Alden’s Structure-Form Distinction

11 07 2017

I’ve recently engaged in a project to more systematically investigate whether or not the poetic turn–and, along with it, the structure-form distinction–makes appearances in introductions to poetry and handbooks for poem-making, especially books supposedly focused on poetic forms. I’ve been making what I think are some fascinating discoveries. Chief among them is that the structure-form distinction indeed does exist in a number of the kinds of books I’m exploring. Whether or not there are patterns to these occurrences remains to be seen. For now, it is important to note them, to gather the dots before (possibly) connecting them.

My most recent search has turned up a book that very clearly employs the structure-form distinction: Raymond Macdonald Alden‘s An Introduction to Poetry: For Students of English Literature (Henry Holt and Company, 1909). The book’s table of contents largely reveals that the distinction will be in play. It indicates that the book largely is a book about poetic forms. Of its six chapters, four focus on what are traditionally conceived of as formal issues: “Chapter II: The Classes or Kinds [of poetry” (ix); “Chapter IV: The Basis of Poetry (External),” which focuses on rhythm (xii); “Chapter V: English Metres” (xiii); and “Chapter VI: Rime and Stanza Forms” (xiv). However, it also is clear that something else, another factor will be at play: Chapter III is called “The Basis of Poetry (Internal)” (xi).

This initial indication is borne out in the book. Consider the book’s discussion of lyric (55-73). As a part of this discussion, “Structure of the lyric” (57) is differentiated from “Form of the lyric” (58). Form, as expected, is concerned with lyric’s “musical” aspects (58). However, structure is something different: “Its [lyric’s] structure may be said to depend in part upon its relation to the outer and the inner worlds” (58). While some song-like poems reflect the outer world and other, more “reflective” lyrics convey primarily the inner, “More familiar is the lyric which takes its beginning at a point in the outer world, but passes to the invisible world of emotional reflection; of this type a great example is Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn, which takes its point of departure at the visible object, and passes to profoundly emotional reflection on the immortality of the spirit of beauty” (58). It seems here that Alden is acknowledging the presence and the importance of the turn.

This certainly seems to be the case when he discusses the sonnet in particular:

The sonnet…while a favorite form with many of our greatest poets, is rarely used for other than distinctly conscious and formal expression; at its best, too, it expresses a definite intellectual conception fused with a single emotion. Its two-part structure (in the case of the Italian form) makes it peculiarly fitted for that lyrical movement described on a previous page [58, as noted above], where the impulse takes its rise in the outer world and passes to a point in the inner. (70)

The discussion of the sonnet in Chapter VI (“Rime and Stanza Forms”) also includes a subsection on the sonnet’s “[b]ipartite character” (326): “In the stricter type of the sonnet there is a marked rhetorical pause at the end of the octave, the division representing a twofold expression of a single thought which forms the unifying basis of the form” (326). For Alden,

…those sonnets may well be regarded as the most successful whose form bodies forth the real character of their content. From this standpoint, the Italian type is especially well fitted for the expression of a thought presented first in narrative form, then in more abstract comment (as Arnold’s East London); or, in the form of a simile between two objects or situations (as Longfellow’s first sonnet on the Divina Commedia); or, from the standpoint of two different moods (as Rossetti’s Lovesight); or exemplified in two coordinate concrete expressions (as in Keats’s Grasshopper and Cricket). (327)

Alden then compares and contrasts the Italian and the English forms and structures: “The resulting effect is different in two respects: first, the rime arrangement is more obvious, and more popular in tone, being more readily followed by the ear; second, the structure is more directly progressive, the rime scheme being developed climactically and closing with epigrammatic, summarizing couplet” (328).

Oddly, when he summarizes the “[s]ources of sonnet effects,” Alden essentially drops the sonnet’s structure, stating, “The success and pleasurableness of the sonnet form seem to be dependent upon two elements: the complexity of the rhyme scheme (this applying only to the Italian type), and the fixed length of the whole poem” (330). Alden does, however, note when discussing the sonnet’s relatively brief length that “[i]t is precisely the contrast which it [the sonnet’s relatively small size] presents with the limitless liberty of romantic art, as exhibited in abundant variety of metrical, stanzaic, and rhetorical structure, which gives the restraint of the sonnet its chief charm” (330, my emphasis). Though this seems far too little: the inner structure, it had seemed, contributed greatly to the sonnet’s charm.

If somewhat regrettable, this situation is not unique: many of those who acknowledge the importance of poetic structure and the turn often struggle to articulate their significance. This is the case with Helen Vendler’s Poems, Poets, Poetry, as well as Robert Hass’s A Little Book on Form. Also, while Alden is very consistent, he is not perfectly consistent: the meanings of “structure” and “form” sometimes seem to merge. And, finally, and oddly, Alden does not ever refer to the turn or the volta. And yet, for all of this, Alden’s An Introduction to Poetry clearly and interestingly incorporates major aspects of the structure-form distinction.

In his book’s preface, Alden notes his book’s lack of focus on the structural interior and perhaps too-great focus on formal exterior, stating, “[I]t may be thought unfortunate that the chapters on metrical form should bulk more largely than those dealing with the inner elements of poetry; to which there is only the reply that matters of metrical form appear to be, not the most important, but those that present most difficulty to the student and require the most careful examination of details still under debate” (v). It is my belief that it is now time to bulk up our writing on structure and the turn.

Robert Hillyer’s Sonnet Thought

10 07 2017

A number of thinkers, including DanteChristina Pugh, and I (building off of the other two), have argued for the primacy of the sonnet as structure over the sonnet as form. (For more on the structure-form distinction, click here.) It turns out, poet-critic Robert Hillyer does, as well. Here’s Hillyer, 4 pages into his 25-page discussion of the sonnet (pp. 88-114) in In Pursuit of Poetry (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., Inc., 1960):

Before speaking of the sonnet in England, I should like to describe the thought-form of the sonnet, which is, in fact, more important than the rhyme-scheme, so important that both Spenser and Keats wrote sonnets in blank verse which are still recognizable as sonnets. All that follows is normal usage; many exceptions may be found, and in most of Milton’s sonnets and many of Wordsworth’s the divisions between the parts are not observed.

These divisions are one major and two minor, the major break being between the octave and the sestet. The two other breaks are usually observed, though sometimes no more than by a pause which a comma would indicate. The Italian sonnet divides thus: a b b a / a b b a // c d e / c d e (or c d c’ d c d). The Italian sonnet, too, often has a monumental and sounding last line which, by its very rhetoric, sets it off as a single unit. This last line is important in the Italian form, and I shall give examples of it shortly. In the English sonnet, the breaks occur naturally between the quatrains and before the couplet: a b a b / c d c d // e f e f / g g. Instead of the sounding last line of the Italian sonnet, the terminal couplet of the English tends toward an epigrammatic illustration of what has gone before. (91)

Hillyer then maps out how a few poems (the sixty-first sonnet of Michael Drayton’s sequence, Idea; Shakespeare’s sonnet 87; Shakespeare’s sonnet 18; and some others) engage the English sonnet’s thought-structure. He then directs attention to the Italian sonnet: “When we turn to the Petrarchan sonnet, we find the same thought-structure with the addition of the high-sounding last line” (94). Hillyer demonstrates how Keats’s “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” and George Santayana’s “As in the midst of battle there is room” exemplify this structure.

The case for sonnet thought, it seems, is developing.

Check out some of Hillyer’s own sonnets here.


Turning the Field: The Poetry of Laurie Perry Vaughen

27 06 2017


I’ve recently had the exciting experience of encountering the work of poet Laurie Perry Vaughen via the online publication of her master’s thesis, “Artifacts: Selected Poems.” There’s much to admire in the work: its thoughtfulness, its sinewy use of narrative and sound, its palpable imagery. But (of course!) what especially caught my eye was the poet’s attention to the poetic turn. Vaughen made use of Structure & Surprise to help create new work and/or to help articulate (often very movingly) what her work is doing. Very early on in her thesis’s introductory essay (the second section of which is called “Turning the Field: Structure and Surprise”), Vaughen clarifies the distinction between form and structure:

We may approach the field of a poem and immediately see patterns of rhyme scheme, repetition and the footprints of feet. However, many–perhaps most–contemporary poems require a different kind of field work, a deeper read, a deeper turning of the field. Any discussion of my work, of free verse poems, demands a look at the overall movement of the poem rather than noting couplets or beats. A formal poem such as a sonnet, pantoum or villanelle will also offer a structure of movement apart from its form, overall or within a line–if they are mature, polished, rich or ripe.

“Poetic structure is, simply, the pattern of a poem’s turning,” states Michael Theune… (2)

(I really like this idea of poems being “rich, or ripe“!)

Vaughen, though, also is aware of the larger significance and resonances of the act of turning:

Turning as the main movement of a poem is readily identified with nature. Maple leaves turn. Seasons turn. A chrysalis turns to a butterfly. A Jerusalem artichoke turns toward the sun. Evening turns to dusk before turning to morning. Man turns toward death, eventually, as a natural process. As the Catholics finally admitted, the horizon merely turns and the earth turns around the sun, not the other way around. The South African Zulu tribe and the Jew in his or her Diaspora turn to the ancestors for consultation. The structure, the turning in the poem, gives the art pulse, a life blood— and hopefully elevates our resting pulse as we write or read or listen. (6)

(Wow! I love that last sentence!)

Transitioning into her introduction’s third section, “Examining Shards: Emblematic Poems,” Vaughen explains her extra-poetic attraction to the emblem structure, noting, “My poems generally emerge from an emblematic structure. Perhaps this is because I was raised to be an observer of the small within the sublime since childhood and continued this with my undergraduate work in archaeology as an anthropology major” (7).

But, to her credit, for Vaughen poetic structure never ends up being an easy answer for some of poetry’s larger questions. Taking up the issue of increased fragmentation in more recent poetry, Vaughen (in another formulation I greatly admire) states, “There’s no clear answer to…[such] important…concerns about the parts and the whole and the tensions between these. There is a demand on the writer, critic, publisher and reader to explore contemporary poetry with new understandings of how structure, tension as transformation through language can work as synergy” (27). Vaughen then turns to Rilke, who then, in Letters to a Young Poet, “turns the young poet’s attention to nature as the source of synergy” (27). She quotes:

If you will stay close to nature, to its simplicity, to the small things hardly noticeable, those things can unexpectedly become great and immeasurable. No experience was too insignificant – the smallest happening unfolds like destiny. Destiny itself is like a wonderful wide tapestry in which every thread is guided by another thread, and held and carried by a hundred others. (New World Library, 1992 edition: 24)

(Ah! What beautiful weaving Rilke accomplishes even here, even in the rough cloth of prose! It’s no wonder that Vaughen, a maker of so many fine phrases, is drawn to Rilke’s lovely formulation–)

What all of this results in, then, is that while Vaughen still sees structure as a major component of her work, it’s an altered version of structure:

While my poems often hold an emblematic tension or use emblem as a generating pulse that rises to a pattern, the poems are not idea-driven, but language- driven. Lines, enjambment, breaks, stanzas and turns are generated by language, and not a prescribed theme or concrete image. The image serves the language, remember. The emblem I begin with may be a word, a shard of language, which gets associated with another image through sound or syntax rather than symbolic gesture. Though association holds images in tension, sound is also at play. For example, in my poem “Taking Turns,” a secondary turn in the poem’s structure is the language of pedals moving to petals. (36-7)

And, of course, all of this gets enacted in the poetry. Of particular interest:

  • “Taking Turns” (47). A lovely dialectical poem, with a radiant synthesis.
  • “Eye of the Needle” (55). A fine fantasia on sewing and the Christian idea of “passing through the eye of a needle.”
  • “Birds Audubon Never Painted” (58). A brief poem with a stunning arrival point.
  • “Ode to the Faulty Microphone” (80). In fact, a lovely homage to the power of great poetry.
  • “Emblematic,” which begins: “Any metaphor you elevate / has its scarred sense of place–” (81).
  • “After the Tornado” (118). A fascinating (if unintentional) study in endings. I’d thought the poem was a single-page poem–there, it has a tremendous ending, I think. But the poem continues for a half-page. Initially, I was surprised by this: I wondered if that second page should be cut. But the later part of the poem also contributes great power, including fascinating turns, to the poem.
  • “Photograph, 1944” (132-33). An ekphrastic poem that uncovers the image’s seductive, tensive mystery.
  • “Sweet like Funeral Cake” (134). A bittersweet elegy.

I encourage readers of this blog to check out Vaughen’s thesis, and to dive into her poetry. Treasures abound!

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

“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.