, hair, ash, dust, statues, wings, water, stone, feet, bells, fire, veins” (251).  And, in their introduction, Folsom and Nelson note that “[Helen] Vendler identified a ‘Merwin dictionary’ of word-talismans” (14).  Most of the lists drawn up of Merwin’s word-talismans are lists of nouns, of things.  However, were one to include in these lists verbs (or words that are most often used by Merwin as verbs) deployed by Merwin, “turn” would definitely make the cut. 

“Turn” and derivations of the word (“turns,” “turned,” “turning”—not to mention all the versions of the word “return”) are conspicuously present in Merwin’s poetry.  Dozens of Merwin’s poems employ the word, or derivations of the word, “turn.”  Many of Merwin’s poems employ “turn” or its derivations multiple times; an incomplete list of these poems includes: “Song” (The First Four Books of Poems 62-3), “On the Subject of Poetry” (First Four 109), “Canso” (First Four 131-35), “River Sound Remembered” (First Four 190), “Fog” (First Four 212-13), “The Frozen Sea” (First Four 227), “Sailor Ashore” (First Four 228), “Blind Girl” (First Four 257-8), “Cuckoo Myth” (The Second Four Books of Poems 200-201), “A Door” (Second Four 245-7), “Fox Sleep” (The Vixen 3-6), “Gate” (The Vixen 7), “End of a Day” (The Vixen 25), “The Shortest Night” (The Vixen 57), “The Marfa Lights” (The Pupil 11-13), “Migrants by Night (The Pupil 14-15), “To the Morning (1)” (Present Company 71), “To a Friend Turning Fifty” (Present Company 118-19), “To Paula” (Present Company 131), and “Near Field” (The Shadow of Sirius 83).  Additionally, the second section in Finding the Islands, named for one of the poems in the section, is called “Turning to You,” and Travels contains another poem called “Turning” (135).

Turning has multiple meanings for Merwin.  Turning very often is an important part of the subject of Merwin’s poems.  For the Buddhist Merwin, turning—the turning of the world from day into night into day again, the turning seasons, transformation / turning into, returning / turning back, and the way in which turning away invariably turns into turning toward—is an essential part of the transient, ever-changing world.  

Turning in Merwin’s poetry also often means formal turning.  Merwin’s poems, like almost all poems, turn at the end of their lines to the beginning of the next line—it is precisely this movement that allows poetry to be called “verse.”  (The formal turn is perhaps more palpable in Merwin’s poems than in the work of most poets due to the unpunctuated run of his lines—the line break’s turn, thus, is clearer because punctuation creates no other competing breaks in the line.)

However, while Merwin’s formal accomplishments, including his mastery of formal turning, have been widely commented on, much less commented on has been the structural turning of Merwin’s poems: the turn in Merwin’s poem also often refers to the enactment of a major shift in a poem’s rhetorical and/or dramatic trajectory. 

Sometimes, Merwin even acknowledges this kind of turn by employing the word, or, again, derivatives of the word, “turn” as he makes this kind of structural maneuver.  Such self-reflexive turning occurs in poems such as “Proteus” (First Four 110-12), “Fog” (First Four 212-13), “Sailor Ashore” (First Four 228), “The Different Stars” (Second Four 136-37), “Ascent” (Second Four 188), “To the Hand” (Second Four 267-8), “The Flight” (Flower & Hand 66), “To the Dust of the Road” (Present Company 48), “To the Margin” (Present Company 75), and “To the Morning (2)” (Present Company 121).

It is time we follow Merwin’s lead, and recognize more consistently how invested in the structural turn he is.  Of course, some critics already have recognized this aspect of Merwin’s craft.  Helen Vendler and Marjorie Perloff, each recognize Merwin’s tendency to turn and skill with structural turning. 

In her review of The Shadow of Sirius, Vendler feels moved to see some of that book’s poems—“One of the Butterflies” and “Youth in Grass”—as sonnets even though, formally, the poems, of 13 and 15 lines, respectively, are not sonnets.  Vendler recognizes these poems as sonnets in part because they look like sonnets but also because they act like sonnets, because they have structural turns, which, in sonnets, are called voltas.  Of “One of the Butterflies,” Vendler notes, “I could print these thirteen lines as a quasi-sonnet…thereby suggesting it European lineage and its division into a problem (the timing of pleasure) and a conclusion (its elusiveness past and present)” (37).  And Vendler describes “Youth in Grass” as “a fifteen-line sonnet-like meditation…on the rapidity with which…a year turns from spring to autumn” (38).  Vendler states, “The most salient aspect of the Merwin mind in meditation is its tenacity to its perplexity.  Nothing can interrupt it once it has located its chosen difficulty—whether in perception, in thought, in human relations, or in memory” (38).  I think Vendler’s insight is accurate; I would only add that a major part of Merwin’s tenacity is the accomplishment of the turn.

In her own way, Marjorie Perloff makes a similar case.  In her 1987 essay “Apocalypse Then: Merwin and the Sorrows of Literary History,” Perloff critiques the notion that Merwin’s work might accurately be linked to or described with “phrases like ‘prophecy’ or ‘negative mysticism’ or ‘naked poetry’ or ‘the opening of the field’” (Essays 143).  Instead, Perloff makes the case that Merwin’s poetry “carried on the tradition of the well-made poem,” a kind of poem marked by “authorial control” (134).  While Perloff comments on Merwin’s formal control, she consistently roots Merwin’s authorial control in structural control, in the management of turns.  For example, Perloff initiates her examination of the “strong sense of closure” in Merwin’s “For the Anniversary of My Death” by discussing the structural motion of the poem, stating, “The first stanza (five lines) describes what happens “Every year”; the second (eight lines) refers to “Then” (when I will be dead)” (134).  Further on in her analysis, Perloff makes the case that “[t]he poem’s closure is reflected in its formal verse structure” (135).  Perloff concludes her analysis with the claim that “‘For the Anniversary of My Death’ is thus a very elegant, well-made poem; it has a finish that would be the envy of any number of poets…” (136). 

And the other two poems Perloff scrutinizes also have turns.  Perloff makes this clear in her discussion of “Beginning of the Plains,” about which she notes that the first line of that poem’s final stanza “marks the turn” (140).  And “Dusk in Winter,” the poem that Perloff suggests is exemplary of Merwin’s accomplished work, also contains a clear turn, one that pivots at the beginning of the fourth line, on the transition from day to night: “The sun sets in the cold without friends / Without reproaches after all it has done for us / It goes down believing in nothing / When it has gone I hear the stream running after it / It has brought its flute it is a long way” (qtd. in Essays 142).

What is it that Merwin is after with his deployment of structural turning?  Surprise.

Surprise is vital to Merwin.  In a 1947 letter to Ezra Pound, Merwin offers the reason he prefers Personae to The Cantos, claiming that there is more “sheer poetic magic” in Personae, and he defines poetic magic as “that element of perpetual and delicious surprise” (qtd. in Essays 358).  And surprise is a key element of Merwin’s poems.  In “Reading Merwin Semiotically,” Robert Scholes, who states that a semiotic reading, in part, views the poem as “achieving poetic status by violating certain kinds of expectation” (Essays 65), reads three earlier poems by Merwin and shows the way in which they all deliver (often multiple) surprises.  In a discussion of some of Merwin’s earlier poems in his Understanding W. S. Merwin, H. L. Hix notes that these poems employ myth “as a set of expectations to subvert” (33).  In Merwin’s “To Dido,” what the poem is made out of–or what the poem is–is, in part, “a still place of perpetual surprise” (First Four 139).  Merwin’s “The Blind Seer of Ambon,” in which the blind seer is a figure for the poet, concludes: “everything takes me by surprise / it is all awake in the darkness” (Travels 4).

W. S. Merwin is one of the great poets of the turn, of structure and surprise.  I’m at work on developing these ideas in an essay, focusing on Merwin’s The Shadow of Sirius, which I’m co-authoring with Mark Halliday for a book on Merwin’s more-recent poetry, a book edited by Kevin Prufer and Jonathan Weinert, forthcoming from WordFarm Editions.  I hope you’ll check it out.





Helen Vendler: Approaching the Turn

8 06 2011

One of this blog’s key arguments has been that more concerted efforts to differentiate poetic structure and poetic form and to more systematically examine poetic structure would benefit the practices of conceptualizing, reading, writing, and teaching poetry.  (For information on the structure / form distinction, click here.)

I’m not the only one to think this.  Many of those who write poetry textbooks agree.  However, though they agree, their books often fall short of advocating for increased attention to poetic structure, and its attendant turn–and not only to the extent that I hope for but also to the extent that their own texts seem to suggest is proper.

Here, I would like to consider Helen Vendler’s Poems, Poets, Poetry: An Introduction and Anthology.  In this textbook, Vendler maintains the structure / form distinction—though her maintenance of the distinction involves some overlap in terminology—recognizing that, on the one hand, “[a] poem can…be classified according to various aspects of its outer form, having to do with meter, rhyme, and stanza-form” (117) and that, on the other hand, “[b]esides its outer form (“This is a poem in quatrains in falling rhythm rhyming aabb”—a description of Blake’s “Tyger”), every poem has internal structural form” (119).  (Please note that though Vendler’s book is in its third edition, I cite from my copy of the second edition.)

Vendler describes inner structural form as a poem’s “dynamic shape, which derives from the curve traced by the emotions of the poem as they change over its duration” (119).  Though Vendler never uses the word “turn,” this shape clearly concerns a poem’s turning; according to Vendler, “That emotional curve is plotted by connecting two, three, or more points of the poem, a rise from depression to hope to joy, for instance—or a decline from triumph through doubt to despair.  Very few poems represent an unchanging steady state of the same emotion all through” (119).  The emotional trajectory Vendler cites here is a pattern of poetic turning that I call the “Dejection-Elation Structure.”  Additionally, Vendler notes, “In investigating the internal structure of a poem, one should try to divide it into parts along its ‘fault lines.’  Where does the logic of the argument seem to break?  Where does the poem seem to change from first person to second person?  Where does the major change in tense or speech act take place?” (120)  In asking readers to locate a poem’s “fault lines,” Vendler seems to ask readers to identify and track the poem according to its turns.

Vendler then proceeds to offer a cursory list of internal structural forms.  She notes that “[s]ome poems are two-part (binary) poems, like William Wordsworth’s ‘A slumber did my spirit seal’ (which we saw changing from illusion to stern knowledge) or like Dickinson’s ‘The Heart asks Pleasure—first—’ (which we saw changing its conception of God from benevolence to cruelty” (119).  Vendler also notes that “[t]here are also many three-part (ternary) poems, which often take on the internal structure of beginning, modulation, and end (a song-form preserved in lyric),” and, additionally, that “[o]ne well-known internal structure is that of the ‘surprise’ ending, where the last few lines reverse everything that has gone before” (119).  Additionally, according to Vendler, “Internal forms are infinitely variable, since they represent emotional response, always volatile” (119).  Such a list seems like the beginning of the list (constantly under construction) of poetic structures, patterns of poetic turning, located here.

Indeed, for Vendler, mapping a poem’s internal structural form, and an inner structural form very much focused upon the turn, is key to the process she refers to as “Exploring a Poem” (125).  In this process, in which Vendler names a total of 13 elements of the poem for a reader to examine in order to explore a poem—including 1. Meaning; 2. Antecedent Scenario; 3. A Division into Structural Parts; 4. The Climax; 5. The Other Parts; 6. Find the Skeleton; 7. Games the Poet Plays with the Skeleton; 8. Language; 9. Tone; 10. Agency and Speech Acts; 11. Roads Not Taken; 12. Genre, Form, Rhythm; 13. Imagination—at least five have to do very directly with deciphering and determining the poem’s internal structural form: the division into structural parts; the climax; the other parts; find the skeleton; and games the poet plays with the skeleton.  For example, regarding “The Other Parts,” Vendler states, “About each part it is useful to ask how it differs from the other parts.  What is distinctive in it by contrast to the other members of the poem?  Does something shift gears?” (127)  And, regarding “Find the Skeleton,” Vendler essentially instructs readers to decipher the poem’s inner structural form; she asks, “What is the dynamic curve of emotion on which the whole poem is arranged?” (128)

While Vendler’s book does an admirable job of trying to advance structure alongside form, there are, however, problems with this aspect of Vendler’s textbook.  One problem is that it does not advance structure consistently.  “Structure,” or “structural,” means many things to Vendler.   “Inner structural form,” remember, is “dynamic shape, which derives from the curve traced by the emotions of the poem as they change over its duration.”  However, in the section called “Structure,” structure is defined as something more intellectual or logical; Vendler states, “The structures of a poem are the intellectual or logical shapes into which its thoughts are dynamically organized” (82).  Additionally, according to Vendler, one discovers a poem’s structures—according to Vendler, “Any overarching structure can have many substructures” (82)—by looking for patterns, but these patterns are everywhere and on every scale: “Patterns occur at many levels in poetry, just as they do in the physical universe: one can look for patterns in subatomic behavior, in atomic behavior, in molecular behavior, and so on, all the way up to the patterns of the planets and the stars” (83).  And, in the end, structure can be just about anything, including form; Vendler concludes her discussion of “Structure,” stating, “The important thing is to be accustomed to looking, in any poem, at several levels—the sound, the rhythms and rhymes, the grammar, the images, the sentences, the plot, the assertions, the allusions, the self-contradictions.  Somewhere the energy of the poem awaits you.  The moment you see the main and subordinate patterns, you smile, and it ‘all makes sense’” (87).

Another problem with Vendler’s advocacy of structure is that, for however much Vendler recognizes the importance of the non-formal organizational elements of a poem, she tends to give form precedence over these elements, including structure and its turn.  For example, the discussion of “Structure” comes after discussions of both “Rhythm” and “Rhyme”—and a discussion of “Argument” comes even later.  Additionally, in the section called “Classifying Lyric Poems” in the chapter “Describing Poems,” Vendler notes that “[l]yric poems themselves are generally classified in three ways: by content, by speech act, and by outer form” (110).  This, however, also is the section of the book that includes discussion of “Inner Structural Form,” a discussion that, with little commentary, simply gets tacked onto the previous discussion of “Outer Form.”

A final problem—or, perhaps, difficulty—with her advocacy of structure is that, perhaps as a result of the shiftiness of what structure is, Vendler never manages, in my opinion, to be clear about how knowing about structure can deeply inform one’s reading of a poem.  That is, though Vendler suggests that the main pattern, the structure, seems to have a lot to do with major transitions in a poem, how the poem moves, she is not explicit about what a poem’s “main pattern” is.  And, beyond this, there is never any detailed discussion of what the significance of these shapes are, why they are worth examining.  In large part because it never embraces structure and the turn—not even to the extent that I might want it to, but even, only, to the extent that its own discussion of poems suggests that it should—and because it never gets clear on the centrality of the turn for its system, Vendler’s discussions of “structure” and the “structural” tend to be a bit confusing, both offering imprecise or simply too numerous tools for finding structure and not offering enough for people to actually know what they are looking for when looking for structure, or exactly why they are looking for it.

Vendler’s Poems, Poets, Poetry reveals the desire of one major critic to differentiate structure and form.  It also reveals, however, that this desire alone is not quite enough to do the job of significantly differentiating structure and form.  For this, I believe more needs to be done.

I believe we–readers, poets, critics, teachers–have to get very clear in our use of the terms “structure” and “form,” or else things will continue as they so far have, with structure seeming some amorphous, secondary derivative of form.

I believe structure has to be linked to something vital and distinctive—something singular—in poetry, and that is the poetic turn.

I believe that we need to present the turn not only as something that is important in what poems are and how poems work but also as something that—just as form has its own vocabulary and grammar, or, if you will, its own lingo: iambic, trochaic, pentameter, slant rhyme—has its own vocabulary and grammar, its own intricacies.  My reasons for believing this are, on the one hand, substantive—I think that the developing vocabulary and grammar of the turn describes real and significant aspects of poems—and, on the other hand, pragmatic—form may tend to get more attention in our textbooks largely because it has a well-developed terminology, and thus, a more well-developed terminology (beyond Vendler’s cursory list of inner structural forms) may help give structure the attention it deserves.

I believe that, for as much work as the above seems, once this work is done it will greatly open up–and deepen–the conceptualization, reading, writing, and teaching of poems.  What is a poem?  Language that turns.  How do I read a poem?  Track the turns.  How do I write a great poem?  Create language that turns thrillingly.  How do I teach poems?  Take the turn into account.  Of course, these answers are incomplete, but they are vital and new, and I believe such answers will add significantly to the appreciation and creation of, the conversation about, poetry.





Jeremy Tambling’s RE: Verse–Turning towards Poetry

31 05 2011

For years, I’ve thought that an important next step for educating poetry readers about the turn would be to incorporate, and perhaps even highlight, the turn in an introduction to poetry textbook.  So far, this has been done only once, in John Ciardi’s How Does a Poem Mean?  In that book, the final chapter—but also the chapter that Ciardi refers to in his introduction as the most important one—“The Poem in Countermotion” focuses on turns in poems, though Ciardi refers to the turn as the “fulcrum.”  Ciardi’s book, however, was published in 1959—and his focus on the turn was not picked up on by any subsequent introduction to poetry textbooks.

Needless to say, then, I was heartened to see Jeremy Tambling’s RE: Verse—Turning towards Poetry.  The book’s title, at least, indicated that there might be some focus on the turn in the book.  And there is, but, alas, just some.  However, seeing what happens to the turn—how it is both raised as a topic of conversation, and then elided—in RE: Verse can be instructive.

The turn comes up on page one of RE: Verse.  Defining “verse,” Tambling writes,

“[I]t comes from the Latin versus, meaning “a line or row, especially a line of writing (so named from turning to begin another line), verse, from vertere to turn” (Oxford English Dictionary).  Verse means both a line of writing and the turn by which another line is reached, going from line to line.  In English, the turn at the end of the line on the right hand edge of the page means a reverse back to the left.  Verse and reverse: the turn turns back.”

It is important to note here that the turn is an element of the poem’s form.  However, the term “turn” quickly comes to mean other things, as well.  According to Tambling, though it may consist of only one line, Japanese waku can still be thought of as turning, so “you may have to look for the turn inside the one line itself.”  Tambling, however, is not clear how one would find this turn in a one-line poem, and he further complicates his use and sense of the turn when, after having quoted three lines from Paul Muldoon’s “Incantata” (“I thought again of how art may be made, was it was by Andre Derain, / of nothing more than a turn / in the road…”), he notes, “This book starts with the proposition that poetry is always a form of turning, and if for Paul Muldoon it is a “turn in the road,” then the way the poem twists and turns will suggest a very winding path.”  How would a formally twisting and turning poem suggest a very winding path?  Would it slither down the page in the manner of, say, an e.e. cummings poem?

But this is not what Tambling means by the “very winding path” of the poem—virtually all of the poems he cites at length in RE: Verse left-justified.  Tambling, in fact, is interested in helping readers recognize, and recognize the importance of, structural turns in poems.  (For information on the difference between form and structure, click here.)

The first poem Tambling examines closely is William Blake’s “London.”  In a sentence immediately following his observation that “the way the poem twists and turns will suggest a very winding path,” Tambling introduces his discussion of “London” by noting that “[w]riting poetry often plays on this idea of turning.”  And his discussion of the poem, when it focuses on the turn, focuses on the structural turn.  Tambling asks of the poem, “How shall we approach it?”  And his first of a few “hints” he offer is: “[L]ook for the turn: the moment where the poem changes direction, or shape.  (There may be more than one turn, of course.)  Nearly all poetry will have such a turn…”  Tambling also eventually locates the poem’s major turn (notice that there are not 15 turns, as one might expect if turns occurred as one line turned into the next) at the beginning of the fourth stanza, about which he writes: “[S]tarting with “But most” indicates a turn, a new emphasis, something different from the first three stanzas.”

The second poem Tambling examines closely is William Wordsworth’s sonnet “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802.”  Discussing the sonnet, Tambling, quoting Paul Muldoon’s interview with Lynn Keller, states,

“The sonnet began as an Italian form in the thirteenth century, and the word implies a song.  The Italian, or Petrarchan sonnet, of which this [“Westminster Bridge”] is one, is divided by a pause, or a turn, into eight lines followed by six.  Paul Muldoon, who like many other modern poets, has written many sonnets, speaks in an interview about the “thought process of the sonnet”.  “You establish something and then there’s a slight change”, he says; and he associates this change with “the turn”….”

And speaking of the shift from octave to sestet in “Westminster Bridge,” Tambling states, “We have already noted a break at that point, and when reading poetry, any such turn, change of tone, or of approach, should be noted.”

Tambling clearly believes that knowledge of the structural turn is vital for reading poetry.  However, the attention he pays to the structural turn is less systematic and more sporadic.  In his book’s second chapter, “Five Ideas for Reading,” Tambling offers “five points, or principles, for reading” poetry—but a principle such as “look for turns” is not included in this list.  Even though, it should be added, that there are plenty of poems featuring turns in them that follow Tambling’s list of principles.

Why this assertion and (unintentional, it seems…) denial of the power of the structural turn?  I can only speculate, but I offer a few ideas.

First, it seems as though seeing turns and their importance is not enough.  We need to continue to develop and teach the language, the grammar, of turning.  It’s not that poems simply turn, it’s that, often, they turn in identifiable ways, ways which, once recognized, greatly help one see what’s going on in a poet, or, as Ciardi puts it, how a poem means.

Additionally, we need to think more about the ways that assessment influences what we teach when we teach poems.  Tambling wrote his book with some specific audiences in mind.  While being attentive to the needs of a general reader Tambling has written with a target audience in mind; he states, “I have tried, in writing, to consider the needs of people starting with poetry at GCSE, where anthologies of poetry are frequently set, and people working on specific poets for A Level.  I have tried to work with questions that undergraduates will want to know answers to…”  It could simply be that the exams for which Tambling prepares many of his readers do not concern themselves much with the identification and discussion of turns, so turns, while acknowledged, are not focused on.

Overall, Tambling’s RE: Verse reminds us that we need to revise the ways we discuss and teach poetry.  His good, but also problematic, book reminds us that to talk seriously about structural turns in poetry we have to be ready to allow the turn to let us talk about different poems differently.  We must be willing ourselves to be transformed by the turn.





I Do…like Dialectical Arguments

25 01 2011

I just came across Nick Laird’s Epithalamium last night, while reading some recent issues of The New Yorker (January 24, 2011).  A really fun poem.

The poem makes great use of the dialectical argument structure, its shuttling back and forth between “you” and “I” is a constant consideration and reconsideration of thesis and antithesis.  And the conclusion (“or I am, or you are”) is an effort at synthesis, suggesting that the “you” and the “I” are united in that they, in fact, are potentially (for all their wild specificity) the same.

I think Laird’s poem is incredibly teachable.  For insights on how to encourage and guide students to write a poem like this, check out this blog’s “Teaching Collaborative, Dialectical Argument Poems” page.