I Do…like Dialectical Arguments

25 01 2011

I just came across Nick Laird’s Epithalamium last night, while reading some recent issues of The New Yorker (January 24, 2011).  A really fun poem.

The poem makes great use of the dialectical argument structure, its shuttling back and forth between “you” and “I” is a constant consideration and reconsideration of thesis and antithesis.  And the conclusion (“or I am, or you are”) is an effort at synthesis, suggesting that the “you” and the “I” are united in that they, in fact, are potentially (for all their wild specificity) the same.

I think Laird’s poem is incredibly teachable.  For insights on how to encourage and guide students to write a poem like this, check out this blog’s “Teaching Collaborative, Dialectical Argument Poems” page.

I Have Seen the Light

23 01 2011

Kate Light’s “And Then There Is that Incredible Moment,” seems to me to be

the theme song / fight song / rallying cry / mission statement / motto / ode / passionate acknowledgement / hymn

to / of / about

the power of the poetic turn to surprise / delight / illuminate / inspire / ignite / empower.

I admire this sonnet for how it clearly praises the poetic turn, “that incredible moment, / when you realize what you’re reading…is not what you expected…where you thought you were heading.”  But I admire it even more for the way it clearly and distinctly links passionate reading with the determination to write and to teach, to construct and to share more of those incredible moments, to offer the amazing “ride” of the turn to others, and to encourage those others to share, in turn.


To read a few more poems which offer “that incredible moment,” check out Voltage!

The Filibuster Poem

20 01 2011


Why doesn’t the poet just say what she means?  Why take so much time to get to the point?  While such questions may surprise the working poet, who understands the significance of delay and even expansive digression in poetry, such questions can and do arise in undergraduate poetry writing classes, in which students are still figuring out the relationship between suspense and surprise in powerful, moving poems.  One way to answer such questions is to address them directly, by teaching a kind of poetry that depends upon, and even revels in, delay: the filibuster poem.

The glossary of the U.S. Senate’s web site defines “filibuster” as an “[i]nformal term for any attempt to block or delay Senate action on a bill or other matter by debating it at length, by offering numerous procedural motions, or by any other delaying or obstructive actions.”  The history of Senate filibusters is replete with extravagant delay strategies, including Louisiana senator Huey Long’s extensive and creative filibusters (one lasted 15 hours; and Long became famous for reading recipes for oyster dishes during another).

In recent poetry, the filibuster most often refers to a personal delay strategy, a tactic for putting off something one does not want to admit or face up to.  Inevitably, though, the filibuster poem finally does reveal what it was trying to avoid.  Thus, the filibuster poem consists of a two-part structure: an extended transcript or a record of the delay, followed by the ultimate delivery of the material the poem’s speaker had wanted to avert or elude.

As its title indicates, Courtney Queeney’s “Filibuster to Delay a Kiss” (from Filibuster to Delay a Kiss (New York: Random House, 2007)) exemplifies this structure.  The speaker of this sonnet goes to great, Huey Long-style lengths (among other things: reading sections of the dictionary, reading “ingredients from a cereal box side panel,” reading “one page of the phone book,” arguing “against drilling for oil in the Arctic,” waxing eloquent on “ocean reeds,” reciting lines from Woolf and Shakespeare) all in the hopes that a certain “he” would “lose interest, wander off,” and not stopping (though the poem itself does stop at this point, the sonnet’s final, perfect-rhyme couplet) “because at any break / I knew there’d be the hand over my mouth. / There’d be his mouth.”  Another excellent example of the filibuster structure is Austin Smith’s “Instructions for How To Put an Old Horse Down” (from Instructions for How to Put an Old Horse Down (Green River, VT: Longhouse, 2009), which begins, “This is what you need to do: / wait…,” and then offers a list of desperate, heartbreaking avoidance strategies before arriving, 33 lines later, at the devastating conclusion: “[T]hen lead her in. // Then lead her in.”

So: Why doesn’t the poet just say what she means?  The answer the filibuster poem provides is to remind beginning poets that we do not always say or do what we mean or intend, that we very often prevaricate and try to avoid difficult situations, and that poems, which themselves often employ commonly-used speech acts, also can employ these avoidance strategies to admit the truth and to reveal the power, by recreating the drama, of such delay.


I’ll present the above short paper as a part of the Pedagogy Forum Session: Poetry at this year’s AWP conference in Washington, D.C.  Stop by, if you can!

The Monkey & the Wrench

15 01 2011

Hot off the press: The Monkey & the Wrench: Essay into Contemporary Poetics, edited by Mary Biddinger and John Gallaher.  As its back cover material correctly states,

The Monkey & the Wrench: Essays into Contemporary Poetics takes a snapshot of a moving target: the ever-shifting conversation about today’s poetry.  The ten essays in this collection offer reflections and insights, practical advice for craft matters, and provocative points of departure for those who read and write poetry.”

The ten essays include work by some terrific poets and critics, including Bob Archambeau, Elisa Gabbert, Michael Dumanis, Stephen Burt, Benjamin Paloff, Elizabeth Robinson, David Kirby, Cole Swensen, and Joy Katz.  (For a good sense of what’s in the book, go to editor John Gallaher’s blog post on the book, here.)

I was fortunate to have a short essay published in this book, as well.  Last year, with Mark Wallace, I co-organized a panel, called “Hybrid Aesthetics and Its Discontents,” for the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference.  Editor John Gallaher attended the panel, and, afterwards, asked if we might like to publish the papers delivered in the panel in The Monkey & the Wrench.  We took John up on his offer.

The papers included in “Hybrid Aesthetics and Its Discontents” are Mark Wallace’s “Against Unity,” my own “No Laughing Matter: The Humorless Hybrid,” Arielle Greenberg’s “Hybridity in Gurlesque Poetry,” Craig Santos Perez’s “Whitewashing American Hybrid Aesthetics,” and Megan Volpert’s “A Drag Queen’s Lament: Or, how I learned to stop worrying and love my camp.”  Each of these papers, in its own way and to its own degree, critiques the growing phenomenon of hybridity in American poetry, especially as it appears in American Hybrid: A Norton Anthology of New Poetry.  In the words of the introduction to our panel papers:

“In ‘Against Unity,’ Mark Wallace challenges the application of what he sees as the overly simple two-camp model to a much more complex contemporary American poetry scene, and, while he continues to call for hybridity in poetry, the hybridity he hopes for is a stranger, even more monstrous kind of hybridity than is found in American Hybrid.  In ‘No Laughing Matter: The Humorless Hybrid,’ Michael Theune reveals that hybridity, while meant to synthesize, in fact reinscribes a significant division in American poetry: that between the serious and the comedic.  In ‘Hybridity in Gurlesque Poetry,’ Arielle Greenberg considers another kind of hybridity, the Gurlesque, a more extreme and vigorous hybrid than is typically encountered in hybrid anthologies.  Both Craig Santos Perez and Megan Volpert reveal the culturally conservative trends in hybrid anthologizing; in ‘Whitewashing American Hybrid Aesthetics,’ Perez critiques American Hybrid for not representing America’s racial and ethnic diversity, and in ‘A Drag Queen’s Lament: Or, how I learned to stop worrying and love my camp,’ Volpert critiques the relatively conservative sexual politics of hybridity and calls for a poetry of unapologetic, queer difference.” (119)

I hope any and all who are curious about, and perhaps a bit skeptical of, hybrid poetry check out “Hybrid Aesthetics and Its Discontents.”

For those interested in matters of the poetic turn, I’ll simply say that my short essay makes a point that I’ve tried to make in different ways in different venues (including here, and here): that hybrid poetry typically does not (and perhaps cannot) deliver truly amazing, witty, fitting and surprising turns.  From my essay:

“Humor requires great orchestration, the management of great, playful leaps.  What the hybrid, with its recombinations, its disruptions and scramblings (which very often come to seem like, and which hybrid thinking so far has done nothing to differentiate from, mere short circuiting), has real trouble creating is wit.  Wit—recognized as one of the rarest of all poetic achievements; in his essay ‘Andrew Marvell,’ T.S. Eliot calls wit ‘something precious and needed…’ (263)—is such a precious achievement because in order to create it one must create a sense of fitting surprise, a state in which language both delivers on expectations yet leaps beyond them.  As Barbara Herrnstein Smith notes in Poetic Closure: A Study of How Poems End, ‘A hyperdetermined conclusion will have maximal stability and finality; and when these qualities occur in conjunction with unexpected or in some way unstable material…the result will be wit—which, as many have observed, occurs when expectations are simultaneously surprised and fulfilled’ (206).  Wit requires a real synthesis, and humor requires the skillful, effective combination of attentiveness to the brain and the guts and the groin.  The hybrid offers no vision of what a successful recombination of poetic elements is; though it talks of synthesis, its poems don’t have to have wit’s synthesis, and rather are allowed to be messy amalgamations.  Perhaps exquisite, singular poetic syntheses are omitted from hybrid anthologies because they would put to the test the value of hybridity in general.” (131-32).

Joy Katz’s essay, “Goodbye, Goodbye, Goodbye: Notes on the Ends of Poems,” also contains some interesting insights for those intrigued by turns in poetry.  I hope to discuss her essay in another post in the very near future.

Close Reading “Close Reading: Windows”

9 01 2011

As I have stated elsewhere on this blog (such as here, and by including many of her poems as exemplars of particular types of turns), poet-critic Jane Hirshfield is one of today’s great advocates and practitioners of the poetic turn.  Hirshfield’s advocacy for the turn continues in her latest, excellent essay on poetry, “Close Reading: Windows” (The Writer’s Chronicle 43.4 (Feb. 2011): 22-30).

Hirshfield begins her essay, stating, “Many good poems have a kind of window-moment in them–a point at which they change their direction of gaze or thought in a way that suddenly opens a broadened landscape of meaning and feeling.  Encountering such a moment, the reader breathes in some new infusion, as steeply perceptible as any physical window’s increase of light, scent, sound, or air.  The gesture is one of lifting, unlatching, releasing; mind and attention swing open to newly peeled vistas.”

Though Hirshfield notes that such window-moments may be momentary elements within a poem, most often the window-moment is associated with the turn.  Hirschfield states, “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.”

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. 

The turn in the final stanza of Philip Larkin’s “High Windows” is the major window-moment in the poem, the place where, according to Hirshfield, the poem “suddenly turns.”  (In Structure & Surprise, Christopher Bakken considers “High Windows” a poem employing an ironic structure.)  

A vital window-moment in Emily Dickinson’s “We grow accustomed to the Dark–“ (a poem that employs a Metaphor-to-Meaning Structure) occurs at the poem’s major turn from metaphor to meaning; as Hirshfield notes, “‘And so of larger–Darkness– / Those Evenings of the Brain– / When not a Moon disclose a sign– / Or Star–come out–within–‘  With these lines, the poem moves into charged terrain.”

In Wislawa Szymborska’s Some People, a poem employing a List-with-a-Twist Structure, the window-moment occurs at the poem’s final twist.  As Hirshfield notes of the poem’s third-to-last line, “With that line’s grammatical knife-twist, certain kinds of awareness we were not even aware had been supressed rush back into the poem.”

The major turn in Czeslaw Milosz’s “Winter,” again, turns out to be its window-moment.  Hirshfield, in fact, calls the poem’s “mid-point turn to the vocative ‘you'” one of “the most breathtaking transitions and window-openings to be found anywhere in poetry, in its intimacy and in what it summons.”

I learned a great deal from “Close Reading: Windows.”  Not the least of this learning came from being introduced to (or reminded of) of some excellent poems with amazing turns in them.  I added Dickinson’s poem to the Metaphor-to-Meaning Structure page and I added Szymborska’s poem to the List-with-a-Twist Structure page after reading Hirshfield’s excellent, informative essay.  Inspired by and agreeing with Hirshfield, I also decided to add Milosz’s poems to the list of poems on Voltage!, the page of this blog devoted to poems that have truly shocking and amazing, truly electric, turns.

I’ve been deeply impressed by some vital new writing on issues intimately related to the turn, writing such as Peter Sack’s “‘You Only Guide Me by Surprise’: Poetry and the Dolphin’s Turn” and Hank Lazer’s “Lyricism of the Swerve: The Poetry of Rae Armantrout” (collected in Lyric & Spirit: Selected Essays 1996-2008).  Jane Hirshfield’s “Close Reading: Windows” certainly takes its place among these important works, doing its part to help reveal the relevance and the significance of the turn in poetry today.

Considering “A Display of Mackerel”

9 01 2011

I’ve just updated this blog’s Emblem Structure page in order to include a link to “Souls on Ice,” a reflection by Mark Doty on the process of composing his gorgeous emblem poem “A Display of Mackerel.”  (The reflection and the poem may be found here.)

Of special interest for those interested in poetic turns is the clear delight–and even amazement–Doty feels when he discovers the moments of the poem that become the poem’s major turns.  For example, of an important focusing of the initial description of the mackerel, Doty writes, “There’s a terrific kind of exhilaration for me at this point in the unfolding of a poem, when a line of questioning has been launched, and the work has moved from evocation to meditation.” 

And of the point when the poem’s act of thoughtful (even meditative) description turns to more focused meditation, Doty writes, “The poem had already moved into the realm of theology, but the question that arose (“Suppose we could iridesce . . .”) startled me nonetheless, because the notion of losing oneself “entirely in the universe/ of shimmer” referred both to these fish and to something quite other, something overwhelmingly close to home….”

Mark Doty’s “Souls on Ice” is a terrific phenomenological account of poem-making, one that acknowledges the difficulties and false starts and dead ends of writing, but also celebrates the sense (and reality?) of poetic accomplishment–and particularly the thrilling accomplishment of discovering and then engaging poetic turns.