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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Q & A, Part 2

2 03 2009

orangeanchorsolid

In this post, I’m continuing the process of answering a series of questions posed to me by members of an advanced poetry workshop at Hope College.  (For Part 1, see below, or in the February 2009 archives–look for the orange anchor.)

For this post, I want to think a bit on the following question posed by Karly Fogelsonger:

“In the Intro [to Structure & Surprise], Theune says, ‘structure’s primary goal is to lead to surprise.’  Could you talk a little bit about what ‘surprise’ means to you, and why it’s so important in a poem?”

Great question, Karly!  One of the things I like so much about this question is that it gets me to investigate my own assumptions–I just kind of figured that surprise is one of the things poems are after…it’s good to be pushed to try to give reasons to my assumptions.

What do I mean by surprise?  I mean by it, largely, what everyone means by it: that vital encounter with the unexpected.  We humans seem to love and crave this.  (Well, not Angela from The Office, who says (I think I’m quoting her correctly) that she doesn’t like surprises because she doesn’t like to be “titillated.”  Of course, Angela has always seemed to me a bit more Vulcan than human.)  And one big job of art is to feed that crave–art, not just poetry.  Surprises, reversals, revelations, punch lines, ironies–these simply are at the heart of so many of the arts.  Tragedy: Oedipus: “I slept with whom?!”  Comedy: you want an example of structure and surprise?–watch Curb Your Enthusiasm…in the best episodes, all the pieces of the plot are organized to lead to a wild, surprising orchestration of occurrences at show’s end.  The surprising twist is a key feature of many pop songs.  It’s also huge in detective fiction.  (I get my fix via Law and Order.)  And in the movies (especially–but not only–thrillers: The Prestige, The Sixth Sense, The Others, etc, etc.)

Though surprise is such a big part of so much art, I think it tends to get downplayed in poetry.  I don’t know why, but we often don’t talk a lot about surprise in poems, but, at least for me, the element of surprise is a huge part of the phenomena of reading and experiencing great poetry.  The poems I love take me to new, often unexpected places.

Now, let me be clear: this doesn’t mean that I expect something to “jump out at me” at the end of every poem.  In fact, a poem can surprise by reducing, by downshifting, its energy.  Very often, what’s important (among the many things important in poems) is that some kind(s) of shift, swerve, or twist (in short, a turn) occur(s).

And I’m not the only one to think so.  As I mention in the intro to Structure & Surprise, Randall Jarrell says that “a successful poem starts from one position and ends at a very different one, often a contradictory or opposite one; yet there has been no break in the unity of the poem.”  And contemporary critic Hank Lazer (in “Lyricism of the Swerve: The Poetry of Rae Armantrout”) states, “The lyric, to sustain our interest, to have complexity and beauty, and to remain compelling, requires ‘torsion’–that is, motion, tension, torque, and a twist.”  (For more on the necessity and even primacy of the turn in lyric poetry, click here.  And if you want to read some more poems (besides so many of those in Structure & Surprise) that have some pretty thrilling turns, click here.)

Poems turn and surprise in a variety of ways, but there is a quality of turn that I admire very much: I love the quality of fitting surprise.  I love surprises that at once fit their occasions, that clearly evolve from the parts of the poem which preceded it, while also doing something unexpected.  Here, I agree with Barbara Herrnstein Smith, who, in Poetic Closure, states, “…effective closure will always involve the reader’s expectations regarding the termination of a sequence–even though it will never be simply a matter of fulfilling them.”  Such fitting and surprising turns are the essence of both wit and the sublime.

While, as I’ve tried to show above, I really do value surprise, I also value surprise as a part of poems for what it allows me to not say.  By saying I value surprise, I do not have to say, for example, that structure must lead specifically to an epiphany, or a logical conclusion, or a punch line, or a decision, etc.  Poems are various and lead to many things.  By saying that poems (often) should surprise, I get to remain open regarding the many kinds of developments, turns, and arrivals poems have.

That’s it for now…  Thanks, again, Karly, for your good question.  Stay tuned, all, for more surprises…