“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.

Robert Hillyer’s Sonnet Thought

10 07 2017

A number of thinkers, including DanteChristina Pugh, and I (building off of the other two), have argued for the primacy of the sonnet as structure over the sonnet as form. (For more on the structure-form distinction, click here.) It turns out, poet-critic Robert Hillyer does, as well. Here’s Hillyer, 4 pages into his 25-page discussion of the sonnet (pp. 88-114) in In Pursuit of Poetry (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., Inc., 1960):

Before speaking of the sonnet in England, I should like to describe the thought-form of the sonnet, which is, in fact, more important than the rhyme-scheme, so important that both Spenser and Keats wrote sonnets in blank verse which are still recognizable as sonnets. All that follows is normal usage; many exceptions may be found, and in most of Milton’s sonnets and many of Wordsworth’s the divisions between the parts are not observed.

These divisions are one major and two minor, the major break being between the octave and the sestet. The two other breaks are usually observed, though sometimes no more than by a pause which a comma would indicate. The Italian sonnet divides thus: a b b a / a b b a // c d e / c d e (or c d c’ d c d). The Italian sonnet, too, often has a monumental and sounding last line which, by its very rhetoric, sets it off as a single unit. This last line is important in the Italian form, and I shall give examples of it shortly. In the English sonnet, the breaks occur naturally between the quatrains and before the couplet: a b a b / c d c d // e f e f / g g. Instead of the sounding last line of the Italian sonnet, the terminal couplet of the English tends toward an epigrammatic illustration of what has gone before. (91)

Hillyer then maps out how a few poems (the sixty-first sonnet of Michael Drayton’s sequence, Idea; Shakespeare’s sonnet 87; Shakespeare’s sonnet 18; and some others) engage the English sonnet’s thought-structure. He then directs attention to the Italian sonnet: “When we turn to the Petrarchan sonnet, we find the same thought-structure with the addition of the high-sounding last line” (94). Hillyer demonstrates how Keats’s “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” and George Santayana’s “As in the midst of battle there is room” exemplify this structure.

The case for sonnet thought, it seems, is developing.

Check out some of Hillyer’s own sonnets here.


“That electric charge”: Melville Cane’s Turns

7 07 2017


Some recent research into the history of the structure-form distinction sent me into the stacks, where, as I wandered about, as is my wont, I came across poet Melville Cane‘s Making a Poem: An Inquiry into the Creative Process (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1953). In this book (the full text of which is available here), the poet attempts to offer glimpses into his creative process, from initial inspiration / inkling / idea to drafting, through discussions with friends (I love the record of some of these conversations!–this is such a vital part of the composition process, but also is so often overlooked) and subsequent revisions, to final product.

Of course, I was intrigued to see if there was any discussion, specifically, of the turn in Cane’s book. I’ve been intrigued by the discussion of the navigation of the turn in reflections by poets such as Linda Gregerson, Billy Collins, and Mark Doty. I wanted to see if Cane had similar interests. He does–often Cane reveals that an important part of the art of poem-making is the work to make compelling turns.

In chapter one, “Making a Poem,” Cane describes his process for making his short poem “One by One.” When most of the poem, which describes falling leaves, is complete, Cane notes that it still needs something:

I had induced the mood, found the right line-by-line pace, suggested the low, seasonal disintegration, but had yet to infuse the whole with that emotional glow, that electric charge without which a poem fails to come off and to be memorable to the reader. I needed a vivid, poignant image to sum up and crystallize the sense of pain and beauty, an image which must be relevant and extracted from the materials at hand. And so, as I refelt the experience and brooded on it, there came to me this picture:

Golden birds
With broken wings.

I had done what I set out to do. (7-8)

In chapter two, “Threshold to Creation,” Cane discusses creating his poem “Too Deleble, Alas!” While the chapter focuses on the poet’s efforts to achieve a state of detachment and receptivity, the focus at chapter’s end turns to the poem’s end, the making of the turn. The poem describes night descending and the fading of light, and then, at line 14, this sonnet-like poem turns to offer a final summation:

Not a thing the eye can shape
Can escape. (14)

Believing the poem essentially done, Cane shows it to his friend John Erskine who likes it but also offers some feedback. Erskine states:

It’s about those last two lines. You’re dealing here with the swift, almost imperceptible, transition from light to dark, and you’ve registered this fleeting change in the right tempo until you come to the final couplet. Then, instead of closing sharply you slow down with “can shape” and “can escape.” The lines are too leisurely. Instead, they should move with the utmost rapidity. You need to accelerate the speed. (14)

Thus, the last two lines become:

Not a thing the eye shapes
Escapes. (15)

Cane sums up his chapter by saying that it “is the story of the application of my theory that psychological preparation and adjustment of the poet is a prerequisite to composition” (15). But the chapter also is about being open to revision, especially when that revision will help make your poem better make its turn.

In chapter four, “Random Observations,” Cane remarks, “And of course one must be sure to know when to stop. One is often too close to the poem to realize that the final stanza is superfluous and weakening” (24-5). (I’m intrigued by how much of Cane’s thought and work aligns with John Card’s thinking about the turn. Read about Ciardi and the turn here.)

In chapter nine, “Slow Germination,” describes Cane’s process of making the poem “A Harvest to Seduce.” Yet again, a crucial part of the process seems to have been the negotiation of a turn. Much of what gave rise to the poem was negative, and much of the poem is a dark meditation on what time takes from us. Crane realized his thinking, and the poem itself needed to be re-oriented:

…I concluded that I had been obsessed by a sense of defeat and that the moment had arrived when I must come to grips with time and no longer be its slave. How to overcome its beguilement was the problem….My previous turn of mind had been negative, self-destructive. I must loosen its seductive grip. (50)

This is what happens in the poem, which describes the poison fruit of “the tree of time,” with its “harvest to seduce, / Lacking joy or juice,” but then turns in its final stanza to an admonition that begins, “Beware the vain lament, / The hunger for what’s spent…” (51).

In chapter ten, Cane offers “The Story of ‘Bed-Time Story,” a key element of which was closure: “Now I was faced with the task of coming through with an effective ending.” (55) For Cane, this was different from other poems: “‘Bed-Time Story’ is a poem that found its punch line at the very finish; it grew out of the situation as it developed. In this respect the poem differs fundamentally in origin and construction from those which start from a tempting last line and build up hindwise” (55). Cane did go a bit beyond his punch line, adding two-lined footnote to the poem. Cane felt like the poem should “hint that civilization progresses not through the formation of institutions but through the spirit which animates them” (55). He adds, “Besides, I wanted to return to the blissful state of my opening” (55). (I think the the footnote actually is the biggest turn in “Bed-Time Story,” but I disagree about what it does. I think it’s incredibly ironic: I fear the future does not bode well for the animals gathered in the poem’s too-sweet tale. The speaker of the poem, a father, knows this, as well, and when his daughter asks what happens, he leaves it until the next night to put off telling her.)

The book’s final chapter, “‘The Fly’ and Its Problems,” also is primarily about navigating the poem’s turn. The poem considers some different versions of a poem called “The Fly.” “The Fly” is, essentially, a sonnet. It’s got 14 lines (in its second iteration), and it turns sharply between the octave and the sestet. Indeed, in Cane’s poem, there’s a stanza break between lines 8 and 9 (even in its first and final versions, which are 13 lines each). The turn, essentially, is metaphor-to-meaning: the poem begins as being about the plight of a fly bumping into a window, but then turns to reveal that the fly also is largely symbolic of the poet’s own struggle…in large part, to complete the poem. Cane was satisfied with the octave; he states, “Here then, were eight lines, assembled in a compact shape, tentatively, perhaps permanently congenial to me” (101). But where to turn? Cane asks, “What to do next? What sort of structure to build on this base? Should the poem confine itself to the case of the fly? Or should it aim at a wider significance, with general human implications?” (101-2) According to Cane,

The answer came quite unforced as I pondered. It arose out of my own quandary over the next step. Sitting at my desk, with eight lines on the paper before me, I felt stuck, powerless to proceed, yet unwilling to admit failure. And then suddenly it dawned on me that my sense of frustration was basically no different from the fly’s; though the one was physical and the other psychological, we were both in the same boat. And with this flash of recognition came the decision to put myself briefly into the poem, exactly as I appeared to myself at the moment. (102)

I love this! Here we get some more information about the phenomenon of turn creation! In a manner very different from Gregerson’s, which seems largely willed, here Cane’s turning, his arrival at his next two lines (“I sit in my desk to write, / Entrapped by the creature’s plight”) seems more spontaneous and organic. Cane himself emphasizes this point:

Here it should be remembered that this poem did not start from an idea or subject capable of logical development and with the end in constant view from the beginning; on the contrary it grew out of an initial phrase which moved waywardly, gathering accretions with growing concentration on the material. It represents a case where the material, as it develops and hardens, tends to determine or suggest what the poem may be about; thus the theme of the poem, the point of view, comes late. (102)

(It should be noted, though, that in many poems, the point often comes late, regardless of the manner by which it was composed.)

After some clarifying conversations with friends, Cane comes to realize that his poem’s final lines (“It has lost the power of sight; / It has missed the invisible crack, / The gate to the pathway back” (102)) are too “rushed” and thus leave out “an essential element” (105). To slow up the poem, and to allow in some more ambiguity, to leaven the poem’s despair, Cane adds a line, moves some lines, and concludes with two questions. Some important tinkering leads to a third and, perhaps, final version of the poem.

Melville Cane’s poems may not be to the liking of many today. To my knowledge, he is no longer widely read. However, it was a treat to come across his Making a Poem and to see this poet, too, wrestle with the sinewy demands of the turn, to learn a bit about how his turns came into being.





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.


Master of Turns!

27 06 2017


“I Love You, New York,” episode six of season two of the Netflix show Master of None investigates, while enacting, the dynamics of the turn.

**Spoiler alert! Spoilers abound in this post about spoilers!**

The episode opens with a shot of a taxi cab advertisement for the film (above), then cuts to three friends, Dev, Arnold, and Denise, as they head off to the movie.

Dev: You guys psyched for Death Castle?

Arnold: Oh, yeah, baby. Hear there’s a crazy twist at the end.

Dev: The fuck’d you tell me that for?!

Denise: Yeah, what the hell, Arnold?!

Arnold: What are you talking about? I didn’t tell you what the twist was.

Dev: Yeah, but now I’m going to be expecting a twist.

Denise: For real! Narrative immersion? Ruined!

Arnold: Wow. I hadn’t really considered that perspective on twists. I’m sorry.

Dev: It’s okay, buddy.

The episode then commences to twist wildly. Instead of following the three friends (three of the show’s main characters) as they make their way into their evening and to the movie, the camera follows a nearby doorman and stays with him and his story. For a few minutes. Then, following a fellow doorman to a local grocery store, we begin to follow briefly (again, just a few minutes) the activities of a deaf grocery store clerk. (This portion of the sequence is silent. It’s shocking, at first–I checked the sound on my computer. But then, once I realized what was happening, I settled in for lyric immersion.) The story follows the clerk in some after work activities, until she and her inattentive boyfriend grab a cab. The camera, though, stays on the street, and watches two women hail a cab. This is the taxi the camera takes. Inside, the two women glance at a video screen playing a newscast in the process of wrapping up a movie review of Death Castle. The reviewer states,

The movie may be called Death Castle, but in my opinion it’s filled with a whole lotta life. I say: lower that drawbridge, and get thee to your nearest theater…

The women remark:

Woman 1: Have you seen Death Castle yet?

Woman 2: Yes.

Woman 1: How crazy is that twist?!

Woman 2: I never saw it coming. Wait, so let me make sure I got this right: the black guy was actually Nicholas Cage the whole time.

Woman 1: Yeah, and the castle was heaven.

Woman 2: Yes.

Cut to the taxi driver, shaking his head. The story will now follow him.

Woman 1 (now in the background): I know, it was insane…

Taxi driver [via Bluetooth, speaking to a friend in a language not English, so I’m transcribing the closed caption translations]: God damn it! One of my passengers just ruined the end of Death Castle!

Friend: Don’t say anything! I haven’t seen it yet!

Taxi driver: I hate it when this happens! Cab drivers watch movies, too! They should check if we’ve seen the movie before they start talking about spoilers.

Friend: You still want to go see it this weekend?

Taxi driver: Honestly, I don’t know, man. This kind of ruined my whole day.

The story follows the taxi driver into his personal life as he and his friends spend a night on the town. After meeting a small group of women, someone asks, “Where to now?” And another person asks, “Is there something we can do?” The camera cuts to a theater marquee: “Death Castle‘s playing!”

In the theater, the camera pans (all the while we’re hearing movie dialog in the background confirming the fact that, yes, the two women in the cab did understand Death Castle‘s plot twists): we see members of the group who just entered the theater, and then we see the doorman, and the store clerk and her boyfriend, and then the camera settles on Dev, Denise, and Arnold. As the last of the twist-filled revelations are given, the audience gasps.

Arnold (whispering): What?! What?! What?!

Denise (whispering): Man, I’m straight shook right now!

Dev (whispering): I knew there was a twist, but not like this! This is crazy!

The camera pans left from Dev to reveal he’s sitting next to the taxi driver. Dev lightly bumps him, says, “Sorry.” The taxi driver, sitting with arms crossed, simply shakes his head.

Cut to credits.

“I Love You, New York” is about many things: it’s about race, consumerism, globalism–a fuller reading of the episode (which I’m not attempting here) would have to take all of these elements into account. I just want to, here, admire this episode for its intelligence about the turn. Knowing there’s going to be a twist should never be a problem when encountering narrative or lyric art. Spoiler alert: very, very often, if it’s good art there are going to be turns! Great turning is largely about audience expectations (you can’t give an audience a turn they might think of as tired), and, in order to prevent tired turns, successful turning is mainly about the manner by which the turn is enacted. And finally: pretty much everyone not only loves the kind of Hollywood blockbuster that is Death Castle, but also loves the jolt of surprise that genre supplies. It’s to poetry’s detriment if it doesn’t make use of the turn’s dynamic force.



Turning the Field: The Poetry of Laurie Perry Vaughen

27 06 2017


I’ve recently had the exciting experience of encountering the work of poet Laurie Perry Vaughen via the online publication of her master’s thesis, “Artifacts: Selected Poems.” There’s much to admire in the work: its thoughtfulness, its sinewy use of narrative and sound, its palpable imagery. But (of course!) what especially caught my eye was the poet’s attention to the poetic turn. Vaughen made use of Structure & Surprise to help create new work and/or to help articulate (often very movingly) what her work is doing. Very early on in her thesis’s introductory essay (the second section of which is called “Turning the Field: Structure and Surprise”), Vaughen clarifies the distinction between form and structure:

We may approach the field of a poem and immediately see patterns of rhyme scheme, repetition and the footprints of feet. However, many–perhaps most–contemporary poems require a different kind of field work, a deeper read, a deeper turning of the field. Any discussion of my work, of free verse poems, demands a look at the overall movement of the poem rather than noting couplets or beats. A formal poem such as a sonnet, pantoum or villanelle will also offer a structure of movement apart from its form, overall or within a line–if they are mature, polished, rich or ripe.

“Poetic structure is, simply, the pattern of a poem’s turning,” states Michael Theune… (2)

(I really like this idea of poems being “rich, or ripe“!)

Vaughen, though, also is aware of the larger significance and resonances of the act of turning:

Turning as the main movement of a poem is readily identified with nature. Maple leaves turn. Seasons turn. A chrysalis turns to a butterfly. A Jerusalem artichoke turns toward the sun. Evening turns to dusk before turning to morning. Man turns toward death, eventually, as a natural process. As the Catholics finally admitted, the horizon merely turns and the earth turns around the sun, not the other way around. The South African Zulu tribe and the Jew in his or her Diaspora turn to the ancestors for consultation. The structure, the turning in the poem, gives the art pulse, a life blood— and hopefully elevates our resting pulse as we write or read or listen. (6)

(Wow! I love that last sentence!)

Transitioning into her introduction’s third section, “Examining Shards: Emblematic Poems,” Vaughen explains her extra-poetic attraction to the emblem structure, noting, “My poems generally emerge from an emblematic structure. Perhaps this is because I was raised to be an observer of the small within the sublime since childhood and continued this with my undergraduate work in archaeology as an anthropology major” (7).

But, to her credit, for Vaughen poetic structure never ends up being an easy answer for some of poetry’s larger questions. Taking up the issue of increased fragmentation in more recent poetry, Vaughen (in another formulation I greatly admire) states, “There’s no clear answer to…[such] important…concerns about the parts and the whole and the tensions between these. There is a demand on the writer, critic, publisher and reader to explore contemporary poetry with new understandings of how structure, tension as transformation through language can work as synergy” (27). Vaughen then turns to Rilke, who then, in Letters to a Young Poet, “turns the young poet’s attention to nature as the source of synergy” (27). She quotes:

If you will stay close to nature, to its simplicity, to the small things hardly noticeable, those things can unexpectedly become great and immeasurable. No experience was too insignificant – the smallest happening unfolds like destiny. Destiny itself is like a wonderful wide tapestry in which every thread is guided by another thread, and held and carried by a hundred others. (New World Library, 1992 edition: 24)

(Ah! What beautiful weaving Rilke accomplishes even here, even in the rough cloth of prose! It’s no wonder that Vaughen, a maker of so many fine phrases, is drawn to Rilke’s lovely formulation–)

What all of this results in, then, is that while Vaughen still sees structure as a major component of her work, it’s an altered version of structure:

While my poems often hold an emblematic tension or use emblem as a generating pulse that rises to a pattern, the poems are not idea-driven, but language- driven. Lines, enjambment, breaks, stanzas and turns are generated by language, and not a prescribed theme or concrete image. The image serves the language, remember. The emblem I begin with may be a word, a shard of language, which gets associated with another image through sound or syntax rather than symbolic gesture. Though association holds images in tension, sound is also at play. For example, in my poem “Taking Turns,” a secondary turn in the poem’s structure is the language of pedals moving to petals. (36-7)

And, of course, all of this gets enacted in the poetry. Of particular interest:

  • “Taking Turns” (47). A lovely dialectical poem, with a radiant synthesis.
  • “Eye of the Needle” (55). A fine fantasia on sewing and the Christian idea of “passing through the eye of a needle.”
  • “Birds Audubon Never Painted” (58). A brief poem with a stunning arrival point.
  • “Ode to the Faulty Microphone” (80). In fact, a lovely homage to the power of great poetry.
  • “Emblematic,” which begins: “Any metaphor you elevate / has its scarred sense of place–” (81).
  • “After the Tornado” (118). A fascinating (if unintentional) study in endings. I’d thought the poem was a single-page poem–there, it has a tremendous ending, I think. But the poem continues for a half-page. Initially, I was surprised by this: I wondered if that second page should be cut. But the later part of the poem also contributes great power, including fascinating turns, to the poem.
  • “Photograph, 1944” (132-33). An ekphrastic poem that uncovers the image’s seductive, tensive mystery.
  • “Sweet like Funeral Cake” (134). A bittersweet elegy.

I encourage readers of this blog to check out Vaughen’s thesis, and to dive into her poetry. Treasures abound!