Though in my intro to poetry writing class I typically do not focus on the turn until the second half of the semester (there is so much to cover prior to this: creative process, artistic recklessness, the poetic leap, the many means to create surprise, etc), I recently have taken to providing students with an exercise focused on the turn in the first day of class.
After performing the rituals of the beginning of the semester (taking roll, handing out and discussing the syllabus, etc), I introduce my students to the metaphor-to-meaning structure. We examine a couple of key examples (often Whitman’s clear “A noiseless, patient spider” and Rod Smith’s wild “Ted’s Head”)—I describe the metaphor-to-meaning structure, and I ask students to locate and explain the turn, which they can, and do. We then examine a handful of metaphor-to-meaning poems in which the turn reveals that the metaphor was meant to stand for or say something about poetry, or the poem, or that poet. Baudelaire’s “The Albatross” and Zbigniew Herbert’s “The Hen” work very well for this. We take some time, explore and appreciate these poems, and then I give my students their assignment: write a poem like these—write a poem that opens with a metaphor and closes by revealing that the metaphor (somehow) relates to poetry, poems, or the figure of the poet. The main bit of advice I give my students is to try to come up with a description of something very different from poetry to serve as the metaphor—much of the fun of reading a metaphor-to-meaning poem about poetry is the surprise that comes with finding out that, in fact, it is in some way about poetry.
This, of course, seems like a lot to give students, especially on the first day. However, perhaps because it’s the beginning of the semester and everyone is excited to get underway, and/or because students want to begin to describe their orientation to poetry, and/or because, in fact, I keep this a low-stakes assignment (due the next class meeting, in which it is read but not workshopped—if students want to workshop it, they can later in the semester), and/or because no one has yet given such demanding assignments, my students typically have taken this assignment and run with it, and they’ve made some very nice poems as a result.
Here are two student poems that ended up fitting the metaphor-to-meaning structure perfectly. Yet, even though these poems closely engage the structure, they do so in very different ways. With the metaphoric status of the blister(-as-poem) remaining a mystery until the end, Anjelica Rodriguez’s “Blister” makes a beautiful kind of surprising sense. However, the turn in Stephen Whitfield’s “Maturity” is more sudden, more shocking—it resonates with what Rachel Zucker calls the epiphanic structure.
by Anjelica Rodriguez
You think only of the pain,
When there is only healing.
And now you know how it feels
To write a poem.
by Stephen Whitfield
Shining vaguely under the water,
She is like the ghost I claimed to see in the attic
Swimming in circles she will never understand
She cannot sit still
She cannot close her eyes
She is looking for something anonymous and vital
Something absurd and perfect
It catches her eye and she ascends like a raptured priest
Gasping, fighting an inconceivable pull
She is alive again only when released
Already semi-desperate to fight it again
I miss the urgency of my first poems.
Some students used the metaphor-to-meaning structure as more of a launching pad. They ended up creating strong poems, but poems that, in the end, are not actually metaphor-to-meaning poems. Brittany Gonio’s “My Kind of Poetry” ended up as more of a cliché-and-critique poem. And I’m frankly not sure what to call Colleen O’Connor’s “Where We Sleep.” While it clearly is in dialogue with the metaphor-to-meaning structure, it is not, strictly speaking, a metaphor-to-meaning poem. But, of course, in the end this does not matter—what matters is that it, like the other poems gathered here, is a thrilling, engaging poem.
My Kind of Poetry
by Brittany Gonio
My kind of poetry
is not an ornate object
on display in an upper class suburban home.
It is not the family jewels
hidden away in a safety deposit box,
for which the children
have only a false appreciation.
My poetry will never cradle me
like goose feathered bedspreads
and waterbed mattresses,
nor will it be the pillow talk
my lover whispers to me
(whether his intention be from his heart
or his groin).
It is not a hospital recovery room
with extended visiting hours
and the promise of being
“just like brand new”
in a couple of days.
My poetry is a boxing match
where I never have to look
to the jumbotron to channel
the intensity in my chaotically
Every punch that grazes only air
depletes my resolve and loses support
of my knees.
Every jab met with hard muscle
sends a surge of endorphins
through my knuckles and veins.
I flit through the entirety
of the human spectrum of emotion
in the rounds between bell chimes,
and leave the ring
grinning through migraines.
My poetry breaks me
like a teenage lover,
consistently return to it,
because I am married to it
in a way that has nothing to do
or income laws,
but in that
“bigger than yourself”
tidal wave revelation.
My poetry has made me
an adrenaline junkie;
I dread building up tolerance,
fear calluses that will hinder sharp stings,
loathe the body’s natural instinct
to protect itself.
For I yearn to sustain
the awe of aftershocks
each morning as
my fingers glide over
and chart muscles and flesh
I didn’t know
Where We Sleep
by Colleen O’Connor
In the field behind his childhood home,
He buried two dogs,
A baby bird,
A stray cat,
The fish he wouldn’t flush,
A few chewed up toys,
And the rabbit
He never got to name.
It’s been thirty years.
In a different house,
A different dog skitters on the wood floors.
It growls at the rumbling washing machine,
Sleeps between him and the woman
Who reminds him of his mother.
He comes back to the field sometimes,
When the woman is at work and the dog has been fed
And the new backyard feels too small.
In the silence, the prairie grass mumbles,
Shifts in the wind,
Soft as the belly of a sleeping bear.
In the desk beside his end table,
He buried his poems.
He pulls them out sometimes, years later,
Once the woman is asleep and the dogs have been dead for years
And the bed feels too big.
In the silence, she mumbles,
Shifts in her sleep,
A shape in the shadows.
Under the light of his end table,
He flips the pages,
Unearths six girls,
A year in Amsterdam,
A tour with the coast guard,
Four bouts of depression,
And the daughter
He never got to name.
He holds the poems gently,
Like baby birds.
Tiny coffins, they are strangely light
For how much they hold.
If you like the poems you see here, I hope you’ll give this assignment a try.
For a variant of this assignment, see “Extended Metaphor as Ars Poetica” in Tom C. Hunley’s The Poetry Gymnasium: 94 Proven Exercises to Shape Your Best Verse (30-33). In this assignment, Hunley suggests simply creating an extended metaphor (using anything that’s not poetry) and then calling the poem “Poetry” or “Ars Poetica.” A kind of meaning-to-metaphor poem, which can have great result, as well.
My thanks to Anjelica, Stephen, Brittany, and Colleen for granting me permission to use their poems.