Poetry Magazine & the Turn

4 07 2009


There has been a great deal of fuss made over the latest issue of Poetry.  The July/August 2009 issue contains a section of poems by poets who are a part of the Flarf and Conceptual Poetry movements, movements which, because of their challenge to the concepts of poetry held by many, tend to cause a stir–especially among those who read Poetry, a magazine generally not given to publishing such work.  (Indeed, Stan Apps’ recent analysis of Poetry‘s latest issue suggests that while the issue (obviously) includes Flarf and Conceptual poetry it also quarantines this, to use Poetry‘s term, “writing,” from the much lengthier collection of what Poetry calls “poems” that opens magazine.)

The debate is intriguing, and worth looking into.  (Some places to start: Kenneth Goldsmith’s introduction to Poetry‘s F-Con Po issue, and Dale Smith’s response.)

I want to take a slightly different tack, though, and argue that this latest issue of Poetry does not only feature F-Con Po: it also features the poetic turn.  Even employing a rather strict definition of what a turn is (here, I’m only counting poems that employ a very clear and significant major turn), I count at least nine poets in the current issue of Poetry who make use of a significant turn in at least one of their poems.  These poets include Tony Hoagland (in “At the Galleria Shopping Mall” and “Personal”), Jane Hirschfield (in “Perishable, It Said”), Charles Simic (in “The Melon”), John Poch (in “The Llano Estacado”), John Hodgen (in “For the man with the erection lasting more than four hours”), Ange Mlinko (in “This is the Latest”), David Bottoms (in “The Stroke”), Robyn Sarah (in “Blowing the Fluff Away”), Jordan Davis (in “Poem for a Sixth Wedding”), and Caroline Bergvall (in “The Not Tale (Funeral)”).  This number (again, the result of very conservative estimations and estimates) means that in the current issue of Poetry there are more “turners” than there are either Flarfists or Conceptual Poets.

To say the above is not to say that all the poems that have significant turns in them are great–this is by no means true.  (I think about three of the turns in the above poems are pretty great; a few are good; a few are so-so; and a few are weak.  The ones I really like are the turns in the poems listed above by Hodgen, Mlinko, and Davis.)

What I personally like, however, I think (and I trust you, not being me, will agree) is much less interesting than some systematic inconsistencies that arise once the prominence of the turn is noted.

For example: why isn’t the current issue of Poetry called “The Turn” issue?  I’m being a bit cheeky here, of course, but noticing both the presence of the turn in the recent Poetry and the absence of any real mention of the turn reveals an inconsistency near the heart of Poetry, the magazine, and poetry, in general.

The presence of the turn in an issue of Poetry is not at all surprising.  Poetry seems to really like turns.  (Important information for those who might have interest in submitting their work to Poetry.)  What’s interesting about this phenomenon is the following:

Though the turn is a real presence in Poetry, it is a largely unacknowledged presence.  Not only has there not been a special section of the magazine devoted to poems with great turns (ahem…), but the Poetry Foundation’s “Poetry Tool”–which allows one to search the Foundation’s extensive poetry archive by various means, including “By Glossary Term”–does not recognize the turn, or particular types of turns, as aspects of poems for which people might want to search.  This is oddly inconsistent: to supply regularly in the magazine an element of poetry which is absent from the Foundation’s other venues and discussions.

What’s happening in terms of turns over at Poetry, of course, happens more generally in poetry.  Though the turn is a vital part of a lot of poetry (T.S. Eliot says that the turn is “one of the most important means of poetic effect since Homer”–a means of poetic effect important even for some Flarf and Conceptual Poetry, it seems), we tend to not talk about it, and focus instead on other matters, often, especially, form.  As I suggest in “The Structure-Form Distinction,” we need to realize the significance of poetic structure (the patterns of turns in poems), and find ways to act on that realization…

What I’m suggesting here is that we at least see the significant role of the turn in the lastest issue of Poetry.  What exactly might be done with such knowledge remains to be seen…



9 responses

14 07 2009
Alfred Corn

This interests me, but you haven’t offered a definition of the “turn.” In the Italian sonnet there is a =volta= after line eight, a shift in the argument also reinforced by a change in rhyme scheme. Is this what you mean? I’m guessing you’re applying the term to poems that aren’t sonnets, and the “turn” is simply a change in direction of the discourse, yes?

15 07 2009
Mike Theune

You’ve got it, Alfred–in a nutshell!

The best (most detailed and succinct) place on this blog for an explanation of the turn and a statement of the turn’s signficance is on “The Structure-Form Distinction” page, under “Theory & Criticism.”

However, I do hope that, intrigued by this post and perhaps by “The Structure-Form Distinction,” you also might explore this blog a bit more. Beyond trying to define the turn, this blog (and Structure & Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns, the book it supplements) aims to reveal the ways that attention to turns can affect how we conceive of, read, and even write poems.

Many thanks for stopping by, and for your comment.

14 07 2009
Daniel E. Pritchard

Really interesting post, glad to see an interest in formal criticism.

15 07 2009
Mike Theune

Thank you for your comment, Daniel.

Yes, certainly, this is formal criticism, but with (I hope it’s apparent) (if you’ll forgive the pun) a twist…


15 07 2009
Alfred Corn

Got it. And will read other essays posted here. I am curious to know why the “turn” has suddenly been propelled into center stage of discussion of poetry. Don Share is as concerned with it as you are and I believe he has said that no poem can be great unless it has one. But surely we can all name great poems that don’t follow the paradigm.

15 07 2009
Mike Theune

I’m very pleased to know that there is some growing interest in the turn–that’s good news…whatever the reason!

From my end of things, Alfred, I think it’s mostly just time that the turn gets its due. Turning is a vital part of so many poems (though, certainly, not all), but we (poets, critics, teachers) have not done a very good of presenting the turn to interested audiences. For example, though T. S. Eliot calls the turn “one of the most important means of poetic effect since Homer,” turns are almost never featured in introduction to poetry textbooks or poetry writing handbooks. It is important to recognize, and perhaps redress, this inconsistency.

I’d also add, though, that there also may be reasons why today (specifically) the turn is getting attention in poetry. To name one: though not so long ago poets were taught rhetorical maneuvers as an essential part of their education (in courses on philosophy, religion, jurisprudence), this is generally not the case anymore–students tend to receive little such training; however, these maneuvers still are at the heart of much great poetry, and so they need to be taught, and so those involved directly in poetry (poets, critics, editors, teachers, etc) are beginning to see that they are the ones who need to attend to and focus more on the turn. Just a theory…


15 07 2009
Alfred Corn

So then our poetry has reached a turning point on this pivotal topic. I don’t know whether you apply the term to long narratives, which are likely to have several turns, as the plot develops. In the modern poetic sequence, possibly each successive section could be described as a “turn.” Or perhaps it is more useful to reserve applying the word only to short poems exhibiting a change of course toward the conclusion. Thoughts?

16 07 2009
Mike Theune

Once again, you’re absolutely correct, Alfred: narrative poems and modern poetic sequences often have a number of turns in them. These turns, I’d say, are vital parts of such poems/sequences, and anyone (poets, teachers, readers, etc) serious about such kinds of poems should know about turns–recognize them, their affect and power–as much as they know about other aspects of such poems (form, voice, etc).

My decision to focus in this blog on the structures I do (yes, mostly structures for (relatively) shorter, lyrical poems) is largely a pragmatic decision: once people begin to see the presence of the turn in the lyrical core of poetry (where many people might not tend to look for turns, thinking that the lyrical excludes such structural development), they may later be more apt to think seriously about turns in all kinds of poetry.

…And, heck, in literature and the arts, more generally. Not only poems turn, of course. Narrative poems can (and often do) turn, but so can (and do) stories, movies, and letters. (One of my favorite turns of all time is from a letter by John Keats–I link to it over on the “Voltage!” page.)

I hope in the next week or two to post some reflections about the relations between narrative and the turn. I hope you’ll stay tuned! Cheers!

13 05 2016
On James Longenbach’s “Lyric Knowledge” | Structure & Surprise

[…] the only critic interested in turns. Of course, I am. But so are the editors are Poetry. (Here is some proof.) So are, frankly, just about all critics and editors. However, most critics and […]

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