‘don’t know what to call it’: Robert Hass’s Elision of the Poetic Turn

20 06 2017


I shall have to disregard the musical structure of poetry: metre, stanza-form, rhyme, alliteration, quantity, and so on. I neglect these without too much regret: criticism has paid them an altogether disproportionate amount of attention….I am going to talk, primarily, about other sorts of structure in lyrical poetry.

  —Randall Jarrell, “Levels and Opposites: Structure in Poetry” (Georgia Review 50.4 (1996): 697-713)

Thought begins in disagreement, the terms of which demand to be articulated.

—Robert Hass (225)

Robert Hass’s A Little Book on Form: An Exploration into the Formal Imagination of Poetry in fact is a book about the importance of the poetic turn. Though odd, often careless and confounding, it is clearly a book (like some others, including Helen Vendler’s Poems, Poets, Poetry) that acknowledges the primacy of structure (understood as the pattern of a poem’s turning) over form.

In the book’s opening sentences Hass indicates his approach. His book will not be like typical books on form, which take “form to mean traditional rules previous to composition—rules for the formation of the sonnet, for example, or the villanelle” (1). While “useful,” such information “didn’t seem [to Hass] to have much to do with the way the formal imagination actually operates in poetry. It does not, for starters, address the formal principles, or impulses, that underlie the great majority of poetry in English and American literatures not written in these conventional forms” (1).

Hass offers some initial definitions of form:

  • One meaning of form that has currency has the meaning “traditional form,” which usually means the use of rhyme and meter.
  • Another meaning is that it refers to one of a number of traditional kinds of poems that apply particular rules of composition. As in “the sonnet is a form.”
  • Another meaning is “external shape.”
  • Another is “the arrangement and relationship of basic elements in a work of art, through which it produces a coherent whole.” (3)

While such “usages” are “common” and “useful,” according to Hass, “none of them capture the nature of the formal imagination—the intuitions that shape a work of art—or the pleasure form gives to writer and readers” (3). For Hass, “[c]loser might be:

  • The way the poem embodies the energy of the gesture of its making. (3)

This virtually mystical fifth option, though, remains merely suggestive—it in fact will go essentially unexplored by Hass. Hass actually largely conceives of form in the terms he presents in his fourth bullet point. He’s interested in basic elements, “the essential expressive gestures…inside forms” (2). And these gestures are best described as structures. Again and again, Hass will actively set aside issues of rhyme, meter, and external shape in order take apart poems to reveal the arrangements of and the relationships among their basic parts, their structural components, separated (and joined) by turns.

This certainly is the case when Hass explores the sonnet, a main dwelling-place for the turn in poetic forms. (For more on the sonnet and the turn, click here, and here, and here.) Hass understands the importance of the turn, or the volta, for the sonnet. In fact, the turn just may be the sonnet’s main attraction. He states:

Amazing the range of the work in the form. There really isn’t, as far as I know, a good study of whatever it is, formal or psychological, that has made the form—in all the European languages—so persistent and compelling. It might, as Peter Sacks has suggested, be the single gaze and the proportions of the face. But that doesn’t account for the importance of the turn. 8/6: say it long, say it a little shorter. In the Italian sonnet with the more musical twining rhymes in the sestet: say it, then sing it. Or say it and sing the opposite, or the qualification. And the Shakespearean sonnet, which usually has the strong turn, doesn’t have the formal change in the rhyme scheme, so if it has an 8/6 structure, it also has a 4/4/4/2 structure: say it, say it, contradict or qualify it, nail it….It may be something in the turn that echoes the process that we experience as constituting our subjectivity… (185)

Hass qualifies this statement a bit, noting that there are “descriptive” sonnets that “have no turn at all” (186). However, while Hass is correct, this in no way compromises the central place of the volta in terms of the significance of the sonnet (in the sonnet, the lack of a volta is significant), for Hass, this is a minor note: in Hass’s extensive discussion of the sonnet (pp. 121-186), which involves numerous references to the turn, he devotes a single sentence to the fact that there exist sonnets without turns.

The turn also is what gives power to two-line forms. Hass states, “[T]he two-line poem is based on a human pattern of exchange: question-and-answer, call-and-response. This was one of the basic forms of West African folk culture and both the work song and the spiritual evolved from it” (28). The two-line poems Hass provides follow this structure, turning from question to answer, from call to response by which, as with Bantu combinations, in which “[t]he first singer produces an image; the second supplies another,” a non-narrative, riddle-like “internal comparison” is created (29). (For further examples of the question-and-answer structure, click here. For further thinking on two-line poems, click here.) Hass points out that “[t]his is basically the principle upon which many haiku [though typically three-lined] are based…[a]nd it is…the basis of the couplets in the Persian ghazal” (28). In fact, when discussing the ghazal and its couplets, Hass quickly dismisses the importance of meter, stating, “The ghazal was intricately metrical in ways that we don’t need to go into” (a remarkable claim in a book about form!), and he turns to discuss internal structure: “In practice, though the couplets are discrete, they are linked by theme, and the subtlest of them proceed almost like a set of Bantu combinations, linked line by line, couplet by couplet, through internal comparison” (42).

Structure also is the defining characteristic of the Chinese quatrain called the chueh-chu. According to Hass, “The Chinese quatrain was one of the great literary forms of the Tang dynasty. It was called the chueh-chu, or ‘curtailed verse.’ It was a form of ‘regulated verse,’ or chin-t’i-shih, in which the pattern of tones followed certain rules” (103). Hass continues, citing Arthur Cooper: “‘…the fourfold structure [of this particular quatrain] has something at once like a little sonata-form and like the composition of a painting. The sonata form of these poems is reflected in the Chinese names of each of the lines: the first is called “Raising,” that is, the introduction of the theme; the second is called “Forwarding,” that is, development; the third, “Twisting,” or introduction of a new theme,[sic]; and the fourth “Concluding”’” (103).

Here is such a poem by Du Fu:

My rain-soaked herbs: some still sparse, some lush.
They freshen the porch and pavilion with their color.
These waste mountains are full of them. But what’s what?
I don’t know the names and the root shapes are terrifying. (104)

Throughout its supposed discussions of form A Little Book on Form in fact attends much more closely to structure. This is additionally apparent when, approximately mid-way through Little Book on Form, Hass turns from discussing form to discuss genre. Fascinatingly this is the point at which Hass’s interest in the turn really begins to reveal itself: genre is marked mainly by patterns of turns. Hass begins “A Note on Genre” by showing how much he wants to be done with form, as it is traditionally conceived:

1. So that’s it for poetic forms. Four hundred and fifty years of the sonnet, occasional sestinas and villanelles, the rarer occasional pantoum. One could add the ballad—short narrative poems, traditionally in four-line stanzas. And a couple more recent English language adaptation [sic]—the ghazal (see Chapter 2) from Persian and Arabic, the blues from the American vernacular.

2. Much richer in the literary tradition is the idea of kinds of poems, poems with particular subject matter and/or particular angles of approach that don’t, however, specify their length or a particular metrical patter or rhyme scheme. (197)

After one is done reeling from the fact that it’s a book on form that has the sentence “So that’s it for poetic forms” in it, one can then start to trace Hass’s particular interest: internal structure. Hass observes that “the impulse of prayer seems to be very near the origin of the lyric,” and prayer, he notes, has “[a] transparent structure. Praise, then ask” (202). Toward the end of this brief transitional section, Hass states, “Thinking about lyric, about the formal imagination working its way from the beginning of a poem to the end, one can turn to the work of genre, to the shapes of thought and arcs of feeling in the traditional kinds” (205). And this clearly is something other than form as traditionally conceived; Hass states, “So the rhythms of formal shaping in a poem are always working at at least a couple of levels—that of prosody, numbers falling through numbers to create the expressive effect of a piece, and that of—don’t know what to call it—thematic development, the way the poem makes its trajectory, creates its sense of movement (or doesn’t) from beginning to end, some of which is apt to get prompts from generic expectations, conscious or not” (205-206).

Hass may not know what to call it, but we do: structure, understood as the pattern of a poem’s turns. Nowhere is this clearer than in Hass’s discussion of the ode, the first genre to which he turns. Hass emphasizes the ode’s traditional three-part structure: Pindar’s “strophe, antistrophe, and epode,” or, in Jonson’s version, “turn, counterturn, and stand” (210). And, in what we should recognize as a move typical of Hass, he plays down metrical form in the process. While “[t]he strophe and antistrophe had the same stanza pattern, and the epode a different one,” that doesn’t matter much because “[i]n translation the three-part metrical pattern isn’t evident”—“but,” Hass adds, “the basic formal pattern is” (210). For Hass, the ode’s “formal pattern” is its three-part structure: “The clue to the formal structure—what gets echoed in the history of the ode—is the way they begin in a place, and then take their audience on a journey—the entertaining stories in the middle part of the after-dinner speech [the typical occasion of original Pindaric odes]—and then come to their graceful conclusion” (211). In the section called “Reading the Ode” (223-291), Hass consistently breaks down the odes into their constitutive parts, parts separated by turns. Sometimes, there are three parts (231, 240, 250-252, 256), once five (242), and twice “several” (244, 278).

Hass seems to be particularly taken with the pattern of the romantic ode. Derived in part from the three-part structure of the seventeenth-century meditative poem (which itself, as described in Louis Martz’s The Meditative Poem, has a three-part structure: “Begin with a scene from the story of the man-god and his suffering. Take the story in, focusing on its details and their meaning, and then return yourself to the scene fully in possession of it” (212)), the romantic ode “begins with [a] scene….Then the poem takes you on what one critic, M. H. Abrams, describes as ‘an inward journey’ where some work of transformation is done, and then returns you to the place where you began, with that place altered by the process” (211). (For more on this structure, which M. H. Abrams calls the “descriptive-meditative” structure, click here.) But, regardless of the particular kind of ode, odes consist of moving parts. Hass concludes his discussion of the ode this way:

The takeaway: Out of litany and prayer came the praise poem and endless lyric variations on the praise poem. In their formal development these poems have a beginning, middle, and end; an inescapable (unless you are Gertrude Stein) three-part structure. The beginning part is often initiated by desire or dissent. The middle section is almost infinitely variable. It can proceed by narrative, by argument, by association, by elaboration of a metaphor, by a mix of these. In postmodern practice development often proceeds by braiding and disparity, by disruption and non sequitur. An ode can have few or many parts. It can attempt to name, or possess, or stand at the right distance from, in the right relation to, even veer away, from the spoken or unspoken object of desire or imagination of value that initiates it, and its third and final section is apt to get to, or point toward, or try to instantiate, or ask a favor from that object or power. (Which is apt to be, at least implicitly, the power of poetry, or the action of the imagination of which poetry is an instance.) (290-291)

For Hass, the turn is also at the heart of the genre of elegy. In the sections of his book that addresses elegy, Hass draws heavily on Peter Sacks’s The English Elegy. (Sacks happens to be one of the great thinkers about the poetic turn. To find a link to Sacks’s lecture on a type of turn he calls the “dolphin’s turn,” a lecture introduced by Robert Hass, and a reflection on that lecture, click here.) For Sacks, the turn is at the heart of the elegy: as Hass cites, “‘Daphne’s “turning” into a tree matches Apollo’s “turning” from the object of his love to a sign of her, the laurel bough. It is the substitutive turn or act of troping that any mourner—perhaps that language—must perform’” (296). As he attends to Milton’s “Lycidas,” Shelley’s “Adonais,” and Lowell’s “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” Hass notes that “[p]artly [he] will be tracking Peter Sacks’s reading of the poems in his The English Elegy,” but in doing so, “[w]e are tracking old, inherited formal structures for surviving and transforming the kinds of devastating loss that can sicken the roots of life” (303). The next nearly 20 pages track the sections and turns of these poems.

After the sections on elegy, there’s some more to A Little Book on Form, including brief sections (about ten pages / section) on satire (325-334); georgic (335-343); variable stanzas and organic form (345-352); difficult forms (353-363); collage, abstraction, Oulipo, and procedural poetics (365-379); mixed forms (381-384); the prose poem (385-391); metrical stress (393-398); how to scan a poem (399-411); and how free verse works (413-429). However, as the brevity of these sections (and others: the section on blank verse is six pages long (115-120); the sestina and villanelle are given a total of nine pages (187-195); and the pantoum, slipped into the sestina and villanelle section, receives one page’s worth of attention) reveal: this is just clean up, just touching on some final topics, mere formalities. The real work of the book was already done, and that work was the work of troping our attention from metrical form to structural turning.


While for me, and perhaps for many of the readers of this blog, it is incredibly interesting to witness how much the turn intrigues Hass, I want to be clear: I do not recommend this book.

At all levels, it is considerably careless. Even if we allow, as Hass notes, that this book “began as a series of notes and reading lists for a seminar [he] was invited to teach at the University of Iowa Writers Workshop in the winter of 1995,” and so that the “[t]he notes are intended to be suggestive, not comprehensive” (1-2), it is still very problematic. It is poorly edited. Grammatical errors abound, and often partial and/or incorrect citations (David Mikics co-authored The Art of the Sonnet with Stephen Burt; Phillis Levin edited The Penguin Book of the Sonnet, not Phyllis) float about. Twice, M. H. Abrams great essay “Structure and Style in the Greater Romantic Lyric” is called “Style and Structure…” (214, 253).

Hass states, “I’m very much aware that [my notes] come from what I happen to have read or be reading and that other readers will bring other lists and perhaps better example drawn from other traditions to the issues of craft discussed here” (2). But too many times A Little Book on Form reveals what feels like an almost active disengagement with its subjects. In a section called “Reading the Sonnet” (133-186) Hass offers a number of sonnets to be perused, but he does not make clear why he’s offered these and not others (including anything from Astrophil and Stella, a glaring omission near the core of a tradition with which Hass is familiar). A Little Book on Form also contains a number of claims that, seeing them in print, print being prepared to become a book, should have given anyone, let alone someone as smart as Robert Hass, some pause. For example, Hass writes, “People kept experimenting with the [sonnet] form though it is hard to name a decisive instance after Yeats’s ‘Leda and the Swan’ in 1923 and Frost’s ‘Design’ in 1936” (130). This is preposterous: see The Reality Street Book of Sonnets. Additionally, of the villanelle, Hass states, “It is a form that has produced at least four quite powerful poems”; they are, as Hass recalls them, E. A. Robinson’s “House on the Hill,” Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” Theodore Roethke’s “The Waking,” and Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” (194). Hass is right about these poems, but it is alarming that he won’t (or can’t) name another out of this tight, well-know group. (Surprisingly, Hass’s range of reference to contemporary poets and scholars seems to be severely limited. The avant-garde barely seems to exist in A Little Book on Form, and there are strong links only to work by folk from particular environs familiar to Hass: the Bay area and greater Harvard, with a tiny outpost in Iowa City).

Replete with reading lists, Hass too-often relies on a reader’s willingness to do additional reading to collect insight rather than offer it himself. For example, Hass states, “The best way to get a sense of the four-line stanza in English is to pick up an anthology and read through it” (89). Such instruction is given or implied numerous times throughout the book. This level of disengagement is particularly disappointing when it comes to Hass’s unwillingness to enter into scholarly debate with other thinkers. When discussing the ghazal, Hass notes that “[b]y 2000 the Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali had objected to these freehanded appropriations of the classic form and published, by way of protest, an anthology of poems, Ravishing Disunities: Real Ghazals in English, which follow the rhyme scheme and something like the meter of the classic Muslim form” (45). However, though he offers a smattering of examples of “real ghazals” (two couplets from three poems), Hass seems totally unconcerned about the issue of formal correctness—a shocking stance in a book (purportedly—though, as we now know, not really) about form. And nor does Hass engage Stephen Burt’s skepticism about the sestina. As Hass notes, in a 2012 essay called “Sestina! Or, The Fate of the Idea of Form,” Burt “reads the phenomenon [of “a recent explosion of sestinas”] as a product of the teaching of creative writing and as a symptom of ‘diminished hope for the art,’ a way ‘to emphasize technique, and to disavow at once tradition, organicism, and social and spiritual efficacy’” (193). Whoa. So, what does Hass think about this? We have no idea: we’re instructed to read Burt’s essay, and many of the sestinas he lists (Hass doesn’t make his own), and judge for ourselves (193). This disengagement reaches its apotheosis in the book when, in his brief discussion of satire Hass can’t even be bothered to consider its structural elements. Instead he states, “One would have to do more study of Horace and Juvenal and the Hebrew prophets than I’ve done to answer the question of whether there is a pattern of development, an inner logic to the shape of satire and prophecy like the ones one can make out in the ode and the elegy. It would seem that satire’s natural form would be the list, the bill of particulars” (328). And that’s that.

But, of course, the real, deep disengagement results in nothing that is in the book but, rather, is a result of vital material having been left out. Hass seems to think that nothing of interest has been written about the poetic structure and its turn. But there has been a great deal of high-quality, insightful conversation about the turn. Jorie Graham has some very interesting takes on the turn. In fact, I was introduced to the turn by Graham in the fall of 1994, when I was just starting my studies as an MFA student in poetry at the University of Iowa–that is, the semester before Hass taught his first course on forms there. (A brief reflection on Graham’s thinking about the turn, and about what I learned about the turn, at Iowa can be found here.) And even if we focus solely on the sonnet’s volta, there are Paul FussellChristina Pugh, and—oh, yes—Dante. What is perhaps deeply disappointing for me about Hass’s book is that it makes it seem as though there is no conversation about the volta, or, more broadly, the turn. Therefore, Hass gets stuck. He doesn’t seem to have a language, or a way to think more deeply into poetry via the turn. His book suffers greatly because of it.

The penultimate paragraph of A Little Book on Form recounts this story:

Stanley Kunitz saying there were three ways a poem moves: in a straight line from A to B, in a circle beginning with A and passing through various place [sic] and coming back to A, or by braiding two, three, even five elements in such a way that by the end their relation to each other becomes clear. And I said, “What about pointillism or a Calder mobile, where elements just hang there in relation to each other or not, the connection unstated?” And Stanley, “Yes, that would be a fourth way.” “Or a list,” I said, “that would just be A A A A.” “Yes, yes,” said Stanley, getting a little weary. (428)

If only A Little Book on Form had been restructured so that it started here, so that it could have ended someplace much more revealing and surprising.

John Keats and the Dolphin’s Turn

8 09 2016

Previously on this blog, I’d reflected upon (and praised!) Peter Sack’s notion of the “dolphin’s turn.” As I noted in that post:

According to Sacks, the dolphin’s turn is “a transformative veering from one course to another, a way of being drawn off track to an unexpected destination…”  (Sacks adds: “[T]his turn is paradigmatic for the transportation system of poetry itself, both in its technical “versing,” and in its thematic and figural changes.”)  The dolphin is associated with such turning, of course, because it is a creature that itself is always transgressing boundaries, leaping and diving.

In large part, Sacks’s lecture (which you can listen to here) is an analysis of the dolphin’s turn as it occurs in a variety of poetic works, from the “Homeric Hymn to Pythian Apollo” to poems by Mandelstam, Celan, Bishop, and others.

One poem Sacks did not mention, but which I think deserves mention, is John Keats’s verse epistle to his brother George, and I make my case for my view over at the Keats Letters Project. (You can link directly to it here.)

While you should read Sacks, and perhaps my extension of his thinking, Keats’s verse epistle is required reading for those who love poetic turns. Dive in!

Structure as Pattern of Turning in James G. Hepburn’s Poetic Design: Handbook and Anthology

5 06 2016

When in Poetic Design: Handbook and Anthology, James G. Hepburn uses the word “structure” he means many things: “structure” comprises, among other things, stanzas, syntax, rhyme scheme, and line. However, for Hepburn, “structure” means, primarily, the pattern of a poem’s turning–the thing is, he is not explicit about this, though he should have been.

Right away in chapter 8, “Structure,” it seems as though structure might mean something  like the turn. Hepburn opens the chapter stating, “The structure of a poem is like the structure of a house: it is what underlies, supports, and frames the words, the alliteration, the metaphors, the rhymes. It is the integrated pattern and movement of all the parts” (109).

However, from this focused definition of structure, structure quickly comes to mean a great many things. In the next paragraph, structure means stanzas. Discussing Robert Frost’s “Dust of Snow,” Hepburn states, “The most obvious aspect of structure is the division of the poem into two stanzas” (109). He also notes that syntax is a part of this structure: “But look at the poem again, and observe that the poet has crossed the structure  with another structure: the two stanzas are part of a single sentence” (109-10). Further on, Hepburn adds an additional element to structure: “One aspect of the structure of the poem that has been unmentioned–and there are still others–is the rhyme scheme” (110). And, Hepburn adds, “Of course the individual line is an important structural element in any poem, and a more complete discussion of the two previous poems [“Dust of Snow” and Shakespeare’s sonnet 73] would have dealt with it too” (114).

For all of this range, this diversity, of what structure entails, it is clear that, though he never says it, the heart of structure, as the introduction to the chapter seemed to indicate it could be, is the turn.

The three poems focused on in this chapter feature distinct turns. “Dust of Snow” turns sharply between its two stanzas. Sonnet 73, as one would expect of a Shakespearean sonnet, turns distinctly between the third quatrain and the final couplet. The third poem, William Wordsworth’s “There Was a Boy”, turns profoundly between its two stanzas.

And Hepburn seems to be aware of this: most of his discussions of various structural components entail (though they only imply) the turn, that is, a major shift in the rhetorical and/or dramatic trajectory of a poem. Discussing the two stanzas in “Dust of Snow,” Hepburn notes, “The stanzaic division corresponds with a division between image and idea, or action and reaction: the crow shakes the snow in the first stanza, and the speaker of the poem reflects in the second” (109).

The same thing happens when discussing sonnet 73. Hepburn initially focuses on the rhyme scheme in this poem, noting that this particular sonnet has both a “fourfold structure” (abab-cdcd-efef-gg) and a “twofold structure” (ababcdcdefef–gg) (111). However, Hepburn knows (though he does not say) that the twofold structure pivots on the poem’s turn; he states, “The twofold aspect is supported by the structure of idea in the poem: the first twelve lines say that the speaker of the poem is growing old; the last two lines assert a consequence” (111). In the next paragraph, Hepburn expands on this, and, though he does not say it directly, directs his reader’s attention to the volta:

Now consider another aspect of structure, the development of image and idea. The first four lines present an image of autumn, the next four of a darkening evening, the next four of a dying fire. These three images can be thought of as constituting a single image of a dying fire on an autumn evening, or they can be seen as separate, essentially repeating images. Individually or together, they say: I am growing old. Again, one sees a structure in which the first twelve lines contrast with the last two. The division is further emphasized by the fact that the idea in first twelve lines is presented in sustained images, whereas the ideas in the last two lines is presented more directly. The two parts of the poem look different from each other: in the first twelve lines images are in the foreground, with the idea lying behind them; in the last two lines an idea is in the foreground, served by incidental metaphors. (111)

And the same thing happens with “There Was a Boy.” Of this poem, Hepburn first makes note of its “apparently irregular” structure, commenting on the different sizes of the stanzas (which are so irregular that Hepburn clarifies that each is “more fittingly called a verse paragraph”); on the presence of “several strong caesuras”; and on the facts “that the iambic pentameter rhythm is often broken” and “that there are many run-on lines” (113). Hepburn then turns from this view of the poem to argue for the structural unity of the poem; he states, “He [Wordsworth] does not rely upon a conventional form such as the sonnet, and he does not invent his own neat stanzaic structure; rather, he creates a fluid organic pattern” (113).

Hepburn begins his discussion of this fluid organic pattern by focusing on the poem’s use of line, including the ways that “incongruent grammatical structures” affect it–he notes, for example, that “almost every line in the first verse paragraph is run-on, and almost all the heavy grammatical pauses–ends of clauses and sentences–are placed within the lines rather than at the ends” (114). Hepburn observes that this technique creates “a steady forward movement” that feels “natural rather than sculpted” (114). Hepburn then contrasts the use of these structural elements to their use in the second verse paragraph, which feels “less unified than the first, and lacks something of its forward movement,” thus coming to seem “a diminishing afterthought” (114).

But, of course, this difference in the deployment of structural elements serves to help the poem enact the feelings and moods on either side of the poem’s major turn from lively celebration of wondrous, mystical life to fragmented mourning. As he considers the significance of this (unnamed) turn, Hepburn thinks about how it seems the second verse paragraph could be removed from the poem without too much loss (whereas “Dust of Snow” would be destroyed by the loss of its second stanza), but that in fact this is not the case; Hepburn states, “Yet nothing is more certain than that in its own way Wordsworth’s second verse paragraph is as important structurally as Frost’s” (114). To make his case, Hepburn notes the parallels between the boy’s and the man’s silent listening, and how, only with the second verse paragraph “does the reader himself [sic] stand mute, looking at boy and man in nature, listening to the meaning of life” (114-15).

Hepburn also makes a point that I think is not quite totally correct and that demonstrates a negative consequence of his inattention to the turn; he states,

As a further means of clarifying the structural importance of the second verse paragraph, contrast it now with the quatrains of Shakespeare’s poem. Any one of the quatrains (any one of the images contained by them) could be removed without vitally damaging the structure of the poem or the poem itself: something important would be lost, the clear and sedate narrowing of images and implication, but the poem could sustain the loss, and remain much the same as before. In Wordsworth’s poem the second image of the listening person reverberates against the first, enhances its meaning, gives the poem a direction into deeper meaning. (115)

I disagree with Hepburn’s comparing the second verse paragraph with a sonnet’s quatrain. The second verse paragraph, which comes after the turn, should instead be compared to Shakespeare’s couplet (or, had a different sonnet been used, Petrarch’s sestet). The result is the same: Hepburn still believes that the second verse paragraph cannot be removed. And this is good. However, this paragraph of Hepburn’s would have made much more sense had Hepburn written, “As a further means of clarifying the structural importance of the second verse paragraph, compare it now to the couplet of Shakespeare’s poem. Just as the couplet cannot be removed from that sonnet without irreparably damaging the meaning and significance of the poem, so can the second verse paragraph not be removed from ‘There Was a Boy.'”

The fact that Hepburn does not do this is the sign and seal of the fact that he does not pay adequate attention to the turn in his chapter on structure. He is generally aware of the turn, and his whole chapter on structure pivots on it, but he is not explicit about it, and so some infelicities and confusions arise where there need not be any. The bigger confusion that this partial inattention to the turn creates occurs at the outset of his chapter on structure. Hepburn states that structure is “like the structure of a house: it is what underlies, supports, and frames the words, the alliteration, the metaphors, the rhymes.” So, structure underlies, supports, and frames rhyme, but also rhyme is a structural “aspect” (110). This confusion could have been cleared up had Hepburn differentiated, as did Randall Jarrell in “Levels and Opposites: Structure in Poetry,” between “musical structure” and “other sorts of structure in lyrical poetry.”

In the introduction to How Does a Poem Mean?, the only introduction to poetry textbook that contains a chapter on the turn (though this book refers to it as the “fulcrum”), John Ciardi refers to the book’s final chapter on the turn as “the important one.”  Ciardi clarifies, “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.”

I think Hepburn agrees. He examines a number of structural characteristics of poems, but the turn is the key aspect of the poem these other characteristics orbit and contribute to. And this is excellent! (In fact, about Wordsworth’s poem Hepburn notes correctly that “[i]t has been impossible to describe the structure without clarifying the meaning, and it would be equally impossible to state the meaning without discussing the structure” (115).) I only wish that Hepburn had been more consistently explicit in articulating the centrality of the turn to his conception of poetic structure. In this way, his treatment of structure would have been more accurate and likely would not have included the small but still unnecessary missteps that it does.

The Turns of Tony Hoagland’s “Medicine”

21 05 2016

Anthony Wilson analyzes the twists and turns of Tony Hoagland’s poem “Medicine” here. Check it out!

On Tony Hoagland’s “Poetic Housing”

17 05 2016

“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.

On James Longenbach’s “Lyric Knowledge”

13 05 2016

At first glance, James Longenbach’s “Lyric Knowledge” is an incredibly odd and, so, perhaps weirdly intriguing, essay. It begins in a seemingly interesting way: it’s opening line states, “The impulse to be lyrical is driven by the need to be no longer constrained by oneself.” Whoa. Okay. It seems, as the whole introductory paragraph–about suffering, love, the familiar, novelty, experience–indicates, we’re entering some strange, new territory. But what follows such an opening turns out to be pretty standard stuff–stuff which, in fact, is only interesting for how obvious it is.

Or so it seems. Here, I want to explore “Lyric Knowledge” and suggest that this convoluted essay really is about some incredibly plain but incredibly potent truths about lyric poetry, truths that have been discussed repeatedly in Structure & Surprise, and in this, it’s accompanying blog. But I’ll then speculate on some reasons why a critic such as Longenbach might work to keep such plain truths mysterious.

Here is the key idea of “Lyric Knowledge,” which is subtitled “Ideas of order in poetry”: poems offer a different kind of readerly experience when read out of the order in which they are written. That is–to be clear (yes, you did just read correctly what I wrote): again and again in this essay, Longenbach takes poems, restructures them–sometimes putting the final few lines first; sometimes reversing the whole text (with a few, necessary syntactical adjustments) so that what was the final line goes first; what was the penultimate line goes second; what was the third-to-last line goes third; etc–and then claims amazement at the fact that the two texts create different experiences for readers.

For example, Longenbach takes an epigram inscribed, according to Plato’s Phaedrus, on Midas’s tomb, mixes up the lines (1, 2, 3, and 4 become 3, 2, 4, and 1), and then is kind of blown away by the fact that the two poems don’t have the same effect. He states,

In this version we discover in the final line that the poem is spoken by a bronze statue of a girl, eerily similar to any girl who might have received Midas’s amorous attentions; in the original version our experience of the poem is predicated on this knowledge. What does the fact that one can alter significantly the effect of a poem without changing a single word tell us about the power of structure? What did Socrates [earlier quoted as having said of this epigram “that it is of no consequence what order these lines are spoken in”] not want to recognize about that power?

He treats similarly the concluding fourteen lines of Wallace Stevens’s “No Possum, No Sop, No Taters” and “Western Wind.” To focus just on “Western Wind,” Longenbach takes that four-line poem and switches it around so that the final two lines become the first two lines; so that this:

Western wind, when will you blow?
The small rain down can rain.
Christ, if my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again.

becomes this:

Christ, if my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again.
Western wind, when will you blow?
The small rain down can rain.

While I probably should simply celebrate Longenbach’s work here–after all, it is largely a recognition of the importance of poetic structure (and, as I’ll demonstrate later on, I mean structure as I’ve long meant structure: as the pattern of a poem’s turning)–I can’t quite get over the fact that what is so odd about this work is how much labor is spent to make such a painfully obvious point. Small changes make big differences in great writing–that’s one of the main ways we know it’s great writing. Big changes make really big differences. It is shocking that the bulk of an essay in Poetry is spent re-making such palpable points.


At least, initially. When we get clear on some key details, this fact turns out to be not so surprising at all.

Here are the key details:

Longenbach really is concerned with poetic structure–that is, he is concerned with the pattern of a poem’s turning, a poem’s rhetorical and/or dramatic trajectory. At different points throughout the essay, Longenbach notes how what he is pointing to are turns. For example, reflecting on the two versions of “Western Wind”–noting about his alternative version that “while the form of the poem is unchanged (alternating tetrameter and trimeter lines, rhymed xaxa), its structure has been radically altered”–Longenbach states, “Here [that is, in his alternative version], we turn from an experience of longing to the weather, an external drama that confirms the emotional turmoil. Something happens in this shift from interiority to exteriority [that is, in both versions], for we feel in both arenas the power of absence, the desire for change, but something more momentous happens in the original structure, in which our expectations are not confirmed but shattered.”

Longenbach isn’t the only critic interested in turns. Of course, I am. But so are the editors are Poetry. (Here is some proof.) So are, frankly, just about all critics and editors. However, most critics and editors do a lackluster–and certainly, overall, an unsystematic–job of acknowledging how much they admire well-executed turns. Longenbach’s essay is guilty of this, as well–it is enthralled by strong turns, but it doesn’t articulate this well.

More specifically, Longenbach is concerned with a particular kind of turn: one that ends up leading to what I have called “fitting surprise.” (This kind of turn is, indeed, special; many critics and commentators have been intrigued by fitting surprise–check out a constantly growing collection of quotations on the topic here.) In “Lyric Knowledge,” Longenbach’s interest in fitting surprise emerges most clearly when he discusses the first section of Wallace Stevens’s “The Auroras of Autumn.” Longenbach notes that in this section, the poem moves from a great deal of paratactic syntax to, in its third-to-last and penultimate sentences, to some key uses of hypotactic syntax–as Longenbach notes, “‘This is his poison: that we should disbelieve / Even that.’ This is the first sentence that thrusts our thinking forward by suggesting that one thing follows from another not merely by chance, association, or accretion but by necessity (‘His poison is that we should disbelieve even in happiness’).” Just as with “Western Wind,” the effect of rearranging the poem serves mainly to highlight how well-constructed the original version is:

It is not surprising that, without altering a single word, this lyric reads as elegantly backward as it reads forward, the form unchanged (iambic pentameter lines arranged in tercets) but the structure radically different: ‘The moving grass, the Indian in his glade, / Black beaded on the rock, the flecked animal / Made us no less sure.’ But deft as this arrangement may be, its structure sacrifices the crucially delayed turn from parataxis to hypotaxis, a turn that makes the figure of the Indian, when it finally appears at the end of the poem, feel simultaneously unprecedented and inevitable. The poem is a dramatization of the thinking mind in the process of discovering that thought itself is the mind’s most indomitable foe. ‘Here are too many mirrors for misery,’ says the final lyric in the sequence, and the work of ‘The Auroras of Autumn’ is to make this simple remark feel authentic, to allow us to exist in the temporal process of discovering it again.

“[U]nprecedented and inevitable.” There is in fact some precedent for Longenbach prizing such poetic effect. In “Composed Wonder,” the final chapter of The Resistance to Poetry he recognizes the power of this effect in Anthony Hecht’s “‘It Out-Herods Herod. Pray You, Avoid It.” Longenbach writes,

And though by the end of the poem we have become quite used to the aural pleasure of these rhymes, something astonishing happens in the final quatrain: the content of its last line…is potentially overpowering.  Nothing in the preceding eight stanzas prepares us for it, and even if the Holocaust seems in retrospect to be everywhere in “‘It Out-Herods Herod. Pray You, Avoid It,'” the poem’s final lines continue to surprise.  When we hear the first half of the final stanza…we are fully prepared for the aural experience of the stanza clicking into place with a rhyme on “childermas.”  We don’t necessarily expect the poem to jump to a new register…, but the expected rhyme makes the leap seem horribly inevitable. (99-100)

And, as I note in my critique of The Resistance to Poetry, “This standard is hinted at elsewhere in the book,” and that elsewhere is particularly interesting: “Longenbach employs the language of structured surprise to express his admiration for one of the oldest poems in the English language, ‘Western Wind.’ About that poem…Longenbach states, ‘The expostulation—Christ!—marks the place where the poem breaks open, releasing an emotion that is both unpredictable and, at least in retrospect, logical.'”


And so, Longenbach has created another work–this time, an essay–that suggests the deep importance of great, unique turns. Indeed, he even goes back to cover in greater detail a poem, “Western Wind,” that he thinks has fitting surprise, and then, essentially, closes “Lyric Knowledge” with another poem–or section of a poem, the first section of “The Auroras of Autumn”–that he thinks also has fitting surprise. It’s clear that Longenbach admires these kinds of turns. But if he does, why doesn’t he do more with them? Why isn’t he more explicit and articulate about this feature of great poems?

In my critique of The Resistance to Poetry I argue that Longenbach does what he does because he understands that if he were to really prize fitting surprise he would have to do away with other ideas about poetry that he values. I note, for example, how valorizing the poetry of fitting surprise would put to the test other valorizations of poetry Longenbach was trying to promote:

[Fitting surprise] can be used to draw party lines in new ways. Putting all weight and pressure on the poem, it doesn’t make judgments according to poets or schools. Wet disjunction [the kind of disjunction used by a poet such as T. S. Eliot, which Longenbach valorizes] might create structured surprise, but so might dry [the kind of disjunction used by a poet such as Ezra Pound, which Longenbach does not valorize]. Ashbery might have twenty poems that do this, but so might a lesser-known poet—and such a fact should encourage us to get to know those works of that lesser-known poet. In fact, what Longenbach says of Bishop’s expectation that art lead to “perfectly useless concentration,” that it “makes the hard work of art seem simultaneously rare and available to everyone,” can also be said of structured surprise.

It is more difficult to tell what Longenbach is doing with fitting surprise in “Lyric Knowledge.” At one level, Longenbach again generally uses fitting surprise just as many other critics before him have: sporadically, acknowledging its great power, but without an effort to try to spell out, let alone act upon, how valuing fitting surprise might really and interestingly upset longstanding valuations of and distinctions in poetry. At a slightly different level, this odd essay–in which he seems mystified by the fairly obvious fact that (unlike, say, a “paragraph from a blog or a parking ticket”) some poems, reread and reread, keep enchanting us–powered in part by fitting surprise affords Longenbach opportunities to subtly reinscribe some of his old favorite distinctions (parataxis successfully transmuted into hypotaxis corresponds to his valorization of wet disjunction over dry).

At another level, though, Longenbach’s sporadic use of fitting surprise allows him to sidestep a key issue: what makes poems powerful and memorable? Longenbach has set up a kind of either-or, combined with a straw man: either some text (such as a parking ticket) is weak and unmemorable or else it strong and memorable due to fitting surprise. But, of course, there’s a huge amount of middle space Longenbach does not investigate. What about a cheesy favorite song one loves to hear again and again for nostalgic reasons, for the associations the song conjures rather than, say, the structure of the lyrics? What about a note announcing a break-up? Language has power and is memorable–and yet is returned to again and again–for a host of reasons, not necessarily because a text in some way delivers fitting surprise. Longenbach takes a shortcut with his essay, avoiding discussing these other kinds of texts.

But here’s the thing: whenever fitting surprise–be it in the form of a poem or a short story or a joke or a play–is delivered, you do indeed know you’re in the realm of powerful, moving–and it is tempting here to say specifically literary–language(NB: even as I write this, I realize how much more deeply I still have to think about this…) Longenbach uses a shortcut, but it is, to some extent, legitimate: after all, Longenbach is trying to demonstrate the importance of structure in great lyric poetry, and he clearly believes (and I certainly agree) that fitting surprise is a vital part of great lyric poetry. I hope Longenbach might start saying so more clearly and systematically.

From Tania Runyan’s How to Write a Poem

13 05 2016

A switch can be a sensory detail that socks a reader. It can be a sound that echoes long after the reader has put the book down. Or it can be a “turn” in structure that sparks an insight no reader could have predicted. In his essay “Poetic Structure and Poetic Form: A Necessary Differentiation,” Michael Theune defines the turn as “a significant shift in the poem’s rhetorical progress.” In other words, the poem’s line of thought shifts into new territory. Theune goes on to discuss how a poem’s structure can facilitate these turns. And “structure” should not be seen as a scary word, for it “is more than logic; it organizes and encourages a poem’s leaps and landings, it arrives at places at once prepared-for yet seemingly unexpected.”

Preparing for the unexpected. You, poet, should be surprised by your own work. And you can work toward those surprises.

–Tania Runyan, How to Write a Poem: Based on the Billy Collins Poem “Introduction to Poetry”

What a treat, to find thinking about the turn making its way more generally into the teaching of poetry–terrific!

Fitting, that it occur in a book inspired by Collins’s “Introduction to Poetry,” a poem, like so many of Collins’s poems, focused on skillful turning. Fitting, too, that it is featured in a book by Tania Runyan, a poet who regularly deploys vital turns in her own work–check out the significant and complex turning in her poem “The Bee Box.”