Anthony Wilson analyzes the twists and turns of Tony Hoagland’s poem “Medicine” here. Check it out!
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Tags: Anthony Wilson, poetic structure, poetic turn, tony hoagland
Categories : poetic turn, Uncategorized
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”:
- 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.
- 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.
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Tags: James Longenbach, Jane Hirshfield, John Ciardi, lyric knowledge, poetic fulcrum, poetic housing, poetic structure, poetic turn, Randall Jarrell, structure-form distinction, tony hoagland, window-moment
Categories : poetic turn, structure-form distinction, Uncategorized
There are numerous highlights in this review, among them:
–the development of a hilarious new acronym: ICFU, which stands for those who have “Instant Contempt For the Understandable”;
–an amazing, in-depth challenge to certain ways that the criterion of musicality is applied to the assessment of poetry; and, most relevant to the concerns of this blog:
–an admiration of the ways Hoagland’s poems turn.
Here is a key paragraph:
In Unincorporated Persons the sensation of painfully half-voluntary complicity in political and cultural harm comes across in many good poems, though what the poems express is not simply limited to that sensation. Such poems include “Food Court,” “Big Grab,” “Hard Rain,” “Confinement,” “Poor Britney Spears,” “Expensive Hotel,” “Complicit With Everything,” “Hinge,” “Foghorn,” “Disaster Movie,” “The Allegory of the Temp Agency,” “Snowglobe.” There is plenty say about those, and critics should write about them carefully enough to move past categorizing them as “political poems.” A long article waits to be written about their endings and how, in a poem’s closing lines, Hoagland twists the knife, to make the poem disturb you after you felt sure you knew where he was going. An example is “The Allegory of the Temp Agency” which, thanks to the machete-slash of its last lines, manages to become both a satirical critique of banal polemical art and a startling reminder that banal political protests against global capitalism arise from horrible inequities that suave mockery cannot remove.
The only online version of “The Allegory of the Temp Agency” I could find is here. (Sorry.) But do read it; there is a nice turn in this poem, one that delivers an interesting, insightful moral (one that helps explain why the (admittedly, very beautiful) mural at Goldman Sachs looks like this). It’s also a self-reflexive turn, signaling its turn with the words “in turn.”
Halliday is right: it does indeed seem “a long article waits to be written” about these turns… Someone’s got their work cut out for them.
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Tags: Mark Halliday, poetic turn, self-reflexive turn, tony hoagland
Categories : poetic turn, self-reflexive turn
Not equipped with other helpful paradigms for what it is that poetry does, many readers come to poetry thinking that it, like the other literature with which they’re acquainted, tells stories. Such thinking, of course, is misleading—it’s not clear such thinking would help anyone really encounter and engage many poems. Certainly, lots of poems make use of narrative elements, but lots of poems, even poems thought to be generally “accessible,” don’t. Readers need to be presented with a different paradigm for how poems “work,” for what it is that poems “do.”
I think that the “turn” can be that paradigm. As I discuss more fully in “The Structure-Form Distinction”: lots of poems turn; turns aren’t always primarily associated with narrative (they also are associated with argumentation, the recording of emotional shifts, etc); and turns are, or easily can be made to seem, familiar, as familiar as storytelling.
In fact, I think the paradigm of the turn is superior to the paradigm of narrative. Turning is itself central to narrative. One could be said to know very little about the nature of narrative if one did not know about the nature of narrative turns—from beginnings to conflicts to climaxes to resolutions. And, again, turning is at work in poems that aren’t primarily narrative.
However, though turning is more vital to poetry than narrative, many conversations about poetry still use the language of narrative—“narrative,” “plot”—to discuss what really are (or could more accurately be described as) turns. Such misnaming makes it seem that, no matter what is said about narrative and the turn, narrative takes prominence over the turn. In order to keep at trying to give the turn its proper due, this situation needs to be recognized and addressed.
To be clear: my critique here is meant to be very specific and detailed—in fact, I greatly admire the substance of the three essays to be discussed in this essay—but, hopefully, not minor: I think it would be smart to do away with the discussion of non-narrative “plots” in poetry. Mention of “plot” will always make readers think of narrative, and thus reinforce the seeming prominence of narrative. We need to use different terms in order to shift the conversation—and, with “structure” and the “turn,” such different terms are available to us. Instead of “narrative” and “plot,” I think we should use the term “structure,” and mean by “structure” something very specific: the pattern of a poem’s turning. (For more on this, again, see “The Structure-Form Distinction.”) In this way, we can discuss a poem’s rhetorical maneuvers without (potentially) confusing those maneuvers with narrative.
In “Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment,” Tony Hoagland corroborates my sense that there’s a tendency to lump together a number of kinds of poetry (many of which are clearly related to poetic traditions that prominently involve turning) under “narrative”; he states, “Under the label of ‘narrative,’ all kinds of poetry currently get lumped together: not just story, but discursion, argument, even descriptive lyrics. They might better be called the ‘Poetries of Continuity.’” Interestingly, though Hoagland himself suggests a better name for narrative, he also reveals the power of the “narrative” in discussions of poetry: his essay’s title employs the phrase “Fear of Narrative,” not “Fear of Continuity.”
(A bit off topic, but, I must add: it’s too bad that Hoagland links the poetry he does only to continuity—lots of poems that are not at all “skittery” work by means of an organized discontinuity. As Randall Jarrell says in “Levels and Opposites: Structure in Poetry”: “A successful poem starts in one position and ends at a very different one, often a contradictory or opposite one; yet there has been no break in the unity of the poem.” And Hoagland himself seems to recognize this; later in his essay, he states, “Narrated and associative poems are not each other’s aesthetic opposites or sworn enemies. Obviously these modes don’t necessarily exclude each other. They overlap, coexist, and often cross-pollinate.”)
The focus on narrative in poetry is more directly and fully addressed in Carl Dennis’s “The Temporal Lyric.” Dennis notes, “Although lyrics are more likely to be organized rhetorically, especially those that present arguments, are much more common than those that present psychological narratives, discussion of the lyric has suffered from the fact that the oldest and most influential piece of criticism of poetry in the West, Aristotle’s Poetics, is formulated with specific reference not to lyric poetry but to drama and to epic and so presents temporal plotting as the central element of the poem.” Dennis then notes a different way to approach lyric poems, one that comes out of speech-act theory:
“Here the poem is regarded as a dramatic event in which a fictive speaker performs a speech act that gives specific embodiment, in a particular context, to one or more of the basic tasks that we ask ordinary language to perform—explaining, questioning, demanding, promising, apologizing, praising, castigating, pleading, and the like. Each of these acts has its particular plot if we use the term to refer not to a sequence of temporal events but to a sequence of rhetorical moves that carry out the task that the specific function requires. Such a completed action possesses the wholeness that Aristotle demands of a poem: it possesses a proper beginning, middle, and an end, the order of incidents being such that transposing or removing any one of them will disorder the whole.”
Dennis is trying to replace a narrative orientation to poetry with a rhetorical one, and that rhetorical orientation clearly has much to do with turning: I assume that the “rhetorical moves” that comprise the “plot” of the speech act either are turns, or else clearly imply turns (turns allow the transition from one “plot” point to another). And, indeed, the poems Dennis investigates in his essay (Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” Donne’s sonnet “At the round earth’s imagined corners, blow,” Dickinson’s “These are the days when Birds come back—,” Frederick Goddard Tuckerman’s sonnet “An upper chamber in a darkened house,” and Bishop’s “The Fish”) all feature very clear and distinct turns, and Dennis in fact refers to the turn at least twice in his examination of these poems.
Again, substantively, I greatly agree with Dennis; however, I think that the use of the word “plot” (which Dennis uses off and on throughout his essay), no matter how it is defined, tends to suggest narrative—precisely what Dennis does not want to suggest. A more neutral and apt term, I think, for Dennis’s plot of rhetorical moves (and a term Dennis himself occasionally employs), is “structure.”
The same holds true, for the most part, in regard to Jack Stillinger’s “Reading Keats’s Plots.”
Stillinger’s essay does two things: 1) it argues that we need to spend more time examining the plots of poems in general, and of Keats’s poems, in particular, and 2) it examines the plots of some key poems by Keats (The Eve of St. Agnes, Lamia, “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” The Eve of St. Mark, and “Ode on a Grecian Urn”), helping to reveal how important attention to plot can be.
According to Stillinger, contemporary readers tend to skip over plot: “Readers and critics of poetry, even at this late date in the history of practical criticism, are still primarily concerned with idea, theme, and ‘philosophy,’ seeking in effect to replace the literary work in process (what it is, what it does) with interpretive conversion, paraphrase, or translation (what it means).” Stillinger intends his essay to counter this trend by re-instilling in readers a sense of plot’s vital nature.
Stillinger’s essay differs from Dennis’s in that Stillinger’s, at times, in fact really discusses and examines specifically narrative plots, and so his use of the term very often is apt. However, Stillinger also uses “narrative” and “plot” to refer to structural maneuvers it seems a bit of a stretch to label such. This occurs most clearly in Stillinger’s discussion of “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” the least overtly narrative of the poems discussed. According to Stillinger, the “narrative” of “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is similar to the narratives found in the “greater Romantic lyric,” or poems, such as Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight” and Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” that employ the descriptive-meditative structure (discussed in detail in an essay by Corey Marks in Structure & Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns). While there are some plot elements in such poems, and while all aspects of a poem are worthy of consideration, the plot elements in such poems often are minimal (for example, journeys often occur in these poems, but they often are imagined or remembered journeys), and such poems are perhaps more fruitfully considered, as Dennis might argue, as speech acts involving “rhetorical moves.”
This certainly is the case with a form of poem central to Keats’s oeuvre, and which Stillinger does not discuss in his essay: the sonnet. There isn’t any plot to speak of in, say, Keats’s “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” and yet it does turn (stunningly). Such primarily rhetorical maneuvering tends to be excluded from Stillinger’s analysis in “Reading Keats’s Plots.” This exclusion helps Stillinger set up a somewhat overly-simplified dichotomy between a poetry of narrative and a poetry of statement. Stillinger writes,
“The fact that narrative analysis works more successfully with some poems rather than others is itself a valuable piece of critical information. It is one way of illustrating the difference between lyrics that are essentially static in character and those that are essentially dynamic. Poems such as To Autumn and Ode on Melancholy have their minds made up before they begin. They are statements rather than processes, statements of thoughts already arrived at before the speakers begin speaking. Poems such as Frost at Midnight, Tintern Abbey, Ode: Intimations of Immortality, and Ode to a Nightingale are more complicated. They represent the actual processes of thinking and take their shape from the movement of the protagonist’s mind, going now in one direction, now in another. Lyrics in this latter class are at least implied narratives, and often they are, like Yeats’s or Keats’s excursions, explicit narratives.”
While, generally, I like this way of distinguishing among different kinds of poems (for example, I can see how such a distinction could help me discuss with my students the different kinds of tasks poems undertake), I want to complicate this dichotomy using Keats’s sonnets as a test case. It’s simply not clear where many of Keats’s sonnets would fall in this dichotomy. They’re not narrative, and yet many of them clearly attempt to “represent the actual processes of thinking and take their shape from the movement of the protagonist’s mind.” Perhaps this is “implied narrative,” but it’s not clear why it has to be referred to as such. I suggest that instead of creating a dichotomy between narrative and statement, we instead create a dichotomy between the poetry of dramatic, dynamic structure (involving significant turns) and the poetry of statement. This description of the dichotomy incorporates non-narrative turns, the “at least implied narratives” Stillinger mentions, the significant rhetorical maneuvers Dennis’s essay focuses on, and the tactics so many Keats’s poems actually deploy.
All of the above may seem a bit like picking nits: it’s all, I again acknowledge, largely an investigation into terminology rather than substance. And yet terms matter. The turn has long been a vital part of poetry (T. S. Eliot calls the turn “one of the most important means of poetic effect since Homer”), but it has not been generally recognized as such. This is a strange situation, one which has many causes—one cause, however, certainly is the fact that we do not have set terms for what we are discussing when we discuss structures and turns. Thus, often, structure and the turn get subsumed in other terminology. And because of the use of such varied terminology the many conversations that involve and even focus on poetic structure and the turn often are never seen to be related. And this, in turn, contributes to the continuing general lack of recognition of the great importance of the turn.
It is my sense that Hoagland, Dennis, and Stillinger would all be for a greater recognition of the turn in poetry—indeed, I think the three essays discussed here in fact are a part of the growing body of literature attempting to draw attention to the significance of the turn in poetry. My effort here has been to show this link among these essays, even as I try to point out that even in such essays the turn, in some subtle yet significant ways, remains hidden, embedded in a terminology of “narrative” and “plot” that tends to downplay or even deny the larger significance of the poetic turn.
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Tags: Carl Dennis, greater romantic lyric, Jack Stillinger, John Keats, narrative poetry, poetic structure, poetic turn, sonnet, structure-form distinction, theory and criticism, tony hoagland
Categories : descriptive-meditative structure, poetic turn, Theory & Criticism