Merwin’s Turn

13 06 2011

A recent issue of The New Yorker contains a new poem by W. S. Merwin, called “Turning.”

The publication of “Turning” draws attention (as we will see, once again) to the fact that the turn is vital to this major poet.

Much has been made of the fact that Merwin has a very specific poetic vocabulary.  In “The Present Voices: W. S. Merwin since 1970” (in W. S. Merwin: Essays on the Poetry, edited by Cary Nelson and Ed Folsom), Thomas B. Byers notes that Merwin deploys a particular set of “disembodied icons,” including “doors, birds, glass, clouds, eyes, hair, ash, dust, statues, wings, water, stone, feet, bells, fire, veins” (251).  And, in their introduction, Folsom and Nelson note that “[Helen] Vendler identified a ‘Merwin dictionary’ of word-talismans” (14).  Most of the lists drawn up of Merwin’s word-talismans are lists of nouns, of things.  However, were one to include in these lists verbs (or words that are most often used by Merwin as verbs) deployed by Merwin, “turn” would definitely make the cut. 

“Turn” and derivations of the word (“turns,” “turned,” “turning”—not to mention all the versions of the word “return”) are conspicuously present in Merwin’s poetry.  Dozens of Merwin’s poems employ the word, or derivations of the word, “turn.”  Many of Merwin’s poems employ “turn” or its derivations multiple times; an incomplete list of these poems includes: “Song” (The First Four Books of Poems 62-3), “On the Subject of Poetry” (First Four 109), “Canso” (First Four 131-35), “River Sound Remembered” (First Four 190), “Fog” (First Four 212-13), “The Frozen Sea” (First Four 227), “Sailor Ashore” (First Four 228), “Blind Girl” (First Four 257-8), “Cuckoo Myth” (The Second Four Books of Poems 200-201), “A Door” (Second Four 245-7), “Fox Sleep” (The Vixen 3-6), “Gate” (The Vixen 7), “End of a Day” (The Vixen 25), “The Shortest Night” (The Vixen 57), “The Marfa Lights” (The Pupil 11-13), “Migrants by Night (The Pupil 14-15), “To the Morning (1)” (Present Company 71), “To a Friend Turning Fifty” (Present Company 118-19), “To Paula” (Present Company 131), and “Near Field” (The Shadow of Sirius 83).  Additionally, the second section in Finding the Islands, named for one of the poems in the section, is called “Turning to You,” and Travels contains another poem called “Turning” (135).

Turning has multiple meanings for Merwin.  Turning very often is an important part of the subject of Merwin’s poems.  For the Buddhist Merwin, turning—the turning of the world from day into night into day again, the turning seasons, transformation / turning into, returning / turning back, and the way in which turning away invariably turns into turning toward—is an essential part of the transient, ever-changing world.  

Turning in Merwin’s poetry also often means formal turning.  Merwin’s poems, like almost all poems, turn at the end of their lines to the beginning of the next line—it is precisely this movement that allows poetry to be called “verse.”  (The formal turn is perhaps more palpable in Merwin’s poems than in the work of most poets due to the unpunctuated run of his lines—the line break’s turn, thus, is clearer because punctuation creates no other competing breaks in the line.)

However, while Merwin’s formal accomplishments, including his mastery of formal turning, have been widely commented on, much less commented on has been the structural turning of Merwin’s poems: the turn in Merwin’s poem also often refers to the enactment of a major shift in a poem’s rhetorical and/or dramatic trajectory. 

Sometimes, Merwin even acknowledges this kind of turn by employing the word, or, again, derivatives of the word, “turn” as he makes this kind of structural maneuver.  Such self-reflexive turning occurs in poems such as “Proteus” (First Four 110-12), “Fog” (First Four 212-13), “Sailor Ashore” (First Four 228), “The Different Stars” (Second Four 136-37), “Ascent” (Second Four 188), “To the Hand” (Second Four 267-8), “The Flight” (Flower & Hand 66), “To the Dust of the Road” (Present Company 48), “To the Margin” (Present Company 75), and “To the Morning (2)” (Present Company 121).

It is time we follow Merwin’s lead, and recognize more consistently how invested in the structural turn he is.  Of course, some critics already have recognized this aspect of Merwin’s craft.  Helen Vendler and Marjorie Perloff, each recognize Merwin’s tendency to turn and skill with structural turning. 

In her review of The Shadow of Sirius, Vendler feels moved to see some of that book’s poems—“One of the Butterflies” and “Youth in Grass”—as sonnets even though, formally, the poems, of 13 and 15 lines, respectively, are not sonnets.  Vendler recognizes these poems as sonnets in part because they look like sonnets but also because they act like sonnets, because they have structural turns, which, in sonnets, are called voltas.  Of “One of the Butterflies,” Vendler notes, “I could print these thirteen lines as a quasi-sonnet…thereby suggesting it European lineage and its division into a problem (the timing of pleasure) and a conclusion (its elusiveness past and present)” (37).  And Vendler describes “Youth in Grass” as “a fifteen-line sonnet-like meditation…on the rapidity with which…a year turns from spring to autumn” (38).  Vendler states, “The most salient aspect of the Merwin mind in meditation is its tenacity to its perplexity.  Nothing can interrupt it once it has located its chosen difficulty—whether in perception, in thought, in human relations, or in memory” (38).  I think Vendler’s insight is accurate; I would only add that a major part of Merwin’s tenacity is the accomplishment of the turn.

In her own way, Marjorie Perloff makes a similar case.  In her 1987 essay “Apocalypse Then: Merwin and the Sorrows of Literary History,” Perloff critiques the notion that Merwin’s work might accurately be linked to or described with “phrases like ‘prophecy’ or ‘negative mysticism’ or ‘naked poetry’ or ‘the opening of the field’” (Essays 143).  Instead, Perloff makes the case that Merwin’s poetry “carried on the tradition of the well-made poem,” a kind of poem marked by “authorial control” (134).  While Perloff comments on Merwin’s formal control, she consistently roots Merwin’s authorial control in structural control, in the management of turns.  For example, Perloff initiates her examination of the “strong sense of closure” in Merwin’s “For the Anniversary of My Death” by discussing the structural motion of the poem, stating, “The first stanza (five lines) describes what happens “Every year”; the second (eight lines) refers to “Then” (when I will be dead)” (134).  Further on in her analysis, Perloff makes the case that “[t]he poem’s closure is reflected in its formal verse structure” (135).  Perloff concludes her analysis with the claim that “‘For the Anniversary of My Death’ is thus a very elegant, well-made poem; it has a finish that would be the envy of any number of poets…” (136). 

And the other two poems Perloff scrutinizes also have turns.  Perloff makes this clear in her discussion of “Beginning of the Plains,” about which she notes that the first line of that poem’s final stanza “marks the turn” (140).  And “Dusk in Winter,” the poem that Perloff suggests is exemplary of Merwin’s accomplished work, also contains a clear turn, one that pivots at the beginning of the fourth line, on the transition from day to night: “The sun sets in the cold without friends / Without reproaches after all it has done for us / It goes down believing in nothing / When it has gone I hear the stream running after it / It has brought its flute it is a long way” (qtd. in Essays 142).

What is it that Merwin is after with his deployment of structural turning?  Surprise.

Surprise is vital to Merwin.  In a 1947 letter to Ezra Pound, Merwin offers the reason he prefers Personae to The Cantos, claiming that there is more “sheer poetic magic” in Personae, and he defines poetic magic as “that element of perpetual and delicious surprise” (qtd. in Essays 358).  And surprise is a key element of Merwin’s poems.  In “Reading Merwin Semiotically,” Robert Scholes, who states that a semiotic reading, in part, views the poem as “achieving poetic status by violating certain kinds of expectation” (Essays 65), reads three earlier poems by Merwin and shows the way in which they all deliver (often multiple) surprises.  In a discussion of some of Merwin’s earlier poems in his Understanding W. S. Merwin, H. L. Hix notes that these poems employ myth “as a set of expectations to subvert” (33).  In Merwin’s “To Dido,” what the poem is made out of–or what the poem is–is, in part, “a still place of perpetual surprise” (First Four 139).  Merwin’s “The Blind Seer of Ambon,” in which the blind seer is a figure for the poet, concludes: “everything takes me by surprise / it is all awake in the darkness” (Travels 4).

W. S. Merwin is one of the great poets of the turn, of structure and surprise.  I’m at work on developing these ideas in an essay, focusing on Merwin’s The Shadow of Sirius, which I’m co-authoring with Mark Halliday for a book on Merwin’s more-recent poetry, a book edited by Kevin Prufer and Jonathan Weinert, forthcoming from WordFarm Editions.  I hope you’ll check it out.





Helen Vendler: Approaching the Turn

8 06 2011

One of this blog’s key arguments has been that more concerted efforts to differentiate poetic structure and poetic form and to more systematically examine poetic structure would benefit the practices of conceptualizing, reading, writing, and teaching poetry.  (For information on the structure / form distinction, click here.)

I’m not the only one to think this.  Many of those who write poetry textbooks agree.  However, though they agree, their books often fall short of advocating for increased attention to poetic structure, and its attendant turn–and not only to the extent that I hope for but also to the extent that their own texts seem to suggest is proper.

Here, I would like to consider Helen Vendler’s Poems, Poets, Poetry: An Introduction and Anthology.  In this textbook, Vendler maintains the structure / form distinction—though her maintenance of the distinction involves some overlap in terminology—recognizing that, on the one hand, “[a] poem can…be classified according to various aspects of its outer form, having to do with meter, rhyme, and stanza-form” (117) and that, on the other hand, “[b]esides its outer form (“This is a poem in quatrains in falling rhythm rhyming aabb”—a description of Blake’s “Tyger”), every poem has internal structural form” (119).  (Please note that though Vendler’s book is in its third edition, I cite from my copy of the second edition.)

Vendler describes inner structural form as a poem’s “dynamic shape, which derives from the curve traced by the emotions of the poem as they change over its duration” (119).  Though Vendler never uses the word “turn,” this shape clearly concerns a poem’s turning; according to Vendler, “That emotional curve is plotted by connecting two, three, or more points of the poem, a rise from depression to hope to joy, for instance—or a decline from triumph through doubt to despair.  Very few poems represent an unchanging steady state of the same emotion all through” (119).  The emotional trajectory Vendler cites here is a pattern of poetic turning that I call the “Dejection-Elation Structure.”  Additionally, Vendler notes, “In investigating the internal structure of a poem, one should try to divide it into parts along its ‘fault lines.’  Where does the logic of the argument seem to break?  Where does the poem seem to change from first person to second person?  Where does the major change in tense or speech act take place?” (120)  In asking readers to locate a poem’s “fault lines,” Vendler seems to ask readers to identify and track the poem according to its turns.

Vendler then proceeds to offer a cursory list of internal structural forms.  She notes that “[s]ome poems are two-part (binary) poems, like William Wordsworth’s ‘A slumber did my spirit seal’ (which we saw changing from illusion to stern knowledge) or like Dickinson’s ‘The Heart asks Pleasure—first—’ (which we saw changing its conception of God from benevolence to cruelty” (119).  Vendler also notes that “[t]here are also many three-part (ternary) poems, which often take on the internal structure of beginning, modulation, and end (a song-form preserved in lyric),” and, additionally, that “[o]ne well-known internal structure is that of the ‘surprise’ ending, where the last few lines reverse everything that has gone before” (119).  Additionally, according to Vendler, “Internal forms are infinitely variable, since they represent emotional response, always volatile” (119).  Such a list seems like the beginning of the list (constantly under construction) of poetic structures, patterns of poetic turning, located here.

Indeed, for Vendler, mapping a poem’s internal structural form, and an inner structural form very much focused upon the turn, is key to the process she refers to as “Exploring a Poem” (125).  In this process, in which Vendler names a total of 13 elements of the poem for a reader to examine in order to explore a poem—including 1. Meaning; 2. Antecedent Scenario; 3. A Division into Structural Parts; 4. The Climax; 5. The Other Parts; 6. Find the Skeleton; 7. Games the Poet Plays with the Skeleton; 8. Language; 9. Tone; 10. Agency and Speech Acts; 11. Roads Not Taken; 12. Genre, Form, Rhythm; 13. Imagination—at least five have to do very directly with deciphering and determining the poem’s internal structural form: the division into structural parts; the climax; the other parts; find the skeleton; and games the poet plays with the skeleton.  For example, regarding “The Other Parts,” Vendler states, “About each part it is useful to ask how it differs from the other parts.  What is distinctive in it by contrast to the other members of the poem?  Does something shift gears?” (127)  And, regarding “Find the Skeleton,” Vendler essentially instructs readers to decipher the poem’s inner structural form; she asks, “What is the dynamic curve of emotion on which the whole poem is arranged?” (128)

While Vendler’s book does an admirable job of trying to advance structure alongside form, there are, however, problems with this aspect of Vendler’s textbook.  One problem is that it does not advance structure consistently.  “Structure,” or “structural,” means many things to Vendler.   “Inner structural form,” remember, is “dynamic shape, which derives from the curve traced by the emotions of the poem as they change over its duration.”  However, in the section called “Structure,” structure is defined as something more intellectual or logical; Vendler states, “The structures of a poem are the intellectual or logical shapes into which its thoughts are dynamically organized” (82).  Additionally, according to Vendler, one discovers a poem’s structures—according to Vendler, “Any overarching structure can have many substructures” (82)—by looking for patterns, but these patterns are everywhere and on every scale: “Patterns occur at many levels in poetry, just as they do in the physical universe: one can look for patterns in subatomic behavior, in atomic behavior, in molecular behavior, and so on, all the way up to the patterns of the planets and the stars” (83).  And, in the end, structure can be just about anything, including form; Vendler concludes her discussion of “Structure,” stating, “The important thing is to be accustomed to looking, in any poem, at several levels—the sound, the rhythms and rhymes, the grammar, the images, the sentences, the plot, the assertions, the allusions, the self-contradictions.  Somewhere the energy of the poem awaits you.  The moment you see the main and subordinate patterns, you smile, and it ‘all makes sense’” (87).

Another problem with Vendler’s advocacy of structure is that, for however much Vendler recognizes the importance of the non-formal organizational elements of a poem, she tends to give form precedence over these elements, including structure and its turn.  For example, the discussion of “Structure” comes after discussions of both “Rhythm” and “Rhyme”—and a discussion of “Argument” comes even later.  Additionally, in the section called “Classifying Lyric Poems” in the chapter “Describing Poems,” Vendler notes that “[l]yric poems themselves are generally classified in three ways: by content, by speech act, and by outer form” (110).  This, however, also is the section of the book that includes discussion of “Inner Structural Form,” a discussion that, with little commentary, simply gets tacked onto the previous discussion of “Outer Form.”

A final problem—or, perhaps, difficulty—with her advocacy of structure is that, perhaps as a result of the shiftiness of what structure is, Vendler never manages, in my opinion, to be clear about how knowing about structure can deeply inform one’s reading of a poem.  That is, though Vendler suggests that the main pattern, the structure, seems to have a lot to do with major transitions in a poem, how the poem moves, she is not explicit about what a poem’s “main pattern” is.  And, beyond this, there is never any detailed discussion of what the significance of these shapes are, why they are worth examining.  In large part because it never embraces structure and the turn—not even to the extent that I might want it to, but even, only, to the extent that its own discussion of poems suggests that it should—and because it never gets clear on the centrality of the turn for its system, Vendler’s discussions of “structure” and the “structural” tend to be a bit confusing, both offering imprecise or simply too numerous tools for finding structure and not offering enough for people to actually know what they are looking for when looking for structure, or exactly why they are looking for it.

Vendler’s Poems, Poets, Poetry reveals the desire of one major critic to differentiate structure and form.  It also reveals, however, that this desire alone is not quite enough to do the job of significantly differentiating structure and form.  For this, I believe more needs to be done.

I believe we–readers, poets, critics, teachers–have to get very clear in our use of the terms “structure” and “form,” or else things will continue as they so far have, with structure seeming some amorphous, secondary derivative of form.

I believe structure has to be linked to something vital and distinctive—something singular—in poetry, and that is the poetic turn.

I believe that we need to present the turn not only as something that is important in what poems are and how poems work but also as something that—just as form has its own vocabulary and grammar, or, if you will, its own lingo: iambic, trochaic, pentameter, slant rhyme—has its own vocabulary and grammar, its own intricacies.  My reasons for believing this are, on the one hand, substantive—I think that the developing vocabulary and grammar of the turn describes real and significant aspects of poems—and, on the other hand, pragmatic—form may tend to get more attention in our textbooks largely because it has a well-developed terminology, and thus, a more well-developed terminology (beyond Vendler’s cursory list of inner structural forms) may help give structure the attention it deserves.

I believe that, for as much work as the above seems, once this work is done it will greatly open up–and deepen–the conceptualization, reading, writing, and teaching of poems.  What is a poem?  Language that turns.  How do I read a poem?  Track the turns.  How do I write a great poem?  Create language that turns thrillingly.  How do I teach poems?  Take the turn into account.  Of course, these answers are incomplete, but they are vital and new, and I believe such answers will add significantly to the appreciation and creation of, the conversation about, poetry.





Jeremy Tambling’s RE: Verse–Turning towards Poetry

31 05 2011

For years, I’ve thought that an important next step for educating poetry readers about the turn would be to incorporate, and perhaps even highlight, the turn in an introduction to poetry textbook.  So far, this has been done only once, in John Ciardi’s How Does a Poem Mean?  In that book, the final chapter—but also the chapter that Ciardi refers to in his introduction as the most important one—“The Poem in Countermotion” focuses on turns in poems, though Ciardi refers to the turn as the “fulcrum.”  Ciardi’s book, however, was published in 1959—and his focus on the turn was not picked up on by any subsequent introduction to poetry textbooks.

Needless to say, then, I was heartened to see Jeremy Tambling’s RE: Verse—Turning towards Poetry.  The book’s title, at least, indicated that there might be some focus on the turn in the book.  And there is, but, alas, just some.  However, seeing what happens to the turn—how it is both raised as a topic of conversation, and then elided—in RE: Verse can be instructive.

The turn comes up on page one of RE: Verse.  Defining “verse,” Tambling writes,

“[I]t comes from the Latin versus, meaning “a line or row, especially a line of writing (so named from turning to begin another line), verse, from vertere to turn” (Oxford English Dictionary).  Verse means both a line of writing and the turn by which another line is reached, going from line to line.  In English, the turn at the end of the line on the right hand edge of the page means a reverse back to the left.  Verse and reverse: the turn turns back.”

It is important to note here that the turn is an element of the poem’s form.  However, the term “turn” quickly comes to mean other things, as well.  According to Tambling, though it may consist of only one line, Japanese waku can still be thought of as turning, so “you may have to look for the turn inside the one line itself.”  Tambling, however, is not clear how one would find this turn in a one-line poem, and he further complicates his use and sense of the turn when, after having quoted three lines from Paul Muldoon’s “Incantata” (“I thought again of how art may be made, was it was by Andre Derain, / of nothing more than a turn / in the road…”), he notes, “This book starts with the proposition that poetry is always a form of turning, and if for Paul Muldoon it is a “turn in the road,” then the way the poem twists and turns will suggest a very winding path.”  How would a formally twisting and turning poem suggest a very winding path?  Would it slither down the page in the manner of, say, an e.e. cummings poem?

But this is not what Tambling means by the “very winding path” of the poem—virtually all of the poems he cites at length in RE: Verse left-justified.  Tambling, in fact, is interested in helping readers recognize, and recognize the importance of, structural turns in poems.  (For information on the difference between form and structure, click here.)

The first poem Tambling examines closely is William Blake’s “London.”  In a sentence immediately following his observation that “the way the poem twists and turns will suggest a very winding path,” Tambling introduces his discussion of “London” by noting that “[w]riting poetry often plays on this idea of turning.”  And his discussion of the poem, when it focuses on the turn, focuses on the structural turn.  Tambling asks of the poem, “How shall we approach it?”  And his first of a few “hints” he offer is: “[L]ook for the turn: the moment where the poem changes direction, or shape.  (There may be more than one turn, of course.)  Nearly all poetry will have such a turn…”  Tambling also eventually locates the poem’s major turn (notice that there are not 15 turns, as one might expect if turns occurred as one line turned into the next) at the beginning of the fourth stanza, about which he writes: “[S]tarting with “But most” indicates a turn, a new emphasis, something different from the first three stanzas.”

The second poem Tambling examines closely is William Wordsworth’s sonnet “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802.”  Discussing the sonnet, Tambling, quoting Paul Muldoon’s interview with Lynn Keller, states,

“The sonnet began as an Italian form in the thirteenth century, and the word implies a song.  The Italian, or Petrarchan sonnet, of which this [“Westminster Bridge”] is one, is divided by a pause, or a turn, into eight lines followed by six.  Paul Muldoon, who like many other modern poets, has written many sonnets, speaks in an interview about the “thought process of the sonnet”.  “You establish something and then there’s a slight change”, he says; and he associates this change with “the turn”….”

And speaking of the shift from octave to sestet in “Westminster Bridge,” Tambling states, “We have already noted a break at that point, and when reading poetry, any such turn, change of tone, or of approach, should be noted.”

Tambling clearly believes that knowledge of the structural turn is vital for reading poetry.  However, the attention he pays to the structural turn is less systematic and more sporadic.  In his book’s second chapter, “Five Ideas for Reading,” Tambling offers “five points, or principles, for reading” poetry—but a principle such as “look for turns” is not included in this list.  Even though, it should be added, that there are plenty of poems featuring turns in them that follow Tambling’s list of principles.

Why this assertion and (unintentional, it seems…) denial of the power of the structural turn?  I can only speculate, but I offer a few ideas.

First, it seems as though seeing turns and their importance is not enough.  We need to continue to develop and teach the language, the grammar, of turning.  It’s not that poems simply turn, it’s that, often, they turn in identifiable ways, ways which, once recognized, greatly help one see what’s going on in a poet, or, as Ciardi puts it, how a poem means.

Additionally, we need to think more about the ways that assessment influences what we teach when we teach poems.  Tambling wrote his book with some specific audiences in mind.  While being attentive to the needs of a general reader Tambling has written with a target audience in mind; he states, “I have tried, in writing, to consider the needs of people starting with poetry at GCSE, where anthologies of poetry are frequently set, and people working on specific poets for A Level.  I have tried to work with questions that undergraduates will want to know answers to…”  It could simply be that the exams for which Tambling prepares many of his readers do not concern themselves much with the identification and discussion of turns, so turns, while acknowledged, are not focused on.

Overall, Tambling’s RE: Verse reminds us that we need to revise the ways we discuss and teach poetry.  His good, but also problematic, book reminds us that to talk seriously about structural turns in poetry we have to be ready to allow the turn to let us talk about different poems differently.  We must be willing ourselves to be transformed by the turn.





The Gauntlet

9 04 2011

 

…has been thrown.

An acquaintance of mine recently suggested to me that my fascination with poetic turns results from my having a mistaken picture lodged in my noggin, and that I’m letting myself be too-decisively (mis-)guided by this picture, and that I should be freed from it…

Well, after the police came, and we washed the pepper spray from our eyes, my acquaintance and I decided that we should work to see what’s really what.

My acquaintance asked to be pointed to everything there was to read about structure.  Thus, I recently updated the “Further Reading” page of this blog so that it contains a much more complete listing of work related to the turn.  I told my acquaintance it’d be a lot of reading; he said he was up to the challenge.

I also told my acquaintance this: that he needed to be clear on my claims about the significance of the turn–I don’t want my position to be turned into a straw man.

On the one hand, on one level, I believe simply that turns are significant enough that they should be given much more due than they typically are.  Just as there are chapters on metaphor and alliteration in intro to poetry textbooks so should there be a chapter on turns.  Just as there are chapters on the sonnet and the ghazal in poetry writing handbooks so should there be chapters on kinds of turns.  I have no idea how my acquintance will argue against this portion of my belief, which seems self-evident.  QED.  Moving on…

On the other hand (and this, admittedly, is where my acquaintance can have some more fun), it seems as though I may believe that turns are really important parts of what makes poems worth reading.  I really do want to read poems that feel like they go somewhere, that they do something–and turns are the clearest markers of these activities.  As I look over some of my critical writing, it looks like I believe something like the following: a good poem needs to have an interesting turn in it; a great poem needs to have a turn in it that is both fitting and surprising.  (However, I’m not the only one to think this–as I note in some of my critical writing, this criteria for greatness actually crops up in the writing of a number of critics: Longinus, the theoriticians of wit, James Longenbach, Jorie Graham–not bad company to be in at all.)

This much more speculative position is, of course, open to critique.  There may be great poems without structure, without turns.  I’d think that my acquaintance’s central method of argument would need to include trying to develop a list of great poems that dont’ turn, or have really significant turns.  I’ll be interested to find out what he comes up with.

…And I will certainly keep readers of this blog informed as to the progress of this conversation.





Halliday on Hoagland

2 02 2011

There’s an excellent review by Mark Halliday of Tony Hoagland’s latest book, Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty, in the most recent issue of Pleiades (31.1 (2011)).

There are numerous highlights in this review, among them:

–the development of a hilarious new acronym: ICFU, which stands for those who have “Instant Contempt For the Understandable”;

–an amazing, in-depth challenge to certain ways that the criterion of musicality is applied to the assessment of poetry; and, most relevant to the concerns of this blog:

–an admiration of the ways Hoagland’s poems turn. 

Here is a key paragraph:

In Unincorporated Persons the sensation of painfully half-voluntary complicity in political and cultural harm comes across in many good poems, though what the poems express is not simply limited to that sensation.  Such poems include “Food Court,” “Big Grab,” “Hard Rain,” “Confinement,” “Poor Britney Spears,” “Expensive Hotel,” “Complicit With Everything,” “Hinge,” “Foghorn,” “Disaster Movie,” “The Allegory of the Temp Agency,” “Snowglobe.”  There is plenty say about those, and critics should write about them carefully enough to move past categorizing them as “political poems.”  A long article waits to be written about their endings and how, in a poem’s closing lines, Hoagland twists the knife, to make the poem disturb you after you felt sure you knew where he was going.  An example is “The Allegory of the Temp Agency” which, thanks to the machete-slash of its last lines, manages to become both a satirical critique of banal polemical art and a startling reminder that banal political protests against global capitalism arise from horrible inequities that suave mockery cannot remove.

The only online version of “The Allegory of the Temp Agency” I could find is here.  (Sorry.)  But do read it; there is a nice turn in this poem, one that delivers an interesting, insightful moral (one that helps explain why the (admittedly, very beautiful) mural at Goldman Sachs looks like this).  It’s also a self-reflexive turn, signaling its turn with the words “in turn.”

Halliday is right: it does indeed seem “a long article waits to be written” about these turns…  Someone’s got their work cut out for them.





Haiku and Fitting Surprise

8 07 2010

In a recent post, I cite a terrific paragraph from Arthur Plotnik’s Spunk & Bite.  That paragraph, titled “Surprisingly Apt,” reads:

“Ultimately, the devices of surprise may set up the pins, but they don’t guarantee the strike.  The essence of surprise is in its timing and execution: fast, graceful, and apt.  Aptness is paramount.  The best surprise of all may be how precisely an unexpected word or image pops a message.  Unexpected is easy; unexpectedly perfect helps separate writers from hacks.”

As I note in that post, what I like so much about this paragraph is that it jibes with a quality of writing that I’m very taken by: a quality I call “fitting surprise,” that moment in writing when something occurs that is both unexpected and yet truly apt.  “Fitting surprise” is not a kind of turn, but rather a quality of turn I value highly.

For those (potentially) interested in this quality of turn, I thought I’d highlight an essay I wrote a few years back that offers my clearest statement about what I think fitting surprise is: “Writing Degree ∞ (on Recent Haiku).”

While generally a review of some recent haiku, “Writing Degree ∞” also offers some history of the concept of fitting surprise (for example, how it is discussed by artists, writers, and critics such as Lee Gurga, Rene Magritte, Pierre Reverdy, Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Margaret Atwood, Antonya Nelson, and Randall Jarrell) and employs the concept critically, showing how the application of the concept actually can make a difference in how one thinks about, in this instance, haiku.  (I suggest that the more structural quality of fitting surprise should trump formal considerations when trying to determine what are successful (or: awesome, astounding, wonderful…) haiku–haiku form (three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables, respectively) offers very little in terms of how to judge the success of a haiku (anyone can write a 5-7-5 haiku!) whereas the mysterious, difficult, and amazing quality of fitting surprise offers a worthy criterion: if one detects the presence of fitting surprise in a haiku, that haiku is doing something powerful, something singular.)

Please note that while I hope all of “Writing Degree ∞” is worth paying attention to, the essay’s turn to discussing fitting surprise and its role in the evaluation of haiku begins with the final paragraph on p. 150.





Peter Sacks and the Dolphin’s Turn

1 07 2010

I’ve recently become aware of and intrigued by some new thinking and work on the turn: Peter Sacks’s “You Only Guide Me by Surprise”: Poetry and the Dolphin’s Turn.

This work was first delivered on May 7, 2004, at The University of California, Berkeley, as the Second Memorial Judith Lee Stronach Lecture on the Teaching of Poetry.  (You can hear the lecture here.)  500 copies of the lecture, printed by Autumn Press, have been published by The Bancroft Library of The University of California, Berkeley.  For those interested in poetic turns, this slim volume is worth getting a hold of—it contains some fascinating reflections on a new kind (or, rather, an ancient kind—just one that so far has not been theorized) of turn: the dolphin’s turn.

According to Sacks, the dolphin’s turn is “a transformative veering from one course to another, a way of being drawn off track to an unexpected destination…”  (Sacks adds: “[T]his turn is paradigmatic for the transportation system of poetry itself, both in its technical “versing,” and in its thematic and figural changes.”)  The dolphin is associated with such turning, of course, because it is a creature that itself is always transgressing boundaries, leaping and diving.  Sacks states,

“Imagine that we are sailing, or swimming, or watching, or drowning—which we are.  Suddenly (a natural adverb of the dolphin, since sudden derives from underneath, from the same sub as sub-marine, going below or above, sur-facing, by sur-prise, as from hidden depths), a creature emerges.  It breaks the surface between two elements, perhaps as the poem breaks from silence to sound and back, line after line, leaping and turning through what differentiates poetry from prose: its more frequent encounters with wordlessness, its high quota of turns, both of speech and thought, and of actual lineation, its navigating according to its own frequency even as it finds its course, responsively, by echolocation, by soundings.”

The dolphin’s turn, however, is more specific than this.  According to Sacks, the dolphin’s turn is signaled by the actual presence of dolphins in a poem.  That is, the dolphin becomes a kind of totemic animal, a familiar whose presence marks the presence of other, larger forces: the sighting of a dolphin in a poem often announces the advent of a radical turn.  As Sacks states,

“[A]s the dolphin appears, imagine it has leapt not merely into your sight, but into your blood, breath, and the primal reaches of the mammalian mind, the part of us ‘in here’ that responds and perhaps corresponds to the creature ‘out there’….[T]his partial correspondence has charged the human imagination since the earliest poems of history.  As we send exploratory pulses out toward the origins of poetry itself, the soundings ripple back to us through the waters of almost three millennia, from the “Homeric Hymn to Apollo” to such twentieth century poets as Eliot, Rilke, Mandelstam and Celan, as well as Lowell, Walcott, and Bishop, whose great vocational portrait, “The Riverman,” begins “I got up in the night / for the dolphin spoke to me.”  Always en route, the dolphin makes its way, and poetry’s way, via Shakespeare, Milton, and many others.  You may already be recalling that the crucial turning point of “Lycidas” (1637), “Weep no more, woeful shepherds, weep no more, / For Lycidas your sorrow is not dead,” leaps from the preceding lines, “Look homeward angel now, and melt with ruth: / And, O ye dolphins, waft the hapless youth.”

Etymologically connecting dolphin via its Greek designation, delphin, to the oracular Apollo of Delphi, Sacks notes, in fact, that “[t]he link between dolphin and lyric poetry could hardly be closer.”  And Sacks’s lecture, then, becomes, largely, a consideration of many of the instances of the dolphin’s turn in poetry, investigating poems such as:

“Homeric Hymn to Pythian Apollo” (“Celebrating the inauguration of the Delphic oracle, and most importantly, Apollo’s selection of his first priests, a scene of election that literally turns them from one life-course to another, the poem enacts the ur trope of poesis itself.  This marks one of the first, but by no means the last, scenes of hijacking in all of literature, and we may wonder to what degree the experience of a lyric poem resembles the action of being hijacked”);

Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Delphine” (“The poem speaks completely for itself, returning explicitly to a wondrous silence which it has served to deepen, even as it has mediated between otherwise separate categories of human, animal, divine, of ocean, earth, and heaven, of language, music, wordlessness”);

Osip Mandelstam’s “There is no need for speech” (“It’s a brief poem, two quatrains, in which the Russian word delphinom becomes the literal vehicle for the metaphoric tenor of the soul, a being that swims way beyond or beneath language or pedagogy, into the furthest reaches of consciousness or of the world as we perceive it”);

Paul Celan’s “What’s written goes hollow, what’s” (from Celan’s Atemwende, or Breathturn; “[t]he dolphin here draws the poet through the surfaces of language, into a primordial form of breath and drastic luminosity, inseparable from an eternalized, as well as internalized, quadrant of shadows”);

W.B. Yeats’s “News for the Delphic Oracle” (in which “a dolphin plunges through the whole middle stanza”);

early versions of Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium” (“When the stricken, aging speaker calls to the transfigured world of the mosaics, and prays that the sages who stand in God’s holy fire might gather him into the artifice of eternity, we might want to know that earlier drafts of this passage had included the lines “O send the dolphins back & gather me / Into the artifice of eternity.”  Drafts of earlier passages of the poem show more instances of the legendary creature, seen through the foam “where the dark drowsy fins a moment rise / Of fish, that carry souls to paradise”);

Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (a dolphin appears at “the moment when Melville’s prose literally turns to poetry…to pray for a specifically Delphic salvation from the threatening whale”);

Robert Lowell’s “Dolphin” (from his penultimate collection, The Dolphin; “[h]ere the dolphin, figure also for the new beloved, cuts through the speaker’s self-imprisoning net of cerebration and will, releasing him and orienting him at once toward his ongoing vitality, and thence to his capacity for acknowledging the consequences of his past”);

and Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Riverman” (“a conversionary calling of a man by a dolphin, leading him to initiation as a shamanic servant of the natural and supernatural worlds”; “It strikes me as no coincidence that Bishop’s fullest exploration of shamanic election, of initiation into a salvific region involving its own language, i[t]s own elusive journeys and trysts, its devotion to the well-being of a community, should follow the calling of the dolphin.  Not a poet usually given to myth-making, Bishop here delegates a receiver by whom she can express the strongest, most mysterious reach of her own vocation.  In a sense, the dolphin has surprised her and admitted her into one of her own deepest acknowledgments of the summons to poetry and to the world”).

In a final note, Sacks also acknowledges other examples of the dolphin’s turn in poetry, including Robert Browning’s “Fifine at the Fair,” Theodore Roethke’s “A Dolphin at My Door,” C. Day-Lewis’s “Boy with Dolphin: Verocchio,” and (“the magnificent close of”) Derek Walcott’s book-length poem, The Prodigal.

 Original, resonant, wide-ranging, deep, and new, Peter Sacks’s thinking about the dolphin’s turn is worth careful consideration.  I highly recommend it.








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