Poetic Turns in the Lyric Essay

1 02 2016

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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…!





Upcoming Workshop on the Turn

1 02 2016

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In Denver on March 5? Want to learn more about and even try your hand at some poetic turns? Sign up for “Poetic Turns,” a day-long workshop led by Lynn Wagner.

Here’s the workshop description:

In this craft-centered class, we will explore ways to change direction using rhetorical moves and poetic structures. We’ll make lists with a twist, become ironic, switch it up halfway through and be concessional—not confessional. Inspired by Michael Theune’s Structure & Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns, a book recommended by Kim Addonizio on her visit to Lighthouse, the craft shack is the perfect place to make and play—exercises, experiments, and mini workshops. Poets and prose writers both welcome. Get ready for a revolution.

Lynn Wagner is the right person to lead such a workshop. She’s expert with the turn–just check out her poem “Black Dog / White Snow.” And then read more of her work on her website.

Turn, turn, turn!

 





The Poetic Turn as Useful Metaphor

1 02 2016

“Now, everyday objects are borrowing the idioms of computing technology to bring about a poetic turn.”

…Awesome! Check out August de los Reyes’s “The poetic turn of everyday objects” to read about “the fourth stage of software experience,” a stage that’s bound to be as surprising as a great turn–





The Hidden Turn in X. J. Kennedy’s Introduction to Poetry

20 01 2016

As I argue here, there is a necessary difference between poetic form and poetic structure.

Though I did not make this case in the linked-to essay, it also is the case that discussions of form often hide discussions of structure (by “structure,” I mean specifically the pattern of a poem’s turning). Something like this happens in Helen Vendler’s Poems, Poets, Poetry: An Introduction and Anthology, and I write about this here.

This also happens in X. J. Kennedy’s An Introduction to Poetry (1966). The first two paragraphs of chapter 10, “Form,” state:

Form, as a general idea, denotes the shape or design of a thing as a whole, the configuration of its parts. Among its connotations is that of order made from chaos: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void…”

Like irony, the word form has been favored in literary criticism with several meanings. This chapter will deal with five of these: (1) form as pattern of sound and rhythm, (2) form as a shape that meets the eye, (3) flexible form or free verse, (4) form in the sense of a genre, or particular kind of poem, and (5) form as the structure of a poem–the ways in which its materials are organized. (164)

Though one of the five kinds of form, the fifth, “the structure of a poem,” clearly stands apart. Kennedy notes, “Within a poem, this organization of materials other than stresses, sounds, and visual shapes is the kind of form called structure” (191). And, when one examines the discussion of structure, it quickly becomes clear that this section very much is about structure as the pattern turns in a poem. After acknowledging that all poems have their own unique structure, and that, therefore, “brief descriptions of the structures of poems can be no more than rough sketches,” Kennedy notes, “but certain types of structure are encountered frequently” (191). Among the at least six brief descriptions he offers, five describe kinds of turns:

A poem, like many a piece of expository prose, may open with a general statement, which it then illustrates and amplifies by particulars, as does Mrs. Browning’s sonnet beginning “I tell you, hopeless grief is passionless” (p. 185) (191).

Or it might move from details to more general statement, as does Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (p. 321), presenting details of the urn’s pattern and arriving at the conclusion, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” (191).

A poem may set two elements in parallel structure:… [Here, Kennedy offers Alexander Pope’s “Epigram Engraved on the Collar of a Dog Which I Gave to His Royal Highness” as an example.] (191)

A poem may also set two elements in an antithesis, as the two halves of Robert Frost’s short poem quoted at the beginning of this book: “We dance round in a ring and suppose, / But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.” (Not all poems containing parallels or antitheses need be so brief; and some contain other things in addition to statements set side by side. (192)

If a poems tells a story, it may build to a crisis or turning point in the action, as might a novel or play. (192)

Noting that “[t]hese are just a few kinds of structure possible,” Kennedy then performs a close reading of Robert Herrick’s “Divination by a Daffodil” to identify and describe the many kinds of turns in the poem, “a poem containing–like most poems–more than one kind” (192):

This poem is arranged in two halves, bound together by a metaphor. In the first three lines, the speaker sees a drooping daffodil; in the last three, he foresees his own eventual drooping in like manner. There is another relationship, too: the second half of the poem explains the first half, it specifies “what I must be.” Furthermore, the last three lines make a one-two-three listing of the stages of dying and being buried. There is also in these lines a progression of narrative: the events take place one after another. (192)

Asking “How do we look for structure?,” Kennedy suggests fourteen “methods of approach to a poem” to help one find a poem’s structure (192). While he notes that such work to newly approach a poem must also entail a return to and a more deeply informed rereading of the poem, Kennedy is clear about the kind of ingress structural awareness gives to understanding, stating that applying such knowledge to a poem “can be a means of entrance into the most difficult of poems, whether conventional in form or flexible, whether an epic or an epigram” (193).

Of course, I admire greatly Kennedy’s work with structure, and his sense that structure is something significantly different from form. However, of course I also wish that Kennedy would have gone further and released structure’s turning from the discussion of form. I wish Kennedy might have gone so far as to give structure its own chapter, as it received in John Ciardi’s How Does a Poem Mean? (which I discuss here). Such focus is, alas, extremely rare, but it shouldn’t be: it’s simply a matter of being clear about what the vital elements of poetry in fact are, about what we really do, in fact, value in poems. Great turning certainly is one of those values.





The Rilkean Volta

12 10 2015

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“Black Cat,” by Rainer Maria Rilke

In his terrific Poetry’s Touch: On Lyric Address, William Waters suggests there is a kind of “Rilkean ‘volta'” (94). It is the kind of volta one finds in “Black Cat.” He states,

Later in the poem, when the form you returns suddenly, we may mentally narrow the range of you to a single addressee, as the Rilkean “volta” isolates a punctual single event…That is, this poem, like so many of the New Poems, turns from an imperfective aspect–the first twelve lines describe not an event but generally valid conditions–to a perfective one; and a singular event–“she turns her face straight into your own”–implies a specific you unlike that of the opening stanza. (94)

What these poems [“Black Cat,” “Snake-Charming,” and “Archaic Torso of Apollo”] finally depict is not “someone’s” encounter but encounter itself: Rilke’s fascination is not with autobiographical events but with the possibilities of mind and world. The you-form, able to address each comer, permits this level of inclusiveness while yet retaining the insistence on the solitary, particular, one-time nature of meeting. The architecture of Rilke’s verse draws the reader in, eliciting the absorbed encounter that the poem describes and that its second-person grammar replicatingly calls forth. (98)

I love this idea: that some poets have a kind of turn all their own, or that seems primarily theirs. Can other poets be said to lay claim to a specific kind of turn? Shakespeare, of course, famously moved the location of the sonnet’s turn, but are their other poets we could argue have a kind of turn all, or primarily, their own?





Lucinda Williams’s Concessional Turns

29 09 2015

A lovely song, and each verse and chorus combination is its own concessional poem.  Worth a listen or three–





Praise for Structure & Surprise

28 09 2015

dora-malech-author-photo-2013-joanna-chattman-lo-res

What a treat! Poet Dora Malech has recently published a thoughtful appreciation of Structure & Surprise on the Kenyon Review blog. Check it out here.

While such kind words about the communal project that is Structure & Surprise are always welcome, Ms. Malech’s words are especially gratifying–she herself is a master of the turn. Want proof? Check out her poem “Makeup,” and revel in the poem’s turn-to-another structure, featuring its soulful, prayer-full, playful outcry.

Many thanks, Dora Malech!








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