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.

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.

Billy Collins on “The Ride of Poetry”

6 11 2013


I recently read with great interest “The Ride of Poetry: Collins on Metaphor and Movement,” by Billy Collins (in Contemporary American Poetry: Behind the Scenes, edited by Ryan G. Van Cleave (New York: Pearson, 2003), pp. 66-69).  In this essay (a brief afterword to a selection of his poems), Collins discusses his desire for poems to present him an opportunity for “imaginative travel,” to transport him “into new territory.”

Though Collins does not specifically mention the turn in this essay, it’s clear that the turn is implied.  Turns simply are the ways that poems travel.  Collins states, “In teaching or reading poetry, a question I habitually ask my students or myself is how does the poem get from its alpha to its omega.”  And this sounds a great deal like Randall Jarrell, who states (in “Levels and Opposites: Structure in Poetry,” a lecture focused on issues related to the turn), “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.”

Additionally, Collins simply seems to be a fan of the turn.  He employs the turn again and again in his own work.  (Many poems by Collins appear on this blog’s pages devoted to specific kinds of turns, including “Duck/Rabbit” and “Marginalia.”)  And, as an anthologist, Collins tends to select works that feature prominent turns–I don’t think it’s coincidental that the subtitle to Collins’s influential Poetry 180 is “A Turning Back to Poetry.”

Collins’s “The Ride of Poetry” simply further confirms Collins’s interest in, and deep and abiding engagement with, the turn.  Here are some selections from this essay:

“Of the many pleasures that poetry offers, one of the keenest for me is the possibility of imaginative travel, a sudden slip down the rabbit hole.  No other form can spirit the reader away to a new conceptual zone so quickly, often in the mere handful of lines that a lyric poem takes to express itself.  Whenever I begin to read a new poem, I feel packed and ready to go, eager to be lifted into new territory….

“If we view poetry as an affordable–cheap, really–means of transportation, we can see the development of a poem as a series of phases in the journey, each of which has a distinct function.  The opening of the poem is the point of departure; the interior of the poem is the ground that will be simultaneously invented and covered through a series of navigational maneuvers; and the ending of the poem is the unforeseen destination–international arrivals, if you will….I am hardly alone in saying that the poem can act as an imaginative vehicle, a form of transportation to a place unknown.  But I expect my company would thin out if I admitted that I usually fail to experience the deeper, more widely celebrated rewards of poetry, such as spiritual nourishment and empathetic identification, unless the poem has provided me with some kind of ride….

“I do not mean to suggest that poetry is a verbal amusement park (or do I?) but I do hold up as a standard for assessing a poem its ability to carry me to a place that is dramatically different from the place I was when I began to read it.

“To view a poem as a trip means taking into account the methods that give a poem vehicular capability.  It means looking into the way a poet manages to become the poem’s first driver and thus first to know its secret destination.

“In teaching or reading poetry, a question I habitually ask my students or myself is how does the poem get from its alpha to its omega.  Obviously, the question does not apply to the many poems that exhaust themselves crawling in the general direction of beta….”

Q & A, Part 3

6 03 2009



This post is the third in a series of posts responding to questions posed to me about Structure & Surprise from a group of poets in an advanced poetry writing workshop at Hope College.  (For the previous 2 posts, see Q & A, parts 1 & 2, signposted with the same bright orange anchor that tops this post.)


Today’s question comes from Jon Dean.  Jon asks:


“Is it possible to mix structures?  What does that look like?”


Great questions, Jon!


You bet it’s possible to mix structures.  As Randall Jarrell says in his great lecture “Levels and Opposites: Structure in Poetry,” “There are many different sorts of structure in poetry, many possible ways of organizing a poem; and many of these combined in the organization of a single poem.”  I’d simply add that in the same way that formal innovation can be a big part of the fun of working with form, structural innovation can be a big part of the pleasure of working with structure.


So, what does this look like?


I want to discuss two things here: structural overlap, and mixed structures.


I think, Jon, you’re NOT asking about structural overlap in your question, but I want to touch on it briefly here.  By structural overlap, I’m referring to the simple fact that some structures, well, um, overlap.  For example, you’ll see that I’ve added a structure on this blog called “List-with-a-Twist.”  One of the things I mention about that structure is that it is one way to describe MANY poems, many of which might also be structurally described in other ways.  Take, for example, Yeats’s “The Circus Animals’ Desertion.”  This is categorized in Structure & Surprise as a retrospective-prospective poem, but, like many retrospective-prospective poems it also is a list-with-a-twist.  Here, structures certainly are mixing.


However, I think, Jon, you may have something different in mind when you ask about mixing structures: you’re wondering about grafting parts of different structures onto each other, yes?  This, also, is certainly possible.  Indeed, this is something I try to get at on p. 232 of the “Inspiration, Guides, Exercises” portion of Structure & Surprise, where I suggest: “Write a poem with a hybrid structure: a descriptive-meditative poem that employs an elegiac structure for its meditation; a dialectical poem that ends with an ironic punch line instead of a synthesis; an emblem poem with a long line of concessions attached.”


I think one can see some of this hybrid nature at work in some of the descriptive-meditative poems included in Structure & Surprise.  Take, for example, Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight.”  While generally a three-part descriptive-meditative poem, the poem’s meditation, it’s middle part, itself has two very distinct parts: one offering some details about Coleridge’s childhood, and one envisioning Coleridge’s son’s (hopefully) happy future.  This meditation, therefore, seems to participate in a kind of temporal and psychological structure we’ve come to call retrospective-prospective.  Thus, “Frost at Midnight” might be understood to be a descriptive-meditative poem that employs a retrospective-prospective structure for its meditation.


We shouldn’t be too surprised by this.  Meditations are not themselves static.  Rather, they move, wander, develop, coalesce, break, and in the descriptive-meditative poem they need to do enough of this to provide transport, to carry a reader convincingly from one perspective on the surrounding scene to another perspective on the same scene.


I’d also add, Jon, that there are certain big poems that employ many structures within them.  Take, for example, Whitman’s Song of Myself, in this long poem, many different kinds of structures are used in the poem’s various sections.  Look only at section 6 of that poem and you’ll find something like an emblem poem (much meditation on the meaning of that child’s handful of grass) and an elegy, including a confident consolatory statement that the dead (referenced in the section’s emblem movement) also live on somewhere…


(Note: if you get turned on by Whitman’s Song of Myself, you might want to look at a book called The Modern Poetic Sequence, by M.L. Rosenthal and Sally M. Gall—very smart, and insightful!)


As I mention in Structure & Surprise, structure loves surprise, often aims for it.  Thus, perhaps we should not be too surprised that structure itself not only leads to surprise but also can be shaped, grafted, molded, welded, and wielded in surprising ways.


Thanks again, Jon!


(A few more responses coming up in the next few days…)

Q & A, Part 2

2 03 2009


In this post, I’m continuing the process of answering a series of questions posed to me by members of an advanced poetry workshop at Hope College.  (For Part 1, see below, or in the February 2009 archives–look for the orange anchor.)

For this post, I want to think a bit on the following question posed by Karly Fogelsonger:

“In the Intro [to Structure & Surprise], Theune says, ‘structure’s primary goal is to lead to surprise.’  Could you talk a little bit about what ‘surprise’ means to you, and why it’s so important in a poem?”

Great question, Karly!  One of the things I like so much about this question is that it gets me to investigate my own assumptions–I just kind of figured that surprise is one of the things poems are after…it’s good to be pushed to try to give reasons to my assumptions.

What do I mean by surprise?  I mean by it, largely, what everyone means by it: that vital encounter with the unexpected.  We humans seem to love and crave this.  (Well, not Angela from The Office, who says (I think I’m quoting her correctly) that she doesn’t like surprises because she doesn’t like to be “titillated.”  Of course, Angela has always seemed to me a bit more Vulcan than human.)  And one big job of art is to feed that crave–art, not just poetry.  Surprises, reversals, revelations, punch lines, ironies–these simply are at the heart of so many of the arts.  Tragedy: Oedipus: “I slept with whom?!”  Comedy: you want an example of structure and surprise?–watch Curb Your Enthusiasm…in the best episodes, all the pieces of the plot are organized to lead to a wild, surprising orchestration of occurrences at show’s end.  The surprising twist is a key feature of many pop songs.  It’s also huge in detective fiction.  (I get my fix via Law and Order.)  And in the movies (especially–but not only–thrillers: The Prestige, The Sixth Sense, The Others, etc, etc.)

Though surprise is such a big part of so much art, I think it tends to get downplayed in poetry.  I don’t know why, but we often don’t talk a lot about surprise in poems, but, at least for me, the element of surprise is a huge part of the phenomena of reading and experiencing great poetry.  The poems I love take me to new, often unexpected places.

Now, let me be clear: this doesn’t mean that I expect something to “jump out at me” at the end of every poem.  In fact, a poem can surprise by reducing, by downshifting, its energy.  Very often, what’s important (among the many things important in poems) is that some kind(s) of shift, swerve, or twist (in short, a turn) occur(s).

And I’m not the only one to think so.  As I mention in the intro to Structure & Surprise, Randall Jarrell says that “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.”  And contemporary critic Hank Lazer (in “Lyricism of the Swerve: The Poetry of Rae Armantrout”) states, “The lyric, to sustain our interest, to have complexity and beauty, and to remain compelling, requires ‘torsion’–that is, motion, tension, torque, and a twist.”  (For more on the necessity and even primacy of the turn in lyric poetry, click here.  And if you want to read some more poems (besides so many of those in Structure & Surprise) that have some pretty thrilling turns, click here.)

Poems turn and surprise in a variety of ways, but there is a quality of turn that I admire very much: I love the quality of fitting surprise.  I love surprises that at once fit their occasions, that clearly evolve from the parts of the poem which preceded it, while also doing something unexpected.  Here, I agree with Barbara Herrnstein Smith, who, in Poetic Closure, states, “…effective closure will always involve the reader’s expectations regarding the termination of a sequence–even though it will never be simply a matter of fulfilling them.”  Such fitting and surprising turns are the essence of both wit and the sublime.

While, as I’ve tried to show above, I really do value surprise, I also value surprise as a part of poems for what it allows me to not say.  By saying I value surprise, I do not have to say, for example, that structure must lead specifically to an epiphany, or a logical conclusion, or a punch line, or a decision, etc.  Poems are various and lead to many things.  By saying that poems (often) should surprise, I get to remain open regarding the many kinds of developments, turns, and arrivals poems have.

That’s it for now…  Thanks, again, Karly, for your good question.  Stay tuned, all, for more surprises…


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