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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Bromwich on the “Literature of Power”

5 07 2017

Following up on a distinction first made by DeQuincey, in “The Language of Knowledge and the Language of Power,” David Bromwich makes a distinction between the “literature of knowledge” (i.e., that of information sharing) and the “literature of power” (i.e., that of great art). After complicating DeQuincey’s ideas, Bromwich attempts himself to differentiate the two, and literary power, it seems, comes from its capacity to deliver discovery and surprise:

Literature sharpens your ability to know when something surprising has happened to you—something that wants to be thought and felt about more and further. It signals an opportunity for knowledge and self-knowledge which mustn’t be ignored. I say “thought and felt about”—both of these things together—because I don’t see that thoughts can reliably be discriminated from feelings. Wordsworth says in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads that thoughts “are the representatives of all of our past feelings” and that seems right; thoughts are the carved-into-shape and unforgettable shadows of feelings, the allegorical or abstract heightenings or reductions by which feelings are made available with a precision that seems native to the discovering mind.

And, although he doesn’t say so, the turn seems bound up in poetry’s ability to deliver felt discovery and surprise: each of the four poems he discusses contain sharp, smart, moving turns. They are:

Thomas Hardy’s “I found her out there”;

Trumbull Stickney’s “In the Past”;

A. E. Housman’s “Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries”; and

Hugh MacDiarmid’s “Another Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries.”

In fact, DeQuiney’s own distinction between the literatures of knowledge and power may hint at the turn’s place in this distinction:

What do you learn from Paradise Lost? Nothing at all. What do you learn from a cookery-book? Something new, something that you did not know before, in every paragraph. But would you therefore put the wretched cookery-book on a higher level of estimation than the divine poem? What you owe to Milton is not any knowledge, of which a million separate items are still but a million of advancing steps on the same earthly level; what you owe is power, that is, exercise and expansion to your own latent capacity of sympathy with the infinite, where every pulse and each separate influx is a step upwards, a step ascending as upon a Jacob’s ladder from earth to mysterious altitudes above the earth. All the steps of knowledge, from first to last, carry you further on the same plane, but could never raise you one foot above your ancient level of earth; whereas the very first step in power is a flight, is an ascending movement into another element.

The literature of power, that is, has movement, shifting the imagining mind from one plane to another. This may be within the power of a variety of poetic elements, but it certainly identifies the peculiar magic of the turn. Readers of this blog will certainly want to engage Bromwich’s essay.

 





Praise for Structure & Surprise

22 06 2017

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Well, this made my day! In the context of a conversation about rethinking “capital-F Form,” poet R. A. Villanueva has some nice things to say about Structure & Surprise. He calls its title “[a] perfect distillation of what interests me. How to be aware of ‘structure’ in an intuitive and—if it calls for it—an explicit way, while still promising surprise, shock, unsettling.” Music to my ears! Check out his full interview here.

And check out some of Mr. Villanueva’s poetry, such as “When Doves.” Here’s a sonneteer who knows how to wield voltaic power!





Major Turn A”head”!

25 05 2016

SPOILER ALERT: Major ironic turn a”head”!

 





A Few Surprising Turns

23 05 2016

Check out Ira Sadoff’s “A Few Surprising Turns”–if you read this blog, you just might like to read this poem…!





The Surprising Turn Is the First Bullet Point under “Astonishment”

13 05 2016

Check it out here–!





High Voltage Poetry: On the Poetic Turn

13 05 2016

As part of the programming for the inauguration of Illinois Wesleyan University’s nineteenth president, Eric Jensen, on Friday, April 1, some colleagues and I participated in a series of lightning talks highlighting some of the artistic and scholarly projects taking place at IWU. Along with poet Dan Smart (among other things, the author of the great poetry blog “Rhythm Is the Instrument”) and student respondents Kristina Dehlin and Jake Morris, I was a part of the presentation “High Voltage Poetry: On the Poetic Turn.” Check it out for a succinct introduction to the turn, for Dan’s terrific reflections on ways in which the turn has informed his own work, and for Kristina’s and Jake’s very smart reflections and questions–

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The High Voltage Poetry Team: Dan Smart, Jake Morris, Kristina Dehlin, and Mike Theune