Structure as Pattern of Turning in James G. Hepburn’s Poetic Design: Handbook and Anthology

5 06 2016

When in Poetic Design: Handbook and Anthology, James G. Hepburn uses the word “structure” he means many things: “structure” comprises, among other things, stanzas, syntax, rhyme scheme, and line. However, for Hepburn, “structure” means, primarily, the pattern of a poem’s turning–the thing is, he is not explicit about this, though he should have been.

Right away in chapter 8, “Structure,” it seems as though structure might mean something  like the turn. Hepburn opens the chapter stating, “The structure of a poem is like the structure of a house: it is what underlies, supports, and frames the words, the alliteration, the metaphors, the rhymes. It is the integrated pattern and movement of all the parts” (109).

However, from this focused definition of structure, structure quickly comes to mean a great many things. In the next paragraph, structure means stanzas. Discussing Robert Frost’s “Dust of Snow,” Hepburn states, “The most obvious aspect of structure is the division of the poem into two stanzas” (109). He also notes that syntax is a part of this structure: “But look at the poem again, and observe that the poet has crossed the structure  with another structure: the two stanzas are part of a single sentence” (109-10). Further on, Hepburn adds an additional element to structure: “One aspect of the structure of the poem that has been unmentioned–and there are still others–is the rhyme scheme” (110). And, Hepburn adds, “Of course the individual line is an important structural element in any poem, and a more complete discussion of the two previous poems [“Dust of Snow” and Shakespeare’s sonnet 73] would have dealt with it too” (114).

For all of this range, this diversity, of what structure entails, it is clear that, though he never says it, the heart of structure, as the introduction to the chapter seemed to indicate it could be, is the turn.

The three poems focused on in this chapter feature distinct turns. “Dust of Snow” turns sharply between its two stanzas. Sonnet 73, as one would expect of a Shakespearean sonnet, turns distinctly between the third quatrain and the final couplet. The third poem, William Wordsworth’s “There Was a Boy”, turns profoundly between its two stanzas.

And Hepburn seems to be aware of this: most of his discussions of various structural components entail (though they only imply) the turn, that is, a major shift in the rhetorical and/or dramatic trajectory of a poem. Discussing the two stanzas in “Dust of Snow,” Hepburn notes, “The stanzaic division corresponds with a division between image and idea, or action and reaction: the crow shakes the snow in the first stanza, and the speaker of the poem reflects in the second” (109).

The same thing happens when discussing sonnet 73. Hepburn initially focuses on the rhyme scheme in this poem, noting that this particular sonnet has both a “fourfold structure” (abab-cdcd-efef-gg) and a “twofold structure” (ababcdcdefef–gg) (111). However, Hepburn knows (though he does not say) that the twofold structure pivots on the poem’s turn; he states, “The twofold aspect is supported by the structure of idea in the poem: the first twelve lines say that the speaker of the poem is growing old; the last two lines assert a consequence” (111). In the next paragraph, Hepburn expands on this, and, though he does not say it directly, directs his reader’s attention to the volta:

Now consider another aspect of structure, the development of image and idea. The first four lines present an image of autumn, the next four of a darkening evening, the next four of a dying fire. These three images can be thought of as constituting a single image of a dying fire on an autumn evening, or they can be seen as separate, essentially repeating images. Individually or together, they say: I am growing old. Again, one sees a structure in which the first twelve lines contrast with the last two. The division is further emphasized by the fact that the idea in first twelve lines is presented in sustained images, whereas the ideas in the last two lines is presented more directly. The two parts of the poem look different from each other: in the first twelve lines images are in the foreground, with the idea lying behind them; in the last two lines an idea is in the foreground, served by incidental metaphors. (111)

And the same thing happens with “There Was a Boy.” Of this poem, Hepburn first makes note of its “apparently irregular” structure, commenting on the different sizes of the stanzas (which are so irregular that Hepburn clarifies that each is “more fittingly called a verse paragraph”); on the presence of “several strong caesuras”; and on the facts “that the iambic pentameter rhythm is often broken” and “that there are many run-on lines” (113). Hepburn then turns from this view of the poem to argue for the structural unity of the poem; he states, “He [Wordsworth] does not rely upon a conventional form such as the sonnet, and he does not invent his own neat stanzaic structure; rather, he creates a fluid organic pattern” (113).

Hepburn begins his discussion of this fluid organic pattern by focusing on the poem’s use of line, including the ways that “incongruent grammatical structures” affect it–he notes, for example, that “almost every line in the first verse paragraph is run-on, and almost all the heavy grammatical pauses–ends of clauses and sentences–are placed within the lines rather than at the ends” (114). Hepburn observes that this technique creates “a steady forward movement” that feels “natural rather than sculpted” (114). Hepburn then contrasts the use of these structural elements to their use in the second verse paragraph, which feels “less unified than the first, and lacks something of its forward movement,” thus coming to seem “a diminishing afterthought” (114).

But, of course, this difference in the deployment of structural elements serves to help the poem enact the feelings and moods on either side of the poem’s major turn from lively celebration of wondrous, mystical life to fragmented mourning. As he considers the significance of this (unnamed) turn, Hepburn thinks about how it seems the second verse paragraph could be removed from the poem without too much loss (whereas “Dust of Snow” would be destroyed by the loss of its second stanza), but that in fact this is not the case; Hepburn states, “Yet nothing is more certain than that in its own way Wordsworth’s second verse paragraph is as important structurally as Frost’s” (114). To make his case, Hepburn notes the parallels between the boy’s and the man’s silent listening, and how, only with the second verse paragraph “does the reader himself [sic] stand mute, looking at boy and man in nature, listening to the meaning of life” (114-15).

Hepburn also makes a point that I think is not quite totally correct and that demonstrates a negative consequence of his inattention to the turn; he states,

As a further means of clarifying the structural importance of the second verse paragraph, contrast it now with the quatrains of Shakespeare’s poem. Any one of the quatrains (any one of the images contained by them) could be removed without vitally damaging the structure of the poem or the poem itself: something important would be lost, the clear and sedate narrowing of images and implication, but the poem could sustain the loss, and remain much the same as before. In Wordsworth’s poem the second image of the listening person reverberates against the first, enhances its meaning, gives the poem a direction into deeper meaning. (115)

I disagree with Hepburn’s comparing the second verse paragraph with a sonnet’s quatrain. The second verse paragraph, which comes after the turn, should instead be compared to Shakespeare’s couplet (or, had a different sonnet been used, Petrarch’s sestet). The result is the same: Hepburn still believes that the second verse paragraph cannot be removed. And this is good. However, this paragraph of Hepburn’s would have made much more sense had Hepburn written, “As a further means of clarifying the structural importance of the second verse paragraph, compare it now to the couplet of Shakespeare’s poem. Just as the couplet cannot be removed from that sonnet without irreparably damaging the meaning and significance of the poem, so can the second verse paragraph not be removed from ‘There Was a Boy.'”

The fact that Hepburn does not do this is the sign and seal of the fact that he does not pay adequate attention to the turn in his chapter on structure. He is generally aware of the turn, and his whole chapter on structure pivots on it, but he is not explicit about it, and so some infelicities and confusions arise where there need not be any. The bigger confusion that this partial inattention to the turn creates occurs at the outset of his chapter on structure. Hepburn states that structure is “like the structure of a house: it is what underlies, supports, and frames the words, the alliteration, the metaphors, the rhymes.” So, structure underlies, supports, and frames rhyme, but also rhyme is a structural “aspect” (110). This confusion could have been cleared up had Hepburn differentiated, as did Randall Jarrell in “Levels and Opposites: Structure in Poetry,” between “musical structure” and “other sorts of structure in lyrical poetry.”

In the introduction to How Does a Poem Mean?, the only introduction to poetry textbook that contains a chapter on the turn (though this book refers to it as the “fulcrum”), John Ciardi refers to the book’s final chapter on the turn as “the important one.”  Ciardi clarifies, “The present volume sets out simply to isolate some of the characteristics of poetry and to develop criteria by which parts of the poetic structure may be experienced in a more comprehensive way.  The final chapter suggests a method whereby all the criteria developed in the preceding chapters may be applied to the comprehension of the total poem.”

I think Hepburn agrees. He examines a number of structural characteristics of poems, but the turn is the key aspect of the poem these other characteristics orbit and contribute to. And this is excellent! (In fact, about Wordsworth’s poem Hepburn notes correctly that “[i]t has been impossible to describe the structure without clarifying the meaning, and it would be equally impossible to state the meaning without discussing the structure” (115).) I only wish that Hepburn had been more consistently explicit in articulating the centrality of the turn to his conception of poetic structure. In this way, his treatment of structure would have been more accurate and likely would not have included the small but still unnecessary missteps that it does.

High Voltage Poetry: On the Poetic Turn

13 05 2016

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–


The High Voltage Poetry Team: Dan Smart, Jake Morris, Kristina Dehlin, and Mike Theune


The Rilkean Volta

12 10 2015


“Black Cat,” by Rainer Maria Rilke

In his terrific Poetry’s Touch: On Lyric Address, William Waters suggests there is a kind of “Rilkean ‘volta'” (94). It is the kind of volta one finds in “Black Cat.” He states,

Later in the poem, when the form you returns suddenly, we may mentally narrow the range of you to a single addressee, as the Rilkean “volta” isolates a punctual single event…That is, this poem, like so many of the New Poems, turns from an imperfective aspect–the first twelve lines describe not an event but generally valid conditions–to a perfective one; and a singular event–“she turns her face straight into your own”–implies a specific you unlike that of the opening stanza. (94)

What these poems [“Black Cat,” “Snake-Charming,” and “Archaic Torso of Apollo”] finally depict is not “someone’s” encounter but encounter itself: Rilke’s fascination is not with autobiographical events but with the possibilities of mind and world. The you-form, able to address each comer, permits this level of inclusiveness while yet retaining the insistence on the solitary, particular, one-time nature of meeting. The architecture of Rilke’s verse draws the reader in, eliciting the absorbed encounter that the poem describes and that its second-person grammar replicatingly calls forth. (98)

I love this idea: that some poets have a kind of turn all their own, or that seems primarily theirs. Can other poets be said to lay claim to a specific kind of turn? Shakespeare, of course, famously moved the location of the sonnet’s turn, but are their other poets we could argue have a kind of turn all, or primarily, their own?

Wordsworth, Theorizing the Volta

2 06 2015

January 26th.–I wish I could here write down all that Wordsworth has said about the Sonnet lately, or record here the fine fourteen lines of Milton’s ” Paradise Lost,” which he says are a perfect sonnet without rhyme, and essentially one in unity of thought. Wordsworth does not approve of uniformly closing the second quatrain with a full stop, and of giving a turn to the thought in the terzines. This is the Italian mode; Milton lets the thought run over. He has used both forms indifferently. I prefer the Italian form. Wordsworth does not approve of closing the sonnet with a couplet, and he holds it to be absolutely a vice to have a sharp turning at the end with an epigrammatic point. He does not, therefore, quite approve of the termination of Cowper’s ” Sonnet to Romney,”–

” Nor couldst thou sorrow see

While I was Hayley’s guest and sat to thee.”

–Henry Crabb Robinson, Diary, Reminiscences, and Correspondence of Henry Crabb Robinson (223).

Looking with Hirshfield’s Ten Windows

19 05 2015


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 herehere, 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)




The Turn and the Talking Cure

28 09 2014


Poet and clinical psychologist Lisa C. Krueger has recently published an article on the relations between poetry and therapy.  The article, “Ars Poetica and the Talking Cure: Poetry, Therapy, & the Quest to Create,” appears in the latest issue of The Writer’s Chronicle (47.2 (Oct/Nov, 2014): 86-93).  While the whole article is fascinating, one part in particular caught my attention: the focus on the turn in poetry and therapy.  Krueger writes:

Within the structure of these endeavors [poetry and therapy] there are similar movements of progression, a turning and returning to points of departure.  A poem may require repetition, a restoration of words; therapy may require a return to the past, repeating and rewriting words that have been spoken, weaving history into new language.  Like a sonnet, therapy aims toward a turning point, a volta-like moment of awareness, new understanding of material “in the room.” (87-88)

Krueger then discusses how W.S. Merwin’s poem “My Hand” “mirrors the therapeutic movement” (87).  I love this connection.  I’ve written on Merwin and the turn–for example, here.  And, in fact, in my contribution to Until Everything Is Continuous Again: American Poets on the Recent Work of W.S. Merwin, I point to “My Hand” as being one of the many poems in The Shadow of Sirius that has a great turn in it.

Those interested in the turn should check out Merwin, and Krueger’s article, and Krueger’s poetry–including “There Is No Echo” and “Ready for Happiness”–which is full of great turns.

Strike and Drift

28 06 2014


Pretty awesome turn in Jennifer K. Sweeney’s “The Snow Leopard Mother.”  A radical shift in direction and emotional energy…  And, once again, further evidence of the transformative power of that tiny word “yet”…  Check it out!