Elaine Scarry on Poetry’s “Deliberative Push”

15 07 2019

In her essay “Poetry, Injury, and the Ethics of Reading” (collected in The Humanities and Public Life, ed. Peter Brooks, with Hilary Jewett (New York: Fordham UP, 2014): 41 – 54)), Elaine Scarry seeks to discover “[w]hat is the ethical power of literature?” She additionally inquires, “Can it diminish acts of injuring, and if it can, what aspects of literature deserve the credit?” Scarry largely sidesteps the first question in order to make space to address the second; she states, “If we assume…that literature in fact helped to diminish acts of injuring…what attributes of literature can explain this? Three come immediately to mind: its invitation to empathy, its reliance on deliberative thought, and its beauty.”

Here, I wish to share Scarry’s thinking on the deliberative thought to be found in literature, or, as Scarry states, focusing her subject, “the deliberative push embedded in poetry.” I do this because it is most relevant to the concern of this blog: the poetic turn. Poetry’s deliberative push sounds a great deal to me like the dialectical organization that Randall Jarrell recognized in so many poems. (Jarrell’s discussion of the dialectical nature of so much poetry can be found in his essay “Levels and Opposites: Structure in Poetry,” and it is quoted here. [Scroll down.]) Those interested in considering Jarrell’s ideas about poetry’s largely dialectical nature will want to know about Scarry’s ideas about the deliberative push, and vice versa.

Here’s Scarry (with some of my own noted emphasis) on the historical contours of poetry’s deliberative push:

The connection of poetic composition to deliberation–to the “pro” and “con” of debate–is in the very first description we have of the Muses singing, the one Homer gives at the close of the first book of the Iliad. Thomas Hobbes, who was acutely interested in deliberation, wrote in his 1676 translation, beginning with the feasting of the gods, “And all the day from morning unto night / Ambrosia they eat, and nectar drink. / Apollo played and alternately / The Muses to him sung.” The alternating voices of the Muses are audible in Alexander Pope’s later translation, as in John Ogilby’s earlier one. Ogilby’s annotation to the lines states: “The Muses sung in course answering one the other…Anthem-wise; [the Greek Homer uses] being such Orations as were made pro or con upon the same argument.” He then invokes Virgil’s Eclogue, “The Muses always loved alternate Verse,” and Hesiod’s Theogony, “Muses begin, and Muses end the Song.” The argumentative structure enacted by Homer’s Muses is registered in every English translation, with the exception of George Chapman’s. Samuel Butler writes, “The Muses lifted up their sweet voices, calling and answering to one another”; in Richard Lattimore’s edition, we read of the “antiphonal sweet sound of the Muses singing”; and Robert Fagles has the “Muses singing / voice to voice in chorus.”

The Iliad is an epic ignited by the dispute between Achilles and Agamemnon, and we are more likely to associate dispute with epic poetry or with plays, as in the drama contests of fifth-century Greece. But many other genres of poetry have the debate structure built into them, as we can see by the word “anthem”–derived from “antiphons” or “verse response”–which surface in the translations. That an anthem, or hymn of praise, holds disputing voice within it reminds us that there is nothing anti lyric about this deliberative structure (my emphasis).

Many styles of poetry bring us face to face with acts of deliberation. The eclogue is a dialogue poem about the act of choosing, as in Virgil’s Third and Seventh Eclogues when a judge is asked to choose between the arguments of two shepherds. The word “eclogue” is derived from eklegein, meaning ” to choose.” Another example is the tenzone, in which two poets argue “in alternating couplets,” as Urban Holmes describes in Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. The ten zone eventually took on other forms, such as the partiman or jeuparti, in which one “poet proposes two hypothetical situations.” One of the positions is then defended by that poet and the other by a second poet, each speaking in three stanzas. In his translation of Dante’s Vita Nuova, Mark Musa explains, “The Italian troubadours invented the sonnet form [of the tenzone], still a mode of debate in which the problem is set forth in a proposta inviting a riposta (using the same rhymes) from another poet.

While in the tenzone two distinct sonnets are placed in dispute, an oppositional mental act is also interior to the sonnet itself, particularly the Petrarchan sonnet form with its division into an octave and a sestet. While the volta, or “turn of thought,” is most emphatic in the Petrarchan form, it is also recognizable in Spenserian and Shakespearean sonnets (my emphasis).

Holmes directs attention not only to the poetic forms just enumerated but to others that entail a contest structure, such as the lauda, which calls for “responsive participation” and hence for dialogue, as well as the pastourelle, in which an aristocrat or knight attempts to seduce a shepherdess and is often outwitted by her of by her fellow shepherd.

The inseparability of poetic and disputational thinking is registered in the titles of many Middle English poems: “Parlement of Foules,” “Parliament of Devils,” “Parliament of the Three Ages,” “Dialogue between Poet and Bird,” “The Cuckow and the Nightingale,” “The Thrush and the Nightingale,” “The Owl and the Nightingale,” “The Clerk and the Nightingale,” “The Floure and the Leafe,” “Dispute between the Violet and the Rose,” “The Holly and the Ivy,” “The Debate of the Carpenter’s Tools,” “Wynnere and Wastoure,” “Ressoning betuix Aige and Yowth,” “Ressoning Betuix Deth and Man,” “Death and Liffe,” and, last but not least, “A Disputacion betwyx the Body and Wormes.”

Medieval debate poems occur in many languages, starting with the eighth-century Carolingian poem “Conflictus Veris et Hiemis.” John Edwin Wells, an early twentieth-century scholar of Middle English, notes that versions of the “Debate between Body and Soul,” which first occurs in English between 1150 and 1175, “are extant in Latin, Greek, French, Provencal, German, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, Danish, and English.”

There are also parallels in the Eastern tradition. Titles in Sumerian, Akkadien, Assyrian, and Babylonian poems often resemble those above. “Summer contra Winter,” “Bird contra Fish,” “Tree contra Reed,” “Silver contra Leather,” “Copper vs. Leather,” “Ewe vs. Wheat,” “Herdsman vs. Farmer,” and “Hoe vs. Plough.” Describing ancient Near Eastern dispute poems as “tools and toys at the same time,” Herman Vanstiphout argues that a serious lesson is at the center of these poems: “All coins have two sides.” Much later English counterparts share this lesson. Thomas L. Reed shows that although many Anglo-Saxon and Middle English poems feature a “right” position to which the wrong thinker can be converted, in many others the disputants are equals, and no final decision is made.

Reed demonstrates that in addition to all of the explicitly titled dispute poems, many of the major English works are debates: Beowulf with its “sparring” and formal flytings; Piers Plowman with its wayward and “enigmatic” path; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with its disputations between green and gold, winter and summer, Christianity and chivalry, youth and age, sinner and mercy, discourtesy and treachery. The Canterbury Tales also features a “debate on marriage” extending across the tales of the merchant, the Clerk, the Wife of Bath, and the Franklin; the “flytings” between the Reeve, Miller, Summoner, and Friar,; and the overall “narrative competition” among the taletellers to be judged by Harry Bailly.

 





Attend to the Turn

6 03 2013

theune182

Looking for some opportunities to attend to the turns in your poetry?  If so..

On March 23, I’ll lead a workshop focusing on the dialectical argument structure at the Tenth Annual Columbus State Writers Conference in Columbus, OH.

On March 24, I’ll discuss the turn and then lead an extended workshop on submitted poems at the Rhino Poetry Forum Workshop in Evanston, IL.





Six Approaches to Structuring a Poem

19 02 2012

Last month I had the honor of introducing two separate groups of writers to principles of poetic structure as put forth in Michael Theune’s extraordinary Structure and Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns.  The book made such a significant paradigm shift in the way I approach my own drafts that I wanted to share my discovery with others by offering a workshop.  My plan was to spend a full Saturday at the Writing Barn working through six of the structures with a small group of poets in my town of Austin, Texas.  I sent out emails and posted Facebook notices for the workshop.  The response to the workshop was overwhelming; within a week I had twenty people registered and had started to turn others away, but then I decided to repeat the class on a second Saturday, this one closer to my idea of a small group, thirteen.

I organized the workshop—called “Six Approaches to Structuring a Poem”—so  that we covered three structures in the first half of the day (emblem, ironic, concessional) and three structures—following lunch—in the second half of the day (retrospective-prospective, dialectical, descriptive-meditative).  As much as I would have liked to include the elegiac structures, mid-course turns, and substructures—the other structures covered in Structure and Surprise—I was glad I kept the day to the six I chose, as time was tight even for those.  We approached each structure in the same way, beginning with a short description of the basic structure; followed by an in-depth look at seven poems that exemplified the structure; followed by a short writing exercise whereby the participants could try their hands at using the structure; and ending with discussion and sharing of newly drafted works-in-progress.

The descriptions of the structures came straight from the chapters in Structure and Surprise, as did a number of the example poems, though I added a Texas touch by including a number of Texas poets throughout the day—Benjamin Saenz, Naomi Nye, Larry Thomas, myself, and others.  I was also able to find recordings for about a third of the poems I used, read by the poets themselves.  Given that we covered forty-two poems throughout the day, it was nice to hear voices other than our own, and for many, it was the first time to hear Mark Doty, Philip Larkin, Harryette Mullen, Li-Young Lee, Natasha Trethewey, and others.   The focus was on structure, form, and turns, and how different poets used the same structure to achieve very different kinds of poems.

I believe that writing is the best way to see if principles of a workshop are being learned, so with each structure I designed a brief exercise.  I gave participants no more than fifteen minutes for each exercise, but no one had to share their drafts if they did not want to (almost everyone, however, did share at least once during the day).  For the emblem structure, I brought in two dozen Gustav Klimt posters and had everyone choose one, where they were to move from description to meditation in their poem.

Here is an untitled poem from Beverly Voss, based on Klimt’s Mäda Primavesi:

 

You stare out, young beauty,

arms akimbo, your gaze bold.

Persephone in her meadow:

roses, buttercups, narcissi

awash in violet beauty, the

green world at your feet.

Glory falling on you from

the heavens, your birthright—

freedom

and a bright white innocence.

 

How will your gaze change after

the earth opens and swallows you up?

When Demeter wails, keens, laments

until the meadow freezes with her tears.

Until the earth is nearly dead?

 

She doesn’t yet know but you will return.

Having been split open

like the pomegranate you ate—

the red juice forever staining your mouth.

Your gaze, I think, will have more depth.

You will bring a dark knowing

back with you.

More woman than girl.

More witch than woman.

More goddess than the wheat.

 

–Beverly Voss

 

For the ironic structure—the one exercise which everyone in both workshops shared with the group—I handed out a list of 26 first lines, half from Sharon Olds’ Strike Sparks and half from Martín Espada’s Alabanza.  Participants were asked to respond to several of the first lines with a follow-up line (or lines) that provided an ironic turn, many of which brought howls of laughter.  I told them to keep them short, and they did.  Here are several examples (the Olds and Espada lines in italics):

 

Illumination

 

In the middle of the night,

when we get up, we navigate

by ambient light—

around the bedstead,

through the house, sure-footed,

no stubbed toes, scraped shins.

Yet, once sunlight penetrates the blinds

we stagger from our beds,

stumbling, clumsy and blind.

 

–Ann Howells

 

epidural

 

there are some things doctors can’t fix:

their own mistakes. My trust escaping out of the hole the needle made.

 

–Beth Kropf

 

No pets in the project

the lease said.

So I lost the cat.

Sold the dog.

Asked for money back

when the place came

equipped with a rat.

 

–Beverly Voss

 

Family Holidays

 

This was the first Thanksgiving with my wife’s family.

The next one will be without my wife

or without her family.

 

–Christine Wenk-Harrison

 

For the concessional structure, I had students use the same “First Lines” handout, but this time they were to choose one line, add “Suppose” to the front of it, and use that line as a concession until the turn in their poems.  Here’s Jean Jackson’s take on the structure (I told them that they could alter the first line if they needed to):

 

Mr. Fix-It

 

I suppose there are some things you can’t fix,

but you set such grand expectations

right from the beginning 46 years ago.

First there were the holes in the floor boards

of the ’57 Chevy that you repaired

by riveting cookie sheets in place.

So many holes have been fixed since then.

 

And the plumbing! How many times

have you found the leak, dug through mud

and saved a bundle, all the while

hating the job?

I admit you’re getting older

and that last time was a bear–

two days in the cold and rain.

 

I know you’ve felt put upon at times

fixing the antiques that I sell in my business

and you want me to quit since sales are down,

but there was a time when you were

as enthusiastic as I was and bought enough

fix-up furniture to last for an age–

you even said you liked making the repairs,

though you drew the line at refinishing.

 

What I’m saying is that I’m not ready to let go now.

It’s in my blood, and you’re so good at what you do,

that I know I’ll probably ask you to fix small flaws

once in a while. You do such a good job

and, well, it’s just so you!

 

–Jean Jackson

 

For the retrospective-prospective structure, I gave participants a new handout, one of “Last Lines” from the same two poets, Olds and Espada, but not necessarily from the same poems.  This time they were to use one of the last lines as a starting point for a poem that contrasted “then” with “now.”  Here is a draft by Christa Pandey that uses an Espada line to begin:

 

If only history were like your hands,
your fingers easily discerned, long and
slender bony, shapely nails, the pinky
short like last night’s TV episode.
The rivers of your veins concealed—
you are still young—unlike those
of history, full of bloody spills,
gnarled centuries like knuckles
of your coming age. The skin of our
tortured earth is deeply wrinkled.
May that stage not befall your hands.
If only history had your touch,
the thrill of your smooth soothing
on my longing skin.

–Christa Pandey

 

The dialectical argument structure proved to be the most difficult of the structures we looked at during the workshop, in part because it is a three-part structure, and in part because it is not a structure that poets tend to use as often as others.  Because I limited the time on exercises, I tried to make the move from thesis to antithesis to synthesis as easy as possible in the exercise.  For this one, I handed out a copy of Nick Laird’s “Epithalamium,” and asked the participants to follow his “you vs. I” dialectic in their drafts.  Here are two wildly different takes on this exercise:

 

Refrigerators

 

Your refrigerator is a Marine

standing at attention.

Knees locked, shoulders back.

Or art by Mondrian:  primary colors

painted with a measuring stick.

Mine is a Marc Chagall.  Capers float on high.

Mayonnaises (three kinds) dance cheek to cheek

with a concupiscence of condiments.

 

You pride yourself on order:

Top shelf:  Milk. And all things white with protein.

Middle shelf:  Leftovers and eggs.

Bottom:  Vegetables and fruit.

Beer:  always in the bin.

 

You scorn the wild Hungarian dance

of my old and humming fridge.

Where the spinach makes whoopee

with the squash and carrots compost

near the beer.

 

Ah love, dear love . . . you

let me use your toothbrush.

Share with me your bed and key.

Consider this:  I’ll line up all my juices

if you’ll set your collards free.

  

–Beverly Voss

 

uncleave

 

dried roses for a wedding  bouquet

their love already drying out, color drained

 

he raises the gun

she loads the bullet

 

he puts up his un-tired feet

she brings him slippers

 

he throws fire

she spreads gasoline

 

he punishes

she accepts

both dismantling their home, hands ripping out nails

making grenades  out of wounds

clouding mirrors until

their children cannot see

 

their vows—hollow vessels

their rings, engorged with hate

nooses around their necks

 

–Beth Kropf

 

Finally, for the descriptive-meditative structure at the end of a long day, I had participants follow the basic structure of Charles Wright’s “Clear Night,” just as Kevin Prufer had done in “Astronomer’s Prayer to the Andromeda Galaxy,” both poems we had looked at and discussed.  I asked them to write an imitation that was focused on a natural object, and here’s what Ann Howells came up with:

 

Autumn Night

after Charles Wright

Calm sea, moon reflected and reflected, endlessly.

Boat, pier and pines are monochrome—black on black.

Tidal pools drain, echo an eerie, hollow sound,

like a didgeridoo.

Gulls and crabs and snails sleep.

 

I am a tumult, a tempest moaning and shrieking,

tearing my hair.

I want to roil the waters, shatter the sky.

I want sea and moon and wind to rage.

I want the world to howl.

 

And the moon neither blinks nor winks.

And the sea is a seamless pane of smoked glass.

And the tidal pool continues its woodwind lullaby.

And the gulls and crabs and snails dream on.

They dream on.

 

–Ann Howells

 

In case you’re wondering why I used the same poets throughout this piece, it’s very simple: they are the ones who sent me their work after the workshop, though I assure you that we heard many other truly fine poems throughout the day (and keep in mind the short amount of time we had for writing).  I received many wonderful emails from the students in the days to follow, like this one from Gloria Amescua, “I gained so much from your presentation, the variety of examples, and the chance to start some poems.  I can really say it’s one of best workshops I’ve attended.”  But as I reminded them, none of the ideas presented were original on my part.  Most of the kudos must go to Michael Theune and the contributors to Structure and Surprise.  I feel honored to be able to spread the word.

Scott Wiggerman

swiggerman@austin.rr.com

http://swig.tripod.com

 

Scott Wiggerman is the author of two books of poetry, Presence, new from Pecan Grove Press, and Vegetables and Other Relationships.  Recent poems have appeared in Switched-On Gutenberg, Assaracus, Naugatuck River Review, Contemporary Sonnet, and Hobble Creek Review, which nominated “The Egret Sonnet” for a Pushcart.  A frequent workshop instructor, he is also an editor for Dos Gatos Press, publisher of the annual Texas Poetry Calendar, now in its fifteenth year, and the recent collection of poetry exercises, Wingbeats.  His website is http://swig.tripod.com





I Do…like Dialectical Arguments

25 01 2011

I just came across Nick Laird’s Epithalamium last night, while reading some recent issues of The New Yorker (January 24, 2011).  A really fun poem.

The poem makes great use of the dialectical argument structure, its shuttling back and forth between “you” and “I” is a constant consideration and reconsideration of thesis and antithesis.  And the conclusion (“or I am, or you are”) is an effort at synthesis, suggesting that the “you” and the “I” are united in that they, in fact, are potentially (for all their wild specificity) the same.

I think Laird’s poem is incredibly teachable.  For insights on how to encourage and guide students to write a poem like this, check out this blog’s “Teaching Collaborative, Dialectical Argument Poems” page.





See Jane Turn

30 07 2009

A cheeky post title, but I couldn’t resist.  For my wordplay, however, I trade in some degree of accuracy: actually, for the past few hours, I’ve been immersed in, and mightily impressed by, Jane Hirshfield‘s poetic turns.

As I note in yesterday’s post, Hirshfield is a writer for whom the turn is of great importance.  In that post, though, I focus on Hirshfield’s criticism.  Having since read much more carefully Hirshfield’s Given Sugar, Given Salt and After, I can also confidently claim that Hirshfield is a poet for whom the turn is of great importance.  Evidence of this can be found on a number of this blog’s pages devoted to discussion of particular kinds of poetic structures (or patterns of turning in poems): Hirshfield has poems that employ the dialectical argument structure, the metaphor-to-meaning structure, the dream-to-waking structure, and a few others.

In fact, in After‘s “Articulation: An Assay,” Hirshfield plainly states:

“…thought is hinge and swerve, is winch, / is folding.”

And this certainly is the case, at least, in her own thoughtful poems.





Two (More) Great Essays on the Turn

16 07 2009

Two excellent, and relatively new–certainly new to me–essays that discuss poetic turns (though without calling them such) have appeared in some recent publications.  They are worth note–and worth reading by anyone interested in the turn in poetry.  They are:

dennis

“The Temporal Lyric,” by Carl Dennis (in Poet’s Work, Poet’s Play).

Dennis suggests that lyric poetry has suffered from the tendency to read lyric as narrative.  He suggests, instead, that we think of lyrical poetry in terms of speech acts, viewing the poem “as a dramatic event in which a fictive speaker performs a speech act that gives specific embodiment, in a particular context, to one or more of the basic tasks that we ask ordinary language to perform–explaining, questioning, demanding, promising, apologizing, praising, castigating, pleading, and the like.”  Furthermore, according to Dennis, “Each one of these acts has its particular plot if we use the term to refer not to a sequence of temporal events but to a sequence of rhetorical moves that carry out the task that the specific function requires.”

Those “rhetorical moves,” of course, are turns, and Dennis does a great job of mapping out the moves (which he in fact twice refers to as “turns”) in some terrific poems: Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” Donne’s “At the round earth’s imagin’d corners, blow,” Dickinson’s “These are the days when Birds come Back–,” Frederick Goddard Tuckerman’s “An upper chamber in a darkened house,” and Bishop’s “The Fish.”

romantic

“Reading Keats’s Plots,” by Jack Stillinger (in Romantic Complexity: Keats, Coleridge, and Wordsworth).

Noting that “[r]eaders and critics of poetry, even at this late date in the history of practical criticism, are still primarily concerned with idea, theme, and ‘philosophy,’ seeking in effect to replace the literary work in process (what it is, what it does) with interpretive conversion, paraphrase, or translation (what it means),” Stillinger argues that poems’ “plots” often are dropped from the conversation about what the poem in fact is and does.

By performing some close readings of the plots of some poems by Keats (The Eve of St. Agnes, Lamia, “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” The Eve of St. Mark, and “Ode on a Grecian Urn”), Stillinger reveals the significance of plot in poetry.

While some of the plots Stillinger discusses are in fact narrative plots, others are much more what are refered to on this blog as structures, particular patterns of turns in poems.  Stillinger, for example, discusses what is called here the dialectical argument structure, stating, “There are numerous ‘binary’ oppositions and conflicts, with resolutions involving the triumph of one side, a merging of the two sides, or the introduction of some third term.”  Additionally, he examines “Ode on a Grecian Urn” in light of its connections with the greater Romantic lyric, that is, the descriptive-meditative structure.

Very smart, yet simultaneously very accessible, Dennis’s “The Temporal Lyric” and Stillinger’s “Reading Keats’s Plots” have, among many other things, contributed substantially to the growing body of literature concerned with the poetic turn.