Peter Campion’s “Sparrow”

10 06 2011

A gorgeous new emblem poem from Peter Campion, called “Sparrow.”  Check it out here.

Among its many virtues, Campion’s The Lions is replete with such sophisticated structural maneuvers, some of which I’ve included in the pages of this blog.  Explore here, and then, or or else just, read The Lions.

Jorie Graham at Illinois Wesleyan

20 02 2011

Poet Jorie Graham will speak at this year’s Founders’ Day Convocation at Illinois Wesleyan University.  Graham’s address (a reading/talk) is titled “The Role of Poetry in a Living Culture.”  The Convocation takes place on Wednesday, February 23, at 11 a.m. in Presser Hall’s Westbrook Auditorium.  The event is free and open to the public.

There also will be a conversation/q&a with Graham on Tuesday, February 22, at 4 p.m. in the Hansen Student Center.  This event, also, is free and open to the public.

One further event associated with Graham’s visit: I’m going lead a conversation called “How To Read a Jorie Graham Poem.”  This event, also free and open to the public, will take place on Monday, February 21, at 4 p.m. in the English House’s Seminar Room (located on the English House’s garden level).

My talk, of course, will have a lot to do with turns.  How do you read a Jorie Graham poem?  You listen for the turns…

I don’t believe this is an imposition on my part.  Graham loves the turn.  It is everywhere in her poetry; in Structure & Surprise, for example, I discuss Graham’s great poem “Prayer” in terms of its relation to the emblem poem tradition, a tradition in which poems turn from a description of a thing to a meditation on the meaning of that thing. 

The turn also is central to Graham’s poetics.  Here are some key passages from “Something of Moment,” the introduction to an issue of Ploughshares she edited:

“In a poem, one is always given, I would argue, a sense of place that matters–a place on suffered the loss of, a place one longs for–a stage upon which the urgent act of mind of this particular lyric occasion (be it memory, description, meditation, fractured recollection of self, or even further disintegration of self under the pressure of history, for example) ‘takes place.’

…A break…can constitute trigger occasions, or situations, or kinds of place from which the spirit in language springs forward into the action of poetry.

All such moments–where we are taken by surprise and asked to react–are marked places in consciousness, places where a ‘turn’ is required.”

And, in “At the Border,” an essay that appears in American Women Poets in the 21st Century: Where Lyric Meets Language, edited by Claudia Rankine and Juliana Spahr (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2002), Graham writes,

“The capacity to ‘express’ the ineffable, the inexpressible, the emissary of the nonverbal territories of intuition, deep paradox, conflicting bodily impulses, as well as profoundly present yet nonlanguaged spiritual insights, even certain emotional crisis states–these are the wondrous haul that the nets of ‘deep image,’ ‘collective emotive image,’ haiku image-clusters, musical effects of all kinds (truths only introduced via metrical variation, for example), and the many hinge actions in poetry (turns, leaps, associations, lacunae) bring onto the shore of the made for us.  The astonishments of poetry, for me, reside most vividly in its capacity to make a reader receive utterable and unutterable realities at once.”

Indeed, I first became conscious of the poetic turn a powerful force in poetry when taking a poetic forms class with Graham at the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop, in the fall of 1994.  During the third week of that class, while discussing haiku, Graham introduced me and my classmates to the following haiku by Basho: “Deep autumn– / my neighbor, / how does he live?”

Graham deeply admired this poem because it contained what she thought were the two vital aspects of a poem: an occasion, and a Stevensian cry of its occasion.  In Basho’s poem, the occasion is deep autumn, when the leaves have fallen, allowing one to see the neighbor’s house, and the cry (notice: not statement, or explanation, but, rather, cry) is the urgent, surprising act of the human voice arising from this occasion.

This single lesson struck me to the bone.  It gave me a whole new way to begin to approach reading poems, something new to look for in, and even demand from, poems.  This single lesson was, in retrospect, the kernel of the idea that grew into Structure & Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns, and this blog.  Knowing turns certainly will help anyone who really wants to engage Graham’s work.

Work, of course, very worth engaging for many, many reasons.  Jorie Graham is one of the great poets and poetic thinkers of our day.  I invite and encourage you to come to any and all of her Founders’ Day events on the Illinois Wesleyan campus.

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.

Emblem, with Mange

28 02 2009


Knowing about poetic structures, the patterns of turns in poems, does not only help one better understand (and perhaps appreciate) poems that clearly are written within a particular structural tradition, but it also helps one to engage more deeply poems that reference particular structural traditions.

This is the case, at least, with my reading of Mark Wunderlich’s “Coyote, with Mange,” just out in the latest Poetry.

While I don’t think it’s exactly correct to call “Coyote, with Mange” an emblem poem, I do think that knowing about the emblem tradition helps one to better read the poem.

To recap a few important details from the essay on the emblem structure in Structure & Surprise…  The emblem structure moves from observation to meditation, from perception to reflection, and the emblem structure has its roots in philosophical and theological ideas about a created and an ordered world, a world that can be understood and “read,” and that, when read, can offer glimpses into the Mind of the Maker.  In some more recent emblem poems, however, particularly troubling objects have been observed in order to meditate precisely on the lack of order in the world, or the existence of diabolical order.  As discussed in Structure & Surprise, Robert Frost’s “Design” is the great example of this kind of anti-emblem-poem emblem poem.

In some ways, “Coyote, with Mange” is this kind of poem, as well.  Whereas Frost’s poem observes and meditates on death, in Wunderlich’s poem the speaker is observing a coyote with mange, an ugly and potentially dangerous parasitic infestation of the skin of animals.  (For images, click here.)  The world depicted in Wunderlich’s poem is not ordered but diseased and broken.  No wonder, then, that the god of Wunderlich’s poem’s world is called (virtually right away) “Unreadable One”–there’s nothing to be read or understood from this vision of the sick coyote.

Wunderlich’s poem, however, isn’t so much an emblem poem because it does not turn to try to meditate on what’s been observed–even, as occurs in Frost’s dark poem, to ask questions and to consider that a “design of darkness” may rule the world.  Instead (very interestingly, I think,) this poem turns to a complaint: essentially, “why did I have to see this?”  And the pronouncement of the poem is not the emblem poem’s universal declaration (typical of emblem poems) meant to ring out outside of the poem, but rather a shout that only connects the speaker and the coyote, leaving universals (and larger meanings, and other readers (that is, us)) out.

Ultimately, in large part, Wunderlich’s “Coyote, with Mange” is interesting (or powerfully disturbing) because of what it does not–or is unwilling to–do, and knowing about the emblem structure is what helps one to see this.