Saigyo’s Turns

16 06 2018

西行法師

Two weeks ago, I wrote about my encounter with the waka of Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu through Jane Hirshfield’s translations in The Ink Dark Moon, focusing on the vital presence of the turn in those poems. I’ve recently finished reading William LaFleur’s wonderful Awesome Nightfall: The Life, Times, and Poetry of Saigyo, and again I find myself largely taken with the poetry, and largely because of the various and fascinating turns at work (and play) in it.

Born Sato Norikiyo, Saigyo (1118-1190) was first a warrior, but then in 1140 set aside secular life to become a Buddhist monk, at which point, as W. S. Merwin notes, “[T]he remainder of his life was devoted to the relation between the secular world and Buddhist practice, between Buddhist ideals and poetry and the love of nature.”

Saigyo’s poems often revolved around, turned upon, the tensions, paradoxes, difficulties, and occasional glorious insights cast upon and/or afforded him by his own life’s turn to Buddhism. He writes about the contrast and painful continuations of his former life. He often writes of seeing in the world the vast power of transience, and he often acknowledges the irony of this.

There are dialectical argument turns:

Those promises
made in the past to you
now run up against
this recoiling heart of mine:
suffering lies in the conflict. (122)

*

A ricefield, a hermitage, and a deer:

Quiet mountain hut
by a rice patch…till a deer’s cry
just outside startles me
and I move…so startling him:
we astonish one another! (93)

[Concerning the above prose preface and the many others found in Saigyo’s oeuvre, LaFleur notes, “[T]o a degree not seen in any other poet of his time, he prefaced many of his verses with prose introductions that located his writing in time, space, and occasion” (2).]

*

There are negative dialectical argument turns:

In spring I spend day
with flowers, wanting no night;
it’s turned around
in fall, when I watch the moon
all night, resenting the day. (77)

There are ironic turns:

Propped up by my cane,
I hobble along remembering
my boyhood when
I loved playing horseman
on a piece of long bamboo. (58)

*

Each and every spring,
blossoms gave my mind its
comfort and pleasure:
now more than sixty years
have gone by like this. (131)

*

Lovers’ rendezvous
slowly ends with many vows
to let nothing come
between them…then, as he moves off,
rising mists hide him from her. (92)

*

When, at this stage
of world-loathing, something captures
the heart, then indeed
the same world is all the more
worthy…of total disdain. (104)

*

Here in these mountains
I’d like one other who turned
his back to the world:
we’d go on about the useless way
we spent our days when in society. (150)

*

People pass away
and the truth of the passing world
impresses me
now and then…but otherwise my dull
wits let this truth too pass away. (129)

*

A great calamity shook society, and things in the life of Retired Emperor Sutoku underwent inconceivable change, so that he took the tonsure and moved into the north quarters of Ninna-ji Temple. I went there and met the eminent priest Kengen. The moon was bright, and I composed the following poem:

Times when unbroken
gloom is over all our world…
above which still
presides the ever-brilliant moon:
sight of it casts me down more. (27-28)

And, just as in The Ink Dark Moon, there are many poems that attempt to read the lessons of impermanence in the natural world, and so they employ the metaphor-to-meaning turn or else the turn of the emblem structure:

When a man gives no
mind to what follows this life,
he’s worse off than
that tree trunk standing in a field:
no branch or twig anywhere. (113)

*

My body will somewhere fall
by the wayside into a state of
sleep and still more sleep–
like the dew that each night appears,
then falls from roadside grasses. (108)

*

Delicate dewdrops
on a spider’s web are the pearls
strung on necklaces
worn in the world man spins:
a world quickly vanishing. (128)

*

On a mountain stream,
a mandarin duck made single
by loss of its mate
now floats quietly over ripples:
a frame of mind I know. (147)

*

I thought I was free
of passions, so this melancholy
comes as a surprise:
a woodcock shoots up from marsh
where autumn’s twilight falls. (68)

*

Passion for a blossom that still has not fallen:

Hidden away
under leaves, a blossom
still left over
makes me yearn to chance upon
my secret love this way. (97)

*

Love like fallen leaves:

Each morning the wind
dies down and the rustling leaves
go silent: was this
the passion of all-night lovers
now talked out and parting? (98)

*

A garden sapling
when long ago I saw this pine–
now so grown, its high
branches in their soughing say
time goes and a storm comes. (151)

*

For many springs
I’ve come here to meet
and unite my mind
with the opening blossoms–so
I’m made of many recollections. (142)

*

Scaling the crags
where azalea bloom…not for plucking
but for hanging on!
the saving feature of this rugged
mountain face I’m climbing. (82)

*

I visited someone who had renounced the world and now lives in Saga. We conversed about the importance for our future lives of daily and uninterrupted practice of our Buddhist faith. Returned, I took special notice of an upright shaft of bamboo and wrote this:

Linked worlds,
linked lives: on an
upright shaft
of bamboo, every joint
is strong and straight. (120)

*

I also was intrigued by two poems that employ a “trigger,” that is, that begin in one state and then, due to a triggering incident, end in a different kind of state. (I’ve yet to more fully define this structure, and I’m still identifying more examples; however, one very well-known one is Shakespeare’s “When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,” in which the trigger is the speaker’s happening to think of the beloved.)  Here’s one:

No pock or shadow
on the moon’s face, so just then
I recalled yours–clear–
till tears from my own mind
defaced the moon once more. (101)

And here the trigger is also an amplification:

In deep reverie
on how time buffets all,
I hear blows fall
on a temple bell…drawing out more
of its sound and my sadness. (102)

I’m also very intrigued by a handful of poems that clearly employ the dynamics of the turn, but do so in ways that are more difficult to describe. I’ll, of course, continue to think about them, and perhaps later on may try to describe them, but for now I’ll close with them, letting them speak for themselves.

“Detached” observer
of blossoms finds himself in time
intimate with them–
so, when they separate from the branch,
it’s he who falls…deeply into grief. (80)

*

Finding a cool place in summer at North Shirakawa:

Next to murmuring waters
we’re a circle of friends, no longer
minding summer’s heat,
and cicada voices in the treetops
mix in well with all the rest. (83)

*

On the [hanging] bridge near Oku-no-In at Mount Koya, the moon was unusually brilliant, and I thought back to that time when the priest Saiju and I spent a whole night together viewing the moon from this same bridge. It was just before he left for the capital, and I will never forget the moon that night. Now that I am at exactly the same place, I wrote this for him:

Somehow stretched
from then to now is my love
for you, held on this
bridge of tension between tonight’s
moon and the one I saw here with you. (121)

*

I was in the province of Sanuki and in the mountains where Kobo Daishi had once lived. While there, I stayed in a hut I had woven together out of grasses. The moon was especially bright and, looking in the direction of the [Inland] Sea, my vision was unclouded.

Cloudfree mountains
encircle the sea, which holds
the reflected moon:
this transforms islands into
emptiness holes in a sea of ice. (36)

 

 

 

 

 

 





The Ink Dark Moon

30 05 2018

db12cd0a25608c63c4d1b96c8d60972b-w204@1x

While preparing to team teach a course in Japanese poetry and poetics, I have had the great fortune to read The Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Court of Japan, translated by Jane Hirshfield, with Mariko Aratani. The poems (in translation) are marvelous. They are so for a variety of reasons, but key among them is that fact that, through and through, The Ink Dark Moon is a treasure trove of turns.

There are turns of all sorts. There are concessional turns:

Although the wind
blows terribly here,
the moonlight also leaks
between the roof planks
of this ruined house. (124)

There are ironic turns:

I think, “At least in my dreams
we’ll be able to meet…”
Moving my pillow
this way and that on the bed,
completely unable to sleep. (129)

There are questions and answers:

You ask my thoughts
through the long night?
I spent it listening
to the heavy rain
beating against the windows. (107)

There are ironic questions and answers:

If the one I’ve waited for
came now, what should I do?
This morning’s garden filled with snow
is far too lovely
for footsteps to mar. (132)

There are cliche and critiques:

I used to say,
“How poetic,”
but now I know
this dawn-rising men do
is merely tiresome! (63)

However, because the poets often use the natural world as a prism through which to observe and try to understand their inner lives, there are a great number of emblem and metaphor-to-meaning structures:

As pitiful as a diver
far out in Suma Bay
who has lost an oar from her boat,
this body
with no one to turn to. (33)

*

Night deepens
with the sound
of a calling deer,
and I hear
my own one-sided love. (9)

*

A string of jewels
from a broken necklace,
scattering–
more difficult to keep hold of
even than these is one’s life. (141)

*

The dewdrop
on a bamboo leaf
stays longer
than you, who vanish
at dawn. (108)

*

If, in an autumn field,
a hundred flowers
can untie their streamers,
may I not also openly frolic,
as fearless of blame? (39)

*

Like a ripple
that chases the slightest caress
of the breeze–
is that how you want me
to follow you? (25)

*

Last year’s
fragile, vanished snow
is falling now again–
if only seeing you
could be like this. (88)

*

Watching the moon
at dawn,
solitary, mid-sky,
I knew myself completely,
no part left out. (89)

*

The emblematic nature of many of these poems is underscored by the fact that the poems in The Ink Dark Moon often accompanied gifts (acknowledged in headnotes to the poems), and use those gifts as lyric occasions:

Written for a current wife to send to an angry ex-wife, attached to a bamboo shoot

The bamboo’s
old root
hasn’t changed at all–
Is there even one night
he sleeps alone? No. (71)

The drive to make connections between the inner life and the external world is so powerful that it can’t be stopped, despite (supposedly) knowing better:

This heart is not
a summer field,
and yet…
how dense love’s foliage
has grown (103)

*

While all of the above poems employ the emblem or the metaphor-to-meaning turn, I want to share two poems that have at their core the relationship between the inner life and the natural world (conveyed as metaphor) but that turn in different kinds of ways.

The following poem is included among a group of poems mourning the death of Prince Atsumichi:

Remembering you…
The fireflies of this marsh
seem like sparks
that rise
from my body’s longing. (145)

And this particular poem, and the haunting metaphor at its core, terrifies me:

How sad,
to think I will end
as only
a pale green mist
drifting the far fields. (28)

*

I’ve written elsewhere (including here, here, here, and here) of Jane Hirshfield’s important engagements with the turn. In “On Japanese Poetry and the Process of Translation,” an afterword in The Ink Dark Moon, Hirshfield reveals that the turn was an important consideration for her as she translated. Analyzing the ways that one of the poems employs “some of the means by which Japanese poetry attains remarkable depth within a brief utterance,” Hirshfield notes the emblematic / metaphoric element at the core of so many of these poems, stating, “There is the all-pervasive device of intertwining human and natural worlds, in which the natural illuminates the human to keenly felt effect” (166). And Hirshfield goes on to explicitly identify the turn as one of the tools  for making great verse: “There is the two-phase rhetoric, in which occurs the movement of human heart and mind that is essential to any good poem” (166-167).

The front matter of The Ink Dark Moon includes a list of poetry by Hirshfield, and, published in 1990, it contains only two books: Alaya and Of Gravity & Angels. It, thus, is likely the case that Hirshfield’s work with The Ink Dark Moon was an important step on her own journey to understand and craft compelling turns. It certainly feels this way.

Fans of the turn, of Japanese poetry, of Hirshfield, and/or of poetry that, as the book’s introduction states, “illuminate[s]” our lives will find much to admire and investigate in The Ink Dark Moon. Do check it out!





Lauren Schlesinger’s “Turning In & Away”

9 05 2018

LaurenSchlesinger

So, this is pretty cool: as part of her degree requirements to earn an MFA at the University of Washington, Lauren Schlesinger wrote a thesis titled Turning In & Away: A Discussion on the Turn from Description to Revelation within Emblem Poems.”

Here’s the thesis’s abstract:

Turning In & Away explores how poets can use the notion of a turn to generate a sense of uncertainty and surprise within emblem poems. Using poems by Gjertrud Schnackenberg, Elizabeth Bishop, and Emily Dickinson, this critical thesis interrogates how the turn between description and meditation can be used to destabilize how a poem is read. Furthermore, this study examines how these turns can be endorsed by other elements of craft besides their placement within and orientation to the dominating structure of a poem’s argument. This essay concludes with a final discussion about how the turn proves to be crucial for establishing the sense of intimacy or sense of distance between the speaker and the object of inquisition. (2)

The poems Schlesinger focuses on are Schnackenberg’s “Advent Calendar,”Bishop’s “Cirque d’Hiver,” and Dickinson’s “There’s a certain Slant of light”–wonderful emblem poems, all.

Schlesinger’s approach is to use the thinking on the emblem poem found in Structure & Surprise as an initial entry into the poem, but then to move beyond this kind of introductory treatment of the structure in order to examine the more nuanced, complex dynamics of the emblem’s turn. As Schlesinger states,

[W]hile explicating poems by Gjertrud Schnackberg, Elizabeth Bishop, and Emily Dickinson, I will investigate how the making and unfolding of an emblem poem is also an investigation into how the poet navigates the relationship between the eye and the mind—such that the mind does not always follow the eye, but always the interplay and dance between them is essential to the emblem poem. (4)

What follows, then, is a close reading of each of the poems. Each reading is attentive, perceptive, and revealing. Anyone interested in the emblem structure will find these readings highly engaging.

Of particular interest, though, is the fact that MFA candidate Schlesinger is clearly intrigued by the emblem poem as a working poet. Schlesinger states,

[I]t is evident that—for me— as I proceed to write emblem poems in the future, I must reconsider how I, too, can modulate the orientation of the speaker to the object—to delay, to fuse, to wrench, or to annihilate the speaker’s consciousness between and from the source that arouses such a meditation. Pace and placement of this turn determine the momentum of surprise. (32)

 

I can’t wait to read Schlesinger’s work! I’ll post what I can of it when I can.

In the meantime, if you’re hungry for more great thinking about turns, check out the contributions made to the Voltage Poetry website by the faculty on Schlesinger’s thesis committee: “Turn, Counterturn and Stand: Music and Meaning in Wallace Stevens’ ‘Autumn Refrain,'” by Pimone Triplett; and “False Turns in Alan Dugan’s ‘Last Statement for a Last Oracle,'” by Andrew Feld.





“Beauty”–Full of Turns

25 03 2018

I’m loving this poem: J. Estanislao Lopez’s “Meditation on Beauty.” I admire it for a number of reasons, but chief among them is its wild willingness to turn. This relatively short poem (20 lines) is chock full of twists.

The poem opens with a concessional turn: it’s true, I thought we were done with beauty, but… And then, at “[s]o maybe there’s room…,” the asserted beauty shifts into a kind of emblem’s meditation or moral. The poem, however, is unwilling to rest content here, and challenges its own conclusions, becoming, at “[o]r maybe such beauty…,” ironic, or else entering the condition of negative dialectics. And then the poem turns directionally, to the South, and then it goes deeper, further South and under the Gulf, to end somehow on an image that’s beautiful, and then suddenly, and finally, disconcerting.

What a journey! Check out the poem, and take the ride!





Turning the Field: The Poetry of Laurie Perry Vaughen

27 06 2017

lpv1

I’ve recently had the exciting experience of encountering the work of poet Laurie Perry Vaughen via the online publication of her master’s thesis, “Artifacts: Selected Poems.” There’s much to admire in the work: its thoughtfulness, its sinewy use of narrative and sound, its palpable imagery. But (of course!) what especially caught my eye was the poet’s attention to the poetic turn. Vaughen made use of Structure & Surprise to help create new work and/or to help articulate (often very movingly) what her work is doing. Very early on in her thesis’s introductory essay (the second section of which is called “Turning the Field: Structure and Surprise”), Vaughen clarifies the distinction between form and structure:

We may approach the field of a poem and immediately see patterns of rhyme scheme, repetition and the footprints of feet. However, many–perhaps most–contemporary poems require a different kind of field work, a deeper read, a deeper turning of the field. Any discussion of my work, of free verse poems, demands a look at the overall movement of the poem rather than noting couplets or beats. A formal poem such as a sonnet, pantoum or villanelle will also offer a structure of movement apart from its form, overall or within a line–if they are mature, polished, rich or ripe.

“Poetic structure is, simply, the pattern of a poem’s turning,” states Michael Theune… (2)

(I really like this idea of poems being “rich, or ripe“!)

Vaughen, though, also is aware of the larger significance and resonances of the act of turning:

Turning as the main movement of a poem is readily identified with nature. Maple leaves turn. Seasons turn. A chrysalis turns to a butterfly. A Jerusalem artichoke turns toward the sun. Evening turns to dusk before turning to morning. Man turns toward death, eventually, as a natural process. As the Catholics finally admitted, the horizon merely turns and the earth turns around the sun, not the other way around. The South African Zulu tribe and the Jew in his or her Diaspora turn to the ancestors for consultation. The structure, the turning in the poem, gives the art pulse, a life blood— and hopefully elevates our resting pulse as we write or read or listen. (6)

(Wow! I love that last sentence!)

Transitioning into her introduction’s third section, “Examining Shards: Emblematic Poems,” Vaughen explains her extra-poetic attraction to the emblem structure, noting, “My poems generally emerge from an emblematic structure. Perhaps this is because I was raised to be an observer of the small within the sublime since childhood and continued this with my undergraduate work in archaeology as an anthropology major” (7).

But, to her credit, for Vaughen poetic structure never ends up being an easy answer for some of poetry’s larger questions. Taking up the issue of increased fragmentation in more recent poetry, Vaughen (in another formulation I greatly admire) states, “There’s no clear answer to…[such] important…concerns about the parts and the whole and the tensions between these. There is a demand on the writer, critic, publisher and reader to explore contemporary poetry with new understandings of how structure, tension as transformation through language can work as synergy” (27). Vaughen then turns to Rilke, who then, in Letters to a Young Poet, “turns the young poet’s attention to nature as the source of synergy” (27). She quotes:

If you will stay close to nature, to its simplicity, to the small things hardly noticeable, those things can unexpectedly become great and immeasurable. No experience was too insignificant – the smallest happening unfolds like destiny. Destiny itself is like a wonderful wide tapestry in which every thread is guided by another thread, and held and carried by a hundred others. (New World Library, 1992 edition: 24)

(Ah! What beautiful weaving Rilke accomplishes even here, even in the rough cloth of prose! It’s no wonder that Vaughen, a maker of so many fine phrases, is drawn to Rilke’s lovely formulation–)

What all of this results in, then, is that while Vaughen still sees structure as a major component of her work, it’s an altered version of structure:

While my poems often hold an emblematic tension or use emblem as a generating pulse that rises to a pattern, the poems are not idea-driven, but language- driven. Lines, enjambment, breaks, stanzas and turns are generated by language, and not a prescribed theme or concrete image. The image serves the language, remember. The emblem I begin with may be a word, a shard of language, which gets associated with another image through sound or syntax rather than symbolic gesture. Though association holds images in tension, sound is also at play. For example, in my poem “Taking Turns,” a secondary turn in the poem’s structure is the language of pedals moving to petals. (36-7)

And, of course, all of this gets enacted in the poetry. Of particular interest:

  • “Taking Turns” (47). A lovely dialectical poem, with a radiant synthesis.
  • “Eye of the Needle” (55). A fine fantasia on sewing and the Christian idea of “passing through the eye of a needle.”
  • “Birds Audubon Never Painted” (58). A brief poem with a stunning arrival point.
  • “Ode to the Faulty Microphone” (80). In fact, a lovely homage to the power of great poetry.
  • “Emblematic,” which begins: “Any metaphor you elevate / has its scarred sense of place–” (81).
  • “After the Tornado” (118). A fascinating (if unintentional) study in endings. I’d thought the poem was a single-page poem–there, it has a tremendous ending, I think. But the poem continues for a half-page. Initially, I was surprised by this: I wondered if that second page should be cut. But the later part of the poem also contributes great power, including fascinating turns, to the poem.
  • “Photograph, 1944” (132-33). An ekphrastic poem that uncovers the image’s seductive, tensive mystery.
  • “Sweet like Funeral Cake” (134). A bittersweet elegy.

I encourage readers of this blog to check out Vaughen’s thesis, and to dive into her poetry. Treasures abound!





Poetic Turns in the Lyric Essay

1 02 2016

wilson

Over at Assay: A Journal for Nonfiction Studies, Diana Wilson has published “Laces in the Corset: Structures of Poetry and Prose that Bind the Lyric Essay”, an essay that uses poetic structures to examine the movements in a number of lyric essays. Wilson uses the emblem structure to read Richard Selzer’s lyric essay “The Knife”; the retrospective-prospective structure to read Brian Doyle’s lyric essay “Leap”; the ironic structure for Robin Hemley’s “Twirl/Run”; and the elegiac structure for Lia Purpura’s “Autopsy Report.”

In her penultimate paragraph, Wilson notes:

I often think of the lyric essay as a mysterious sea creature, its structure hydrostatic, like a jellyfish that appears, to the casual observer, to be nonexistent.  The lyric essay, a subgenre of creative nonfiction, is a wild thing born of poetry and prose, the prose sentences appearing to wave and dance willy-nilly like tentacles of jellyfish while poetic elements flicker and flash through the sentences like neon luminescence. Only careful study reveals the muscular structure that propels the lyric essay forward.

I love this insight: that by carefully attending to structure’s turn we can see how the lovely, odd creature that is the lyric essay moves.

I love, too, that Wilson has begun to find broader application for thinking about and with the poetic turn. I’ve long thought that one of the turn’s attractions is the way in more closely connects poetry and prose–how completely appropriate, then, to employ the turn to examine and think more deeply about the lyric essay’s prose poetry.

According to her author’s note, “Laces in the Corset” is Diana Wilson’s first publication. My thanks, then, to Ms. Wilson for taking the time and effort at the start of her publishing career to consider so carefully, and use so creatively, the turn. I look forward to seeing how her thinking and writing continues to develop–develop and turn…!





Super, Smart!

15 11 2013

FULL DISCLOSURE

The wise old
beginner—an applecheeked boy

practically—
born

laughing
into a huge white beard

is a sometime
friend and weird-

ly potent little
notion of mine

when-
ever I feel—that one

too many
lids are closing—

*

Since I don’t know how long, my friend and former student Dan Smart has been posting (at least!) a poem / day on Facebook.  Just at the level of quantity, it’s an impressive project.  What makes the project truly awesome, however, is the quality of the poems–so many sudden revelations and glorious surprises!

As with so many of Dan’s poems, “Full Disclosure” grabbed my attention.  And, as it seemed to me to be a new emblem poem, I thought I’d post it here for fans of the turn.

Many thanks to Dan for granting permission to reprint the poem, and for sharing his daily discoveries over on Facebook.





“The Snail,” a new emblem poem

3 01 2013


snailemblem

 

–by Aaron Crippen

*

Aaron Crippen is a poet and educator.  He is the translator of Nameless Flowers: Selected Poems of Gu Cheng (George Braziller, 2005), a project for which he received an NEA Literature Fellowship, and for which he received a PEN Texas Literary Award for Poetry.  His poems have appeared in numerous journals, including Verse and the Beloit Poetry Journal.

For more on emblem poems, click here.

 





The Turn in A Poet’s Craft

6 03 2012

Cover Image for A Poet's Craft

Annie Finch’s A Poet’s Craft: A Comprehensive Guide to Making and Sharing Your Poetry is now out.  It’s a big (almost 700-pages!) compendium that combines the genres of textbook, poetry guide, and guide to poetic forms.  It’s totally worth getting because it contains so much: great discussion, exercises, and poems.  It’s wide-ranging and insightful.

And I’m happy to report that Structure & Surprise makes a couple of appearances in it.  Structure & Surprise is included in “A Poet’s Bookshelf: For Further Reading,” the lone book listed under “Syntax and Rhetoric.”  Additionally, Structure & Surprise makes an appearance at the end of the chapter called “Syntax and Rhetorical Structure: Words in Order and Disorder,” in a section called “Rhetorical Structure and Strategy.”

In this section, Finch writes, “Every time you write a poem, and probably before you even begin, you make a myriad of even more fundamental choices about its rhetorical stance and structure.  Many of these choices are unconscious, based on ideas of ‘what a poem is’ that you have absorbed long before.  To make these choices conscious, at least once in a while, can be refreshing and even eye-opening.”  Finch then offers a list of questions to ask regarding a poem’s rhetorical structure and strategy, the last of which asks, “And finally, what are the rhetorical turns taken in the poem?  How does the poem shape itself so that, when one has finished reading, one feels the poem is over, that something has happened, that something has changed?”

And Finch continues:

“For example, Michael Theune’s book Structure and Surprise describes nine kinds of rhetorical turns, the most important of which are the ironic turn, the dialectical turn, and the descriptive turn.  In a poem using the ironic turn, the second part of the poem (which can be any length, from half the poem to just a line or two) undercuts or alters what has come before, like the punch line of a joke.  In a poem using the dialectical turn, the first part of the poem sets up one voice or attitude, and the second offers a very different tone of voice or perspective (the ‘turn’ in the sonnet is often of this type).  In a poem using the descriptive turn, the speaker describes a scene, object, or memory, and then turns to meditate on its meaning.”

I hope you’ll check out A Poet’s Craft.  And I hope that anyone reading A Poet’s Craft will look further into the possibilities of poetic structure by reading Structure & Surprise.  However, this blog also is a good place to start.  Check out the structures covered in Structure & Surprise here.  And check out nine additional structures here.

Happy reading!





Six Approaches to Structuring a Poem

19 02 2012

Last month I had the honor of introducing two separate groups of writers to principles of poetic structure as put forth in Michael Theune’s extraordinary Structure and Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns.  The book made such a significant paradigm shift in the way I approach my own drafts that I wanted to share my discovery with others by offering a workshop.  My plan was to spend a full Saturday at the Writing Barn working through six of the structures with a small group of poets in my town of Austin, Texas.  I sent out emails and posted Facebook notices for the workshop.  The response to the workshop was overwhelming; within a week I had twenty people registered and had started to turn others away, but then I decided to repeat the class on a second Saturday, this one closer to my idea of a small group, thirteen.

I organized the workshop—called “Six Approaches to Structuring a Poem”—so  that we covered three structures in the first half of the day (emblem, ironic, concessional) and three structures—following lunch—in the second half of the day (retrospective-prospective, dialectical, descriptive-meditative).  As much as I would have liked to include the elegiac structures, mid-course turns, and substructures—the other structures covered in Structure and Surprise—I was glad I kept the day to the six I chose, as time was tight even for those.  We approached each structure in the same way, beginning with a short description of the basic structure; followed by an in-depth look at seven poems that exemplified the structure; followed by a short writing exercise whereby the participants could try their hands at using the structure; and ending with discussion and sharing of newly drafted works-in-progress.

The descriptions of the structures came straight from the chapters in Structure and Surprise, as did a number of the example poems, though I added a Texas touch by including a number of Texas poets throughout the day—Benjamin Saenz, Naomi Nye, Larry Thomas, myself, and others.  I was also able to find recordings for about a third of the poems I used, read by the poets themselves.  Given that we covered forty-two poems throughout the day, it was nice to hear voices other than our own, and for many, it was the first time to hear Mark Doty, Philip Larkin, Harryette Mullen, Li-Young Lee, Natasha Trethewey, and others.   The focus was on structure, form, and turns, and how different poets used the same structure to achieve very different kinds of poems.

I believe that writing is the best way to see if principles of a workshop are being learned, so with each structure I designed a brief exercise.  I gave participants no more than fifteen minutes for each exercise, but no one had to share their drafts if they did not want to (almost everyone, however, did share at least once during the day).  For the emblem structure, I brought in two dozen Gustav Klimt posters and had everyone choose one, where they were to move from description to meditation in their poem.

Here is an untitled poem from Beverly Voss, based on Klimt’s Mäda Primavesi:

 

You stare out, young beauty,

arms akimbo, your gaze bold.

Persephone in her meadow:

roses, buttercups, narcissi

awash in violet beauty, the

green world at your feet.

Glory falling on you from

the heavens, your birthright—

freedom

and a bright white innocence.

 

How will your gaze change after

the earth opens and swallows you up?

When Demeter wails, keens, laments

until the meadow freezes with her tears.

Until the earth is nearly dead?

 

She doesn’t yet know but you will return.

Having been split open

like the pomegranate you ate—

the red juice forever staining your mouth.

Your gaze, I think, will have more depth.

You will bring a dark knowing

back with you.

More woman than girl.

More witch than woman.

More goddess than the wheat.

 

–Beverly Voss

 

For the ironic structure—the one exercise which everyone in both workshops shared with the group—I handed out a list of 26 first lines, half from Sharon Olds’ Strike Sparks and half from Martín Espada’s Alabanza.  Participants were asked to respond to several of the first lines with a follow-up line (or lines) that provided an ironic turn, many of which brought howls of laughter.  I told them to keep them short, and they did.  Here are several examples (the Olds and Espada lines in italics):

 

Illumination

 

In the middle of the night,

when we get up, we navigate

by ambient light—

around the bedstead,

through the house, sure-footed,

no stubbed toes, scraped shins.

Yet, once sunlight penetrates the blinds

we stagger from our beds,

stumbling, clumsy and blind.

 

–Ann Howells

 

epidural

 

there are some things doctors can’t fix:

their own mistakes. My trust escaping out of the hole the needle made.

 

–Beth Kropf

 

No pets in the project

the lease said.

So I lost the cat.

Sold the dog.

Asked for money back

when the place came

equipped with a rat.

 

–Beverly Voss

 

Family Holidays

 

This was the first Thanksgiving with my wife’s family.

The next one will be without my wife

or without her family.

 

–Christine Wenk-Harrison

 

For the concessional structure, I had students use the same “First Lines” handout, but this time they were to choose one line, add “Suppose” to the front of it, and use that line as a concession until the turn in their poems.  Here’s Jean Jackson’s take on the structure (I told them that they could alter the first line if they needed to):

 

Mr. Fix-It

 

I suppose there are some things you can’t fix,

but you set such grand expectations

right from the beginning 46 years ago.

First there were the holes in the floor boards

of the ’57 Chevy that you repaired

by riveting cookie sheets in place.

So many holes have been fixed since then.

 

And the plumbing! How many times

have you found the leak, dug through mud

and saved a bundle, all the while

hating the job?

I admit you’re getting older

and that last time was a bear–

two days in the cold and rain.

 

I know you’ve felt put upon at times

fixing the antiques that I sell in my business

and you want me to quit since sales are down,

but there was a time when you were

as enthusiastic as I was and bought enough

fix-up furniture to last for an age–

you even said you liked making the repairs,

though you drew the line at refinishing.

 

What I’m saying is that I’m not ready to let go now.

It’s in my blood, and you’re so good at what you do,

that I know I’ll probably ask you to fix small flaws

once in a while. You do such a good job

and, well, it’s just so you!

 

–Jean Jackson

 

For the retrospective-prospective structure, I gave participants a new handout, one of “Last Lines” from the same two poets, Olds and Espada, but not necessarily from the same poems.  This time they were to use one of the last lines as a starting point for a poem that contrasted “then” with “now.”  Here is a draft by Christa Pandey that uses an Espada line to begin:

 

If only history were like your hands,
your fingers easily discerned, long and
slender bony, shapely nails, the pinky
short like last night’s TV episode.
The rivers of your veins concealed—
you are still young—unlike those
of history, full of bloody spills,
gnarled centuries like knuckles
of your coming age. The skin of our
tortured earth is deeply wrinkled.
May that stage not befall your hands.
If only history had your touch,
the thrill of your smooth soothing
on my longing skin.

–Christa Pandey

 

The dialectical argument structure proved to be the most difficult of the structures we looked at during the workshop, in part because it is a three-part structure, and in part because it is not a structure that poets tend to use as often as others.  Because I limited the time on exercises, I tried to make the move from thesis to antithesis to synthesis as easy as possible in the exercise.  For this one, I handed out a copy of Nick Laird’s “Epithalamium,” and asked the participants to follow his “you vs. I” dialectic in their drafts.  Here are two wildly different takes on this exercise:

 

Refrigerators

 

Your refrigerator is a Marine

standing at attention.

Knees locked, shoulders back.

Or art by Mondrian:  primary colors

painted with a measuring stick.

Mine is a Marc Chagall.  Capers float on high.

Mayonnaises (three kinds) dance cheek to cheek

with a concupiscence of condiments.

 

You pride yourself on order:

Top shelf:  Milk. And all things white with protein.

Middle shelf:  Leftovers and eggs.

Bottom:  Vegetables and fruit.

Beer:  always in the bin.

 

You scorn the wild Hungarian dance

of my old and humming fridge.

Where the spinach makes whoopee

with the squash and carrots compost

near the beer.

 

Ah love, dear love . . . you

let me use your toothbrush.

Share with me your bed and key.

Consider this:  I’ll line up all my juices

if you’ll set your collards free.

  

–Beverly Voss

 

uncleave

 

dried roses for a wedding  bouquet

their love already drying out, color drained

 

he raises the gun

she loads the bullet

 

he puts up his un-tired feet

she brings him slippers

 

he throws fire

she spreads gasoline

 

he punishes

she accepts

both dismantling their home, hands ripping out nails

making grenades  out of wounds

clouding mirrors until

their children cannot see

 

their vows—hollow vessels

their rings, engorged with hate

nooses around their necks

 

–Beth Kropf

 

Finally, for the descriptive-meditative structure at the end of a long day, I had participants follow the basic structure of Charles Wright’s “Clear Night,” just as Kevin Prufer had done in “Astronomer’s Prayer to the Andromeda Galaxy,” both poems we had looked at and discussed.  I asked them to write an imitation that was focused on a natural object, and here’s what Ann Howells came up with:

 

Autumn Night

after Charles Wright

Calm sea, moon reflected and reflected, endlessly.

Boat, pier and pines are monochrome—black on black.

Tidal pools drain, echo an eerie, hollow sound,

like a didgeridoo.

Gulls and crabs and snails sleep.

 

I am a tumult, a tempest moaning and shrieking,

tearing my hair.

I want to roil the waters, shatter the sky.

I want sea and moon and wind to rage.

I want the world to howl.

 

And the moon neither blinks nor winks.

And the sea is a seamless pane of smoked glass.

And the tidal pool continues its woodwind lullaby.

And the gulls and crabs and snails dream on.

They dream on.

 

–Ann Howells

 

In case you’re wondering why I used the same poets throughout this piece, it’s very simple: they are the ones who sent me their work after the workshop, though I assure you that we heard many other truly fine poems throughout the day (and keep in mind the short amount of time we had for writing).  I received many wonderful emails from the students in the days to follow, like this one from Gloria Amescua, “I gained so much from your presentation, the variety of examples, and the chance to start some poems.  I can really say it’s one of best workshops I’ve attended.”  But as I reminded them, none of the ideas presented were original on my part.  Most of the kudos must go to Michael Theune and the contributors to Structure and Surprise.  I feel honored to be able to spread the word.

Scott Wiggerman

swiggerman@austin.rr.com

http://swig.tripod.com

 

Scott Wiggerman is the author of two books of poetry, Presence, new from Pecan Grove Press, and Vegetables and Other Relationships.  Recent poems have appeared in Switched-On Gutenberg, Assaracus, Naugatuck River Review, Contemporary Sonnet, and Hobble Creek Review, which nominated “The Egret Sonnet” for a Pushcart.  A frequent workshop instructor, he is also an editor for Dos Gatos Press, publisher of the annual Texas Poetry Calendar, now in its fifteenth year, and the recent collection of poetry exercises, Wingbeats.  His website is http://swig.tripod.com