Air Traffic’s Turns

17 07 2018

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I am a poet. Poetry and civic duty share a porous border in my mind….Poetry is useless to me in all but one way. Reading it makes me a nicer person.

Reading poetry has improved my ability to intuit, and thereby negotiate more effectively, the needs and desires of others. I’m no mind reader, but poetry puts me in tune with the unarticulated registers of language… Especially in diversity-poor environments, poetry is the best supplement to help getting out of one’s own head.

Poetry teaches me this because in order to “get” a poem, you need to find its fulcrum, a tipping point that is rarely obvious. Most poems have a moment when something shifts. It may be midway through or at the end. This is the moment of transformation–we call it a volta, or “turn.” The turn could be a plot twist or a change in tone. You can identify the turn by comprehending first the poem’s overall patterns and prevailing logic. There might be many patterns in a single poem, and some or all of them might get broken or disrupted over its course, but the volta is special in that it marks the moment when the poem breaks its deepest and most characteristic habit. There is rarely a single turn that everyone can agree on, and who cares if everyone agrees. Reading is a solitary exercise, a union of one. The detective work of looking for the volta is what gets us into the poem, makes us rewrite the poem in our own voice and consciousness.

Some poetry lovers claim that poems don’t have to have a turn. This is usually what people say in defense of shitty poems. Of course there has to be a transformative moment, a moment in which we experience not just the characters or speaker in the poem, but the poet herself in crisis. The turn doesn’t have to bring the reader to any grand epiphany or catharsis, but if–whether I’m writing the poem or reading it–I walk away from the poem without feeling like I’ve just survived a vicarious encounter with some unqualified measure of intensity that I could not have created on my own, if I feel like the placid surface of my consciousness has suffered not so much as a ripple, then I’d say that poem owed me an apology for having wasted my time. If there is not turn, no transformative moment, then the poem is a journal entry, at best a laundry list of reflections and anecdotes, or what I think of as a “litany of relapses”–the barren passage of time unthwarted, moving predictably toward a predictable end. “The moment of change is the only poem,” says Adrienne Rich.

There is no feeling in monotony. We have to establish something before and something after.

–Gregory Pardlo, Air Traffic: A Memoir of Ambition and Manhood in America

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The Political Turn

26 06 2018

Jessica_Morey-Collins

“[P]oems that function on a turn require a kind of internal pluralism…”

Jessica Morey-Collins’s “(Don’t) Stop Hitting Yourself: Poetic Turns and Perspective-Taking” is a brief but bright (and, today, necessary) reflection on the political possibilities of the poetic turn. Check it out!

And then check out some of Morey-Collins’s own poetry, with their openness and challenge–

 





Richards’s Reversals

25 06 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Faithless Nelly Gray”





“the purr is a roar”: Michael McClure’s Turns

22 06 2018

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If you love haiku and the turns very near their cores, be sure to check out Michael McClure’s lovely and lively “Haiku Edge.” “Haiku Edge” is a poem of 58 linked haiku, and–chock-full of emblems, ironies, and negative dialectics–it’s also a masterclass in turns.

In the preface to Rain Mirror, the book in which “Haiku Edge” appears, McClure discusses his doing away with the overly-simplistic 5-7-5 haiku form, making special note of the primacy of the haiku’s bipartite structure:

Beat poet and the retired Buddhist abbot, Zenshin Ryufu Philip Whalen, explained to me, in the 1950s, how a haiku should be written in English. He showed me the ellipsis, the mirroring or the reflection of the two parts of the poem’s action.

Refresh your perception! Reshape the contours of your consciousness! Surprise yourself!





Swivel toward a Stirring

19 06 2018

Courtesy photo Poet Donald Levering

So, this is pretty cool: at the 2018 New Mexico State Poetry Society Annual Meeting and State Convention, not only did Scott Wiggerman, a long-time good friend of the Structure & Surprise blog, present on the poetic turn, but so did Donald Levering. Check out this description of Levering’s workshop:

Workshop Information

Poems with a Turn:
The word “verse” derives from the Latin versus, meaning turning, where lines of poetry are likened to the turns at the ends of rows in plowing a field. And while line-break placement is important, sometimes the farmer swerves to plow a different field, or decides to sow potatoes instead of wheat, or turns to the sky to watch a flock of birds.

This workshop will look at shorter poems that take a sudden turn, poems that may find themselves in another season. The poem may surprise us, shift the argument or focus, move from real to surreal, intensify an emotion, or swing the tone from humorous to serious. Looking at several varied examples, we will examine where and how these poems make their turns, and inquire how the shift serves the poem. We will review the measured, rhetorical turn of Shakespearean sonnets, look at a famous Wordsworthian turn, and sample hinged poems by moderns and contemporaries. Time permitting, we will try our hand at writing turns to given poems and then compare to the author’s version.

This was a workshop that clearly acknowledged the structure / form distinction, and it clearly was focused on poetic structure (the volta, the rhetorical turn) rather than poetic form (line breaks, etc). Fantastic!

Levering is a poet who often engages the turn in his poems. Need proof? Check out his fine poem “Visitant” [scroll down], which swivels wonderfully, and frighteningly, at its conclusion. Glad he’s also teaching others about how to deploy this vital feature of poems!





Saigyo’s Turns

16 06 2018

西行法師

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

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

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

There are dialectical argument turns:

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

*

A ricefield, a hermitage, and a deer:

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

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

*

There are negative dialectical argument turns:

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

There are ironic turns:

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

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

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

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

Passion for a blossom that still has not fallen:

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

*

Love like fallen leaves:

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

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

*

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

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

And here the trigger is also an amplification:

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

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

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

*

Finding a cool place in summer at North Shirakawa:

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

*

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

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

*

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 





The Ink Dark Moon

30 05 2018

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

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

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

There are ironic turns:

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

There are questions and answers:

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

There are ironic questions and answers:

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

There are cliche and critiques:

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

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

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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