The Magic of Misdirection: Hayan Charara on the Poetic Turn

16 05 2018

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In “Otherwise Unnoticed Insights: An Interview with Hayan Charara,” prompted in part by interviewer Zach Savich’s observation that “[i]n your poems, you sometimes guide the reader by using types of misdirection,” poet Charara states,

I like the way you put it—“misdirection.” I’d qualify it by adding that I don’t deliberately guide readers in the wrong direction, just to other ways of seeing. And most of the time, this is because either I can’t quite put my finger on an experience, or else, if I reach something like certainty, it barely lasts long enough for it to sustain me. I’m much more certain about realizing many possible pathways for thinking, feeling, or knowing an experience. If my speaker says, “This is not about pity” [a reference to his poem, “Washing My Father,” quoted earlier by Savich], it may actually be about pity—I’ve looked down that path, saw what I could see, and—for good or bad reasons—decided to keep looking. And I’ll go further: if a poem of mine serves as a guide and actually gets you somewhere, the very next thing you should do is keep looking. I have—I can tell you that.

And then the conversation turns to the turn. Charara states,

Earlier, you’d asked about poetic techniques. The “poetic turn” is another way to talk about misdirection. Some part of the poem (the “preface” if you will, the opening) builds expectation, then it turns against that expectation—or, the same part of the poem provides a description, then the poem “turns” and reflects on the description. Michael Theune’s book Structure & Surprise collects essays by poets—for students of poetry—explaining a variety of “structures” that rely on poetic turns (be they ironic, descriptive-meditative, retrospective-prospective, concessional, and so on). The poems you mention here, I wrote before reading the essays in Structure & Surprise, but these sorts of structures, we find them in poems old as well as new. And no doubt, I inherited the practices (knowingly or not) from the poets I’ve read.

Turns–absolutely!–are everywhere, and there are, so far as I know, few (if any) interesting poets who have not at least intuited the turn’s power and worked to deploy it in their work. Wherever they come from for him, I love (and, frankly, am honored) that Charara connects his poem’s thrilling shifts and twists to the thinking about the turn in Structure & Surprise. Charara himself, indeed, is a master of the turn. If you don’t know Charara’s work, here are a few links to some masterful lists-with-twists to get you started:

“Elegy with Apples, Pomegranates, Bees, Butterflies, Thorn Bushes, Oak, Pine, Warblers, Crows, Ants, and Worms”

“Mother and Daughter”

“Prayer for the Living”

“The Prize”

Do check them out!

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Lauren Schlesinger’s “Turning In & Away”

9 05 2018

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So, this is pretty cool: as part of her degree requirements to earn an MFA at the University of Washington, Lauren Schlesinger wrote a thesis titled Turning In & Away: A Discussion on the Turn from Description to Revelation within Emblem Poems.”

Here’s the thesis’s abstract:

Turning In & Away explores how poets can use the notion of a turn to generate a sense of uncertainty and surprise within emblem poems. Using poems by Gjertrud Schnackenberg, Elizabeth Bishop, and Emily Dickinson, this critical thesis interrogates how the turn between description and meditation can be used to destabilize how a poem is read. Furthermore, this study examines how these turns can be endorsed by other elements of craft besides their placement within and orientation to the dominating structure of a poem’s argument. This essay concludes with a final discussion about how the turn proves to be crucial for establishing the sense of intimacy or sense of distance between the speaker and the object of inquisition. (2)

The poems Schlesinger focuses on are Schnackenberg’s “Advent Calendar,”Bishop’s “Cirque d’Hiver,” and Dickinson’s “There’s a certain Slant of light”–wonderful emblem poems, all.

Schlesinger’s approach is to use the thinking on the emblem poem found in Structure & Surprise as an initial entry into the poem, but then to move beyond this kind of introductory treatment of the structure in order to examine the more nuanced, complex dynamics of the emblem’s turn. As Schlesinger states,

[W]hile explicating poems by Gjertrud Schnackberg, Elizabeth Bishop, and Emily Dickinson, I will investigate how the making and unfolding of an emblem poem is also an investigation into how the poet navigates the relationship between the eye and the mind—such that the mind does not always follow the eye, but always the interplay and dance between them is essential to the emblem poem. (4)

What follows, then, is a close reading of each of the poems. Each reading is attentive, perceptive, and revealing. Anyone interested in the emblem structure will find these readings highly engaging.

Of particular interest, though, is the fact that MFA candidate Schlesinger is clearly intrigued by the emblem poem as a working poet. Schlesinger states,

[I]t is evident that—for me— as I proceed to write emblem poems in the future, I must reconsider how I, too, can modulate the orientation of the speaker to the object—to delay, to fuse, to wrench, or to annihilate the speaker’s consciousness between and from the source that arouses such a meditation. Pace and placement of this turn determine the momentum of surprise. (32)

 

I can’t wait to read Schlesinger’s work! I’ll post what I can of it when I can.

In the meantime, if you’re hungry for more great thinking about turns, check out the contributions made to the Voltage Poetry website by the faculty on Schlesinger’s thesis committee: “Turn, Counterturn and Stand: Music and Meaning in Wallace Stevens’ ‘Autumn Refrain,'” by Pimone Triplett; and “False Turns in Alan Dugan’s ‘Last Statement for a Last Oracle,'” by Andrew Feld.





Turning

8 05 2018

Check out “Turning,” another lovely poem highlighting the turn from poet Daniel Smart.

Be sure to check out all of Dan’s structures and surprises on his poem-a-day (!) site: Rhythm Is the Instrument.





Adam Sol on Jennifer L. Knox’s Leaps and Turns

9 08 2017

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Poet Adam Sol has a cool blog called “How a Poem Moves.” You should check it out.

It’s been around a while–since May, 2016. The site’s first post let’s you know what Sol’s up to: “to write short (~1000 word) essays that introduce a single poem and explain some of what I think makes the poem interesting.”

I came across it at just the right time: when Sol introduced and examined Jennifer L. Knox’s poem, “The New Let’s Make a Deal.” This poem has some wild turns and leaps in it, and Sol makes specific note of them (“[t]he poem makes a big turn at the end of line 13 – from ‘totes bonkers’ to news of a hurricane…”), registering the vital ways that they help to make the poem really move.

In his site’s first post, Sol states, “Part of my motivation is an extension of my teaching: so many people are afraid of contemporary poetry, and I hope these short introductions might help ease that discomfort.” Thus, in his writing on Knox it seems Sol is in agreement with this blog, which has made the case that familiarity with turns can be a key aspect of helping readers productively engage seemingly more difficult poetry.

One of the great texts on the poetic turn is John Ciardi’s How Does a Poem Mean? Sol’s “How a Poem Moves” takes up this interest in the turn in its explication of Knox’s poem. I eagerly look forward to reading more of Sol’s blog to see if the turn is a consistent presence in the site’s analyses. I see there are a number of fourteen-lined poems–sonnets, perhaps? with voltas?–that are discussed so the prospect looks good!





Turning Kids On to Poetry

27 07 2017

This morning, NPR’s Morning Edition aired a fun, lovely, engaging interview of Kwame Alexander (interviewed by Rachel Martin) called “Getting Kids Interested In Poetry.” It’s worth a listen for lots of reasons–the poems’ musicality and pure pleasure, chief among them. However, unmentioned, implicit, but in fact virtually ubiquitous and still ramifying, the turn also is present, and is a vital element in what gives the music its point and the pleasure much of its power. Give it a listen–enjoy the discussion, the poetry, and the turns–!





“blow thou will”: Two Critics Re-structure “Western Wind”

12 07 2017

In a previous post, I wrote about an odd essay by James Longenbach called “Lyric Knowledge.” Here is the paragraph from that post in which I summarize the main thrust and tactic of Longenbach’s essay:

Here is the key idea of “Lyric Knowledge,” which is subtitled “Ideas of order in poetry”: poems offer a different kind of readerly experience when read out of the order in which they are written. That is–to be clear (yes, you did just read correctly what I wrote): again and again in this essay, Longenbach takes poems, restructures them–sometimes putting the final few lines first; sometimes reversing the whole text (with a few, necessary syntactical adjustments) so that what was the final line goes first; what was the penultimate line goes second; what was the third-to-last line goes third; etc–and then claims amazement at the fact that the two texts create different experiences for readers.

I note that Longenbach employs this method with four poems or parts of poems, including “Western Wind,” which he turns from this:

Western wind, when will you blow?
The small rain down can rain.
Christ, if my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again.

to this:

Christ, if my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again.
Western wind, when will you blow?
The small rain down can rain.

I argue, as well, that Longenbach really is concerned with the poem’s structural turning. In fact, he describes the action that takes place in the middle of this “Western Wind” as a “turn.”

It turns out, though, that Longenbach was not the first critic to employ “Western Wind” in this way: in The Poet and the Poem Judson Jerome did something very similar over 40 years ago.

The poem comes up in a discussion in which Jerome is differentiating “two basic elements of poetry, the thing and the thought” (272). After quoting the brief, anonymous lyric, Jerome asks, “What are the reasons for its endurance?” (272) After dismissing the poem’s basic, perhaps universal emotionality as a reason, Jerome also dismisses many of the poem’s formal qualities: its alliteration, rhyme, rhythm (272). According to Jerome, “All this discussion relates to the way in which the poem delicately incorporates its experience, that element I have called thing. But it still does not account for the impact of the poem, and we should look on to thought” (272).

Jerome makes clear that “thought” is not “a moral,” nor is it “some philosophical observation on the nature of love, or its relation to changing weather,” and nor is it “meteorological information” (272). Instead, “thought” is “the shape of the experience of this poem,” a shape which Jerome had previously described as “a large equilateral triangle, upside-down, its base on top and fulcrum on the bottom” (273). Jerome clarifies:

It begins with widespread arms and lifted face, appealing to the elements–as broadly universal and impersonal as possible. The second line narrows the experience from wind to rain, from vague to specific. But we are still talking about the weather. The next ejaculation is not to a force of nature but to a specific God, a man’s god, and the sentence form has changed from a question to an interjection, a subjunctive, imagining a particular resolution; we go from love to my armis [arms] to bed in steady steps of increasing concreteness. (273)

Jerome continues:

It is that shape, that bearing down on the particular, which seems to me comparable to a scientific formula. It is the shape of an experience which you can imitate physically by flinging your arms out, your head back, then, symmetrically, smoothly, sweeping your arms in, as in an embrace, pulling your head forward, until you are all tucked in. That same shape might contain any variety of particular experiences. (373)

Jerome then suggests, “We might turn the poem inside out” and does so, rewriting it thus:

Wer I in my bed again,
My love in my arms entwined,
The smalle raine down might raine,
And blow, blow, Westron wind! (273)

By seeing the poem reshaped, we can see better how strong its original shape made it. Jerome states, “It seems a bit weak by comparison…” (273). However, Jerome also notes, “[B]ut that shape, too, the movement from the personal, intimate, particular, to the wide sweep of the page and general, might well serve as a formula for a poem, the shape of a different kind of experience” (273). Just not the experience which serves as a foundation for “Western Wind.”

Jerome notes, “Both the concrete and abstract, specific and general, must always be present in the poem. I have been discussing so far the poem’s need for shape—a beginning, a procedure, a resolution—with some general applicability to experience” (273). He reminds his readers that a poem’s thought / shape still requires its thingness “diction, imagery, sounds, tone,” but that if all of this can be put together one can see “the difference between the simple greatness of ‘Westron winde’ and the commonplace” (274).

I’m incredibly intrigued that two poet-critics from different generations can come to such similar conclusions using such similar tactics. They’re not identical. Longenbach’s less radical method of rearrangement focuses more on the turn, I think. But they are very similar, and, of course, they use the same example. Perhaps now, we can add two more reasons for the endurance of “Western Wind”: it’s short enough that it’s relatively easy for critics to fully refashion to demonstrate their theories, and yet, within this small size the power of poetic structure / the turn / lyric knowledge / shape–whatever exactly one wants to call it–is contained, and, again and again, released.

 





Alden’s Structure-Form Distinction

11 07 2017

I’ve recently engaged in a project to more systematically investigate whether or not the poetic turn–and, along with it, the structure-form distinction–makes appearances in introductions to poetry and handbooks for poem-making, especially books supposedly focused on poetic forms. I’ve been making what I think are some fascinating discoveries. Chief among them is that the structure-form distinction indeed does exist in a number of the kinds of books I’m exploring. Whether or not there are patterns to these occurrences remains to be seen. For now, it is important to note them, to gather the dots before (possibly) connecting them.

My most recent search has turned up a book that very clearly employs the structure-form distinction: Raymond Macdonald Alden‘s An Introduction to Poetry: For Students of English Literature (Henry Holt and Company, 1909). The book’s table of contents largely reveals that the distinction will be in play. It indicates that the book largely is a book about poetic forms. Of its six chapters, four focus on what are traditionally conceived of as formal issues: “Chapter II: The Classes or Kinds [of poetry” (ix); “Chapter IV: The Basis of Poetry (External),” which focuses on rhythm (xii); “Chapter V: English Metres” (xiii); and “Chapter VI: Rime and Stanza Forms” (xiv). However, it also is clear that something else, another factor will be at play: Chapter III is called “The Basis of Poetry (Internal)” (xi).

This initial indication is borne out in the book. Consider the book’s discussion of lyric (55-73). As a part of this discussion, “Structure of the lyric” (57) is differentiated from “Form of the lyric” (58). Form, as expected, is concerned with lyric’s “musical” aspects (58). However, structure is something different: “Its [lyric’s] structure may be said to depend in part upon its relation to the outer and the inner worlds” (58). While some song-like poems reflect the outer world and other, more “reflective” lyrics convey primarily the inner, “More familiar is the lyric which takes its beginning at a point in the outer world, but passes to the invisible world of emotional reflection; of this type a great example is Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn, which takes its point of departure at the visible object, and passes to profoundly emotional reflection on the immortality of the spirit of beauty” (58). It seems here that Alden is acknowledging the presence and the importance of the turn.

This certainly seems to be the case when he discusses the sonnet in particular:

The sonnet…while a favorite form with many of our greatest poets, is rarely used for other than distinctly conscious and formal expression; at its best, too, it expresses a definite intellectual conception fused with a single emotion. Its two-part structure (in the case of the Italian form) makes it peculiarly fitted for that lyrical movement described on a previous page [58, as noted above], where the impulse takes its rise in the outer world and passes to a point in the inner. (70)

The discussion of the sonnet in Chapter VI (“Rime and Stanza Forms”) also includes a subsection on the sonnet’s “[b]ipartite character” (326): “In the stricter type of the sonnet there is a marked rhetorical pause at the end of the octave, the division representing a twofold expression of a single thought which forms the unifying basis of the form” (326). For Alden,

…those sonnets may well be regarded as the most successful whose form bodies forth the real character of their content. From this standpoint, the Italian type is especially well fitted for the expression of a thought presented first in narrative form, then in more abstract comment (as Arnold’s East London); or, in the form of a simile between two objects or situations (as Longfellow’s first sonnet on the Divina Commedia); or, from the standpoint of two different moods (as Rossetti’s Lovesight); or exemplified in two coordinate concrete expressions (as in Keats’s Grasshopper and Cricket). (327)

Alden then compares and contrasts the Italian and the English forms and structures: “The resulting effect is different in two respects: first, the rime arrangement is more obvious, and more popular in tone, being more readily followed by the ear; second, the structure is more directly progressive, the rime scheme being developed climactically and closing with epigrammatic, summarizing couplet” (328).

Oddly, when he summarizes the “[s]ources of sonnet effects,” Alden essentially drops the sonnet’s structure, stating, “The success and pleasurableness of the sonnet form seem to be dependent upon two elements: the complexity of the rhyme scheme (this applying only to the Italian type), and the fixed length of the whole poem” (330). Alden does, however, note when discussing the sonnet’s relatively brief length that “[i]t is precisely the contrast which it [the sonnet’s relatively small size] presents with the limitless liberty of romantic art, as exhibited in abundant variety of metrical, stanzaic, and rhetorical structure, which gives the restraint of the sonnet its chief charm” (330, my emphasis). Though this seems far too little: the inner structure, it had seemed, contributed greatly to the sonnet’s charm.

If somewhat regrettable, this situation is not unique: many of those who acknowledge the importance of poetic structure and the turn often struggle to articulate their significance. This is the case with Helen Vendler’s Poems, Poets, Poetry, as well as Robert Hass’s A Little Book on Form. Also, while Alden is very consistent, he is not perfectly consistent: the meanings of “structure” and “form” sometimes seem to merge. And, finally, and oddly, Alden does not ever refer to the turn or the volta. And yet, for all of this, Alden’s An Introduction to Poetry clearly and interestingly incorporates major aspects of the structure-form distinction.

In his book’s preface, Alden notes his book’s lack of focus on the structural interior and perhaps too-great focus on formal exterior, stating, “[I]t may be thought unfortunate that the chapters on metrical form should bulk more largely than those dealing with the inner elements of poetry; to which there is only the reply that matters of metrical form appear to be, not the most important, but those that present most difficulty to the student and require the most careful examination of details still under debate” (v). It is my belief that it is now time to bulk up our writing on structure and the turn.