“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.





Writing a Metaphor-to-Meaning Poem

8 05 2012

Though in my intro to poetry writing class I typically do not focus on the turn until the second half of the semester (there is so much to cover prior to this: creative process, artistic recklessness, the poetic leap, the many means to create surprise, etc), I recently have taken to providing students with an exercise focused on the turn in the first day of class.

After performing the rituals of the beginning of the semester (taking roll, handing out and discussing the syllabus, etc), I introduce my students to the metaphor-to-meaning structure.  We examine a couple of key examples (often Whitman’s clear “A noiseless, patient spider” and Rod Smith’s wild “Ted’s Head”)—I describe the metaphor-to-meaning structure, and I ask students to locate and explain the turn, which they can, and do.  We then examine a handful of metaphor-to-meaning poems in which the turn reveals that the metaphor was meant to stand for or say something about poetry, or the poem, or that poet.  Baudelaire’s “The Albatross” and Zbigniew Herbert’s “The Hen” work very well for this.  We take some time, explore and appreciate these poems, and then I give my students their assignment: write a poem like these—write a poem that opens with a metaphor and closes by revealing that the metaphor (somehow) relates to poetry, poems, or the figure of the poet.  The main bit of advice I give my students is to try to come up with a description of something very different from poetry to serve as the metaphor—much of the fun of reading a metaphor-to-meaning poem about poetry is the surprise that comes with finding out that, in fact, it is in some way about poetry.

This, of course, seems like a lot to give students, especially on the first day.  However, perhaps because it’s the beginning of the semester and everyone is excited to get underway, and/or because students want to begin to describe their orientation to poetry, and/or because, in fact, I keep this a low-stakes assignment (due the next class meeting, in which it is read but not workshopped—if students want to workshop it, they can later in the semester), and/or because no one has yet given such demanding assignments, my students typically have taken this assignment and run with it, and they’ve made some very nice poems as a result.

Here are two student poems that ended up fitting the metaphor-to-meaning structure perfectly.  Yet, even though these poems closely engage the structure, they do so in very different ways.  With the metaphoric status of the blister(-as-poem) remaining a mystery until the end, Anjelica Rodriguez’s “Blister” makes a beautiful kind of surprising sense.  However, the turn in Stephen Whitfield’s “Maturity” is more sudden, more shocking—it resonates with what Rachel Zucker calls the epiphanic structure.



by Anjelica Rodriguez


You think only of the pain,

When there is only healing.


And now you know how it feels

To write a poem.





by Stephen Whitfield


Shining vaguely under the water,

She is like the ghost I claimed to see in the attic

Swimming in circles she will never understand


She cannot sit still

She cannot close her eyes

She is looking for something anonymous and vital


Something absurd and perfect

It catches her eye and she ascends like a raptured priest

Gasping, fighting an inconceivable pull


She is alive again only when released

Already semi-desperate to fight it again


I miss the urgency of my first poems.



Some students used the metaphor-to-meaning structure as more of a launching pad.  They ended up creating strong poems, but poems that, in the end, are not actually metaphor-to-meaning poems.  Brittany Gonio’s “My Kind of Poetry” ended up as more of a cliché-and-critique poem.  And I’m frankly not sure what to call Colleen O’Connor’s “Where We Sleep.”  While it clearly is in dialogue with the metaphor-to-meaning structure, it is not, strictly speaking, a metaphor-to-meaning poem.  But, of course, in the end this does not matter—what matters is that it, like the other poems gathered here, is a thrilling, engaging poem.


My Kind of Poetry

by Brittany Gonio


My kind of poetry

is not an ornate object

on display in an upper class suburban home.

It is not the family jewels

hidden away in a safety deposit box,

for which the children

have only a false appreciation.

My poetry will never cradle me

like goose feathered bedspreads

and waterbed mattresses,

nor will it be the pillow talk

my lover whispers to me

(whether his intention be from his heart

or his groin).

It is not a hospital recovery room

with extended visiting hours

and the promise of being

“just like brand new”

in a couple of days.


My poetry is a boxing match

where I never have to look

to the jumbotron to channel

the intensity in my chaotically

coordinated opponent.

Every punch that grazes only air

depletes my resolve and loses support

of my knees.

Every jab met with hard muscle

sends a surge of endorphins

through my knuckles and veins.

I flit through the entirety

of the human spectrum of emotion

in the rounds between bell chimes,

and leave the ring

swallowing tears,

grinning through migraines.


My poetry breaks me


and I,

like a teenage lover,

consistently return to it,

because I am married to it

in a way that has nothing to do

with religion

or income laws,

but in that

“bigger than yourself”

tidal wave revelation.

My poetry has made me

an adrenaline junkie;

I dread building up tolerance,

fear calluses that will hinder sharp stings,

loathe the body’s natural instinct

to protect itself.

For I yearn to sustain

and possess

the awe of aftershocks

each morning as

my fingers glide over

word-shaped bruises,

and chart muscles and flesh

I didn’t know

could feel.




Where We Sleep

by Colleen O’Connor


In the field behind his childhood home,

He buried two dogs,

A baby bird,

A stray cat,

The fish he wouldn’t flush,

A few chewed up toys,

And the rabbit

He never got to name.


It’s been thirty years.

In a different house,

A different dog skitters on the wood floors.

It growls at the rumbling washing machine,

Sleeps between him and the woman

Who reminds him of his mother.


He comes back to the field sometimes,

When the woman is at work and the dog has been fed

And the new backyard feels too small.


In the silence, the prairie grass mumbles,

Shifts in the wind,

Soft as the belly of a sleeping bear.


In the desk beside his end table,

He buried his poems.


He pulls them out sometimes, years later,

Once the woman is asleep and the dogs have been dead for years

And the bed feels too big.


In the silence, she mumbles,

Shifts in her sleep,

A shape in the shadows.


Under the light of his end table,

He flips the pages,

Unearths six girls,

One man,

A year in Amsterdam,

A tour with the coast guard,

Four bouts of depression,

And the daughter

He never got to name.


He holds the poems gently,

Like baby birds.


Tiny coffins, they are strangely light

For how much they hold.



If you like the poems you see here, I hope you’ll give this assignment a try.

For a variant of this assignment, see “Extended Metaphor as Ars Poetica” in Tom C. Hunley’s The Poetry Gymnasium: 94 Proven Exercises to Shape Your Best Verse (30-33).  In this assignment, Hunley suggests simply creating an extended metaphor (using anything that’s not poetry) and then calling the poem “Poetry” or “Ars Poetica.”  A kind of meaning-to-metaphor poem, which can have great result, as well.


My thanks to Anjelica, Stephen, Brittany, and Colleen for granting me permission to use their poems.

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.

Ted’s Hen

5 07 2010

I’ve included two new poems on the Metaphor-to-Meaning page:

“The Hen,” by Zbigniew Herbert

“Ted’s Head,” by Rod Smith

They’re pretty ironic, as well–good fun…check ’em out!

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.

Joanne Diaz’s “Violin”

12 03 2009



Check out Joanne Diaz’s “Violin,” a terrific poem that employs beautifully the metaphor-to-meaning structure.

Metaphor-to-Meaning Poem

8 03 2009

A few posts back, I offered the first two steps of a poem-writing exercise:

“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…”

And here are the final steps:

3) Read about the “Metaphor-to-Meaning Structure,” paying close attention to Baudelaire’s “The Albatross” and Kinnell’s “The Bear”;

4) After your description, turn your poem in the manner of “The Albatross” and/or “The Bear” so that your poem concludes by referencing poetry (and so turns your initial description into a metaphor for poetry).

You may need or want to do some revising–perhaps you can/want to now adjust your initial description a little bit so that it more smoothly “fits” its role as a metaphor for poetry.

For those playing along: sorry to keep you in the dark about what you were going to do with your description, but I think not knowing this is an important part of this process–otherwise, one might write too much with the notion that the description is a metaphor in mind, and so leave out a lot of details and specifics that might help the poem to be of interest.

If you tried this exercise, and you wrote something you liked and want to share, send along a copy–!