Blas Falconer’s “Ghost Turn”

26 06 2019

The following essay by Blas Falconer was originally published in Diane Lockward’s Poetry Newsletter. I thank Blas and Diane for allowing me to reprint this essay here. If you wish to read more such insightful essays, sign up for the Poetry Newsletter here (scroll down for the link). And, if you think Blas’s thinking about turns is engaging, you should check out his poems! Lots of links here.

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As the online resource Voltage Poetry demonstrates, there are countless ways that a poem can turn, but when I was a student, we talked about poetic turns most often and most clearly when we talked about sonnets. In the Petrarchan sonnet, of course, the change in rhyme scheme after the octave usually encourages a turn in perspective. In the Shakespearean sonnet, the change in the rhyme scheme after the third quatrain often encourages a rhetorical shift in the final couplet. 

Bruce Smith’s contemporary sonnet “After St. Vincent Millay” demonstrates a typical Shakespearean turn:

When I saw you again, distant, sparrow-boned
under the elegant clothes you wear in your life without me,
I thought, No, No, let her be the one
this time to look up at an oblivious me.

Let her find the edge of the cliff with her foot,
blindfolded. Let her be the one struck by the lightning
of the other so that the heart is jolted
from the ribs and the rest of the body is nothing

but ash. It’s a sad, familiar story
I wish you were telling me with this shabby excuse:
I never loved you any more than
I hated myself for loving you.

And about that other guy by your side
you left me for. I hope he dies.

Years ago, one of my professors pointed out that the Shakespearean sonnet, in addition to its turn in final couplet, usually has a lesser turn, a “ghost turn,” after the eighth line, too, a nod to the Petrarchan tradition. As an editor and as a teacher, I have noted that one common difference between a good poem and a great poem is that the good poem, regardless of the form, so often mistakes a ghost turn (“It’s a sad familiar story”) with a final turn (“And about that other guy by your side”). To end a poem, free verse or otherwise, on the ghost turn means to end it prematurely. With the ghost turn, the poet senses a shift in the poem and shuts the poem down before it is fully realized, so the poem comes across as facile, less rich, less dynamic, less ambitious than it could be. 

Consider the poems you love, poems that have been celebrated for years to see how often they push beyond the first temptation of closure, the first disruption of a pattern, the first turn. Imagine, for example, if Richard Wilbur’s poem “The Writer” ended with the starling and not the daughter. 

It lifted off from a chair-back,
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.

It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten.  I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.

Imagine if Thomas James’s poem “Mummy of a Lady Named Jemutesonekh” ended with a description of the mummification and not the dead beloved, not the question about the lies that we tell each other.  

Shut in my painted box, I am a precious object.
I wear a wooden mask. These are my eyelids,
Two flakes of bronze, and here is my new mouth,
Chiseled with care, guarding its ruby facets.
I will last forever. I am not impatient—
My skin will wait to greet its old complexions.
I’ll lie here till the world swims back again.

When I come home the garden will be budding,
White petals breaking open, clusters of night flowers,
The far-off music of a tambourine.
A boy will pace among the passionflowers,
His eyes no longer two bruised surfaces.
I’ll know the mouth of my young groom, I’ll touch
His hands. Why do people lie to one another?

Then, read the featured entries in Voltage Poetry to see how brilliantly poets create turns in their poems.  Read Arielle Greenberg’s take on Shane McRae’s “We married in a taxi.” Read Craig Santos Perez’s essay on Anne Perez Hattori’s “Thieves.” Read David Wright’s critique of “When the Neighbors Fight” by Terrance Hayes. Identify the ghost turn. Consider how the poet resisted the easy ending.

Finally, with an open mind, look at your own poems. Do they end with a ghost turn? Have you mistaken an ending for the ending, for closure, when what the poem is really asking for is another beginning, another turn? Test your poems. Push yourself. Turn from description to reflection or from question to answer. Turn with a rhetorical shift. Turn from one story or image or idea to another, from statement to contradiction. Offer your reader a new voice. Push your poems past your comfort and what you already know. To write the great poem, I have come to believe, that’s what it takes. 

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Punch-in-the-Face Poetry

9 04 2014

punch

So I’m kind of groovin’ on a site that’s new to me: Punch-in-the-Face Poetry.  This site posts some slammin’ good poems.  Among the criteria that the site’s editor looks for in a great poem is “a strong turn.”  And there certainly are turns-a-plenty at Punch-in-the-Face.  So, check it out, and check out Voltage Poetry, and Voltage!  And let those great turns do what they do so well: knock you out!





Voltage Poetry 2.0 Launches Tomorrow!

17 02 2014


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Tomorrow morning, at 11 a.m. (CST), the next round of contributions to Voltage Poetry launches!  I hope you’ll check it out–

(Teaser: for the first post of the new launch, David Mason reflects on the stunning turn in Cally Conan-Davies’s “Wompoo Fruit Dove”…)

As noted on Voltage Poetry’s “About” page, in “Lyricism of the Swerve,” Hank Lazer asks, “Is there a describable lyricism of swerving?  For those poems for which the swerve, the turn, the sudden change in direction are integral, can we begin to articulate a precise appreciation?”  Voltage Poetry continues to strive to undertake this important articulation and appreciation.

Co-edited by Kim Addonizio and yours truly, Voltage Poetry is an online anthology that collects essays written by some of today’s most exciting poets and critics about poems with great turns them.  Right now, the site features over 70 essays on some amazing poems.  As with the first round of publication, each week approximately three new essays will be posted.  As we currently have over 30 new contributors, the site’s conversation about the turn will continue to evolve for approximately the next three months or so.  However, submissions also are accepted (interested? click here for information)–so the conversation may continue.  In the months to come, I look forward to further reflecting on the turn here at the Structure & Surprise blog by examining ideas and questions raised in and by the essays on Voltage Poetry.  I hope others also may be inspired by Voltage Poetry and begin to think and write more about the poetic turn.

Voltage Poetry has been a collaborative effort from the start, and it remains so.  It has been a deep pleasure to get to work with Kim and all the site’s contributors–a group of truly amazing poets and critics.  Additionally, many poets whose poems are featured on the site offered gracious assistance when it came to attaining permission to reprint their poems.  And numerous permissions and publishing professionals continue to be generous and supportive of this project.

This round of publications in Voltage Poetry has benefited greatly from the dedicated work of its editorial assistant, Erica Kucharski.  Student assistants Colleen O’Connor, Nicole Pierce, Maggie Zeisset, Kristina Dehlin, Mike Dickinson, and Danielle Kamp have helped with proofreading.  Michael Gorman’s technical expertise has been invaluable.  My heartfelt thanks to all involved with this stage of the project…

I hope you, too, will get involved with Voltage Poetry–if you do: thank you!





Voltage Poetry in the News

31 01 2013

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A nice write-up of the Voltage Poetry site, which features poems with great turns in it–along with discussion of those turns–can be found here.