Turning the Bad Poem into the Great

16 01 2014


Over at The French Exit, Eliza Gabbert critiques Danielle Cadena Deulen’s “The Needle, the Thread,” a poem included in the most recent issue of Crazyhorse.  Gabbert’s critique is multifaceted–from noting grammatical problems to registering that the poem “oozes sentimentality”–however, the heart of Gabbert’s critique, it seems to me, is the poem’s lack of a turn.  Gabbert notes that the poem contains a “pretty flat register of emotion: awe all the way through.”  And, as a result, “there’s no real tension.”  What Gabbert would prefer is more drama; she states, “Give me a big Rilkean ending any day. But in a Rilke poem, you get 13 staid lines about a bust of Apollo before the flushed demand of the ending. There’s a sense of subtlety, a sense of balance.”  Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” of course, is famous for presenting a particularly stunning act of turning, of, in the words of M. L. Rosenthal, poetic “torque.”

In her contribution to the “Endless Structures” section of Structure & Surprise, Rachel Zucker discusses “Archaic Torso of Apollo” as a kind of turn that she calls “the Epiphanic structure.”  About poems using this kind of structure, this pattern of turns, Zucker states, “The pleasure in this kind of poem lies in the surprise (an ambush really) of the turn and the following resolution.  The sudden utterance at the end of the poem, sounding very much like a non sequitur, collides with description like a driver running a red light.  Whiplash, double-take, brief confusion ensues, but in this case, almost as soon as confusion registers, the rhetoric of the last line aggressively co-opts the description and defines the entire scene.  What seemed at first a rogue bit of language is suddenly manifested as the essence of the poem.  Dissonance gives way (rather quickly) to a feeling of rightness, of inevitability.”

Sure, some interesting poems don’t turn much at all–consider Ron Padgett’s “Nothing in That Drawer” or Peter Gizzi’s “Protest Song.”  And, of course, it’s a tall order for any poem to approach the strange majesty, the authority, of Rilke’s poem.  And there certainly are ways to value “The Needle, the Thread” outside of its relationship with the turn.  However, it also generally is the case that most successful poems work the way that Randall Jarrell says they do–Jarrell states, “A successful poem starts from one position and ends at a very different one, often a contradictory or opposite one; yet there has been no break in the unity of the poem.”  That is to say, they, as Gabbert notes in the comments section of her post, “surprise.”


Danielle Cadena Deulen’s “Corrida de Toros, it seems to me, is a Jarrellian “successful poem”–check it out here.



6 responses

16 01 2014

Thanks for the link and discussion. Just a minor clarification: I think the Deulen poem is overdramatic, or you could say melodramatic, but real drama (as you suggest) comes from turns, torque, surprises; steady drama is not drama at all. I was also just putting the Apollo line out of a hat; I don’t really expect every poem in Crazyhorse to be as good as Rilke. 🙂

16 01 2014
Mike Theune

Whaa…?! Why shouldn’t every poet have to be as good as Rilke?! 🙂 Of course, Elisa: all good clarifications–thanks for sending them along!

20 01 2014

Very helpful post. There certainly some things to like about the Deulen poem, but I’d have to agree w. Elisa on the point of a lack of tension. Admittedly, I’m forgiving on the emotional if I have a surprise or am taken on a ride (even if it’s a little one). I’m more drawn to the subtle tension, turns and exploration of beauty in Joseph Shroud’s Manna—a poem with a somewhat similar sentimentality and theme.

21 01 2014
Mike Theune

Joseph Stroud’s “Manna” *is* a lovely poem, Janine! I’m intrigued by the form of that poem: just a little over 12 lines. It’s as if it’s headed toward being a sonnet, but knows that a sonnet requires that turn, BUT the poem does not want to turn from the blessedness it detects “everywhere,” so it concludes with those two pared-down yet universal words: “I am.” That is, I think the poem *could* be read as a poem that significantly and self-consciously avoids a big turn.

For other readers, here’s Stroud’s “Manna”:


23 01 2014

That’s brilliant, Mike: the deliberate non-turn for the poet to achieve his purpose.

Perhaps that big turn might have happened had the poem been composed under the Polar Vortex:).

27 01 2014
Mike Theune

🙂 Vortexes *should* produce turns, Janine, but the polar variety tends to just freeze all the creative juices!

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