SPOILER ALERT: Major ironic turn a”head”!
SPOILER ALERT: Major ironic turn a”head”!
Over at Assay: A Journal for Nonfiction Studies, Diana Wilson has published “Laces in the Corset: Structures of Poetry and Prose that Bind the Lyric Essay”, an essay that uses poetic structures to examine the movements in a number of lyric essays. Wilson uses the emblem structure to read Richard Selzer’s lyric essay “The Knife”; the retrospective-prospective structure to read Brian Doyle’s lyric essay “Leap”; the ironic structure for Robin Hemley’s “Twirl/Run”; and the elegiac structure for Lia Purpura’s “Autopsy Report.”
In her penultimate paragraph, Wilson notes:
I often think of the lyric essay as a mysterious sea creature, its structure hydrostatic, like a jellyfish that appears, to the casual observer, to be nonexistent. The lyric essay, a subgenre of creative nonfiction, is a wild thing born of poetry and prose, the prose sentences appearing to wave and dance willy-nilly like tentacles of jellyfish while poetic elements flicker and flash through the sentences like neon luminescence. Only careful study reveals the muscular structure that propels the lyric essay forward.
I love this insight: that by carefully attending to structure’s turn we can see how the lovely, odd creature that is the lyric essay moves.
I love, too, that Wilson has begun to find broader application for thinking about and with the poetic turn. I’ve long thought that one of the turn’s attractions is the way in more closely connects poetry and prose–how completely appropriate, then, to employ the turn to examine and think more deeply about the lyric essay’s prose poetry.
According to her author’s note, “Laces in the Corset” is Diana Wilson’s first publication. My thanks, then, to Ms. Wilson for taking the time and effort at the start of her publishing career to consider so carefully, and use so creatively, the turn. I look forward to seeing how her thinking and writing continues to develop–develop and turn…!
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—
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.
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):
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.
there are some things doctors can’t fix:
their own mistakes. My trust escaping out of the hole the needle made.
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.
This was the first Thanksgiving with my wife’s family.
The next one will be without my wife
or without her family.
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):
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!
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.
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:
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.
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
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
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:
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.
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 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
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”);
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
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.
On January 22, I gave a talk (“Voltage!: Engaging Turns in Poetry”) about the ideas behind Structure & Surprise at my undergraduate alma mater, Hope College, in Holland, Michigan. The experience was a real treat for me for a variety of reasons (getting to see my former professors and long-time friends, getting to share my ideas, getting to continue to learn from the excellent conversations I had, etc). One key reason, though, was that I got to visit a few classes at Hope (including Curtis Gruenler’s literary theory class, and Pablo Peschiera’s advanced poetry writing class) to meet and interact with some current Hope students.
What can I say? I was mightily impressed. All of the students I met were extremely perceptive and smart, deeply sincere, brightly funny, and truly engaged…
So engaged, in fact, that some from advanced poetry writing have sent me some further questions to consider. I plan to supply responses to (or artfully dodge!) a number of these questions via blogpost over the next (approximately) two weeks.
The first question I want to address really is a cluster of questions, a cluster, if I read them correctly, growing out of one central concern: the place of poetic structure in the process of composition. The questions in this cluster are:
–From Jon Dean: “How aware of structure do you think the poet should be while writing? Should we set out thinking ‘This topic would work well in emblematic structure’ in the same way we set out saying ‘I will write this as a ghazal?'”
–From Karly Fogelsonger: “As a writer, do you think structure should come out of a poem (is it inherent in a poem from the poem’s genesis, and just needs to be identified and developed) or do you personally usually begin with an idea of structure, and model the form and content of a poem accordingly?”
–From Stephen Herrick: “The book [Structure & Surprise] is more of a critical work…so I wonder how its view of poetry affects the process of writing.”
Great, vital questions, all. My intention here is to give a few straight answers to the above questions, but then I hope to complicate and develop those answers.
As I discuss a bit in the introduction to “Inspiration, Guides, Exercises” in S&S, the focused consideration of structure can enter into the poetic process at almost any stage, from inspiration and pre-writing, to drafting, to revision.
I tend to think of the close consideration of structure as a significant part of the revision process–that is, once you have a draft of a poem, you can, if you are aware of poetic turns and some of the pivotal maneuvers you can make with them in poems, examine your poem for many things: to see if it has structural interest (if there’s no turn in the poem, is this okay? is this intentional? does the poem need a turn? if so, where, and what kind?); to see if your poem, if it has any, is taking its turn(s) well (or if the turn is sloppy and might be improved). (Here, in a little more detail, is how I think structure can aid with revisions.) So, what I’m saying here, Karly, is that, in this view of poem-making, structure begins to emerge as the poem emerges–structure doesn’t have to be decided upon prior to the growth of the poem.
HOWEVER, I also am certain that structures can inspire and encourage poetry writing in just the way that, as Jon suggests, ghazals can. Check out this page I recently put up on the blog, on writing collaborative, ironic, two-line poems. In an hour or two of playful collaboration, you (and a friend or two) can probably make 20 really good ironic, two-line poems. (That is, you’ll probably make about 40-80 poems; of which 25-50% of them will potentially be keepers.) Here, poetic structure directly informs and feeds into the process of poem-making.
I think there remain to be discovered and shared many more such exercises/activities to promote the creation of poems-with-turns. As this blog continues to grow, I anticipate posting many more.
Here’s one I’ll develop a bit more and post soon:
1) For your subject, decide on a process from nature (think of any branch of the sciences to help you come up with ideas: astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology) or technology (industrial processes, demolitions, etc)–note that this will work best if it’s a process you may be intrigued by but don’t know much about (you may need to do some research–that’s fine!);
2) Describe this process in GREAT detail; and then…
Well, try this first, they I’ll tell you the turn in, say, two days…!
Jon (and Karly…aw, heck, and Stephen!), you (all, essentially) ask if a poet should set out thinking s/he is going to write in a poem employing a particular structure. As the above indicates, I think that’s a very fair way to begin crafting a poem. However, I would of course add that at some point you cease drafting, examine what you have, and start revising, and just as your draft of your ghazal may in fact be the seed of a great villanelle, your draft of an ironic structure poem may turn out to be a dialectical argument poem… Just as one should not force that poem to be a ghazal if it’s greatness resides in another form, so one should not force a poem to take a kind of turn if its greatness lies elsewhere.
I’d also add that just as some forms are tough (even downright scary) to write (and so it would probably be a mistake to try to start a poem using them) and others (such as the ghazal) are more productive and inviting, so, too, with structures: some, at least (right now) to me, seem tough (I’m looking at you, Emblem!) to write, but others (like some versions of the ironic) seem easier, more approachable.
And I’d add, lastly, that I hope that S&S and this blog will assist and encourage the development of creative pedagogy which might serve, more and more, to reveal how cool, funny, smart, revelatory, &c, &c poems can get written using the turn as a major building block of the poem. We’re just at the start of this important conversation.
So, you want to write a poem employing the ironic structure? Or, you want a little help with teaching this structure in your creative writing class?
Check this out.