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





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

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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.