Turning Kids On to Poetry

27 07 2017

This morning, NPR’s Morning Edition aired a fun, lovely, engaging interview of Kwame Alexander (interviewed by Rachel Martin) called “Getting Kids Interested In Poetry.” It’s worth a listen for lots of reasons–the poems’ musicality and pure pleasure, chief among them. However, unmentioned, implicit, but in fact virtually ubiquitous and still ramifying, the turn also is present, and is a vital element in what gives the music its point and the pleasure much of its power. Give it a listen–enjoy the discussion, the poetry, and the turns–!

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

20 06 2017

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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.





Q & A, Part 1

25 02 2009

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On January 22, I gave a talk (“Voltage!: Engaging Turns in Poetry”) about the ideas behind Structure & Surprise at my undergraduate alma mater, Hope College, in Holland, Michigan.  The experience was a real treat for me for a variety of reasons (getting to see my former professors and long-time friends, getting to share my ideas, getting to continue to learn from the excellent conversations I had, etc).  One key reason, though, was that I got to visit a few classes at Hope (including Curtis Gruenler’s literary theory class, and Pablo Peschiera’s advanced poetry writing class) to meet and interact with some current Hope students.

What can I say?  I was mightily impressed.  All of the students I met were extremely perceptive and smart, deeply sincere, brightly funny, and truly engaged…

So engaged, in fact, that some from advanced poetry writing have sent me some further questions to consider.  I plan to supply responses to (or artfully dodge!) a number of these questions via blogpost over the next (approximately) two weeks.

The first question I want to address really is a cluster of questions, a cluster, if I read them correctly, growing out of one central concern: the place of poetic structure in the process of composition.  The questions in this cluster are:

–From Jon Dean: “How aware of structure do you think the poet should be while writing?  Should we set out thinking ‘This topic would work well in emblematic structure’ in the same way we set out saying ‘I will write this as a ghazal?'”

–From Karly Fogelsonger: “As a writer, do you think structure should come out of a poem (is it inherent in a poem from the poem’s genesis, and just needs to be identified and developed) or do you personally usually begin with an idea of structure, and model the form and content of a poem accordingly?”

–From Stephen Herrick: “The book [Structure & Surprise] is more of a critical work…so I wonder how its view of poetry affects the process of writing.”

Great, vital questions, all.  My intention here is to give a few straight answers to the above questions, but then I hope to complicate and develop those answers.

As I discuss a bit in the introduction to “Inspiration, Guides, Exercises” in S&S, the focused consideration of structure can enter into the poetic process at almost any stage, from inspiration and pre-writing, to drafting, to revision.

I tend to think of the close consideration of structure as a significant part of the revision process–that is, once you have a draft of a poem, you can, if you are aware of poetic turns and some of the pivotal maneuvers you can make with them in poems, examine your poem for many things: to see if it has structural interest (if there’s no turn in the poem, is this okay? is this intentional? does the poem need a turn? if so, where, and what kind?); to see if your poem, if it has any, is taking its turn(s) well (or if the turn is sloppy and might be improved).  (Here, in a little more detail, is how I think structure can aid with revisions.)  So, what I’m saying here, Karly, is that, in this view of poem-making, structure begins to emerge as the poem emerges–structure doesn’t have to be decided upon prior to the growth of the poem.

HOWEVER, I also am certain that structures can inspire and encourage poetry writing in just the way that, as Jon suggests, ghazals can.  Check out this page I recently put up on the blog, on writing collaborative, ironic, two-line poems.  In an hour or two of playful collaboration, you (and a friend or two) can probably make 20 really good ironic, two-line poems.  (That is, you’ll probably make about 40-80 poems; of which 25-50% of them will potentially be keepers.)  Here, poetic structure directly informs and feeds into the process of poem-making.

I think there remain to be discovered and shared many more such exercises/activities to promote the creation of poems-with-turns.  As this blog continues to grow, I anticipate posting many more.

Here’s one I’ll develop a bit more and post soon:

1) 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…

Well, try this first, they I’ll tell you the turn in, say, two days…!

Jon (and Karly…aw, heck, and Stephen!), you (all, essentially) ask if a poet should set out thinking s/he is going to write in a poem employing a particular structure.  As the above indicates, I think that’s a very fair way to begin crafting a poem.  However, I would of course add that at some point you cease drafting, examine what you have, and start revising, and just as your draft of your ghazal may in fact be the seed of a great villanelle, your draft of an ironic structure poem may turn out to be a dialectical argument poem…  Just as one should not force that poem to be a ghazal if it’s greatness resides in another form, so one should not force a poem to take a kind of turn if its greatness lies elsewhere.

I’d also add that just as some forms are tough (even downright scary) to write (and so it would probably be a mistake to try to start a poem using them) and others (such as the ghazal) are more productive and inviting, so, too, with structures: some, at least (right now) to me, seem tough (I’m looking at you, Emblem!) to write, but others (like some versions of the ironic) seem easier, more approachable.

And I’d add, lastly, that I hope that S&S and this blog will assist and encourage the development of creative pedagogy which might serve, more and more, to reveal how cool, funny, smart, revelatory, &c, &c poems can get written using the turn as a major building block of the poem.  We’re just at the start of this important conversation.