SPOILER ALERT: Major ironic turn a”head”!
SPOILER ALERT: Major ironic turn a”head”!
Check out Ira Sadoff’s “A Few Surprising Turns”–if you read this blog, you just might like to read this poem…!
Check it out here–!
As part of the programming for the inauguration of Illinois Wesleyan University’s nineteenth president, Eric Jensen, on Friday, April 1, some colleagues and I participated in a series of lightning talks highlighting some of the artistic and scholarly projects taking place at IWU. Along with poet Dan Smart (among other things, the author of the great poetry blog “Rhythm Is the Instrument”) and student respondents Kristina Dehlin and Jake Morris, I was a part of the presentation “High Voltage Poetry: On the Poetic Turn.” Check it out for a succinct introduction to the turn, for Dan’s terrific reflections on ways in which the turn has informed his own work, and for Kristina’s and Jake’s very smart reflections and questions–
In a previous post, I wrote an appreciation of Jane Hirshfield’s “Close Reading: Windows,” an excellent essay on the poetic turn (which Hirshfield describes and labels a poem’s “window-moment”). Here, I want to rave about her new collection of essays, Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World, a collection which includes a great deal of material that would be of interest not only to anyone interested in the poetic turn–though this will be the focus of my comments here–but also to anyone interested in how poems more broadly and generally work their magic upon us.
Ten Windows presents again “Close Reading: Windows”; however, as the book’s title indicates, Hirshfield’s interest in window-moments / turns is so great that it comes up in many of the book’s other essays. In “Kingfishers Catching Fire: Looking with Poetry’s Eyes,” Hirshfield remarks, “From the work of Hopkins, and each of the writers presented here, springs a supple turning aliveness, the hawk’s-swoop voracity of the mind when it is both precise and free” (18). In “Language Wakes Up in the Morning: On Poetry’s Speaking,” Hirshfield notes that “[e]ven in motionless, time-fixed paintings and sculpture, there is the feeling of hinge-turn we find in poems and often name with the terms of music–alterations of rhythm or key that raise the alterations of comprehension or mood” (31). In “What Is American in Modern American Poetry: A Brief Primer with Poems,” Hirshfield notes that “[g]ood poems require…some reach of being: they move from what’s already known and obvious to what is not. All poets travel, then, whether in body or only in mind” (211).
Hirshfield also is aware of the deep connection of the sonnet and the turn (about which, more information can be found here, here, here, and here). In one essay, Hirshfield points out how the fourth stanza of Seamus Heaney’s “Oysters” “makes a turn of the kind made formal in sonnets: an addition that both quickens thought and brings a question needing an answer” (202). In another, commenting on Gwendolyn Brooks’s “My Dreams, My Works, Must Wait till after Hell,” Hirshfield notes, “Sonnet form, like that of the haiku and villanelle, carries the arc of transformation within the DNA of its structure. The pivoting volta, or ‘turn,’ after the eighth line, demands a deepened and changed comprehension” (263-4).
More broadly, Hirshfield notes that “[p]oetry’s leaps” is one of the elements of poetry (along with “images, stories, and metaphors”) that “are the oxygen possibility breathes” (271). Additionally, in a previous post, I pointed out how Hirshfield’s “Poetry and Uncertainty” (in Ten Windows, titled “Uncarryable Remainders: Poetry and Uncertainty”) gathers a number of poems that involve a decisive turn, and I would say that this is true almost throughout Ten Window‘s ten essays: even when not discussing the turn in any specific way, the turn is very present–is consistently re-presented–in Hirshfield’s work.
So, reading Ten Windows will allow anyone interested in poetic structure a close and thoughtful engagement with the poetic turn. However, Hirshfield is not only concerned with structure; she’s also very interested in surprise. Her seventh chapter, “Poetry and the Constellation of Surprise,” focuses on the characteristics and effects of poetic surprise. It’s a fascinating meditation. Hirshfield’s insights into surprise are startling and profound. Here are a few:
Regarding the distinction between “poems [that] seem essential” and “others [that], however accomplished and interesting of surface, do not,” Hirshfield states,
Deep surprise is that way the mind signals itself that a thing perceived or though is consequential, that a discovery may be of genuine use. The experience itself, though, especially in responding to a work of art, may well be felt as some different emotion, the one that follows; surprise, neuroscientists report, lasts half a second at most; and so the reader may notice the powerful upsurge of grief or compassion or wonder a good poem brings, but not the surprise that released it. Surprise plays a major role in survival’s own sorting–what most surprises will be most strongly acted on, and most strongly learned. The poems we carry forward, as individuals and as cultures, are those that strike us powerfully enough that they call up the need for their own recall. (187)
About the power of surprise, Hirshfield notes,
How is it that something that lasts half a second can be so essential, not only to art but to our very survival? Not least is the particular way startlement transforms the one who is startled. Among other things, surprise magnetizes attention. An infant hearing an unexpected sound will stop and stare hard–the experience of surprise is itself surprising. It is also, literally, arresting; in a person strongly startled, the heart rate momentarily plummets. The whole being pauses, to better grasp what’s there. Surprise also opens the mind, frees it from preconception. Surprise does not weigh its object as “good” or “bad”; though that may follow, its question is simply “What is it?,” asked equally of any sudden change. Startlement, it seems, erases the known for the new. The facial expression of surprise, according to one researcher, is close to rapture, to the openness of a baby’s first awakeness. Charles Darwin, in The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, grouped surprise with astonishment, amazement, and wonder.
In poetry, surprise deepens, gathers, and purifies attention in the same way: the mind of preconception is stopped, to allow a more acute taking-in. (187-88)
Whether by means large or small, noticed or almost imperceptible, poetry’s startlements displace the existing self with a changed one. (188)
According to Hirshfield, surprise also is always attended by a lesson about the negation of self:
Surprise carries an inverse relationship to that which harness self and will: it is the emotion of a transition not self-created. Though infants can visibly surprise themselves by sneezing, there is no self-tickling. We tend not to laugh at our own jokes, at least when alone. Yet one of the reasons a poem–or any creative effort–is undertaken is precisely to surprise yourself by what you may find. Poems appear to come from the self only to those who do not write them. The maker experiences them as a gift, implausibly won from the collaboration of individual with language, self with unconscious, personal association and concept with the world’s uncontrollable materials, weathers, events. (189)
In one section of her chapter on surprise, Hirshfield connects surprise to the comedic, stating,
Lyric epiphany is democratic, equally intimate with Aeschylus and the stand-up comic.
The more surprise in good poetry is looked at, the more poetry’s work seems close to the work of the comic and trickster. (192-93)
While all of Hirshfield’s ideas about surprise are insightful, one stands out for me: Hirshfield’s effort to explain how surprising poems, even after being read and/or recited multiple times, retain their ability to startle and awaken. Hirshfield opens “Poetry and the Constellation of Surprise” by noting:
Art’s brightness is a strangely untarnishing silver. One of the distinguishing powers of great art is its capacity to unseal its own experience not once, but many times. A Beethoven quartet many times heard, a painting by Bonnard looked at for decades, does not lose the ability to lift us out of one way of being and knowing and emplace us, altered, into another. A poem, long memorized can raise in its holder, mid-saying, stunned tears. Pound described the paradox simply: “Poetry is news that stays news.” Why this is so, and how it is done, has something to do with the way good art preserves its own capacity to surprise. (181)
According to Hirshfield, this magical seductive quality exists in large part because art is a ceremony that must be re-engaged for it to have power. It is a ritual, and “[a] ritual must be passed through with the whole body, not glimpsed through a door” (198). According to Hirshfield, “Poetic epiphany gives off a kind of protective mist; it exudes an amnesiac against general recall. The poem must be read or said through fully to be fully known” (184).
Provocative and profound, Hirshfield’s insights amaze, and work to re-instill in readers a wonder at poems and poetry. Certainly, Ten Windows will be a revelation to those intrigued by poetic structure and poetic surprise–one fifth of the book concentrates specifically on these concerns, while the other chapters are deeply informed by and infused with them.
However, even though I try to keep the work on this blog focused on the poetic turn and its effects (chief among them being surprise), I do feel called upon to say that, more generally, Hirshfield’s book is a treasure trove for all those interested in poetry, in thinking more deeply about what it is, how it works, how it moves us. While structure and surprise are, for Hirshfield, vital components of poetry, they are not necessarily at the core of what poems are and do.
At core, according to Hirshfield, poems are vital parts of the liveliness of the world, intimately related to and very much like biological life. Hirshfield begins her book, noting, “A mysterious quickening inhabits the depths of any good poem–protean, elusive, alive in its own right. The word ‘creative’ shares its etymology with the word ‘creature,’ and carries a similar sense of breathing aliveness, of an active fine-grained, and multi-cellular making” (3). In “Poetry and the Constellation of Surprise,” Hirshfield notes, “Cognitive and creative discoveries are made in the same way as much of biological life is: by acts of generative recombination. Disparate elements are brought together to see if they might make a viable new whole” (185).
And this, in fact, is what Hirshfield has done with Ten Windows: she has used gleanings from the life sciences–often combined with her natural inclination to make stunning metaphors–to think anew about poetry, to raise organicism to a thrilling new pitch. I conclude with a few quotes from Hirshfield, which I set out as bread crumbs, meager offerings of the full feast that await those who read Ten Windows…
In the last instants of a shark’s approach to its prey, it closes its inner eyelids for self-protection, and most of its other senses shut down as well. Only one remains active: a bioelectrical sensory mechanism in its jaw, a guidance system uniquely made for striking. The poet in the heat of writing is a bit like that shark, perceiving in ways unique to the moment of imminent connection. (8)
The sentences of poetry, fiction, drama, attend to their music the way a tree attends to its leaves: motile and many, seemingly discardable, they remain the substance-source by which it lives. (31)
In the realm of art, knowledge carries with it at all times an inevitable flavor–the individuality of the artist is in the work as the physical hands of the potter are in the clay, no matter how smoothed. (42)
The elusive–in life, in literature–raises knowledge-lust in us the way a small, quick movement raises the hunting response in a cat. (107)
Encounter with the unknown seems almost a nutrient in human life, as essential as certain amino acids–without it, the untested self falls into sleep, depression, boredom, and stupor. (136)
Poetry’s ends are, in truth, peculiar, viewed from the byways of ordinary speech. But it is this oddness that makes poems so needed–true poems, like true love, undo us, and un-island. Contrary, sensual, subversive, they elude our customary allegiance to surface reality, purpose, and will. A good poem is comprehensive and thirsty. It pulls toward what is invisible to an overly directed looking, toward what is protean, volatile, unprotected, and several-handed. Poems rummage the drawers of what does not yet exist but might, in the world, in us. Their inexhaustibility is the inexhaustibility of existence itself, in which each moment plunges from new to new. Like a chemical reagent, water passing through limestone, or a curious toddler, a good poem reveals, entering and leaving altered whatever it meets. (244)
The possibility-hunger in us is both illimitable and illimitably fed. (274)
In art, we seek something else: possibility opened to a vastly increased range of swing. (280)
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.
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.
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
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
Ai! They waste their time.
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.