The Ink Dark Moon

30 05 2018

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While preparing to team teach a course in Japanese poetry and poetics, I have had the great fortune to read The Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Court of Japan, translated by Jane Hirshfield, with Mariko Aratani. The poems (in translation) are marvelous. They are so for a variety of reasons, but key among them is that fact that, through and through, The Ink Dark Moon is a treasure trove of turns.

There are turns of all sorts. There are concessional turns:

Although the wind
blows terribly here,
the moonlight also leaks
between the roof planks
of this ruined house. (124)

There are ironic turns:

I think, “At least in my dreams
we’ll be able to meet…”
Moving my pillow
this way and that on the bed,
completely unable to sleep. (129)

There are questions and answers:

You ask my thoughts
through the long night?
I spent it listening
to the heavy rain
beating against the windows. (107)

There are ironic questions and answers:

If the one I’ve waited for
came now, what should I do?
This morning’s garden filled with snow
is far too lovely
for footsteps to mar. (132)

There are cliche and critiques:

I used to say,
“How poetic,”
but now I know
this dawn-rising men do
is merely tiresome! (63)

However, because the poets often use the natural world as a prism through which to observe and try to understand their inner lives, there are a great number of emblem and metaphor-to-meaning structures:

As pitiful as a diver
far out in Suma Bay
who has lost an oar from her boat,
this body
with no one to turn to. (33)

*

Night deepens
with the sound
of a calling deer,
and I hear
my own one-sided love. (9)

*

A string of jewels
from a broken necklace,
scattering–
more difficult to keep hold of
even than these is one’s life. (141)

*

The dewdrop
on a bamboo leaf
stays longer
than you, who vanish
at dawn. (108)

*

If, in an autumn field,
a hundred flowers
can untie their streamers,
may I not also openly frolic,
as fearless of blame? (39)

*

Like a ripple
that chases the slightest caress
of the breeze–
is that how you want me
to follow you? (25)

*

Last year’s
fragile, vanished snow
is falling now again–
if only seeing you
could be like this. (88)

*

Watching the moon
at dawn,
solitary, mid-sky,
I knew myself completely,
no part left out. (89)

*

The emblematic nature of many of these poems is underscored by the fact that the poems in The Ink Dark Moon often accompanied gifts (acknowledged in headnotes to the poems), and use those gifts as lyric occasions:

Written for a current wife to send to an angry ex-wife, attached to a bamboo shoot

The bamboo’s
old root
hasn’t changed at all–
Is there even one night
he sleeps alone? No. (71)

The drive to make connections between the inner life and the external world is so powerful that it can’t be stopped, despite (supposedly) knowing better:

This heart is not
a summer field,
and yet…
how dense love’s foliage
has grown (103)

*

While all of the above poems employ the emblem or the metaphor-to-meaning turn, I want to share two poems that have at their core the relationship between the inner life and the natural world (conveyed as metaphor) but that turn in different kinds of ways.

The following poem is included among a group of poems mourning the death of Prince Atsumichi:

Remembering you…
The fireflies of this marsh
seem like sparks
that rise
from my body’s longing. (145)

And this particular poem, and the haunting metaphor at its core, terrifies me:

How sad,
to think I will end
as only
a pale green mist
drifting the far fields. (28)

*

I’ve written elsewhere (including here, here, here, and here) of Jane Hirshfield’s important engagements with the turn. In “On Japanese Poetry and the Process of Translation,” an afterword in The Ink Dark Moon, Hirshfield reveals that the turn was an important consideration for her as she translated. Analyzing the ways that one of the poems employs “some of the means by which Japanese poetry attains remarkable depth within a brief utterance,” Hirshfield notes the emblematic / metaphoric element at the core of so many of these poems, stating, “There is the all-pervasive device of intertwining human and natural worlds, in which the natural illuminates the human to keenly felt effect” (166). And Hirshfield goes on to explicitly identify the turn as one of the tools  for making great verse: “There is the two-phase rhetoric, in which occurs the movement of human heart and mind that is essential to any good poem” (166-167).

The front matter of The Ink Dark Moon includes a list of poetry by Hirshfield, and, published in 1990, it contains only two books: Alaya and Of Gravity & Angels. It, thus, is likely the case that Hirshfield’s work with The Ink Dark Moon was an important step on her own journey to understand and craft compelling turns. It certainly feels this way.

Fans of the turn, of Japanese poetry, of Hirshfield, and/or of poetry that, as the book’s introduction states, “illuminate[s]” our lives will find much to admire and investigate in The Ink Dark Moon. Do check it out!

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On Tony Hoagland’s “Poetic Housing”

17 05 2016
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“Let us like a poem to an internal combustion engine. It is mounted, or housed, inside a sturdy frame. The structure must be sturdy because the contents of the poem are combustible; the vibrations are fierce.”

So, just a few days ago I published a post on James Longenbach’s “Lyric Knowledge,” an odd essay that goes a great distance to say something simple but vital: that the organization of a poem is significant. Longenbach goes so far as to reorder some poems to show the effect of organization, and especially to reveal the achievement of the originals. In that blog post, I argue that though he doesn’t come right out to say it, one of Longenbach’s great concerns in his essay is the vital poetic turn. When he reorders the poems under his consideration, Longenbach destroys the power and the beauty of the original poems’ turns. He then argues that the poems were fine–even great–just as they were.

Interestingly, today I read another essay that performs the same kind of critical act (reorganizing a poem) and agrees about the importance of poetic organization and the turn–though, very much like Longenbach’s, it doesn’t exactly come right out and declare its admiration for the turn. This essay is Tony Hoagland’s “Poetic Housing: Shifting Parts & Changing Wholes” (The Writer’s Chronicle 45.5 (March/April 2013): 90-99).

Here is my argument that chief among Hoagland’s concerns in fact is the turn:

1. Almost right away (in the second paragraph), Hoagland establishes the structure-form distinction: he will not be discussing form but some other aspect of poetry:

This constant threat of imbalance, of eruption, or potential amorphousness is especially present in the writing of free verse poetry. The sonneteer or a writer of villanelles has at least a pre-ordained form to fill–to tell her roughly where the poem’s beginning, middle, and end belong. But the free verse poet is always wondering about structure–guessing where the end of the poem might be, trying to detect what optimal dramatic shape might be emerging. (90-91)

2. What Hoagland means by “structure” is not something amorphous, but rather is “dramatic shape.” The next paragraphs after the one quoted above state:

The reason concise dramatic shape is important, even in “loose” associative poems, is because poems are pressurized containers. A poem must contain energy; that is, hold it in. You can’t carry water in a colander. And in order for the poem to contain, accumulate, and release pressure it must have shape, a dramatic progression.

Housing and Transmission: Let us liken a poem to an internal combustion engine. It is mounted, or housed, inside a sturdy frame. The structure must be sturdy because the contents of the poem are combustible; the vibrations are fierce. The housing contains and directs the explosive force of combustion with precision.

I know that these principles apply to fiction and nonfiction as well as poetry. But structure is an especially crucial issue in poems. Why? Because poems have so few words, and, given the small space they occupy, the relative proportion and relation of words to each other can change very fast. Suddenly, the theme turns out to be different than expected, or an image appears which is so resonant, it becomes indisputably structural. (91)

3. When Hoagland sums up “the whole of the poem-reading experience,” he states that there are “two general by useful assertions”:

  1. Each of the lines and moments in a poem has different degrees of force and prominence; each moment has a relative weight, color, intensity, and sound. And some of them are–must be–more important than others. In other words, poems are hierarchical.
  2. As soon as we decide on the primary moments, we can know what is secondary. Then, the secondary materials begin to orbit around those primary moments in a supplementary role. The primary moments define the contexts for the other moments. (91)

Here, before turning to clinch my case, I want to pause for a moment to argue that the turn is one of the most primary moments a poem has. It certainly is the case that poet-critic John Ciardi thinks this. I make the case about this here.*

And I think poet-critic Jane Hirshfield also would agree. As I argue here, Hirshfield refers to the turn as a “window-moment.” As I note in that earlier, linked-to blog entry, “Though Hirshfield notes that such window-moments may be momentary elements within a poem, most often the window-moment is associated with the turn.** In my blog post about Hirshfield’s notion of the “window-moment,” I note, “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.” And the same can be said not only of Hirshfield, but also of Ciardi (for whom all fulcrums really are principal turns), and Hoagland.

The poem that Hoagland attends to most closely is Jean Follain’s “The Art of War.” This twelve-line poem is largely a list. It begins, “At the window a rose / the color of a blonde’s young nipple / a mole walks underground,” and then includes two other image clusters: “Peace they say to a dog / whose life is short. / The air remains full of sunlight.” It concludes with one longer item: “Young men / learn how to make war / in order to redeem / a whole world they are told / but they still find the book / of theory unreadable.”

About this poem, Hoagland argues,

If…we were to identify the internal dominant moment of “The Art of War,” we would choose the complex final sentence, identifiable by size, grammatical momentum, and complexity, with its many turns and developments….Follain’s poem has a loose structure, and Follain’s work in general is the quintessence of the associative mode, which is to say, the relationships between its parts are largely inferential. Little is explicit, yet this last sentence in “The Art of War” carries much of the intelligence of the poem. It is a sequence in which, as the sentence unfolds across line breaks, a chunk at a time, we watch the poem’s emphasis and stance complicate and shift….We apprehend it all in a second; our cognitive process is swift, nimble, and resourceful at recognizing and adjusting the parameters of the poem, determining what is the essence of the poem, the housing. Every other inflection of the poem turns upon that structural recognition. (my emphasis)

Opening with six lines of largely paratactic listing that then accumulate in six lines of hypotactic conclusion, this brief poem is the kind of poem that Longenbach seems especially taken by in “Lyric Knowledge,” in which Longenbach investigates the same kind of paratactic-hypotactic turn in the first section of Wallace Stevens’s “The Auroras of Autumn.” And Hoagland treats this poem in a way similar to the way Longenbach treats the section from Stevens: he rearranges it in order to show, ultimately, the power of the original.

Hoagland creates a poem, called “Why I Grow Flowers,” which reshuffles “The Art of War.” “Why I Grow Flowers” begins with the sunlight, then moves to the mole, then the young men (minus the book of theory), then the dog image, and it concludes with the window-rose-nipple image cluster. About this poem Hoagland states,

This rebuilt poem has quite a different thrust. This version emphasizes the pleasures of peace, and seems to infer some sound reasons for applying for conscientious objector status. After all, it concludes with palpable arguments for peace: a flower garden and the promise of erotic adventure. In its favor, this revision is distinctly more unified than the original. Yet, unfortunately, it is a less dynamic and less interesting poem. Loose as it still is, and not without nuance, this version is a lesser poem. (94-95)

I couldn’t agree more with Hoagland’s assessment. Great poems rarely offer simple unity. Rather, they offer dynamic shifts and surprises. As Randall Jarrell notes in “Levels and Opposites: Structure in Poetry,” “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.” (I also tend to agree with his critique, later in his essay, of the “elliptical mode,” a mode which, according to Hoagland, can be much too tolerant of structures so loose that they have no center, no key turns, at all, offering instead “only the mystique of mystification.”)

Much like Longenbach’s “Lyric Knowledge,” Hoagland’s “Poetic Housing” is important reading for anyone interested in the poetic turn–it’s full of great insights. However, as readers of this blog know, I look forward to a day when discussion of the turn is not quite so deeply and variously encoded and embedded (as housing, fulcrum, window-moment, center, torque, or swerve) and is acknowledged more explicitly as the vital feature of poetic significance- and experience-making that it is.

*I offer the following paragraph from the linked-to blog post as a glimpse of that larger argument:

The importance of the turn is clear in Ciardi’s book.  Though Ciardi discusses the turn in the last chapter of How Does a Poem Mean?, “The Poem in Countermotion,” this chapter is the ultimate chapter, the chapter which Ciardi in his introduction calls “the important one.”  Additionally, Ciardi states, “The present volume sets out simply to isolate some of the characteristics of poetry and to develop criteria by which parts of the poetic structure may be experienced in a more comprehensive way.  The final chapter suggests a method whereby all the criteria developed in the preceding chapters may be applied to the comprehension of the total poem.”

Ciardi even differentiates between “principal” and “lesser” fulcrums (“fulcrum” is the term Ciardi uses for the turn). A poem’s major turn or turns are primary moments, indeed.

**Here’s a glimpse at what Hirshfield says, which supports my belief that a window-moment really is a turn:

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.





Looking with Hirshfield’s Ten Windows

19 05 2015

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In a previous post, I wrote an appreciation of Jane Hirshfield’s “Close Reading: Windows,” an excellent essay on the poetic turn (which Hirshfield describes and labels a poem’s “window-moment”).  Here, I want to rave about her new collection of essays, Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World, a collection which includes a great deal of material that would be of interest not only to anyone interested in the poetic turn–though this will be the focus of my comments here–but also to anyone interested in how poems more broadly and generally work their magic upon us.

Ten Windows presents again “Close Reading: Windows”; however, as the book’s title indicates, Hirshfield’s interest in window-moments / turns is so great that it comes up in many of the book’s other essays.  In “Kingfishers Catching Fire: Looking with Poetry’s Eyes,” Hirshfield remarks, “From the work of Hopkins, and each of the writers presented here, springs a supple turning aliveness, the hawk’s-swoop voracity of the mind when it is both precise and free” (18).  In “Language Wakes Up in the Morning: On Poetry’s Speaking,” Hirshfield notes that “[e]ven in motionless, time-fixed paintings and sculpture, there is the feeling of hinge-turn we find in poems and often name with the terms of music–alterations of rhythm or key that raise the alterations of comprehension or mood” (31).  In “What Is American in Modern American Poetry: A Brief Primer with Poems,” Hirshfield notes that “[g]ood poems require…some reach of being: they move from what’s already known and obvious to what is not.  All poets travel, then, whether in body or only in mind” (211).

Hirshfield also is aware of the deep connection of the sonnet and the turn (about which, more information can be found herehere, here, and here).  In one essay, Hirshfield points out how the fourth stanza of Seamus Heaney’s “Oysters” “makes a turn of the kind made formal in sonnets: an addition that both quickens thought and brings a question needing an answer” (202).  In another, commenting on Gwendolyn Brooks’s “My Dreams, My Works, Must Wait till after Hell,” Hirshfield notes, “Sonnet form, like that of the haiku and villanelle, carries the arc of transformation within the DNA of its structure.  The pivoting volta, or ‘turn,’ after the eighth line, demands a deepened and changed comprehension” (263-4).

More broadly, Hirshfield notes that “[p]oetry’s leaps” is one of the elements of poetry (along with “images, stories, and metaphors”) that “are the oxygen possibility breathes” (271).  Additionally, in a previous post, I pointed out how Hirshfield’s “Poetry and Uncertainty” (in Ten Windows, titled “Uncarryable Remainders: Poetry and Uncertainty”) gathers a number of poems that involve a decisive turn, and I would say that this is true almost throughout Ten Window‘s ten essays: even when not discussing the turn in any specific way, the turn is very present–is consistently re-presented–in Hirshfield’s work.

So, reading Ten Windows will allow anyone interested in poetic structure a close and thoughtful engagement with the poetic turn.  However, Hirshfield is not only concerned with structure; she’s also very interested in surprise.  Her seventh chapter, “Poetry and the Constellation of Surprise,” focuses on the characteristics and effects of poetic surprise.  It’s a fascinating meditation.  Hirshfield’s insights into surprise are startling and profound.  Here are a few:

Regarding the distinction between “poems [that] seem essential” and “others [that], however accomplished and interesting of surface, do not,” Hirshfield states,

Deep surprise is that way the mind signals itself that a thing perceived or though is consequential, that a discovery may be of genuine use.  The experience itself, though, especially in responding to a work of art, may well be felt as some different emotion, the one that follows; surprise, neuroscientists report, lasts half a second at most; and so the reader may notice the powerful upsurge of grief or compassion or wonder a good poem brings, but not the surprise that released it.  Surprise plays a major role in survival’s own sorting–what most surprises will be most strongly acted on, and most strongly learned.  The poems we carry forward, as individuals and as cultures, are those that strike us powerfully enough that they call up the need for their own recall.  (187)

*

About the power of surprise, Hirshfield notes,

How is it that something that lasts half a second can be so essential, not only to art but to our very survival?  Not least is the particular way startlement transforms the one who is startled.  Among other things, surprise magnetizes attention.  An infant hearing an unexpected sound will stop and stare hard–the experience of surprise is itself surprising.  It is also, literally, arresting; in a person strongly startled, the heart rate momentarily plummets.  The whole being pauses, to better grasp what’s there.  Surprise also opens the mind, frees it from preconception.  Surprise does not weigh its object as “good” or “bad”; though that may follow, its question is simply “What is it?,” asked equally of any sudden change.  Startlement, it seems, erases the known for the new.  The facial expression of surprise, according to one researcher, is close to rapture, to the openness of a baby’s first awakeness.  Charles Darwin, in The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, grouped surprise with astonishment, amazement, and wonder.

In poetry, surprise deepens, gathers, and purifies attention in the same way: the mind of preconception is stopped, to allow a more acute taking-in.  (187-88)

Whether by means large or small, noticed or almost imperceptible, poetry’s startlements displace the existing self with a changed one.  (188)

*

According to Hirshfield, surprise also is always attended by a lesson about the negation of self:

Surprise carries an inverse relationship to that which harness self and will: it is the emotion of a transition not self-created.  Though infants can visibly surprise themselves by sneezing, there is no self-tickling.  We tend not to laugh at our own jokes, at least when alone.  Yet one of the reasons a poem–or any creative effort–is undertaken is precisely to surprise yourself by what you may find.  Poems appear to come from the self only to those who do not write them.  The maker experiences them as a gift, implausibly won from the collaboration of individual with language, self with unconscious, personal association and concept with the world’s uncontrollable materials, weathers, events.  (189)

*

In one section of her chapter on surprise, Hirshfield connects surprise to the comedic, stating,

Lyric epiphany is democratic, equally intimate with Aeschylus and the stand-up comic.

The more surprise in good poetry is looked at, the more poetry’s work seems close to the work of the comic and trickster.  (192-93)

*

While all of Hirshfield’s ideas about surprise are insightful, one stands out for me: Hirshfield’s effort to explain how surprising poems, even after being read and/or recited multiple times, retain their ability to startle and awaken.  Hirshfield opens “Poetry and the Constellation of Surprise” by noting:

Art’s brightness is a strangely untarnishing silver.  One of the distinguishing powers of great art is its capacity to unseal its own experience not once, but many times.  A Beethoven quartet many times heard, a painting by Bonnard looked at for decades, does not lose the ability to lift us out of one way of being and knowing and emplace us, altered, into another.  A poem, long memorized can raise in its holder, mid-saying, stunned tears.  Pound described the paradox simply: “Poetry is news that stays news.”  Why this is so, and how it is done, has something to do with the way good art preserves its own capacity to surprise.  (181)

According to Hirshfield, this magical seductive quality exists in large part because art is a ceremony that must be re-engaged for it to have power.  It is a ritual, and “[a] ritual must be passed through with the whole body, not glimpsed through a door” (198).  According to Hirshfield, “Poetic epiphany gives off a kind of protective mist; it exudes an amnesiac against general recall.  The poem must be read or said through fully to be fully known” (184).

*

Provocative and profound, Hirshfield’s insights amaze, and work to re-instill in readers a wonder at poems and poetry.  Certainly, Ten Windows will be a revelation to those intrigued by poetic structure and poetic surprise–one fifth of the book concentrates specifically on these concerns, while the other chapters are deeply informed by and infused with them.

However, even though I try to keep the work on this blog focused on the poetic turn and its effects (chief among them being surprise), I do feel called upon to say that, more generally, Hirshfield’s book is a treasure trove for all those interested in poetry, in thinking more deeply about what it is, how it works, how it moves us.  While structure and surprise are, for Hirshfield, vital components of poetry, they are not necessarily at the core of what poems are and do.

At core, according to Hirshfield, poems are vital parts of the liveliness of the world, intimately related to and very much like biological life.  Hirshfield begins her book, noting, “A mysterious quickening inhabits the depths of any good poem–protean, elusive, alive in its own right.  The word ‘creative’ shares its etymology with the word ‘creature,’ and carries a similar sense of breathing aliveness, of an active fine-grained, and multi-cellular making” (3).  In “Poetry and the Constellation of Surprise,” Hirshfield notes, “Cognitive and creative discoveries are made in the same way as much of biological life is: by acts of generative recombination.  Disparate elements are brought together to see if they might make a viable new whole” (185).

And this, in fact, is what Hirshfield has done with Ten Windows: she has used gleanings from the life sciences–often combined with her natural inclination to make stunning metaphors–to think anew about poetry, to raise organicism to a thrilling new pitch.  I conclude with a few quotes from Hirshfield, which I set out as bread crumbs, meager offerings of the full feast that await those who read Ten Windows

In the last instants of a shark’s approach to its prey, it closes its inner eyelids for self-protection, and most of its other senses shut down as well.  Only one remains active: a bioelectrical sensory mechanism in its jaw, a guidance system uniquely made for striking.  The poet in the heat of writing is a bit like that shark, perceiving in ways unique to the moment of imminent connection.  (8)

The sentences of poetry, fiction, drama, attend to their music the way a tree attends to its leaves: motile and many, seemingly discardable, they remain the substance-source by which it lives.  (31)

In the realm of art, knowledge carries with it at all times an inevitable flavor–the individuality of the artist is in the work as the physical hands of the potter are in the clay, no matter how smoothed.  (42)

The elusive–in life, in literature–raises knowledge-lust in us the way a small, quick movement raises the hunting response in a cat.  (107)

Encounter with the unknown seems almost a nutrient in human life, as essential as certain amino acids–without it, the untested self falls into sleep, depression, boredom, and stupor.  (136)

Poetry’s ends are, in truth, peculiar, viewed from the byways of ordinary speech.  But it is this oddness that makes poems so needed–true poems, like true love, undo us, and un-island.  Contrary, sensual, subversive, they elude our customary allegiance to  surface reality, purpose, and will.  A good poem is comprehensive and thirsty.  It pulls toward what is invisible to an overly directed looking, toward what is protean, volatile, unprotected, and several-handed.  Poems rummage the drawers of what does not yet exist but might, in the world, in us.  Their inexhaustibility is the inexhaustibility of existence itself, in which each moment plunges from new to new.  Like a chemical reagent, water passing through limestone, or a curious toddler, a good poem reveals, entering and leaving altered whatever it meets.  (244)

The possibility-hunger in us is both illimitable and illimitably fed.  (274)

In art, we seek something else: possibility opened to a vastly increased range of swing.  (280)

 

 

 





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.





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.





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.