“That electric charge”: Melville Cane’s Turns

7 07 2017


Some recent research into the history of the structure-form distinction sent me into the stacks, where, as I wandered about, as is my wont, I came across poet Melville Cane‘s Making a Poem: An Inquiry into the Creative Process (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1953). In this book (the full text of which is available here), the poet attempts to offer glimpses into his creative process, from initial inspiration / inkling / idea to drafting, through discussions with friends (I love the record of some of these conversations!–this is such a vital part of the composition process, but also is so often overlooked) and subsequent revisions, to final product.

Of course, I was intrigued to see if there was any discussion, specifically, of the turn in Cane’s book. I’ve been intrigued by the discussion of the navigation of the turn in reflections by poets such as Linda Gregerson, Billy Collins, and Mark Doty. I wanted to see if Cane had similar interests. He does–often Cane reveals that an important part of the art of poem-making is the work to make compelling turns.

In chapter one, “Making a Poem,” Cane describes his process for making his short poem “One by One.” When most of the poem, which describes falling leaves, is complete, Cane notes that it still needs something:

I had induced the mood, found the right line-by-line pace, suggested the low, seasonal disintegration, but had yet to infuse the whole with that emotional glow, that electric charge without which a poem fails to come off and to be memorable to the reader. I needed a vivid, poignant image to sum up and crystallize the sense of pain and beauty, an image which must be relevant and extracted from the materials at hand. And so, as I refelt the experience and brooded on it, there came to me this picture:

Golden birds
With broken wings.

I had done what I set out to do. (7-8)

In chapter two, “Threshold to Creation,” Cane discusses creating his poem “Too Deleble, Alas!” While the chapter focuses on the poet’s efforts to achieve a state of detachment and receptivity, the focus at chapter’s end turns to the poem’s end, the making of the turn. The poem describes night descending and the fading of light, and then, at line 14, this sonnet-like poem turns to offer a final summation:

Not a thing the eye can shape
Can escape. (14)

Believing the poem essentially done, Cane shows it to his friend John Erskine who likes it but also offers some feedback. Erskine states:

It’s about those last two lines. You’re dealing here with the swift, almost imperceptible, transition from light to dark, and you’ve registered this fleeting change in the right tempo until you come to the final couplet. Then, instead of closing sharply you slow down with “can shape” and “can escape.” The lines are too leisurely. Instead, they should move with the utmost rapidity. You need to accelerate the speed. (14)

Thus, the last two lines become:

Not a thing the eye shapes
Escapes. (15)

Cane sums up his chapter by saying that it “is the story of the application of my theory that psychological preparation and adjustment of the poet is a prerequisite to composition” (15). But the chapter also is about being open to revision, especially when that revision will help make your poem better make its turn.

In chapter four, “Random Observations,” Cane remarks, “And of course one must be sure to know when to stop. One is often too close to the poem to realize that the final stanza is superfluous and weakening” (24-5). (I’m intrigued by how much of Cane’s thought and work aligns with John Card’s thinking about the turn. Read about Ciardi and the turn here.)

In chapter nine, “Slow Germination,” describes Cane’s process of making the poem “A Harvest to Seduce.” Yet again, a crucial part of the process seems to have been the negotiation of a turn. Much of what gave rise to the poem was negative, and much of the poem is a dark meditation on what time takes from us. Crane realized his thinking, and the poem itself needed to be re-oriented:

…I concluded that I had been obsessed by a sense of defeat and that the moment had arrived when I must come to grips with time and no longer be its slave. How to overcome its beguilement was the problem….My previous turn of mind had been negative, self-destructive. I must loosen its seductive grip. (50)

This is what happens in the poem, which describes the poison fruit of “the tree of time,” with its “harvest to seduce, / Lacking joy or juice,” but then turns in its final stanza to an admonition that begins, “Beware the vain lament, / The hunger for what’s spent…” (51).

In chapter ten, Cane offers “The Story of ‘Bed-Time Story,” a key element of which was closure: “Now I was faced with the task of coming through with an effective ending.” (55) For Cane, this was different from other poems: “‘Bed-Time Story’ is a poem that found its punch line at the very finish; it grew out of the situation as it developed. In this respect the poem differs fundamentally in origin and construction from those which start from a tempting last line and build up hindwise” (55). Cane did go a bit beyond his punch line, adding two-lined footnote to the poem. Cane felt like the poem should “hint that civilization progresses not through the formation of institutions but through the spirit which animates them” (55). He adds, “Besides, I wanted to return to the blissful state of my opening” (55). (I think the the footnote actually is the biggest turn in “Bed-Time Story,” but I disagree about what it does. I think it’s incredibly ironic: I fear the future does not bode well for the animals gathered in the poem’s too-sweet tale. The speaker of the poem, a father, knows this, as well, and when his daughter asks what happens, he leaves it until the next night to put off telling her.)

The book’s final chapter, “‘The Fly’ and Its Problems,” also is primarily about navigating the poem’s turn. The poem considers some different versions of a poem called “The Fly.” “The Fly” is, essentially, a sonnet. It’s got 14 lines (in its second iteration), and it turns sharply between the octave and the sestet. Indeed, in Cane’s poem, there’s a stanza break between lines 8 and 9 (even in its first and final versions, which are 13 lines each). The turn, essentially, is metaphor-to-meaning: the poem begins as being about the plight of a fly bumping into a window, but then turns to reveal that the fly also is largely symbolic of the poet’s own struggle…in large part, to complete the poem. Cane was satisfied with the octave; he states, “Here then, were eight lines, assembled in a compact shape, tentatively, perhaps permanently congenial to me” (101). But where to turn? Cane asks, “What to do next? What sort of structure to build on this base? Should the poem confine itself to the case of the fly? Or should it aim at a wider significance, with general human implications?” (101-2) According to Cane,

The answer came quite unforced as I pondered. It arose out of my own quandary over the next step. Sitting at my desk, with eight lines on the paper before me, I felt stuck, powerless to proceed, yet unwilling to admit failure. And then suddenly it dawned on me that my sense of frustration was basically no different from the fly’s; though the one was physical and the other psychological, we were both in the same boat. And with this flash of recognition came the decision to put myself briefly into the poem, exactly as I appeared to myself at the moment. (102)

I love this! Here we get some more information about the phenomenon of turn creation! In a manner very different from Gregerson’s, which seems largely willed, here Cane’s turning, his arrival at his next two lines (“I sit in my desk to write, / Entrapped by the creature’s plight”) seems more spontaneous and organic. Cane himself emphasizes this point:

Here it should be remembered that this poem did not start from an idea or subject capable of logical development and with the end in constant view from the beginning; on the contrary it grew out of an initial phrase which moved waywardly, gathering accretions with growing concentration on the material. It represents a case where the material, as it develops and hardens, tends to determine or suggest what the poem may be about; thus the theme of the poem, the point of view, comes late. (102)

(It should be noted, though, that in many poems, the point often comes late, regardless of the manner by which it was composed.)

After some clarifying conversations with friends, Cane comes to realize that his poem’s final lines (“It has lost the power of sight; / It has missed the invisible crack, / The gate to the pathway back” (102)) are too “rushed” and thus leave out “an essential element” (105). To slow up the poem, and to allow in some more ambiguity, to leaven the poem’s despair, Cane adds a line, moves some lines, and concludes with two questions. Some important tinkering leads to a third and, perhaps, final version of the poem.

Melville Cane’s poems may not be to the liking of many today. To my knowledge, he is no longer widely read. However, it was a treat to come across his Making a Poem and to see this poet, too, wrestle with the sinewy demands of the turn, to learn a bit about how his turns came into being.





Linda Gregerson on Moving Forward by Going Elsewhere

12 04 2014


In “Going Elsewhere,” her contribution to The Rag-Picker’s Guide to Poetry, Linda Gregerson discusses one of the central paradoxes of poetry: as she calls it, “moving-forward-by-going-elsewhere.”  Gregerson writes:

“Often, when I have drafted, oh, three-quarters of a poem, something more than half in any case, I find myself at a peculiar sort of impasse.  The trajectory has begun to assume some clarity; the poem has begun to turn toward home.  And just-on-the-edge-of-fulfillment is exactly the problem: were the poem at this point simply to complete its own momentum, it would land in sorry predictability or, worse, the default didacticism that comes from ‘topping up’ one’s own emergent understanding.  Time to go elswehere, Linda.  And begin by discarding that last stanza and a half.

“Elsewhere can be recalcitrant.  A dozen failed efforts to find it–three dozen–are nothing at all.  It must be the right, the real elsewhere, the one that deepens and corrects what has come before.”

Gregerson then discusses engaging in this process with two of her poems (reprinted in The Rag-Picker’s Guide), “Prodigal” and “Her Argument for the Existence of God.”

Gregerson’s reflection on her process in The Rag-Picker’s Guide seems to grow out of some ideas that arose in a conversation with David Baker on The Kenyon Review Online.  Of “Prodigal,” Baker asks, “How did this ending come about? Was it early or late in the process of composition when you determined how the poem should terminate?”  And Gregerson responds, “It was very late. I was stuck for a long, long time.  It’s always the hardest, and the truest, part of composition for me: reaching a point where the poem needs to go more deeply into itself by going elsewhere.  Authentically elsewhere, somewhere I haven’t pre-plotted. I often find that point by writing slightly beyond it, into a fulfillment that’s too predictable. So I have to cut back to the precipice and be stranded there for a while. It’s a very uncomfortable place; it drives me crazy. And it’s where the thing either does or does not become a poem.”

This going elsewhere, this “hardest” and “truest” part of composition, this working at the point where a poem either does or does not emerge, of course, is the search for the right kind of turn for a poem, one that leaps away from the poem but also is deeply (and wildly) appropriate to it–a turn, that is, that has fitting surprise.  Seeking out and deploying thrilling turns is not only a part of Gregerson’s process, but also is a part of the process of poets such as Billy Collins and Mark Doty.  …And, I’m certain, many, many, many others.  It’s just nice, and fitting, that poets have started to articulate how difficult and vital a poetic element the turn in fact is.

Considering “A Display of Mackerel”

9 01 2011

I’ve just updated this blog’s Emblem Structure page in order to include a link to “Souls on Ice,” a reflection by Mark Doty on the process of composing his gorgeous emblem poem “A Display of Mackerel.”  (The reflection and the poem may be found here.)

Of special interest for those interested in poetic turns is the clear delight–and even amazement–Doty feels when he discovers the moments of the poem that become the poem’s major turns.  For example, of an important focusing of the initial description of the mackerel, Doty writes, “There’s a terrific kind of exhilaration for me at this point in the unfolding of a poem, when a line of questioning has been launched, and the work has moved from evocation to meditation.” 

And of the point when the poem’s act of thoughtful (even meditative) description turns to more focused meditation, Doty writes, “The poem had already moved into the realm of theology, but the question that arose (“Suppose we could iridesce . . .”) startled me nonetheless, because the notion of losing oneself “entirely in the universe/ of shimmer” referred both to these fish and to something quite other, something overwhelmingly close to home….”

Mark Doty’s “Souls on Ice” is a terrific phenomenological account of poem-making, one that acknowledges the difficulties and false starts and dead ends of writing, but also celebrates the sense (and reality?) of poetic accomplishment–and particularly the thrilling accomplishment of discovering and then engaging poetic turns.