Master of Turns!

27 06 2017

Death-Castle

“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.

 

 

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Turning the Field: The Poetry of Laurie Perry Vaughen

27 06 2017

lpv1

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!





Praise for Structure & Surprise

22 06 2017

Villanueva_RA(c-Jennifer Villanueva)

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!





‘don’t know what to call it’: Robert Hass’s Elision of the Poetic Turn

20 06 2017

w204

I shall have to disregard the musical structure of poetry: metre, stanza-form, rhyme, alliteration, quantity, and so on. I neglect these without too much regret: criticism has paid them an altogether disproportionate amount of attention….I am going to talk, primarily, about other sorts of structure in lyrical poetry.

  —Randall Jarrell, “Levels and Opposites: Structure in Poetry” (Georgia Review 50.4 (1996): 697-713)

Thought begins in disagreement, the terms of which demand to be articulated.

—Robert Hass (225)

Robert Hass’s A Little Book on Form: An Exploration into the Formal Imagination of Poetry in fact is a book about the importance of the poetic turn. Though odd, often careless and confounding, it is clearly a book (like some others, including Helen Vendler’s Poems, Poets, Poetry) that acknowledges the primacy of structure (understood as the pattern of a poem’s turning) over form.

In the book’s opening sentences Hass indicates his approach. His book will not be like typical books on form, which take “form to mean traditional rules previous to composition—rules for the formation of the sonnet, for example, or the villanelle” (1). While “useful,” such information “didn’t seem [to Hass] to have much to do with the way the formal imagination actually operates in poetry. It does not, for starters, address the formal principles, or impulses, that underlie the great majority of poetry in English and American literatures not written in these conventional forms” (1).

Hass offers some initial definitions of form:

  • One meaning of form that has currency has the meaning “traditional form,” which usually means the use of rhyme and meter.
  • Another meaning is that it refers to one of a number of traditional kinds of poems that apply particular rules of composition. As in “the sonnet is a form.”
  • Another meaning is “external shape.”
  • Another is “the arrangement and relationship of basic elements in a work of art, through which it produces a coherent whole.” (3)

While such “usages” are “common” and “useful,” according to Hass, “none of them capture the nature of the formal imagination—the intuitions that shape a work of art—or the pleasure form gives to writer and readers” (3). For Hass, “[c]loser might be:

  • The way the poem embodies the energy of the gesture of its making. (3)

This virtually mystical fifth option, though, remains merely suggestive—it in fact will go essentially unexplored by Hass. Hass actually largely conceives of form in the terms he presents in his fourth bullet point. He’s interested in basic elements, “the essential expressive gestures…inside forms” (2). And these gestures are best described as structures. Again and again, Hass will actively set aside issues of rhyme, meter, and external shape in order take apart poems to reveal the arrangements of and the relationships among their basic parts, their structural components, separated (and joined) by turns.

This certainly is the case when Hass explores the sonnet, a main dwelling-place for the turn in poetic forms. (For more on the sonnet and the turn, click here, and here, and here.) Hass understands the importance of the turn, or the volta, for the sonnet. In fact, the turn just may be the sonnet’s main attraction. He states:

Amazing the range of the work in the form. There really isn’t, as far as I know, a good study of whatever it is, formal or psychological, that has made the form—in all the European languages—so persistent and compelling. It might, as Peter Sacks has suggested, be the single gaze and the proportions of the face. But that doesn’t account for the importance of the turn. 8/6: say it long, say it a little shorter. In the Italian sonnet with the more musical twining rhymes in the sestet: say it, then sing it. Or say it and sing the opposite, or the qualification. And the Shakespearean sonnet, which usually has the strong turn, doesn’t have the formal change in the rhyme scheme, so if it has an 8/6 structure, it also has a 4/4/4/2 structure: say it, say it, contradict or qualify it, nail it….It may be something in the turn that echoes the process that we experience as constituting our subjectivity… (185)

Hass qualifies this statement a bit, noting that there are “descriptive” sonnets that “have no turn at all” (186). However, while Hass is correct, this in no way compromises the central place of the volta in terms of the significance of the sonnet (in the sonnet, the lack of a volta is significant), for Hass, this is a minor note: in Hass’s extensive discussion of the sonnet (pp. 121-186), which involves numerous references to the turn, he devotes a single sentence to the fact that there exist sonnets without turns.

The turn also is what gives power to two-line forms. Hass states, “[T]he two-line poem is based on a human pattern of exchange: question-and-answer, call-and-response. This was one of the basic forms of West African folk culture and both the work song and the spiritual evolved from it” (28). The two-line poems Hass provides follow this structure, turning from question to answer, from call to response by which, as with Bantu combinations, in which “[t]he first singer produces an image; the second supplies another,” a non-narrative, riddle-like “internal comparison” is created (29). (For further examples of the question-and-answer structure, click here. For further thinking on two-line poems, click here.) Hass points out that “[t]his is basically the principle upon which many haiku [though typically three-lined] are based…[a]nd it is…the basis of the couplets in the Persian ghazal” (28). In fact, when discussing the ghazal and its couplets, Hass quickly dismisses the importance of meter, stating, “The ghazal was intricately metrical in ways that we don’t need to go into” (a remarkable claim in a book about form!), and he turns to discuss internal structure: “In practice, though the couplets are discrete, they are linked by theme, and the subtlest of them proceed almost like a set of Bantu combinations, linked line by line, couplet by couplet, through internal comparison” (42).

Structure also is the defining characteristic of the Chinese quatrain called the chueh-chu. According to Hass, “The Chinese quatrain was one of the great literary forms of the Tang dynasty. It was called the chueh-chu, or ‘curtailed verse.’ It was a form of ‘regulated verse,’ or chin-t’i-shih, in which the pattern of tones followed certain rules” (103). Hass continues, citing Arthur Cooper: “‘…the fourfold structure [of this particular quatrain] has something at once like a little sonata-form and like the composition of a painting. The sonata form of these poems is reflected in the Chinese names of each of the lines: the first is called “Raising,” that is, the introduction of the theme; the second is called “Forwarding,” that is, development; the third, “Twisting,” or introduction of a new theme,[sic]; and the fourth “Concluding”’” (103).

Here is such a poem by Du Fu:

My rain-soaked herbs: some still sparse, some lush.
They freshen the porch and pavilion with their color.
These waste mountains are full of them. But what’s what?
I don’t know the names and the root shapes are terrifying. (104)

Throughout its supposed discussions of form A Little Book on Form in fact attends much more closely to structure. This is additionally apparent when, approximately mid-way through Little Book on Form, Hass turns from discussing form to discuss genre. Fascinatingly this is the point at which Hass’s interest in the turn really begins to reveal itself: genre is marked mainly by patterns of turns. Hass begins “A Note on Genre” by showing how much he wants to be done with form, as it is traditionally conceived:

1. So that’s it for poetic forms. Four hundred and fifty years of the sonnet, occasional sestinas and villanelles, the rarer occasional pantoum. One could add the ballad—short narrative poems, traditionally in four-line stanzas. And a couple more recent English language adaptation [sic]—the ghazal (see Chapter 2) from Persian and Arabic, the blues from the American vernacular.

2. Much richer in the literary tradition is the idea of kinds of poems, poems with particular subject matter and/or particular angles of approach that don’t, however, specify their length or a particular metrical patter or rhyme scheme. (197)

After one is done reeling from the fact that it’s a book on form that has the sentence “So that’s it for poetic forms” in it, one can then start to trace Hass’s particular interest: internal structure. Hass observes that “the impulse of prayer seems to be very near the origin of the lyric,” and prayer, he notes, has “[a] transparent structure. Praise, then ask” (202). Toward the end of this brief transitional section, Hass states, “Thinking about lyric, about the formal imagination working its way from the beginning of a poem to the end, one can turn to the work of genre, to the shapes of thought and arcs of feeling in the traditional kinds” (205). And this clearly is something other than form as traditionally conceived; Hass states, “So the rhythms of formal shaping in a poem are always working at at least a couple of levels—that of prosody, numbers falling through numbers to create the expressive effect of a piece, and that of—don’t know what to call it—thematic development, the way the poem makes its trajectory, creates its sense of movement (or doesn’t) from beginning to end, some of which is apt to get prompts from generic expectations, conscious or not” (205-206).

Hass may not know what to call it, but we do: structure, understood as the pattern of a poem’s turns. Nowhere is this clearer than in Hass’s discussion of the ode, the first genre to which he turns. Hass emphasizes the ode’s traditional three-part structure: Pindar’s “strophe, antistrophe, and epode,” or, in Jonson’s version, “turn, counterturn, and stand” (210). And, in what we should recognize as a move typical of Hass, he plays down metrical form in the process. While “[t]he strophe and antistrophe had the same stanza pattern, and the epode a different one,” that doesn’t matter much because “[i]n translation the three-part metrical pattern isn’t evident”—“but,” Hass adds, “the basic formal pattern is” (210). For Hass, the ode’s “formal pattern” is its three-part structure: “The clue to the formal structure—what gets echoed in the history of the ode—is the way they begin in a place, and then take their audience on a journey—the entertaining stories in the middle part of the after-dinner speech [the typical occasion of original Pindaric odes]—and then come to their graceful conclusion” (211). In the section called “Reading the Ode” (223-291), Hass consistently breaks down the odes into their constitutive parts, parts separated by turns. Sometimes, there are three parts (231, 240, 250-252, 256), once five (242), and twice “several” (244, 278).

Hass seems to be particularly taken with the pattern of the romantic ode. Derived in part from the three-part structure of the seventeenth-century meditative poem (which itself, as described in Louis Martz’s The Meditative Poem, has a three-part structure: “Begin with a scene from the story of the man-god and his suffering. Take the story in, focusing on its details and their meaning, and then return yourself to the scene fully in possession of it” (212)), the romantic ode “begins with [a] scene….Then the poem takes you on what one critic, M. H. Abrams, describes as ‘an inward journey’ where some work of transformation is done, and then returns you to the place where you began, with that place altered by the process” (211). (For more on this structure, which M. H. Abrams calls the “descriptive-meditative” structure, click here.) But, regardless of the particular kind of ode, odes consist of moving parts. Hass concludes his discussion of the ode this way:

The takeaway: Out of litany and prayer came the praise poem and endless lyric variations on the praise poem. In their formal development these poems have a beginning, middle, and end; an inescapable (unless you are Gertrude Stein) three-part structure. The beginning part is often initiated by desire or dissent. The middle section is almost infinitely variable. It can proceed by narrative, by argument, by association, by elaboration of a metaphor, by a mix of these. In postmodern practice development often proceeds by braiding and disparity, by disruption and non sequitur. An ode can have few or many parts. It can attempt to name, or possess, or stand at the right distance from, in the right relation to, even veer away, from the spoken or unspoken object of desire or imagination of value that initiates it, and its third and final section is apt to get to, or point toward, or try to instantiate, or ask a favor from that object or power. (Which is apt to be, at least implicitly, the power of poetry, or the action of the imagination of which poetry is an instance.) (290-291)

For Hass, the turn is also at the heart of the genre of elegy. In the sections of his book that addresses elegy, Hass draws heavily on Peter Sacks’s The English Elegy. (Sacks happens to be one of the great thinkers about the poetic turn. To find a link to Sacks’s lecture on a type of turn he calls the “dolphin’s turn,” a lecture introduced by Robert Hass, and a reflection on that lecture, click here.) For Sacks, the turn is at the heart of the elegy: as Hass cites, “‘Daphne’s “turning” into a tree matches Apollo’s “turning” from the object of his love to a sign of her, the laurel bough. It is the substitutive turn or act of troping that any mourner—perhaps that language—must perform’” (296). As he attends to Milton’s “Lycidas,” Shelley’s “Adonais,” and Lowell’s “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” Hass notes that “[p]artly [he] will be tracking Peter Sacks’s reading of the poems in his The English Elegy,” but in doing so, “[w]e are tracking old, inherited formal structures for surviving and transforming the kinds of devastating loss that can sicken the roots of life” (303). The next nearly 20 pages track the sections and turns of these poems.

After the sections on elegy, there’s some more to A Little Book on Form, including brief sections (about ten pages / section) on satire (325-334); georgic (335-343); variable stanzas and organic form (345-352); difficult forms (353-363); collage, abstraction, Oulipo, and procedural poetics (365-379); mixed forms (381-384); the prose poem (385-391); metrical stress (393-398); how to scan a poem (399-411); and how free verse works (413-429). However, as the brevity of these sections (and others: the section on blank verse is six pages long (115-120); the sestina and villanelle are given a total of nine pages (187-195); and the pantoum, slipped into the sestina and villanelle section, receives one page’s worth of attention) reveal: this is just clean up, just touching on some final topics, mere formalities. The real work of the book was already done, and that work was the work of troping our attention from metrical form to structural turning.

*

While for me, and perhaps for many of the readers of this blog, it is incredibly interesting to witness how much the turn intrigues Hass, I want to be clear: I do not recommend this book.

At all levels, it is considerably careless. Even if we allow, as Hass notes, that this book “began as a series of notes and reading lists for a seminar [he] was invited to teach at the University of Iowa Writers Workshop in the winter of 1995,” and so that the “[t]he notes are intended to be suggestive, not comprehensive” (1-2), it is still very problematic. It is poorly edited. Grammatical errors abound, and often partial and/or incorrect citations (David Mikics co-authored The Art of the Sonnet with Stephen Burt; Phillis Levin edited The Penguin Book of the Sonnet, not Phyllis) float about. Twice, M. H. Abrams great essay “Structure and Style in the Greater Romantic Lyric” is called “Style and Structure…” (214, 253).

Hass states, “I’m very much aware that [my notes] come from what I happen to have read or be reading and that other readers will bring other lists and perhaps better example drawn from other traditions to the issues of craft discussed here” (2). But too many times A Little Book on Form reveals what feels like an almost active disengagement with its subjects. In a section called “Reading the Sonnet” (133-186) Hass offers a number of sonnets to be perused, but he does not make clear why he’s offered these and not others (including anything from Astrophil and Stella, a glaring omission near the core of a tradition with which Hass is familiar). A Little Book on Form also contains a number of claims that, seeing them in print, print being prepared to become a book, should have given anyone, let alone someone as smart as Robert Hass, some pause. For example, Hass writes, “People kept experimenting with the [sonnet] form though it is hard to name a decisive instance after Yeats’s ‘Leda and the Swan’ in 1923 and Frost’s ‘Design’ in 1936” (130). This is preposterous: see The Reality Street Book of Sonnets. Additionally, of the villanelle, Hass states, “It is a form that has produced at least four quite powerful poems”; they are, as Hass recalls them, E. A. Robinson’s “House on the Hill,” Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” Theodore Roethke’s “The Waking,” and Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” (194). Hass is right about these poems, but it is alarming that he won’t (or can’t) name another out of this tight, well-know group. (Surprisingly, Hass’s range of reference to contemporary poets and scholars seems to be severely limited. The avant-garde barely seems to exist in A Little Book on Form, and there are strong links only to work by folk from particular environs familiar to Hass: the Bay area and greater Harvard, with a tiny outpost in Iowa City).

Replete with reading lists, Hass too-often relies on a reader’s willingness to do additional reading to collect insight rather than offer it himself. For example, Hass states, “The best way to get a sense of the four-line stanza in English is to pick up an anthology and read through it” (89). Such instruction is given or implied numerous times throughout the book. This level of disengagement is particularly disappointing when it comes to Hass’s unwillingness to enter into scholarly debate with other thinkers. When discussing the ghazal, Hass notes that “[b]y 2000 the Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali had objected to these freehanded appropriations of the classic form and published, by way of protest, an anthology of poems, Ravishing Disunities: Real Ghazals in English, which follow the rhyme scheme and something like the meter of the classic Muslim form” (45). However, though he offers a smattering of examples of “real ghazals” (two couplets from three poems), Hass seems totally unconcerned about the issue of formal correctness—a shocking stance in a book (purportedly—though, as we now know, not really) about form. And nor does Hass engage Stephen Burt’s skepticism about the sestina. As Hass notes, in a 2012 essay called “Sestina! Or, The Fate of the Idea of Form,” Burt “reads the phenomenon [of “a recent explosion of sestinas”] as a product of the teaching of creative writing and as a symptom of ‘diminished hope for the art,’ a way ‘to emphasize technique, and to disavow at once tradition, organicism, and social and spiritual efficacy’” (193). Whoa. So, what does Hass think about this? We have no idea: we’re instructed to read Burt’s essay, and many of the sestinas he lists (Hass doesn’t make his own), and judge for ourselves (193). This disengagement reaches its apotheosis in the book when, in his brief discussion of satire Hass can’t even be bothered to consider its structural elements. Instead he states, “One would have to do more study of Horace and Juvenal and the Hebrew prophets than I’ve done to answer the question of whether there is a pattern of development, an inner logic to the shape of satire and prophecy like the ones one can make out in the ode and the elegy. It would seem that satire’s natural form would be the list, the bill of particulars” (328). And that’s that.

But, of course, the real, deep disengagement results in nothing that is in the book but, rather, is a result of vital material having been left out. Hass seems to think that nothing of interest has been written about the poetic structure and its turn. But there has been a great deal of high-quality, insightful conversation about the turn. Jorie Graham has some very interesting takes on the turn. In fact, I was introduced to the turn by Graham in the fall of 1994, when I was just starting my studies as an MFA student in poetry at the University of Iowa–that is, the semester before Hass taught his first course on forms there. (A brief reflection on Graham’s thinking about the turn, and about what I learned about the turn, at Iowa can be found here.) And even if we focus solely on the sonnet’s volta, there are Paul FussellChristina Pugh, and—oh, yes—Dante. What is perhaps deeply disappointing for me about Hass’s book is that it makes it seem as though there is no conversation about the volta, or, more broadly, the turn. Therefore, Hass gets stuck. He doesn’t seem to have a language, or a way to think more deeply into poetry via the turn. His book suffers greatly because of it.

The penultimate paragraph of A Little Book on Form recounts this story:

Stanley Kunitz saying there were three ways a poem moves: in a straight line from A to B, in a circle beginning with A and passing through various place [sic] and coming back to A, or by braiding two, three, even five elements in such a way that by the end their relation to each other becomes clear. And I said, “What about pointillism or a Calder mobile, where elements just hang there in relation to each other or not, the connection unstated?” And Stanley, “Yes, that would be a fourth way.” “Or a list,” I said, “that would just be A A A A.” “Yes, yes,” said Stanley, getting a little weary. (428)

If only A Little Book on Form had been restructured so that it started here, so that it could have ended someplace much more revealing and surprising.





Track the Turn!

14 06 2017

I love this: using the turn to help students “notice” and, so, “track” a poem!





Some Surprising Lesson Plans

14 06 2017

mchan

Interested in focusing more on teaching surprise in poetry? If so, check out Michelle Chan Brown’s “Make It New: Using Surprise To Make Poetry Come Alive.”

Readers of this blog will find lesson 3, “Shifts & Turns: The Poet as Trickster,” to be of particular interest. Those intrigued by the turns in Shakespeare’s sonnet 130 (“My mistress’s eyes…”) should check out more about the power of the sonnet’s volta. Some discussions can be found here, and here, and here. If you’re interested in a lesson plan focused on the powerful potential of the dynamics between a “you” and an “I” in a poem, check out my essay “If They Can Do It, You Can, Too: The Dialectical Argument Poem” in Wingbeats II: Exercises and Practice in Poetry. (This lesson plan can help students create something like these poems.)

Also of particular interest is lesson 4, “Wonder: The Poet Surprises Herself,” which focuses on a kind of turn we here have come to call, after Rachel Zucker’s naming it as such, an “epiphanic poem.”

 





Tony Hoagland’s “Gorgon”

20 03 2017

…is an important poem in these times, and it’s got some striking turns– Check it out here.