Air Traffic’s Turns

17 07 2018


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


The Political Turn

26 06 2018


“[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–


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!

The Ink Dark Moon

30 05 2018


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,
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!

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.