Air Traffic’s Turns

17 07 2018

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I am a poet. Poetry and civic duty share a porous border in my mind….Poetry is useless to me in all but one way. Reading it makes me a nicer person.

Reading poetry has improved my ability to intuit, and thereby negotiate more effectively, the needs and desires of others. I’m no mind reader, but poetry puts me in tune with the unarticulated registers of language… Especially in diversity-poor environments, poetry is the best supplement to help getting out of one’s own head.

Poetry teaches me this because in order to “get” a poem, you need to find its fulcrum, a tipping point that is rarely obvious. Most poems have a moment when something shifts. It may be midway through or at the end. This is the moment of transformation–we call it a volta, or “turn.” The turn could be a plot twist or a change in tone. You can identify the turn by comprehending first the poem’s overall patterns and prevailing logic. There might be many patterns in a single poem, and some or all of them might get broken or disrupted over its course, but the volta is special in that it marks the moment when the poem breaks its deepest and most characteristic habit. There is rarely a single turn that everyone can agree on, and who cares if everyone agrees. Reading is a solitary exercise, a union of one. The detective work of looking for the volta is what gets us into the poem, makes us rewrite the poem in our own voice and consciousness.

Some poetry lovers claim that poems don’t have to have a turn. This is usually what people say in defense of shitty poems. Of course there has to be a transformative moment, a moment in which we experience not just the characters or speaker in the poem, but the poet herself in crisis. The turn doesn’t have to bring the reader to any grand epiphany or catharsis, but if–whether I’m writing the poem or reading it–I walk away from the poem without feeling like I’ve just survived a vicarious encounter with some unqualified measure of intensity that I could not have created on my own, if I feel like the placid surface of my consciousness has suffered not so much as a ripple, then I’d say that poem owed me an apology for having wasted my time. If there is not turn, no transformative moment, then the poem is a journal entry, at best a laundry list of reflections and anecdotes, or what I think of as a “litany of relapses”–the barren passage of time unthwarted, moving predictably toward a predictable end. “The moment of change is the only poem,” says Adrienne Rich.

There is no feeling in monotony. We have to establish something before and something after.

–Gregory Pardlo, Air Traffic: A Memoir of Ambition and Manhood in America

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The Political Turn

26 06 2018

Jessica_Morey-Collins

“[P]oems that function on a turn require a kind of internal pluralism…”

Jessica Morey-Collins’s “(Don’t) Stop Hitting Yourself: Poetic Turns and Perspective-Taking” is a brief but bright (and, today, necessary) reflection on the political possibilities of the poetic turn. Check it out!

And then check out some of Morey-Collins’s own poetry, with their openness and challenge–

 





Swivel toward a Stirring

19 06 2018

Courtesy photo Poet Donald Levering

So, this is pretty cool: at the 2018 New Mexico State Poetry Society Annual Meeting and State Convention, not only did Scott Wiggerman, a long-time good friend of the Structure & Surprise blog, present on the poetic turn, but so did Donald Levering. Check out this description of Levering’s workshop:

Workshop Information

Poems with a Turn:
The word “verse” derives from the Latin versus, meaning turning, where lines of poetry are likened to the turns at the ends of rows in plowing a field. And while line-break placement is important, sometimes the farmer swerves to plow a different field, or decides to sow potatoes instead of wheat, or turns to the sky to watch a flock of birds.

This workshop will look at shorter poems that take a sudden turn, poems that may find themselves in another season. The poem may surprise us, shift the argument or focus, move from real to surreal, intensify an emotion, or swing the tone from humorous to serious. Looking at several varied examples, we will examine where and how these poems make their turns, and inquire how the shift serves the poem. We will review the measured, rhetorical turn of Shakespearean sonnets, look at a famous Wordsworthian turn, and sample hinged poems by moderns and contemporaries. Time permitting, we will try our hand at writing turns to given poems and then compare to the author’s version.

This was a workshop that clearly acknowledged the structure / form distinction, and it clearly was focused on poetic structure (the volta, the rhetorical turn) rather than poetic form (line breaks, etc). Fantastic!

Levering is a poet who often engages the turn in his poems. Need proof? Check out his fine poem “Visitant” [scroll down], which swivels wonderfully, and frighteningly, at its conclusion. Glad he’s also teaching others about how to deploy this vital feature of poems!





Lauren Schlesinger’s “Turning In & Away”

9 05 2018

LaurenSchlesinger

So, this is pretty cool: as part of her degree requirements to earn an MFA at the University of Washington, Lauren Schlesinger wrote a thesis titled Turning In & Away: A Discussion on the Turn from Description to Revelation within Emblem Poems.”

Here’s the thesis’s abstract:

Turning In & Away explores how poets can use the notion of a turn to generate a sense of uncertainty and surprise within emblem poems. Using poems by Gjertrud Schnackenberg, Elizabeth Bishop, and Emily Dickinson, this critical thesis interrogates how the turn between description and meditation can be used to destabilize how a poem is read. Furthermore, this study examines how these turns can be endorsed by other elements of craft besides their placement within and orientation to the dominating structure of a poem’s argument. This essay concludes with a final discussion about how the turn proves to be crucial for establishing the sense of intimacy or sense of distance between the speaker and the object of inquisition. (2)

The poems Schlesinger focuses on are Schnackenberg’s “Advent Calendar,”Bishop’s “Cirque d’Hiver,” and Dickinson’s “There’s a certain Slant of light”–wonderful emblem poems, all.

Schlesinger’s approach is to use the thinking on the emblem poem found in Structure & Surprise as an initial entry into the poem, but then to move beyond this kind of introductory treatment of the structure in order to examine the more nuanced, complex dynamics of the emblem’s turn. As Schlesinger states,

[W]hile explicating poems by Gjertrud Schnackberg, Elizabeth Bishop, and Emily Dickinson, I will investigate how the making and unfolding of an emblem poem is also an investigation into how the poet navigates the relationship between the eye and the mind—such that the mind does not always follow the eye, but always the interplay and dance between them is essential to the emblem poem. (4)

What follows, then, is a close reading of each of the poems. Each reading is attentive, perceptive, and revealing. Anyone interested in the emblem structure will find these readings highly engaging.

Of particular interest, though, is the fact that MFA candidate Schlesinger is clearly intrigued by the emblem poem as a working poet. Schlesinger states,

[I]t is evident that—for me— as I proceed to write emblem poems in the future, I must reconsider how I, too, can modulate the orientation of the speaker to the object—to delay, to fuse, to wrench, or to annihilate the speaker’s consciousness between and from the source that arouses such a meditation. Pace and placement of this turn determine the momentum of surprise. (32)

 

I can’t wait to read Schlesinger’s work! I’ll post what I can of it when I can.

In the meantime, if you’re hungry for more great thinking about turns, check out the contributions made to the Voltage Poetry website by the faculty on Schlesinger’s thesis committee: “Turn, Counterturn and Stand: Music and Meaning in Wallace Stevens’ ‘Autumn Refrain,'” by Pimone Triplett; and “False Turns in Alan Dugan’s ‘Last Statement for a Last Oracle,'” by Andrew Feld.





“Beauty”–Full of Turns

25 03 2018

I’m loving this poem: J. Estanislao Lopez’s “Meditation on Beauty.” I admire it for a number of reasons, but chief among them is its wild willingness to turn. This relatively short poem (20 lines) is chock full of twists.

The poem opens with a concessional turn: it’s true, I thought we were done with beauty, but… And then, at “[s]o maybe there’s room…,” the asserted beauty shifts into a kind of emblem’s meditation or moral. The poem, however, is unwilling to rest content here, and challenges its own conclusions, becoming, at “[o]r maybe such beauty…,” ironic, or else entering the condition of negative dialectics. And then the poem turns directionally, to the South, and then it goes deeper, further South and under the Gulf, to end somehow on an image that’s beautiful, and then suddenly, and finally, disconcerting.

What a journey! Check out the poem, and take the ride!





Adam Sol on Jennifer L. Knox’s Leaps and Turns

9 08 2017

sol

Poet Adam Sol has a cool blog called “How a Poem Moves.” You should check it out.

It’s been around a while–since May, 2016. The site’s first post let’s you know what Sol’s up to: “to write short (~1000 word) essays that introduce a single poem and explain some of what I think makes the poem interesting.”

I came across it at just the right time: when Sol introduced and examined Jennifer L. Knox’s poem, “The New Let’s Make a Deal.” This poem has some wild turns and leaps in it, and Sol makes specific note of them (“[t]he poem makes a big turn at the end of line 13 – from ‘totes bonkers’ to news of a hurricane…”), registering the vital ways that they help to make the poem really move.

In his site’s first post, Sol states, “Part of my motivation is an extension of my teaching: so many people are afraid of contemporary poetry, and I hope these short introductions might help ease that discomfort.” Thus, in his writing on Knox it seems Sol is in agreement with this blog, which has made the case that familiarity with turns can be a key aspect of helping readers productively engage seemingly more difficult poetry.

One of the great texts on the poetic turn is John Ciardi’s How Does a Poem Mean? Sol’s “How a Poem Moves” takes up this interest in the turn in its explication of Knox’s poem. I eagerly look forward to reading more of Sol’s blog to see if the turn is a consistent presence in the site’s analyses. I see there are a number of fourteen-lined poems–sonnets, perhaps? with voltas?–that are discussed so the prospect looks good!





Alden’s Structure-Form Distinction

11 07 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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