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.





On Tony Hoagland’s “Poetic Housing”

17 05 2016
DSC_2365

“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.





The Hidden Turn in X. J. Kennedy’s Introduction to Poetry

20 01 2016

As I argue here, there is a necessary difference between poetic form and poetic structure.

Though I did not make this case in the linked-to essay, it also is the case that discussions of form often hide discussions of structure (by “structure,” I mean specifically the pattern of a poem’s turning). Something like this happens in Helen Vendler’s Poems, Poets, Poetry: An Introduction and Anthology, and I write about this here.

This also happens in X. J. Kennedy’s An Introduction to Poetry (1966). The first two paragraphs of chapter 10, “Form,” state:

Form, as a general idea, denotes the shape or design of a thing as a whole, the configuration of its parts. Among its connotations is that of order made from chaos: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void…”

Like irony, the word form has been favored in literary criticism with several meanings. This chapter will deal with five of these: (1) form as pattern of sound and rhythm, (2) form as a shape that meets the eye, (3) flexible form or free verse, (4) form in the sense of a genre, or particular kind of poem, and (5) form as the structure of a poem–the ways in which its materials are organized. (164)

Though one of the five kinds of form, the fifth, “the structure of a poem,” clearly stands apart. Kennedy notes, “Within a poem, this organization of materials other than stresses, sounds, and visual shapes is the kind of form called structure” (191). And, when one examines the discussion of structure, it quickly becomes clear that this section very much is about structure as the pattern turns in a poem. After acknowledging that all poems have their own unique structure, and that, therefore, “brief descriptions of the structures of poems can be no more than rough sketches,” Kennedy notes, “but certain types of structure are encountered frequently” (191). Among the at least six brief descriptions he offers, five describe kinds of turns:

A poem, like many a piece of expository prose, may open with a general statement, which it then illustrates and amplifies by particulars, as does Mrs. Browning’s sonnet beginning “I tell you, hopeless grief is passionless” (p. 185) (191).

Or it might move from details to more general statement, as does Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (p. 321), presenting details of the urn’s pattern and arriving at the conclusion, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” (191).

A poem may set two elements in parallel structure:… [Here, Kennedy offers Alexander Pope’s “Epigram Engraved on the Collar of a Dog Which I Gave to His Royal Highness” as an example.] (191)

A poem may also set two elements in an antithesis, as the two halves of Robert Frost’s short poem quoted at the beginning of this book: “We dance round in a ring and suppose, / But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.” (Not all poems containing parallels or antitheses need be so brief; and some contain other things in addition to statements set side by side. (192)

If a poems tells a story, it may build to a crisis or turning point in the action, as might a novel or play. (192)

Noting that “[t]hese are just a few kinds of structure possible,” Kennedy then performs a close reading of Robert Herrick’s “Divination by a Daffodil” to identify and describe the many kinds of turns in the poem, “a poem containing–like most poems–more than one kind” (192):

This poem is arranged in two halves, bound together by a metaphor. In the first three lines, the speaker sees a drooping daffodil; in the last three, he foresees his own eventual drooping in like manner. There is another relationship, too: the second half of the poem explains the first half, it specifies “what I must be.” Furthermore, the last three lines make a one-two-three listing of the stages of dying and being buried. There is also in these lines a progression of narrative: the events take place one after another. (192)

Asking “How do we look for structure?,” Kennedy suggests fourteen “methods of approach to a poem” to help one find a poem’s structure (192). While he notes that such work to newly approach a poem must also entail a return to and a more deeply informed rereading of the poem, Kennedy is clear about the kind of ingress structural awareness gives to understanding, stating that applying such knowledge to a poem “can be a means of entrance into the most difficult of poems, whether conventional in form or flexible, whether an epic or an epigram” (193).

Of course, I admire greatly Kennedy’s work with structure, and his sense that structure is something significantly different from form. However, of course I also wish that Kennedy would have gone further and released structure’s turning from the discussion of form. I wish Kennedy might have gone so far as to give structure its own chapter, as it received in John Ciardi’s How Does a Poem Mean? (which I discuss here). Such focus is, alas, extremely rare, but it shouldn’t be: it’s simply a matter of being clear about what the vital elements of poetry in fact are, about what we really do, in fact, value in poems. Great turning certainly is one of those values.





Surprise/Moves

29 06 2014

moving

I’ve recently been deeply engaged by Jack Collom‘s Moving Windows: Evaluating the Poetry Children Write.  The book is intriguing for a number of reasons.  Perhaps chief among them is the fact that Moving Windows actually broaches and attempts to handle one of the trickiest–and therefore least discussed–topics in regard to poetry: evaluation.  Also of particular interest, especially for readers of this blog, is the central role that structure and surprise play in Collom’s method of evaluation.

Surprise is key for Collom.  Not only is it one of the many ways of valuing children’s poetry, it is perhaps the most important way.  It certainly is a term that keeps coming up in Collom’s writing.  On the first page of the book’s preface, Collom notes that “[t]he verbal juxtapositions” of children’s poetry are often “full of surprises.”  Such surprise also is at the heart of grown-up poetry: “However significant the elaborate adult skills are in poetry–and this is not to deny that significance–the spirit, the vivifying spark, remains surprise, which is proof of the accuracy of the moment, of originality.”

Surprise also is personally significant for Collom.  In the book’s closing paragraphs, Collom notes how he came to poetry relatively late–he wrote his first poem at the age of twenty-three–but he also notes that what kept him interested in poetry was surprise.  Collom states, “What made me try [writing poetry] a second and third time was the sense of discovery.  I found I wasn’t writing just what I knew…but that the movement through the poem brought variations and surprises.  I felt that there was no end to it.”

In the section devoted specifically to surprise as a criterion for successful poetry, Collom again registers the primacy of its stature, stating, “Of course, surprise is the fruit of everything the poem has: tone, soundplay, and rhythm as well as ladders and twists of meaning.”  Collom notes that surprise forms “a spectrum of emotions,” and that, depending on context, the areas of this spectrum reveal themselves as “humor or poetry–or both–or just plain shock.”  (By “poetry” Collom means “the condensation, emphasis on measure and sound correspondences, and lack of linear thought [that] move the sources of incongruity more clearly into the physical aspects of language.”)  Collom describes the poems in his section on surprise in this way:

Some of the poems in this chapter lead up to one big surprise at the end.  Some even have a double surprise as a climax.  In others the continuing quality of the language, when word-to-word choices are being made rather than formulae followed, may contain surprise as a recurrent, or at least occasional, characteristic.  These syntactical surprises draw attention to points that may be parts of the poet’s intention…or may open up serendipitous side-issues, many of which turn out to connect meaningfully within to poems.

Noting the similarities among the evaluative criterion of surprise and other criteria, Collom further describes the poems included under “Surprise” in this way:

Surprise is definitely a manifestation of energy.  And surprise is candid.  What separates these poems from those in the previous two chapters is, again, emphasis rather than some fundamental difference.  When the essence of the poem seems to me to lie in the way one or more phrases are “set up” to stand out, like secular epiphanies, I’ve classed it here: jack-in-the-box words and tone changes.

Collom concludes his “Surprise” section with this summation:

Many of the poems in this chapter involve the reader in a sudden alteration of perspective.  These rapid changes may be between reality and appearance, large and small, love and its lack, fact and quality, talking and crying out, sound and sight, sense and nonsense, rhythm and image, inside and out, and so forth.  Involved readers get a sudden shock, and also a perspective on perspectives; they can derive from these poems and their energetic transitions a sense of the utter richness of the myriads of possible viewpoints available and, as a corollary, the limits of any one.  Writers of course learn likewise as they make the poems.

While, as shown above, surprise is related to a number of Collom’s evaluative criteria, the criterion with which it is more closely associated is that of “Poetic ‘Moves.'”  Surprise seems to be part and parcel of poetic moves:

The plural noun ‘moves’…is used by many contemporary poets to designate a supple use of language in poems.  It is more a matter of sophistication than…natural candor…, there is a sense of the deliberate play of ideas and of the flavors and impacts of words, the dance of language, the image and idea counterpoint of sheer rhythm.  I’m not referring here to the extremes of surrealistic play but to a writing situation wherein some kind of logical thread is evident but is not pushed to an all-consuming conclusion; rather the perceptions of the poet dance around it, play with meaning, create slants and surprises.

Additionally, in an effort to raise the notion of the poem above that of a device for merely conveying ideas or meanings, Collom suggests that a poem is more properly a place for the play of ideas, and turns and surprise are vital parts of such play:

So in this century the play of ideas has assumed a greater importance vis-a-vis ideas themselves, though a strong case could be made that, as far as the essentials go, “it was ever thus” in poetry; that is, that the key poetic qualities in, say, Shakespeare, the “lights” that bring his writings above others, and have made them for so long a time delightful, are the humors, the almost indefinable touches and turns, the inevitable surprises, of his instant-to-instant language…, and not his ideas, which are all derivative, at the service of his art rather than presented as any kind of gospel.

Collom also signals this close association by feeling the need to differentiate between the two criteria; Collom states, “The distinction I feel between ‘moves’ and surprise is simply that with the former the emphasis is not so much on a particular verbal leap, the breathless shock of that, as it is on just what has been moved from and what to, and how these combine to set up ongoing implications.”

Specifically, Collom defines poetic moves as the criterion that covers what he calls a poem’s ability to convey or embody “psychic geometry,” which he defines as “the way ideas rise for us, when reading a poem, and form a succession of shapes that interrelate.”

Collom wants these successions to shapes to offer surprise, and this is what leads me to think that Moving Windows is largely concerned with structure–and so, of course, the poetic turn–and surprise.  Consider a small selection of the poems included in the book:

A boy is
Lying to me.
Oh, I
Need the
Excitement.

*

My sisters sometimes
bother me.  So what? I
bother them back.

*

This is just to say
I have eaten the ice cream
in the freezer which you were probably
saving for your boyfriend.
Forgive me,
it was so cold and I was so angry.

*

My hands are
up in the air but
I don’t care.

*

Ugly singing birds
stand behind my uncomfortable bed.
Too much bother.

*

Some people are sad
And others are
Dead.

Each of the above poems comes from a chapter in Moving Windows other than “surprise” and “poetic ‘moves.'”  However, it’s clear that each of them contains a turn and a surprise.  While not all of the poems included in Moving Windows behave like these poems, many of them do–so many, in fact, that it seems to be a large-scale trend among the included poems, and this trend, I feel, invites me to make a few observations and ask a few questions.

Collom tends to teach content-driven poems, such as “thing” poems, and formal poetry, such as acrostics and lunes.  (The majority of the poems included above are such formal poems.)  However, his assessments tend to have very little to do with the accomplishment of the form.  Rather, they have to do with the creation of a turn and a corresponding surprise.  It seems, then, that Collom himself is making a structure-form distinction and quite clearly values structure over form.  If this is the case, it leads me to wonder if there might not be some better exercises to use to teach young students the power of the surprising turn.  What about, for example, teaching the two-line poem?  Might such a collaborative exercise be appropriate for young students?  Are there other exercises that would be appropriate to young students that could make more explicit the vital value of the surprising turn?

How explicit should a teacher be about the criterion of surprise?  For example, Collom notes that for the lune form–“a simplification of formal haiku,” consisting of “three/five/three [words/line], any subject, any mood”–“[s]urprise in the short, third line (especially) is a common vivifier…”  But does Collom discuss this with his students?  Should one?  I would argue that this is a good idea, and I believe Collom would agree.  Collom notes that, generally, “the simple exhortation ‘be original’ can slam things open.”  I would assume this could be the case for surprise.  It only takes a little encouragement to help students seek surprise, especially over what is all-too-often the alternative to that option: merely clinching meaning.

Giving some focus to surprise might also be the element that could keep the more advanced students interested in poetry.  Consider the following poem–a vastly successful poem, but a poem that uses structure to create a critique of the acrostic assignment:

Teachers give us
Easy work.
Ai!  They waste their time.
Cat
Hat
Eat
Rat.

Jack Collom’s Moving Windows is a excellent book, brave, original, passionate, and pragmatic.  Published over 30 years ago, it also should be considered a starting point.  I hope some of my brief reflections on Collom’s work helps to signal a way forward for the education of young writers, a way forward that honors what is both explicit and implicit in Moving Windows.





Christina Pugh’s “On Sonnet Thought”

11 07 2011

I’ve recently read an incredibly interesting essay by Christina Pugh.  The essay, “On Sonnet Thought” (Literary Imagination (12.3 (Nov. 2010): 356-64), presents a number of fascinating ideas about the sonnet, including how what Pugh calls “sonnet thought” can be differentiated from the formal properties of the sonnet, and the central role the volta, or turn, plays in formulating sonnet thought, in making possible sonnet energy, and combustion.

While writing “a book of poems loosely inspired by sonnets,” Pugh “came to identify something [she] called ‘sonnet-thought’ or, alternately, the sonnet ‘mind-set.’”  Pugh means by sonnet-thought “the necessarily economical formal harnessing of expansive, complex (or hypotactic) syntax-as-thought, thus incorporating a capacious amount of often recursive mileage, contrast, and change within the small poetic space of fourteen lines.”

Sonnet thought, Pugh makes clear, is different from sonnet form; Pugh states, “I discovered that ‘sonnet thought,’ or sonnet energy, may be separated from the metrical norms and rhyme schemes that have constituted the traditional sonnet in its various formal mantles….It is the manner of thinking that the sonnet form has enabled or inaugurated, even if the more tactile scaffolding of that form has fallen away.”  And, in fact, the point of “On Sonnet Thought” is “to show how sonnet energy, or combustion, may be harnessed from the traditional formal sonnet and reignited through the modality of economical free verse that utilizes certain aspects of sonnet manner.”

So, if not formal, what is the nature of sonnet thought?

For Pugh it is two things: “the formal sonnet’s predilection for wide-ranging conceptualization—as well as incorporating, and sometimes pluralizing, the sonnet’s traditional volta, or turn.”  Regarding the sonnet’s “predilection for wide-ranging conceptualization,” Pugh states, “In a manner rivaled only by the epigram, the sonnet requires us to think big.  It asks that we expand, even as it contracts the stage on which that expansion must occur.”  She adds, “As a result of this contraction, we can experience both transport and devastation.  Indeed, as a free-verse poet who derives incalculable inspiration from formal poetry, I have long been interested in the sonnet as a peculiarly discrete verbal ordeal…”

However, though the sonnet’s “predilection for wide-ranging conceptualization” is listed first in the list of what constitutes sonnet thought, the volta is the part that gets the most focused attention.  Implicit and explicit reference to the volta occurs numerous times throughout the essay, as when, in the course of her reading of Milton’s “When I consider how my light is spent,” Pugh makes note of the poem’s “swift yet incremental movement from despair to implicit assuagement,” the “emotional transformation” taking place.

And, ultimately, it is the volta that represents sonnet thought, even as the sonnet form keeps changing.  Inquiring into “the nature of the sometimes-elusive volta within the sonnet form in general,” Pugh states:

“What is the precise degree or cant of the turn, and how does it reconfigure the sonnet’s microscopic unfolding?  Whether it occurs before the closing couplet in the Shakespearean sonnet, before the sestet in the Petrarchan scheme, or elsewhere in a sonnet, the volta’s often breathtakingly indefinable pivot remains a vital component of the governing structure.  The volta even thrives on its own variousness.  As Paul Fussell shows, in sonnets by Santayana, Keats, and Wordsworth, the volta is characterized, respectively, as ‘a logical action’ [answering a question posed by the octave]; ‘a moment of sheer metaphoric power’; and, more indexically, ‘something like a literal turn of the body or the head.’  This capacity for rhetorical shape-shifting—perhaps its only indissoluable ‘property’—makes the volta a metonym for the surprising elasticity of sonnet form over the centuries.  One need only name the often eponymous variations across literary history: Petrarch, Shakespearean, Miltonic, Spenserian, or the curtal sonnetry of Hopkins.  Though all of these forms have particular relationships to the modality of ‘sonnet thought,’ such plurality of ‘sonnet-ness’ suggests that the resiliency of the template transcends the strictures of any single rhyme scheme or prescribed placement of volta.”

“On Sonnet Thought” is necessary reading for anyone interested in the turn.  In fact, in many ways, its ideas jibe with the ideas advanced in Structure & Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns and on this blog. 

For example, the idea that there is a structure-form distinction, that poetic structure, the pattern of a poem’s turning, can and should be differentiated from poetic form.

And the idea that turns are incredibly important parts of poems, not only contributing or crafting but truly offering the thought, the energy, the combustion of poems.

Finally, I would even add that some of the issues Pugh raises in her notes, side-comments, and clarifications also are taken up on this blog.  For example, Pugh seems concerned to make clear that volte are often stranger and less predictable than they often are thought to be—when discussing the location of the volta in a sonnet, Pugh (as quoted above) is careful to note that the volta can occur “before the closing couplet in the Shakespearean sonnet, before the sestet in the Petrarchan scheme, or elsewhere in a sonnet…” (emphasis mine).  Additionally, in her third footnote, Pugh takes pains to make clear that there can be more than one volta in a sonnet; she states,

“Plural volte are part of the tradition: see, for example, John Donne’s use of elements from both the Petrarchan and Shakespearean templates for his Holy Sonnets, with multiple volte.  As Donne demonstrates, the sonnet is remarkably suited to reversals and reconfigurations—including changes of mind, distractions, detours, and palinodes.”

The potentially strange, surprising placement of the volta (or volte) in sonnets was a topic I took up here.

It is a pleasure to corroborate / be corroborated by the serious, detailed, new thinking of a poet and critic as good as Christina Pugh.  Do check out her work, and keep an eye out for her free verse, high-voltage sonnets.





Merwin’s Turn

13 06 2011

A recent issue of The New Yorker contains a new poem by W. S. Merwin, called “Turning.”

The publication of “Turning” draws attention (as we will see, once again) to the fact that the turn is vital to this major poet.

Much has been made of the fact that Merwin has a very specific poetic vocabulary.  In “The Present Voices: W. S. Merwin since 1970” (in W. S. Merwin: Essays on the Poetry, edited by Cary Nelson and Ed Folsom), Thomas B. Byers notes that Merwin deploys a particular set of “disembodied icons,” including “doors, birds, glass, clouds, eyes, hair, ash, dust, statues, wings, water, stone, feet, bells, fire, veins” (251).  And, in their introduction, Folsom and Nelson note that “[Helen] Vendler identified a ‘Merwin dictionary’ of word-talismans” (14).  Most of the lists drawn up of Merwin’s word-talismans are lists of nouns, of things.  However, were one to include in these lists verbs (or words that are most often used by Merwin as verbs) deployed by Merwin, “turn” would definitely make the cut. 

“Turn” and derivations of the word (“turns,” “turned,” “turning”—not to mention all the versions of the word “return”) are conspicuously present in Merwin’s poetry.  Dozens of Merwin’s poems employ the word, or derivations of the word, “turn.”  Many of Merwin’s poems employ “turn” or its derivations multiple times; an incomplete list of these poems includes: “Song” (The First Four Books of Poems 62-3), “On the Subject of Poetry” (First Four 109), “Canso” (First Four 131-35), “River Sound Remembered” (First Four 190), “Fog” (First Four 212-13), “The Frozen Sea” (First Four 227), “Sailor Ashore” (First Four 228), “Blind Girl” (First Four 257-8), “Cuckoo Myth” (The Second Four Books of Poems 200-201), “A Door” (Second Four 245-7), “Fox Sleep” (The Vixen 3-6), “Gate” (The Vixen 7), “End of a Day” (The Vixen 25), “The Shortest Night” (The Vixen 57), “The Marfa Lights” (The Pupil 11-13), “Migrants by Night (The Pupil 14-15), “To the Morning (1)” (Present Company 71), “To a Friend Turning Fifty” (Present Company 118-19), “To Paula” (Present Company 131), and “Near Field” (The Shadow of Sirius 83).  Additionally, the second section in Finding the Islands, named for one of the poems in the section, is called “Turning to You,” and Travels contains another poem called “Turning” (135).

Turning has multiple meanings for Merwin.  Turning very often is an important part of the subject of Merwin’s poems.  For the Buddhist Merwin, turning—the turning of the world from day into night into day again, the turning seasons, transformation / turning into, returning / turning back, and the way in which turning away invariably turns into turning toward—is an essential part of the transient, ever-changing world.  

Turning in Merwin’s poetry also often means formal turning.  Merwin’s poems, like almost all poems, turn at the end of their lines to the beginning of the next line—it is precisely this movement that allows poetry to be called “verse.”  (The formal turn is perhaps more palpable in Merwin’s poems than in the work of most poets due to the unpunctuated run of his lines—the line break’s turn, thus, is clearer because punctuation creates no other competing breaks in the line.)

However, while Merwin’s formal accomplishments, including his mastery of formal turning, have been widely commented on, much less commented on has been the structural turning of Merwin’s poems: the turn in Merwin’s poem also often refers to the enactment of a major shift in a poem’s rhetorical and/or dramatic trajectory. 

Sometimes, Merwin even acknowledges this kind of turn by employing the word, or, again, derivatives of the word, “turn” as he makes this kind of structural maneuver.  Such self-reflexive turning occurs in poems such as “Proteus” (First Four 110-12), “Fog” (First Four 212-13), “Sailor Ashore” (First Four 228), “The Different Stars” (Second Four 136-37), “Ascent” (Second Four 188), “To the Hand” (Second Four 267-8), “The Flight” (Flower & Hand 66), “To the Dust of the Road” (Present Company 48), “To the Margin” (Present Company 75), and “To the Morning (2)” (Present Company 121).

It is time we follow Merwin’s lead, and recognize more consistently how invested in the structural turn he is.  Of course, some critics already have recognized this aspect of Merwin’s craft.  Helen Vendler and Marjorie Perloff, each recognize Merwin’s tendency to turn and skill with structural turning. 

In her review of The Shadow of Sirius, Vendler feels moved to see some of that book’s poems—“One of the Butterflies” and “Youth in Grass”—as sonnets even though, formally, the poems, of 13 and 15 lines, respectively, are not sonnets.  Vendler recognizes these poems as sonnets in part because they look like sonnets but also because they act like sonnets, because they have structural turns, which, in sonnets, are called voltas.  Of “One of the Butterflies,” Vendler notes, “I could print these thirteen lines as a quasi-sonnet…thereby suggesting it European lineage and its division into a problem (the timing of pleasure) and a conclusion (its elusiveness past and present)” (37).  And Vendler describes “Youth in Grass” as “a fifteen-line sonnet-like meditation…on the rapidity with which…a year turns from spring to autumn” (38).  Vendler states, “The most salient aspect of the Merwin mind in meditation is its tenacity to its perplexity.  Nothing can interrupt it once it has located its chosen difficulty—whether in perception, in thought, in human relations, or in memory” (38).  I think Vendler’s insight is accurate; I would only add that a major part of Merwin’s tenacity is the accomplishment of the turn.

In her own way, Marjorie Perloff makes a similar case.  In her 1987 essay “Apocalypse Then: Merwin and the Sorrows of Literary History,” Perloff critiques the notion that Merwin’s work might accurately be linked to or described with “phrases like ‘prophecy’ or ‘negative mysticism’ or ‘naked poetry’ or ‘the opening of the field’” (Essays 143).  Instead, Perloff makes the case that Merwin’s poetry “carried on the tradition of the well-made poem,” a kind of poem marked by “authorial control” (134).  While Perloff comments on Merwin’s formal control, she consistently roots Merwin’s authorial control in structural control, in the management of turns.  For example, Perloff initiates her examination of the “strong sense of closure” in Merwin’s “For the Anniversary of My Death” by discussing the structural motion of the poem, stating, “The first stanza (five lines) describes what happens “Every year”; the second (eight lines) refers to “Then” (when I will be dead)” (134).  Further on in her analysis, Perloff makes the case that “[t]he poem’s closure is reflected in its formal verse structure” (135).  Perloff concludes her analysis with the claim that “‘For the Anniversary of My Death’ is thus a very elegant, well-made poem; it has a finish that would be the envy of any number of poets…” (136). 

And the other two poems Perloff scrutinizes also have turns.  Perloff makes this clear in her discussion of “Beginning of the Plains,” about which she notes that the first line of that poem’s final stanza “marks the turn” (140).  And “Dusk in Winter,” the poem that Perloff suggests is exemplary of Merwin’s accomplished work, also contains a clear turn, one that pivots at the beginning of the fourth line, on the transition from day to night: “The sun sets in the cold without friends / Without reproaches after all it has done for us / It goes down believing in nothing / When it has gone I hear the stream running after it / It has brought its flute it is a long way” (qtd. in Essays 142).

What is it that Merwin is after with his deployment of structural turning?  Surprise.

Surprise is vital to Merwin.  In a 1947 letter to Ezra Pound, Merwin offers the reason he prefers Personae to The Cantos, claiming that there is more “sheer poetic magic” in Personae, and he defines poetic magic as “that element of perpetual and delicious surprise” (qtd. in Essays 358).  And surprise is a key element of Merwin’s poems.  In “Reading Merwin Semiotically,” Robert Scholes, who states that a semiotic reading, in part, views the poem as “achieving poetic status by violating certain kinds of expectation” (Essays 65), reads three earlier poems by Merwin and shows the way in which they all deliver (often multiple) surprises.  In a discussion of some of Merwin’s earlier poems in his Understanding W. S. Merwin, H. L. Hix notes that these poems employ myth “as a set of expectations to subvert” (33).  In Merwin’s “To Dido,” what the poem is made out of–or what the poem is–is, in part, “a still place of perpetual surprise” (First Four 139).  Merwin’s “The Blind Seer of Ambon,” in which the blind seer is a figure for the poet, concludes: “everything takes me by surprise / it is all awake in the darkness” (Travels 4).

W. S. Merwin is one of the great poets of the turn, of structure and surprise.  I’m at work on developing these ideas in an essay, focusing on Merwin’s The Shadow of Sirius, which I’m co-authoring with Mark Halliday for a book on Merwin’s more-recent poetry, a book edited by Kevin Prufer and Jonathan Weinert, forthcoming from WordFarm Editions.  I hope you’ll check it out.