The Rilkean Volta

12 10 2015


“Black Cat,” by Rainer Maria Rilke

In his terrific Poetry’s Touch: On Lyric Address, William Waters suggests there is a kind of “Rilkean ‘volta'” (94). It is the kind of volta one finds in “Black Cat.” He states,

Later in the poem, when the form you returns suddenly, we may mentally narrow the range of you to a single addressee, as the Rilkean “volta” isolates a punctual single event…That is, this poem, like so many of the New Poems, turns from an imperfective aspect–the first twelve lines describe not an event but generally valid conditions–to a perfective one; and a singular event–“she turns her face straight into your own”–implies a specific you unlike that of the opening stanza. (94)

What these poems [“Black Cat,” “Snake-Charming,” and “Archaic Torso of Apollo”] finally depict is not “someone’s” encounter but encounter itself: Rilke’s fascination is not with autobiographical events but with the possibilities of mind and world. The you-form, able to address each comer, permits this level of inclusiveness while yet retaining the insistence on the solitary, particular, one-time nature of meeting. The architecture of Rilke’s verse draws the reader in, eliciting the absorbed encounter that the poem describes and that its second-person grammar replicatingly calls forth. (98)

I love this idea: that some poets have a kind of turn all their own, or that seems primarily theirs. Can other poets be said to lay claim to a specific kind of turn? Shakespeare, of course, famously moved the location of the sonnet’s turn, but are their other poets we could argue have a kind of turn all, or primarily, their own?


Turning the Bad Poem into the Great

16 01 2014


Over at The French Exit, Eliza Gabbert critiques Danielle Cadena Deulen’s “The Needle, the Thread,” a poem included in the most recent issue of Crazyhorse.  Gabbert’s critique is multifaceted–from noting grammatical problems to registering that the poem “oozes sentimentality”–however, the heart of Gabbert’s critique, it seems to me, is the poem’s lack of a turn.  Gabbert notes that the poem contains a “pretty flat register of emotion: awe all the way through.”  And, as a result, “there’s no real tension.”  What Gabbert would prefer is more drama; she states, “Give me a big Rilkean ending any day. But in a Rilke poem, you get 13 staid lines about a bust of Apollo before the flushed demand of the ending. There’s a sense of subtlety, a sense of balance.”  Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” of course, is famous for presenting a particularly stunning act of turning, of, in the words of M. L. Rosenthal, poetic “torque.”

In her contribution to the “Endless Structures” section of Structure & Surprise, Rachel Zucker discusses “Archaic Torso of Apollo” as a kind of turn that she calls “the Epiphanic structure.”  About poems using this kind of structure, this pattern of turns, Zucker states, “The pleasure in this kind of poem lies in the surprise (an ambush really) of the turn and the following resolution.  The sudden utterance at the end of the poem, sounding very much like a non sequitur, collides with description like a driver running a red light.  Whiplash, double-take, brief confusion ensues, but in this case, almost as soon as confusion registers, the rhetoric of the last line aggressively co-opts the description and defines the entire scene.  What seemed at first a rogue bit of language is suddenly manifested as the essence of the poem.  Dissonance gives way (rather quickly) to a feeling of rightness, of inevitability.”

Sure, some interesting poems don’t turn much at all–consider Ron Padgett’s “Nothing in That Drawer” or Peter Gizzi’s “Protest Song.”  And, of course, it’s a tall order for any poem to approach the strange majesty, the authority, of Rilke’s poem.  And there certainly are ways to value “The Needle, the Thread” outside of its relationship with the turn.  However, it also generally is the case that most successful poems work the way that Randall Jarrell says they do–Jarrell states, “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.”  That is to say, they, as Gabbert notes in the comments section of her post, “surprise.”


Danielle Cadena Deulen’s “Corrida de Toros, it seems to me, is a Jarrellian “successful poem”–check it out here.