Researching for a project I’m working on regarding the ways we value poems (or, more specifically, the ways we avoid talking seriously about what we value in poetry), I looked again at Matthew Zapruder’s “Show Your Work!”
Looking at the comments following Zapruder’s essay, I came across some of my own comments, many of which discuss the turn. As they’re relevant to what is covered on this blog, and as, in them, I make some significant claims about the power of paying attention to turns, I’ve decided to re-publish a few of them below. I think these comments have some good ideas in them that can be understood on their own, but I offer a few other comments in order to provide context. For full context, of course, just click on the above link and read away!
My discussion of the turn was prompted by the following comment:
A thoughtful essay. But what’s missing, I think, is a discussion regarding the influence that K-12 education has on criticism, poetry appreciation, and the writing of poems. Contemporary poetry may be discussed, with some limits, in the college or mfa program, but rarely is it touched thoughtfully in k-12 education. The problem with poetry appreciation and a newer, creative reading of newer works may be that the template for a poem, as was learned by so many of us in our k-12 experience, denies that kind of thing. Many k-12 educators go as far and Langston Hughes, and that’s all.
So anyhow, I lost my train of thought. Here’s my final comment: we need critics who are familiar with not just poetry, but design, music , art and current events so as to coin a new critical language. The new critic should have a strong background in multiple disciplines to be of any use. Then, once their criticism is deemed valuable, the crticism must be published, and not just in jounals, but elsewhere for those who have had a template- experience of the rhymed art.
There’s a problem in marketing that should also be discussed.
To this I responded:
If I may be so bold (having been emboldened by your recognition of the need for greater marketing for certain kinds of poetry):
I’ve been doing some work to try to create (or, rather, to make clear), to use your phrase, one new “template” for encountering and writing poems, one which provides a way to engage a variety poems, from the canonical and traditional to the avant-garde. My “template” has much less interest in poetry as “rhymed art” but instead considers poems in terms of their structure, the types of turns they take. I think a focus on the poetic turn is one way to potentially spark more interest in poetry, and to show the connections between (seemingly) more accessible poetry and (seemingly) more difficult poetry.
If you’re interested, you can read more on this at my blog…
Prompted by a request for more information, I added the followng:
I’m happy to say a few more words about my work with turns.
Matthew notes in his essay that “…poets and poetry critics have not done the hard work necessary to explore, refine, and develop whatever terms might help us to even begin to talk about poetry in ways useful to understanding it,” and this, in large part, is a result and a continuation of a situation in which so many of the terms we currently use (such as, as Matthew suggests, “narrative” and “lyric”) “don’t exclude or refine any behavior at all in poetry.” I think that the turn offers a new term (or reintroduces a term) to the conversation about poetry, one which has real potential to shake things up, to change behaviors, both in terms of criticism and pedagogy. I will very briefly sketch out that potential here.
In criticism, attention to the turn reveals connections between seemingly disparate kinds of poems and aesthetics. The turn certainly is a feature of “accessible” poetry. A very large percentage of the poems in Billy Collins’s Poetry 180 feature the turn. However, the turn also is a key to the poetics of many “difficult” poets. In “Something of Moment,” her introduction to the issue of Ploughshares she edited (in Winter 2001-02), Jorie Graham argues that “[i]n a poem, one is always given…a stage upon which the urgent act of mind of this particular lyric occasion… ‘takes place,’” thus offering the poem an opportunity to “break.” According to Graham, “All such moments—where we are taken by surprise and asked to react—are marked places in consciousness, places where a ‘turn’ is required.” In fact, Hank Lazer, in “Lyricism of the Swerve: The Poetry of Rae Armantrout” (in American Women Poets in the 21st Century, and in Lyric and Spirit), argues that the turn is a central feature of Armantrout’s poetry.
Paying attention to the fact that a lot of poems turn, then, is one way, if one wants, to break down distinctions between established groups of poems. However, paying attention to exquisite, thrilling, truly witty, or sublime turns also offers a way to create new distinctions. There have been (in other discussions, including Reginald Shepherd’s “One State of the Art”) numerous calls for more attention to the poem and not to poets or movements, etc. The turn provides one way to turn the attention to individual, singular poems. And recognizing poems with particularly intriguing turns offers one way to divide oeuvres and schools: some of the poems in any oeuvre or school have turns that are flat and unsurprising, and some have turns that are random, and some have turns that amaze.
Such thinking has many applications. (In fact, my current project is writing a book which spells out these applications.) Here, I’ll simply note that attention to the turn has been influential in my own criticism (much of it published in Pleiades). It has offered me a way to combine the jobs of the critic, to argue, at times, that “something is good, or bad,” but it also has allowed me (to some extent) “to write, with focus and clarity, about how the piece of art works, what choices the artist has made, and how that might affect a reader,” but without relying too much on my own personality. (One quick example: in a review of recent haiku, I considered haiku not as a formal unit (5-7-5) but as a structural unit incorporating a turn. Not many of the haiku I reviewed were, in that new light, at all good—no surprises there—but I do think that I also made the value of those few haiku that did have structural intrigue clear. Attention to turns also allowed me to disregard many previous distinctions between haiku—poet, school, etc—and to value individual haiku across the spectrum of poets and schools.)
The really substantive application for the turn, however, is in pedagogy, which might be considered enacted criticism. In pedagogy, the turn offers much. The turn is, or easily can be made to seem, familiar to students—everyday language includes all kinds of argumentative, dramatic, and emotional turns; with a little training, students (high school…perhaps junior high?) can see this. Reminded that they themselves in fact are sophisticated language users, students then can recognize and appreciate turns in poems, and perhaps be more ready, able, and willing to apply such recognition and appreciation to not only accessible poetry but also more seemingly difficult poetry. How much better off (college/graduate) poetry classrooms would be if, rather than entering those classes thinking that poems “flow” students instead knew that (lots of) poems “turn”…
I’ve gone on way too long. For more info, check out the turn blog…