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.

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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.





Helen Vendler: Approaching the Turn

8 06 2011

One of this blog’s key arguments has been that more concerted efforts to differentiate poetic structure and poetic form and to more systematically examine poetic structure would benefit the practices of conceptualizing, reading, writing, and teaching poetry.  (For information on the structure / form distinction, click here.)

I’m not the only one to think this.  Many of those who write poetry textbooks agree.  However, though they agree, their books often fall short of advocating for increased attention to poetic structure, and its attendant turn–and not only to the extent that I hope for but also to the extent that their own texts seem to suggest is proper.

Here, I would like to consider Helen Vendler’s Poems, Poets, Poetry: An Introduction and Anthology.  In this textbook, Vendler maintains the structure / form distinction—though her maintenance of the distinction involves some overlap in terminology—recognizing that, on the one hand, “[a] poem can…be classified according to various aspects of its outer form, having to do with meter, rhyme, and stanza-form” (117) and that, on the other hand, “[b]esides its outer form (“This is a poem in quatrains in falling rhythm rhyming aabb”—a description of Blake’s “Tyger”), every poem has internal structural form” (119).  (Please note that though Vendler’s book is in its third edition, I cite from my copy of the second edition.)

Vendler describes inner structural form as a poem’s “dynamic shape, which derives from the curve traced by the emotions of the poem as they change over its duration” (119).  Though Vendler never uses the word “turn,” this shape clearly concerns a poem’s turning; according to Vendler, “That emotional curve is plotted by connecting two, three, or more points of the poem, a rise from depression to hope to joy, for instance—or a decline from triumph through doubt to despair.  Very few poems represent an unchanging steady state of the same emotion all through” (119).  The emotional trajectory Vendler cites here is a pattern of poetic turning that I call the “Dejection-Elation Structure.”  Additionally, Vendler notes, “In investigating the internal structure of a poem, one should try to divide it into parts along its ‘fault lines.’  Where does the logic of the argument seem to break?  Where does the poem seem to change from first person to second person?  Where does the major change in tense or speech act take place?” (120)  In asking readers to locate a poem’s “fault lines,” Vendler seems to ask readers to identify and track the poem according to its turns.

Vendler then proceeds to offer a cursory list of internal structural forms.  She notes that “[s]ome poems are two-part (binary) poems, like William Wordsworth’s ‘A slumber did my spirit seal’ (which we saw changing from illusion to stern knowledge) or like Dickinson’s ‘The Heart asks Pleasure—first—’ (which we saw changing its conception of God from benevolence to cruelty” (119).  Vendler also notes that “[t]here are also many three-part (ternary) poems, which often take on the internal structure of beginning, modulation, and end (a song-form preserved in lyric),” and, additionally, that “[o]ne well-known internal structure is that of the ‘surprise’ ending, where the last few lines reverse everything that has gone before” (119).  Additionally, according to Vendler, “Internal forms are infinitely variable, since they represent emotional response, always volatile” (119).  Such a list seems like the beginning of the list (constantly under construction) of poetic structures, patterns of poetic turning, located here.

Indeed, for Vendler, mapping a poem’s internal structural form, and an inner structural form very much focused upon the turn, is key to the process she refers to as “Exploring a Poem” (125).  In this process, in which Vendler names a total of 13 elements of the poem for a reader to examine in order to explore a poem—including 1. Meaning; 2. Antecedent Scenario; 3. A Division into Structural Parts; 4. The Climax; 5. The Other Parts; 6. Find the Skeleton; 7. Games the Poet Plays with the Skeleton; 8. Language; 9. Tone; 10. Agency and Speech Acts; 11. Roads Not Taken; 12. Genre, Form, Rhythm; 13. Imagination—at least five have to do very directly with deciphering and determining the poem’s internal structural form: the division into structural parts; the climax; the other parts; find the skeleton; and games the poet plays with the skeleton.  For example, regarding “The Other Parts,” Vendler states, “About each part it is useful to ask how it differs from the other parts.  What is distinctive in it by contrast to the other members of the poem?  Does something shift gears?” (127)  And, regarding “Find the Skeleton,” Vendler essentially instructs readers to decipher the poem’s inner structural form; she asks, “What is the dynamic curve of emotion on which the whole poem is arranged?” (128)

While Vendler’s book does an admirable job of trying to advance structure alongside form, there are, however, problems with this aspect of Vendler’s textbook.  One problem is that it does not advance structure consistently.  “Structure,” or “structural,” means many things to Vendler.   “Inner structural form,” remember, is “dynamic shape, which derives from the curve traced by the emotions of the poem as they change over its duration.”  However, in the section called “Structure,” structure is defined as something more intellectual or logical; Vendler states, “The structures of a poem are the intellectual or logical shapes into which its thoughts are dynamically organized” (82).  Additionally, according to Vendler, one discovers a poem’s structures—according to Vendler, “Any overarching structure can have many substructures” (82)—by looking for patterns, but these patterns are everywhere and on every scale: “Patterns occur at many levels in poetry, just as they do in the physical universe: one can look for patterns in subatomic behavior, in atomic behavior, in molecular behavior, and so on, all the way up to the patterns of the planets and the stars” (83).  And, in the end, structure can be just about anything, including form; Vendler concludes her discussion of “Structure,” stating, “The important thing is to be accustomed to looking, in any poem, at several levels—the sound, the rhythms and rhymes, the grammar, the images, the sentences, the plot, the assertions, the allusions, the self-contradictions.  Somewhere the energy of the poem awaits you.  The moment you see the main and subordinate patterns, you smile, and it ‘all makes sense’” (87).

Another problem with Vendler’s advocacy of structure is that, for however much Vendler recognizes the importance of the non-formal organizational elements of a poem, she tends to give form precedence over these elements, including structure and its turn.  For example, the discussion of “Structure” comes after discussions of both “Rhythm” and “Rhyme”—and a discussion of “Argument” comes even later.  Additionally, in the section called “Classifying Lyric Poems” in the chapter “Describing Poems,” Vendler notes that “[l]yric poems themselves are generally classified in three ways: by content, by speech act, and by outer form” (110).  This, however, also is the section of the book that includes discussion of “Inner Structural Form,” a discussion that, with little commentary, simply gets tacked onto the previous discussion of “Outer Form.”

A final problem—or, perhaps, difficulty—with her advocacy of structure is that, perhaps as a result of the shiftiness of what structure is, Vendler never manages, in my opinion, to be clear about how knowing about structure can deeply inform one’s reading of a poem.  That is, though Vendler suggests that the main pattern, the structure, seems to have a lot to do with major transitions in a poem, how the poem moves, she is not explicit about what a poem’s “main pattern” is.  And, beyond this, there is never any detailed discussion of what the significance of these shapes are, why they are worth examining.  In large part because it never embraces structure and the turn—not even to the extent that I might want it to, but even, only, to the extent that its own discussion of poems suggests that it should—and because it never gets clear on the centrality of the turn for its system, Vendler’s discussions of “structure” and the “structural” tend to be a bit confusing, both offering imprecise or simply too numerous tools for finding structure and not offering enough for people to actually know what they are looking for when looking for structure, or exactly why they are looking for it.

Vendler’s Poems, Poets, Poetry reveals the desire of one major critic to differentiate structure and form.  It also reveals, however, that this desire alone is not quite enough to do the job of significantly differentiating structure and form.  For this, I believe more needs to be done.

I believe we–readers, poets, critics, teachers–have to get very clear in our use of the terms “structure” and “form,” or else things will continue as they so far have, with structure seeming some amorphous, secondary derivative of form.

I believe structure has to be linked to something vital and distinctive—something singular—in poetry, and that is the poetic turn.

I believe that we need to present the turn not only as something that is important in what poems are and how poems work but also as something that—just as form has its own vocabulary and grammar, or, if you will, its own lingo: iambic, trochaic, pentameter, slant rhyme—has its own vocabulary and grammar, its own intricacies.  My reasons for believing this are, on the one hand, substantive—I think that the developing vocabulary and grammar of the turn describes real and significant aspects of poems—and, on the other hand, pragmatic—form may tend to get more attention in our textbooks largely because it has a well-developed terminology, and thus, a more well-developed terminology (beyond Vendler’s cursory list of inner structural forms) may help give structure the attention it deserves.

I believe that, for as much work as the above seems, once this work is done it will greatly open up–and deepen–the conceptualization, reading, writing, and teaching of poems.  What is a poem?  Language that turns.  How do I read a poem?  Track the turns.  How do I write a great poem?  Create language that turns thrillingly.  How do I teach poems?  Take the turn into account.  Of course, these answers are incomplete, but they are vital and new, and I believe such answers will add significantly to the appreciation and creation of, the conversation about, poetry.





Jeremy Tambling’s RE: Verse–Turning towards Poetry

31 05 2011

For years, I’ve thought that an important next step for educating poetry readers about the turn would be to incorporate, and perhaps even highlight, the turn in an introduction to poetry textbook.  So far, this has been done only once, in John Ciardi’s How Does a Poem Mean?  In that book, the final chapter—but also the chapter that Ciardi refers to in his introduction as the most important one—“The Poem in Countermotion” focuses on turns in poems, though Ciardi refers to the turn as the “fulcrum.”  Ciardi’s book, however, was published in 1959—and his focus on the turn was not picked up on by any subsequent introduction to poetry textbooks.

Needless to say, then, I was heartened to see Jeremy Tambling’s RE: Verse—Turning towards Poetry.  The book’s title, at least, indicated that there might be some focus on the turn in the book.  And there is, but, alas, just some.  However, seeing what happens to the turn—how it is both raised as a topic of conversation, and then elided—in RE: Verse can be instructive.

The turn comes up on page one of RE: Verse.  Defining “verse,” Tambling writes,

“[I]t comes from the Latin versus, meaning “a line or row, especially a line of writing (so named from turning to begin another line), verse, from vertere to turn” (Oxford English Dictionary).  Verse means both a line of writing and the turn by which another line is reached, going from line to line.  In English, the turn at the end of the line on the right hand edge of the page means a reverse back to the left.  Verse and reverse: the turn turns back.”

It is important to note here that the turn is an element of the poem’s form.  However, the term “turn” quickly comes to mean other things, as well.  According to Tambling, though it may consist of only one line, Japanese waku can still be thought of as turning, so “you may have to look for the turn inside the one line itself.”  Tambling, however, is not clear how one would find this turn in a one-line poem, and he further complicates his use and sense of the turn when, after having quoted three lines from Paul Muldoon’s “Incantata” (“I thought again of how art may be made, was it was by Andre Derain, / of nothing more than a turn / in the road…”), he notes, “This book starts with the proposition that poetry is always a form of turning, and if for Paul Muldoon it is a “turn in the road,” then the way the poem twists and turns will suggest a very winding path.”  How would a formally twisting and turning poem suggest a very winding path?  Would it slither down the page in the manner of, say, an e.e. cummings poem?

But this is not what Tambling means by the “very winding path” of the poem—virtually all of the poems he cites at length in RE: Verse left-justified.  Tambling, in fact, is interested in helping readers recognize, and recognize the importance of, structural turns in poems.  (For information on the difference between form and structure, click here.)

The first poem Tambling examines closely is William Blake’s “London.”  In a sentence immediately following his observation that “the way the poem twists and turns will suggest a very winding path,” Tambling introduces his discussion of “London” by noting that “[w]riting poetry often plays on this idea of turning.”  And his discussion of the poem, when it focuses on the turn, focuses on the structural turn.  Tambling asks of the poem, “How shall we approach it?”  And his first of a few “hints” he offer is: “[L]ook for the turn: the moment where the poem changes direction, or shape.  (There may be more than one turn, of course.)  Nearly all poetry will have such a turn…”  Tambling also eventually locates the poem’s major turn (notice that there are not 15 turns, as one might expect if turns occurred as one line turned into the next) at the beginning of the fourth stanza, about which he writes: “[S]tarting with “But most” indicates a turn, a new emphasis, something different from the first three stanzas.”

The second poem Tambling examines closely is William Wordsworth’s sonnet “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802.”  Discussing the sonnet, Tambling, quoting Paul Muldoon’s interview with Lynn Keller, states,

“The sonnet began as an Italian form in the thirteenth century, and the word implies a song.  The Italian, or Petrarchan sonnet, of which this [“Westminster Bridge”] is one, is divided by a pause, or a turn, into eight lines followed by six.  Paul Muldoon, who like many other modern poets, has written many sonnets, speaks in an interview about the “thought process of the sonnet”.  “You establish something and then there’s a slight change”, he says; and he associates this change with “the turn”….”

And speaking of the shift from octave to sestet in “Westminster Bridge,” Tambling states, “We have already noted a break at that point, and when reading poetry, any such turn, change of tone, or of approach, should be noted.”

Tambling clearly believes that knowledge of the structural turn is vital for reading poetry.  However, the attention he pays to the structural turn is less systematic and more sporadic.  In his book’s second chapter, “Five Ideas for Reading,” Tambling offers “five points, or principles, for reading” poetry—but a principle such as “look for turns” is not included in this list.  Even though, it should be added, that there are plenty of poems featuring turns in them that follow Tambling’s list of principles.

Why this assertion and (unintentional, it seems…) denial of the power of the structural turn?  I can only speculate, but I offer a few ideas.

First, it seems as though seeing turns and their importance is not enough.  We need to continue to develop and teach the language, the grammar, of turning.  It’s not that poems simply turn, it’s that, often, they turn in identifiable ways, ways which, once recognized, greatly help one see what’s going on in a poet, or, as Ciardi puts it, how a poem means.

Additionally, we need to think more about the ways that assessment influences what we teach when we teach poems.  Tambling wrote his book with some specific audiences in mind.  While being attentive to the needs of a general reader Tambling has written with a target audience in mind; he states, “I have tried, in writing, to consider the needs of people starting with poetry at GCSE, where anthologies of poetry are frequently set, and people working on specific poets for A Level.  I have tried to work with questions that undergraduates will want to know answers to…”  It could simply be that the exams for which Tambling prepares many of his readers do not concern themselves much with the identification and discussion of turns, so turns, while acknowledged, are not focused on.

Overall, Tambling’s RE: Verse reminds us that we need to revise the ways we discuss and teach poetry.  His good, but also problematic, book reminds us that to talk seriously about structural turns in poetry we have to be ready to allow the turn to let us talk about different poems differently.  We must be willing ourselves to be transformed by the turn.





Turning: Writing into Poetry

21 09 2009

zapruder

In “Off the Shelf: Finding the Pieces that Turn Writing into Poetry,” a recent essay in The Los Angeles Times, poet Matthew Zapruder looks back over his own development as a poet, and over large swaths of poetic history, to try to answer the question: what is it that makes a poem a poem?

Of central importance to Zapruder’s essay is the fact that poetic form–in an age in which many, many great poems have been written in free verse–does not offer a satisfactory answer to Zapruder’s question.  Zapruder thus looks elsewhere for his answer, and he finds it in the movements and leaps of poetry:

“Poetry at its most basic level is about the movement of the mind. This is why it is translatable, even from a language such as Chinese, which has very little in common with English. What can be translated is the leap from one thought to another: what I call the associative movement particular to poetry. That leap, that movement, is what makes poetry poetry.”

Zapruder’s essay is worth reading for many reasons–it’s personal and engaging.  However, here, I want to focus on why readers of this blog might be interested in reading Zapruder’s essay: it very clearly jibes with the thinking taking place in Structure & Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns, and on this blog.  Zapruder’s ideas about how something essential to poetry might be found in a poem’s non-formal leaps and movements at least is very much like what is argued in “Poetic Structure and Poetic Form: The Necessary Differentiation.”

Concomitantly, those interested in Zapruder’s ideas in “Off the Shelf” might also be interested in exploring a bit this blog (including the post “What Is Poetry?”) to see some of the work that has taken place to make explicit some of the exciting and energizing leaps and turns that are a big part of the heart of the mystery of what poetry is.