Close Reading “Close Reading: Windows”

9 01 2011

As I have stated elsewhere on this blog (such as here, and by including many of her poems as exemplars of particular types of turns), poet-critic Jane Hirshfield is one of today’s great advocates and practitioners of the poetic turn.  Hirshfield’s advocacy for the turn continues in her latest, excellent essay on poetry, “Close Reading: Windows” (The Writer’s Chronicle 43.4 (Feb. 2011): 22-30).

Hirshfield begins her essay, stating, “Many good poems have a kind of window-moment in them–a point at which they change their direction of gaze or thought in a way that suddenly opens a broadened landscape of meaning and feeling.  Encountering such a moment, the reader breathes in some new infusion, as steeply perceptible as any physical window’s increase of light, scent, sound, or air.  The gesture is one of lifting, unlatching, releasing; mind and attention swing open to newly peeled vistas.”

Though Hirshfield notes that such window-moments may be momentary elements within a poem, most often the window-moment is associated with the turn.  Hirschfield states, “In the swerve into some new possibility of mind, a poem with a window stops to look elsewhere, drawing on something outside of its self-constructed domain and walls.  A window can be held by a change of sense realms or a switch of rhetorical strategy, can be framed by a turn of grammar or ethical stance, can be sawn open by an overt statement or slipped in almost unseen.  Whether large or small, what I am calling a window is recognized primarily by the experience of expansion it brings: the poem’s nature is changed because its scope has become larger.”

The relation between the window-moment and the turn is made even clearer when one considers that many of the poems Hirshfield discusses in her essay have major turns, turns which often are equated with the window-moment. 

The turn in the final stanza of Philip Larkin’s “High Windows” is the major window-moment in the poem, the place where, according to Hirshfield, the poem “suddenly turns.”  (In Structure & Surprise, Christopher Bakken considers “High Windows” a poem employing an ironic structure.)  

A vital window-moment in Emily Dickinson’s “We grow accustomed to the Dark–“ (a poem that employs a Metaphor-to-Meaning Structure) occurs at the poem’s major turn from metaphor to meaning; as Hirshfield notes, “‘And so of larger–Darkness– / Those Evenings of the Brain– / When not a Moon disclose a sign– / Or Star–come out–within–‘  With these lines, the poem moves into charged terrain.”

In Wislawa Szymborska’s Some People, a poem employing a List-with-a-Twist Structure, the window-moment occurs at the poem’s final twist.  As Hirshfield notes of the poem’s third-to-last line, “With that line’s grammatical knife-twist, certain kinds of awareness we were not even aware had been supressed rush back into the poem.”

The major turn in Czeslaw Milosz’s “Winter,” again, turns out to be its window-moment.  Hirshfield, in fact, calls the poem’s “mid-point turn to the vocative ‘you'” one of “the most breathtaking transitions and window-openings to be found anywhere in poetry, in its intimacy and in what it summons.”

I learned a great deal from “Close Reading: Windows.”  Not the least of this learning came from being introduced to (or reminded of) of some excellent poems with amazing turns in them.  I added Dickinson’s poem to the Metaphor-to-Meaning Structure page and I added Szymborska’s poem to the List-with-a-Twist Structure page after reading Hirshfield’s excellent, informative essay.  Inspired by and agreeing with Hirshfield, I also decided to add Milosz’s poems to the list of poems on Voltage!, the page of this blog devoted to poems that have truly shocking and amazing, truly electric, turns.

I’ve been deeply impressed by some vital new writing on issues intimately related to the turn, writing such as Peter Sack’s “‘You Only Guide Me by Surprise’: Poetry and the Dolphin’s Turn” and Hank Lazer’s “Lyricism of the Swerve: The Poetry of Rae Armantrout” (collected in Lyric & Spirit: Selected Essays 1996-2008).  Jane Hirshfield’s “Close Reading: Windows” certainly takes its place among these important works, doing its part to help reveal the relevance and the significance of the turn in poetry today.

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Poetry and Uncertainty, and the Turn

28 07 2009

hirshfield2

 In a recent post, I outlined how the July/August 2009 issue of Poetry, though officially the Flarf/Conceptual Poetry issue, also is, like so many other issues of Poetry, the turn issue.  That is, though unacknowledged, Poetry actually features a large number of poems that themselves feature turns.

This situation is not at all unique to Poetry.  Turns are virtually ubiquitous in poetry, but we (poets, critics, teachers, readers) have barely attended to them.  It’s for this reason that one of the tasks of this blog is to point out some of the discussions of turns that do occur–especially those discussions, like the recent issue of Poetry, in which the turn is present but not named.  We need to see how much we in fact do focus on the turn so that we can become conscious of our attention, and so that we can be encouraged to think more deeply about the role of the turn in poetry.

One of the poems in the recent issue of Poetry that employs a distinct turn is “Perishable, It Said,” by Jane Hirshfield.  While I don’t think it is accurate to say that some poets are poets of the turn more than others, there do seem to be some poets (A. R. Ammons, Billy Collins, Rae Armantrout, and Jorie Graham, to name a few) who are really taken by the turn, and employ it often in significant ways in their poetry and, at times, criticism.  Hirshfield, also, is this kind of poet…and critic: turns often are significant features of the poems Hirshfield discusses in her criticism, though they typically are not remarked upon in her commentary on those poems.

This certainly is the case with Hirshfield’s essay “Poetry and Uncertainty” (from The American Poetry Review 34.6 (2005): 63-72).  In this essay, Hirshfield considers the ways in which poetry incorporates and communicates uncertainty.  Though Hirshfield never mentions the turn as one of the key tools for such undertakings, it is clear that the turn is central in these efforts.  Of the eleven poems Hirshfield cites in full, nine contain clear and significant turns.  These poems are:

“It is true…,” by Izumi Shikibu (click on the link, and looking under “Gate 1. Permeability”);

“Poetry Reading,” by Anna Swir;

“When I Heard the Learned Astronomer,” by Walt Whitman;

“Encounter,” by Czeslaw Milosz;

“They spoke to me of people, and of humanity…,” by Fernando Pessoa (see p. 85);

“A Great Tranquility: Questions and Answers,” by Yehuda Amichai;

Ode I. 11 (“Leucon, no one’s allowed to know his fate…”), by Horace (located under “Gate 4. Horace’s Zen”);

“This may be the last day of my life…,” by Fernando Pessoa (on p. 92); and

“The Fly,” by Miroslav Holub

Though Hirshfield does not discuss the turn, the turn is implicit in her discussion of these poems when she notes their connection to jokes, stating, “[A] good poem, like a good joke, doesn’t allay anxiety with answers–it startles its readers out of the general trance, awakening an enlarged reality by means of a close-paid attention to its own ground.”  Jokes, of course, have clear turns in them: from set-up to punch line.  And Hirshfield acknowledges that poems often have this kind of movement, leaping from ground to larger reality, from trance to wakefulness–maneuvers that are featured in the Ironic Structure and the Dream-to-Waking Structure discussed on this blog.  (Hirshfield in fact notes that irony is at work in a number of the poems she cites, stating, “This is why lyric poems are so rife…with irony–good poems undercut their own yearning to say one thing well, because to say one thing is simply not to say enough.”)

Clearly, the turn is present, if largely unacknowledged, in Hirshfield’s essay–but why is this important to recognize?  The answer is simple: descriptive accuracy.

Hirshfield’s essay not only tries to show the relations between poetry and uncertainty but also wants to offer some insights into how good, moving poems are made out of such relations.  For example, Hirshfield states, “The making of good poetry entails control; it also requires surrender and a light hand.”  However, upon seeing how centrally the turn is featured in the poems she presents and how the turn is implicit in so many of her remarks on those poems, it seems that Hirshfield also could say: the making of good poetry entails a knowledge of turns, and skill in employing them in your poems.