On James Longenbach’s “Lyric Knowledge”

13 05 2016

At first glance, James Longenbach’s “Lyric Knowledge” is an incredibly odd and, so, perhaps weirdly intriguing, essay. It begins in a seemingly interesting way: it’s opening line states, “The impulse to be lyrical is driven by the need to be no longer constrained by oneself.” Whoa. Okay. It seems, as the whole introductory paragraph–about suffering, love, the familiar, novelty, experience–indicates, we’re entering some strange, new territory. But what follows such an opening turns out to be pretty standard stuff–stuff which, in fact, is only interesting for how obvious it is.

Or so it seems. Here, I want to explore “Lyric Knowledge” and suggest that this convoluted essay really is about some incredibly plain but incredibly potent truths about lyric poetry, truths that have been discussed repeatedly in Structure & Surprise, and in this, it’s accompanying blog. But I’ll then speculate on some reasons why a critic such as Longenbach might work to keep such plain truths mysterious.

Here is the key idea of “Lyric Knowledge,” which is subtitled “Ideas of order in poetry”: poems offer a different kind of readerly experience when read out of the order in which they are written. That is–to be clear (yes, you did just read correctly what I wrote): again and again in this essay, Longenbach takes poems, restructures them–sometimes putting the final few lines first; sometimes reversing the whole text (with a few, necessary syntactical adjustments) so that what was the final line goes first; what was the penultimate line goes second; what was the third-to-last line goes third; etc–and then claims amazement at the fact that the two texts create different experiences for readers.

For example, Longenbach takes an epigram inscribed, according to Plato’s Phaedrus, on Midas’s tomb, mixes up the lines (1, 2, 3, and 4 become 3, 2, 4, and 1), and then is kind of blown away by the fact that the two poems don’t have the same effect. He states,

In this version we discover in the final line that the poem is spoken by a bronze statue of a girl, eerily similar to any girl who might have received Midas’s amorous attentions; in the original version our experience of the poem is predicated on this knowledge. What does the fact that one can alter significantly the effect of a poem without changing a single word tell us about the power of structure? What did Socrates [earlier quoted as having said of this epigram “that it is of no consequence what order these lines are spoken in”] not want to recognize about that power?

He treats similarly the concluding fourteen lines of Wallace Stevens’s “No Possum, No Sop, No Taters” and “Western Wind.” To focus just on “Western Wind,” Longenbach takes that four-line poem and switches it around so that the final two lines become the first two lines; so that this:

Western wind, when will you blow?
The small rain down can rain.
Christ, if my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again.

becomes this:

Christ, if my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again.
Western wind, when will you blow?
The small rain down can rain.

While I probably should simply celebrate Longenbach’s work here–after all, it is largely a recognition of the importance of poetic structure (and, as I’ll demonstrate later on, I mean structure as I’ve long meant structure: as the pattern of a poem’s turning)–I can’t quite get over the fact that what is so odd about this work is how much labor is spent to make such a painfully obvious point. Small changes make big differences in great writing–that’s one of the main ways we know it’s great writing. Big changes make really big differences. It is shocking that the bulk of an essay in Poetry is spent re-making such palpable points.


At least, initially. When we get clear on some key details, this fact turns out to be not so surprising at all.

Here are the key details:

Longenbach really is concerned with poetic structure–that is, he is concerned with the pattern of a poem’s turning, a poem’s rhetorical and/or dramatic trajectory. At different points throughout the essay, Longenbach notes how what he is pointing to are turns. For example, reflecting on the two versions of “Western Wind”–noting about his alternative version that “while the form of the poem is unchanged (alternating tetrameter and trimeter lines, rhymed xaxa), its structure has been radically altered”–Longenbach states, “Here [that is, in his alternative version], we turn from an experience of longing to the weather, an external drama that confirms the emotional turmoil. Something happens in this shift from interiority to exteriority [that is, in both versions], for we feel in both arenas the power of absence, the desire for change, but something more momentous happens in the original structure, in which our expectations are not confirmed but shattered.”

Longenbach isn’t the only critic interested in turns. Of course, I am. But so are the editors are Poetry. (Here is some proof.) So are, frankly, just about all critics and editors. However, most critics and editors do a lackluster–and certainly, overall, an unsystematic–job of acknowledging how much they admire well-executed turns. Longenbach’s essay is guilty of this, as well–it is enthralled by strong turns, but it doesn’t articulate this well.

More specifically, Longenbach is concerned with a particular kind of turn: one that ends up leading to what I have called “fitting surprise.” (This kind of turn is, indeed, special; many critics and commentators have been intrigued by fitting surprise–check out a constantly growing collection of quotations on the topic here.) In “Lyric Knowledge,” Longenbach’s interest in fitting surprise emerges most clearly when he discusses the first section of Wallace Stevens’s “The Auroras of Autumn.” Longenbach notes that in this section, the poem moves from a great deal of paratactic syntax to, in its third-to-last and penultimate sentences, to some key uses of hypotactic syntax–as Longenbach notes, “‘This is his poison: that we should disbelieve / Even that.’ This is the first sentence that thrusts our thinking forward by suggesting that one thing follows from another not merely by chance, association, or accretion but by necessity (‘His poison is that we should disbelieve even in happiness’).” Just as with “Western Wind,” the effect of rearranging the poem serves mainly to highlight how well-constructed the original version is:

It is not surprising that, without altering a single word, this lyric reads as elegantly backward as it reads forward, the form unchanged (iambic pentameter lines arranged in tercets) but the structure radically different: ‘The moving grass, the Indian in his glade, / Black beaded on the rock, the flecked animal / Made us no less sure.’ But deft as this arrangement may be, its structure sacrifices the crucially delayed turn from parataxis to hypotaxis, a turn that makes the figure of the Indian, when it finally appears at the end of the poem, feel simultaneously unprecedented and inevitable. The poem is a dramatization of the thinking mind in the process of discovering that thought itself is the mind’s most indomitable foe. ‘Here are too many mirrors for misery,’ says the final lyric in the sequence, and the work of ‘The Auroras of Autumn’ is to make this simple remark feel authentic, to allow us to exist in the temporal process of discovering it again.

“[U]nprecedented and inevitable.” There is in fact some precedent for Longenbach prizing such poetic effect. In “Composed Wonder,” the final chapter of The Resistance to Poetry he recognizes the power of this effect in Anthony Hecht’s “‘It Out-Herods Herod. Pray You, Avoid It.” Longenbach writes,

And though by the end of the poem we have become quite used to the aural pleasure of these rhymes, something astonishing happens in the final quatrain: the content of its last line…is potentially overpowering.  Nothing in the preceding eight stanzas prepares us for it, and even if the Holocaust seems in retrospect to be everywhere in “‘It Out-Herods Herod. Pray You, Avoid It,'” the poem’s final lines continue to surprise.  When we hear the first half of the final stanza…we are fully prepared for the aural experience of the stanza clicking into place with a rhyme on “childermas.”  We don’t necessarily expect the poem to jump to a new register…, but the expected rhyme makes the leap seem horribly inevitable. (99-100)

And, as I note in my critique of The Resistance to Poetry, “This standard is hinted at elsewhere in the book,” and that elsewhere is particularly interesting: “Longenbach employs the language of structured surprise to express his admiration for one of the oldest poems in the English language, ‘Western Wind.’ About that poem…Longenbach states, ‘The expostulation—Christ!—marks the place where the poem breaks open, releasing an emotion that is both unpredictable and, at least in retrospect, logical.'”


And so, Longenbach has created another work–this time, an essay–that suggests the deep importance of great, unique turns. Indeed, he even goes back to cover in greater detail a poem, “Western Wind,” that he thinks has fitting surprise, and then, essentially, closes “Lyric Knowledge” with another poem–or section of a poem, the first section of “The Auroras of Autumn”–that he thinks also has fitting surprise. It’s clear that Longenbach admires these kinds of turns. But if he does, why doesn’t he do more with them? Why isn’t he more explicit and articulate about this feature of great poems?

In my critique of The Resistance to Poetry I argue that Longenbach does what he does because he understands that if he were to really prize fitting surprise he would have to do away with other ideas about poetry that he values. I note, for example, how valorizing the poetry of fitting surprise would put to the test other valorizations of poetry Longenbach was trying to promote:

[Fitting surprise] can be used to draw party lines in new ways. Putting all weight and pressure on the poem, it doesn’t make judgments according to poets or schools. Wet disjunction [the kind of disjunction used by a poet such as T. S. Eliot, which Longenbach valorizes] might create structured surprise, but so might dry [the kind of disjunction used by a poet such as Ezra Pound, which Longenbach does not valorize]. Ashbery might have twenty poems that do this, but so might a lesser-known poet—and such a fact should encourage us to get to know those works of that lesser-known poet. In fact, what Longenbach says of Bishop’s expectation that art lead to “perfectly useless concentration,” that it “makes the hard work of art seem simultaneously rare and available to everyone,” can also be said of structured surprise.

It is more difficult to tell what Longenbach is doing with fitting surprise in “Lyric Knowledge.” At one level, Longenbach again generally uses fitting surprise just as many other critics before him have: sporadically, acknowledging its great power, but without an effort to try to spell out, let alone act upon, how valuing fitting surprise might really and interestingly upset longstanding valuations of and distinctions in poetry. At a slightly different level, this odd essay–in which he seems mystified by the fairly obvious fact that (unlike, say, a “paragraph from a blog or a parking ticket”) some poems, reread and reread, keep enchanting us–powered in part by fitting surprise affords Longenbach opportunities to subtly reinscribe some of his old favorite distinctions (parataxis successfully transmuted into hypotaxis corresponds to his valorization of wet disjunction over dry).

At another level, though, Longenbach’s sporadic use of fitting surprise allows him to sidestep a key issue: what makes poems powerful and memorable? Longenbach has set up a kind of either-or, combined with a straw man: either some text (such as a parking ticket) is weak and unmemorable or else it strong and memorable due to fitting surprise. But, of course, there’s a huge amount of middle space Longenbach does not investigate. What about a cheesy favorite song one loves to hear again and again for nostalgic reasons, for the associations the song conjures rather than, say, the structure of the lyrics? What about a note announcing a break-up? Language has power and is memorable–and yet is returned to again and again–for a host of reasons, not necessarily because a text in some way delivers fitting surprise. Longenbach takes a shortcut with his essay, avoiding discussing these other kinds of texts.

But here’s the thing: whenever fitting surprise–be it in the form of a poem or a short story or a joke or a play–is delivered, you do indeed know you’re in the realm of powerful, moving–and it is tempting here to say specifically literary–language(NB: even as I write this, I realize how much more deeply I still have to think about this…) Longenbach uses a shortcut, but it is, to some extent, legitimate: after all, Longenbach is trying to demonstrate the importance of structure in great lyric poetry, and he clearly believes (and I certainly agree) that fitting surprise is a vital part of great lyric poetry. I hope Longenbach might start saying so more clearly and systematically.

Stephen Dunn on Fitting Surprise

23 06 2015


Inevitable, but unforeseen.

Surprising, yet apt.

Startling and true.

Novel and appropriate.

These are some of the ways that the vital creative quality of (what I have come to call) “fitting surprise” has been described.  It’s a weirdly magical quality, one that a number of poets, writers, and artists agree is a necessary ingredient of important art.

In the latest issue of Poetry, poet Stephen Dunn reflects on and plays with the idea of fitting surprise.  His poem “Always Something More Beautiful” attempts to both describe and enact fitting surprise, and even goes so far as to suggest that fitting surprise is a significant part of what might be considered “Beautiful.”

Check out the poem, read up on fitting surprise, and let me know what you think–

Linda Gregerson on Moving Forward by Going Elsewhere

12 04 2014


In “Going Elsewhere,” her contribution to The Rag-Picker’s Guide to Poetry, Linda Gregerson discusses one of the central paradoxes of poetry: as she calls it, “moving-forward-by-going-elsewhere.”  Gregerson writes:

“Often, when I have drafted, oh, three-quarters of a poem, something more than half in any case, I find myself at a peculiar sort of impasse.  The trajectory has begun to assume some clarity; the poem has begun to turn toward home.  And just-on-the-edge-of-fulfillment is exactly the problem: were the poem at this point simply to complete its own momentum, it would land in sorry predictability or, worse, the default didacticism that comes from ‘topping up’ one’s own emergent understanding.  Time to go elswehere, Linda.  And begin by discarding that last stanza and a half.

“Elsewhere can be recalcitrant.  A dozen failed efforts to find it–three dozen–are nothing at all.  It must be the right, the real elsewhere, the one that deepens and corrects what has come before.”

Gregerson then discusses engaging in this process with two of her poems (reprinted in The Rag-Picker’s Guide), “Prodigal” and “Her Argument for the Existence of God.”

Gregerson’s reflection on her process in The Rag-Picker’s Guide seems to grow out of some ideas that arose in a conversation with David Baker on The Kenyon Review Online.  Of “Prodigal,” Baker asks, “How did this ending come about? Was it early or late in the process of composition when you determined how the poem should terminate?”  And Gregerson responds, “It was very late. I was stuck for a long, long time.  It’s always the hardest, and the truest, part of composition for me: reaching a point where the poem needs to go more deeply into itself by going elsewhere.  Authentically elsewhere, somewhere I haven’t pre-plotted. I often find that point by writing slightly beyond it, into a fulfillment that’s too predictable. So I have to cut back to the precipice and be stranded there for a while. It’s a very uncomfortable place; it drives me crazy. And it’s where the thing either does or does not become a poem.”

This going elsewhere, this “hardest” and “truest” part of composition, this working at the point where a poem either does or does not emerge, of course, is the search for the right kind of turn for a poem, one that leaps away from the poem but also is deeply (and wildly) appropriate to it–a turn, that is, that has fitting surprise.  Seeking out and deploying thrilling turns is not only a part of Gregerson’s process, but also is a part of the process of poets such as Billy Collins and Mark Doty.  …And, I’m certain, many, many, many others.  It’s just nice, and fitting, that poets have started to articulate how difficult and vital a poetic element the turn in fact is.

Fitting Surprise in Mathematics

25 09 2012

In his faculty research colloquium this past Friday, my colleague, mathematician Andrew Shallue, gave a presentation titled “Constructing Large Numbers with Cheap Computers.”  As a part of this presentation, in which he discussed how he and his fellow researchers created the world’s largest Carmichael number, Andrew read a portion of the following, from chapter 18 of G.H. Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology:

”What ‘purely aesthetic’ qualities can we distinguish in such theorems as Euclid’s and Pythagoras’s?  I will not risk more than a few disjointed remarks. In both theorems (and in the theorems, of course, I include the proofs) there is a very high degree of unexpectedness, combined with inevitability and economy. The arguments take so odd and surprising a form; the weapons used seem so childishly simple when compared with the far-reaching results; but there is no escape from the conclusions.  There are no complications of detail – one line of attack is enough in each case; and this is true too of the proofs of many much more difficult theorems, the full appreciation of which demands quite a high degree of technical proficiency.  We do not want many `variations’ in the proof of a mathematical theorem: `enumeration of cases,’ indeed, is one of the duller forms of mathematical argument.  A mathematical proof should resemble a simple and clear-cut constellation, not a scattered cluster in the Milky Way.”

Needless to say, I was intrigued. The whole talk (at least as much as I could understand) was excellent, but Hardy’s idea that the famous theorems of Euclid and Pythagoras are noteworthy because they seem both inevitable and unexpected struck a chord: Hardy was impressed by fitting surprise in mathematics, and fitting surprise is something—an aspect of poetry and many other arts (fiction, drama, painting)—that interests me greatly. Now, here it is in mathematics. Seems fitting. And surprising.

Nicholas Royle’s Veering

12 04 2012

“Nowhere is this haphazard and disruptive strangeness of veering perhaps more evident than in the space of literature.  Indeed…in a sense this is what literature is.”  –Nicholas Royle

For those interested in the poetic turn as it is discussed on this blog, Nicholas Royle’s Veering: A Theory of Literature is, for the most part, a real treat: it offers the theoretical surround that helps to show why we need to further highlight the turn in poetry.

Royle’s theory is complex and multi-faceted, and I don’t intend to give a full reading of it here–rather, I want to discuss it a bit generally, and then reflect on its intersections with the thinking about the poetic turn.

According to Royle, his book is “a twisted love story” and “a theory of literature,” but “[m]ostly it is about the love for one word: ‘veering’.”  Royle notes, and then explains: “This word does not occur with enormous frequency, either in literature or in everyday language, but that is perhaps part of its charm.  In the pages that follow I explore ‘veering’ as a sort of pivot for thinking about literature and its relation to the world.”

As one might gather from the above, Royle, who also refers to veering as “a sort of creative and critical, literary and theoretical figure in motion, a dream-shifter,” means many, many things by veering.  At one level, veering is an existential truth; it offers an new orientation to what we are as humans, and to the place that humans possess in the world.  Royle states:

“Veering involves an economy of desire.  Everybody veers in his or her own fashion.  But this is never simply a matter of choice, volition or ‘personal preferences’.   There is always something other about veering.  Veering offers fresh slants on the classical notion of clinamen (‘leaning’, ‘inclination’) as a basis for thinking about the strangeness of life, the singularity of being in the world, as well as about that peculiar thing we call literature.

“Veering is not human, or not only human.  Other animals veer.  So do objects, such as stars.  The theory of veering is non-anthropocentric.  It gets away from the supposition that we human animals are at the centre of ‘our’ environment.  As we will see, the word ‘environment’ has veering–the French verb, virer, ‘to turn’–inscribed within it.  Veering orients us towards a new understanding of ‘the environment’.”

Veering also is a theoretical construct.  Veering offers new ways to read literature:

“Veering is kinetic and dynamic.  At once literal and figurative, it offers a mobile arsenal of images and ideas for thinking differently about literature–about genre, plot and narration, character and point of view, voice, tone and music, authorial attention and desire.  It opens up new possibilities for responding to what is on the move and uncertain in the very moment of reading, to what is slippery, unpredictable and chancy in the experience of literature.”

Much of Veering–including the chapters “Reading a Novel,” “Reading a Poem,” “Veerer: Where Ghosts Live,” “Veerer: Reading Melville’s ‘Bartlebey,'” and “Veering with Lawrence”–is taken up with showing the kinds of insights and perspective one gains from thinking about literature through the clarifying/distorting lens of veering.  Of particular interest is Royle’s development of the concept of the “veerer,” a concept, as Royle himself admits, one “cannot pin down.”  “Veerer,” however, seems to be the name for any instantiation of slipperiness or shiftingness in the text: “Veerer might also be a name for that experience in which you find yourself coming into another track…A veerer…may involve a feeling of uncanny surprise.”  To at least approximate a definition of the slippery veerer, Royle offers fifteen aphorisms to suggest possible meanings/uses of the term; among them:

“1. A veerer is someone or something that veers or makes veer.  You cannot pin down a veerer any more than you can categorize the place of a supplement or finalize the relationship between literature and the secret.”

“4. No aphorism without a veerer.

“12. ‘Veerer’ is at once micrological and macrological.  It might refer, for example, to a movement to be picked up in a single word or piece of a word, or indeed a single item of punctuation or spacing, as well as to an entire text.

“15. The greatest literary works, the most haunting and compelling but also the most resistant to reading, are the most veering.  A masterpiece is always a veerer.”

Veerers can be many things, and vice versa.  Poetic turns, as they are defined in Structure & Surprise and on this blog (as a shift in the rhetorical and/or dramatic trajectory of a poem), certainly are veerers.  Royle often recognizes the relationship between veering and turning:

–“‘Veering’ involves contemplating all sorts of turns, funny and otherwise.”

–“To engage with the verb ‘to veer’ is to find ourselves in Latin, French and other so-called foreign waters.  We are already adrift.  We must turn and turn about.  Besides ‘veer’ itself and other words linked to the French virer, for example, there are all the words related to the Latin verb vertere (‘to turn’)…Then there are the inexhaustible riches of the word ‘turn’ (from the Latin tornare, ‘to turn in a lathe’, from tornus, ‘turner’s wheel’, from Greek tornos, ‘lathe’)…”

–In his brief chapter on drama (“Drama: An Aside”), Royle notes that “[w]hile there’s no veering, in a literal sense, in Shakespeare’s writings…Shakespeare is…the greatest turner in the English language,” and he recognizes that in Shakespeare’s oeuvre “there are hundreds of instances of ‘turn’.”

–“‘A story, to be a story, must have a turning-point’, [Elizabeth Bowen] declares.”

What Royle says about veering also often can be applied to turns; and points that have been made about the turn can be applied to veering:

The turn often creates surprise, as does veering.  Royle states, “Veering can be deliberate or unintentional.  Either way, there is a suggestion of something sudden, unexpected, or unpredictable….Veering, then, entails an experience of untapped and unpredictable energy.”

Considering the turn makes us think about the power and the intrigue of poems in new ways, as does veering.  Royle states, “Veering offers a new and different way of construing the nature of plot and storytelling: changes in subject, narrator, time and location; alterations in characterization, or in a character’s perception, knowledge, belief or feelings; deviation, digression or twisting at the level of the individual sentence, syntax or word.”

Jokes turn from set-up to punch line.  And Royle also recognizes the role of the veer for creating humor: “No humour without veering.”  Aphorisms work in ways similar to jokes, and, was we already know: “No aphorism without a veerer.”

So, turning is a kind of veering, and many of the insights Royle offers about veering can be applied to turning.  I want to turn now offer a few insights into how some of the work done on the turn can help to supplement some of the ideas in Veering.

Those interested in animals veering, and how such veering has influenced / plays itself out in literature, really should read Peter Sacks’s “You Only Guide Me by Surprise”: Poetry and the Dolphin’s Turn.  Sacks reads the presence of dolphins in poetry as totemic, signalling an important turn / veer.  (More detailed information may be found here.)

Royle assigns the veer an important role in evaluating literature, stating, “Veering impels us towards new questions about aesthetics.  A literary text is composed of forces.  It is a work of veering.  The literary work may veer well or beautifully, in a shift or turn that pleases, surprises, thrills, fascinates.  Or it can veer poorly, ineffectually, clumsily.  The ‘twist in the tale’, for example, is hardly ever a veering worthy of the name.”  And the role of the turn in evaluating poetry has been something that I’ve explored on this blog and elsewhere.  Here are a few links:

“Fitting Surprise and the Critique of Recent Poetics.”

“Writing Degree [infinite sign].”  Uses the surprising turn to evaluate contemporary haiku.

“Raising the Net.”  Uses the volta, the sonnet’s turn, to evaluate recent collections of sonnets.  In this essay, I state, “I revise Robert Frost’s idea that writing free verse is like ‘playing tennis with the net down.’  Writing formal sonnets, it turns out, is not too difficult; it’s the writing of sonnets without great turns that’s akin to a netless game.  In contrast, crafting sonnets with an eye toward their turns as well as a critical approach that can account for them not only raises the net but also raises the bar on what we expect from sonnets.”

–Additionally, a panel at the 2012 AWP conference investigated the qualities of excellent turns in short stories.  Read Erin Stalcup’s panel presentation here.

Veering and the poetic turn clearly are related.  However, in one of, for me, the very few disappointments of Veering, Royle does little to make the connection clear.  In fact, when he discusses poetry, Royle tends to avoid discussion of the turn, or else he mentions it to quickly bypass it.  For example, in “Reading a Poem,” Royle discusses diataxis, which he, following Francois Roustang, defines as “the stylistic figure of interpretation that tips discourse over, turns it back, or makes it advance.”  And diataxis clearly is related to the turn; Royle states, “Diataxis is pivotal…for thinking about narrative and dramatic turns–not only the major reversals and returns that characterize the plays of Sophocles or Ibsen and literary narratives from fairy tales to Philip Roth…”  As this sentence’s construction indicates, diataxis as rhetorical turn is about to be overtaken:  “…but also the micrological deviations, digressions or divergences that occur mid-sentence.”  And, when Royle discusses how diataxis can be used to read a poem, he essentially skips the turn; Royle states,

“Above and beyond those characteristics we have just noted…, diataxis in poetry would entail (1) a special attentiveness to the surprising or interruptive play of the letter, the twists and turns a word might take or make, the disjunctive or deviant effects of homonyms or homophones, the strangely mobilized energies of etymology, and so on and sew forth; and (2) everything that is at play in the word ‘verse’ as such, the force of turning that is the very veering of a line, diataxis in and across line-endings.”

At the end of his book, Royle even equates “more specifically poetic veerings” with “the turning of a line or sentence, the turning of a word within itself and between its various appearances.”  The larger-scale poetic turn effectively has disappeared from Royle’s account of poetic veering.

Far from being unique to Royle, this kind of bypassing of the poetic turn, or the elision of the poetic turn into the consideration of verse’s line breaks, is familiar.  It’s the kind of elision one also finds in Jeremy Tambling’s RE:Verse–Turning towards Poetry.  (For my investigation into the way in which Tambling shifts a discussion of the poetic turn to a discussion of verse’s line breaks, click here.)  But just because this kind of elision is familiar does not mean it’s good.

Still, of course, the tasks (not to mention the audiences) of theory often differ from those of poetry criticism and pedagogy.  In Veering, Royle focuses on what he needs to focus on.  And in so doing, Royle develops a fascinating new way to consider all manner of literature and experience, a fascinating new way that, in some very big ways, jibes with the overall project of Structure & Surprise, including this blog.  I hope you’ll check it out.

Surprise Me

25 03 2012

For me, one of the highlights of the 2012 AWP conference was attending the panel “Surprise Me.”  The description of the panel stated:

“We’ve come a long way from the days when you could end a story by revealing that the diamonds were fake.  Yet the best short fiction still pleasures us with the unexpected, and when stories fail, it’s often exactly because they don’t surprise.  This panel of short story writers, fiction editors, and teachers will investigate the kinds of surprises that give the reader that sense of the floor dropping away, while maintaining the organic integrity of the fictional dream.”

Of course this panel interested me.  As the editor of a book called Structure & Surprise, I’m clearly fascinated by surprise, and I find surprise to be a key element of virtually all kinds of creative writing.  More specifically, I’m very interested in a kind of surprise that I’ve come to call “fitting surprise,” that is, surprise that is not merely shocking but somehow fits its context.  It is this, frankly, magical mixture that gives so much writing its power.  I’m not the only one to think so; I’ve collected a number of quotations from various writers, artists, critics, and commentators who seem to indicate that they, too, find fitting surprise (by whatever name they call it) particularly powerful.  (You can find these quotations here.)

Based on its description, which promised surprises that both shocked and yet kept “the organic integrity of the fictional dream” intact, “Surprise Me” seemed like it had the potential to be a panel that could possibly deliver more thinking on vitally important “fitting surprise.”  I was not disappointed.  Indeed, I was treated to a panel in which each of the presenters–Edward Porter, Robin Black, Tracy Winn, and Erin Stalcup–offered a revelatory reflection on the intricacies of creating complex, satisfying surprises, and, often, they spoke directly to the effort to create fitting surprise.  If you ever come across an essay by any one of them that seems to indicate that it will be about surprise, read it–even if you’re a poet, it will be worth it.

Here is a sample of how good the whole panel was–the following is Erin Stalcup’s presentation:

Diane Arbus writes, “It’s what I’ve never seen before that I recognize,” which I hear as an argument for surprise in all art. I’m particularly interested in surprise at the endings of short stories—when I recognize what I didn’t see coming. The stories I love, I can’t look away from—I want to lose my breath, I want the floor to drop away, I want to be blown away—and often this happens at the very end, sometimes the last line. John Gardner said that every ending should be both surprising and inevitable, so I’m curious how to make that work when the ending is heavy on the surprise part. I’d argue that sheer reversal in an ending results in unsatisfying surprise. The classic stories that end in a switch are fun to read, but you can only read them once: Guy de Maupassant wrote “The Necklace” in 1884, and O. Henry wrote “The Gift of the Magi” in 1905, and most people probably know those plots by heart, but the surprise of reversal is the only purpose of the story, which ruins future readings. Interestingly, both stories were first published in newspapers, a forum that asks for a single reading, then disposal. Those stories offer pleasure, they fulfill a human craving for reversal that’s possibly left over from myths and fairytales—but they aren’t the most satisfying stories I know, and I don’t want to write stories like them. That kind of surprise feels old fashioned, historical.

Strangely, composition theorist Peter Elbow’s application of philosopher Kenneth Burke’s ideas of form is what has most helped me work out my ideas of how to generate effective surprise.

Kenneth Burke writes, “[F]orm is the creation of an appetite in the mind of the [reader], and an adequate satisfying of that appetite. . . Form, having to do with the creation and gratification of needs, is ‘correct’ in so far as it gratifies the need it creates.” Peter Elbow first applies this idea to music, then to essays, and he says, “Music tends to bring us to a state of final satisfaction by way of a journey through nonsatisfactions, half satisfactions, and temporary satisfactions: degrees of yearning and relief.” I’d argue this is a perfect description for what stories should do, as well—yearning and relief are what keep us turning pages. But how can that final relief, the rest we get at the end of a story’s journey, be not just still, but also surprising? I think the way that can happen is by having the ending of a story satisfy an appetite that the reader didn’t know she had.

I’m going to give an extended reading of one story, and a brief synopsis of two others, and I tried to pick well-known examples that I hope most people in the room have read. In Denis Johnson’s “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” surprise shows up in the very last line. I think it’s effective because I’ve been made to subconsciously crave it by the way the story is structured.

The title tells us what to expect, I’m given a conscious appetite to see cars crash, so the collision itself cannot be the surprise in this story. Johnson doesn’t even let us wonder which car will crash: the first paragraph tells us that the narrator receives three safe rides, and the fourth one is the doomed one. The narrator himself knows what will happen—made prescient by drugs, when he meets the man, wife, and two children, he thinks, “You are the ones”—but then we go back, and are given the story of the three rides before that, driving while taking amphetamines, Canadian Club, and hashish, the three trips we know will end well, but that never feel safe as we experience them. This is a classic way of building tension in the story—we’re waiting to come back to that condemned car—but a more specific way of labeling that tension might be that we experience “nonsatisfactions, half satisfactions, and temporary satisfactions” before we get there.

The crash itself is surprising in two ways—its description is lyrical and lovely, and the narrator behaves strangely: after he “commenced bouncing back in forth” under a “rain” of human blood, he picks up the unhurt baby and walks away from the crash, has an extended, very calm conversation with an onlooker, then walks back to look at the man from the other car who is dying. He says, “I looked down into the great pity of a person’s life on this earth. I don’t mean that we all end up dead, that’s not the great pity. I mean that he couldn’t tell me what he was dreaming, and I couldn’t tell him what was real.” The crash we were promised is now over, but the story goes on. All the characters go to the hospital, and in a stunning paragraph the narrator says surprising things:

“Down the hall came the wife. She was glorious, burning. She didn’t know yet that her husband was dead. We knew. That’s what gave her such power over us. The doctor took her into a room with a desk at the end of the hall, and from under the closed door a slab of brilliance radiated as if, by some stupendous process, diamonds were being incinerated in there. What a pair of lungs! She shrieked as I imagined an eagle would shriek. It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere.”

The speaker tells the doctors there’s nothing wrong with him, and that reminds him of a time, years after this event, when he is admitted to Detox and similarly lies. He explains a string of surreal images he hallucinated then, and the story ends with this:

“It was raining. Gigantic ferns leaned over us. The forest drifted down a hill. I could hear a creek rushing down among rocks. And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you.”

I’m sure some people consider this ending ineffective surprise, this rupturing of the fourth wall, this admittance of an audience. It breaks the fictional dream, pulls me out of the story, but having the floor drop away in this way is thrilling, for this reader. A narrator who loves the sound of screeching sorrow, whose drugs have made him both loony and lucid—I want this story to be about me, even though I’ve never lived a life like that. The form of the story made me hungry for something beyond a car crash, and this narrator’s surprising way of seeing the world has made me hungry to listen to him talk, but what he’s been telling me about is the transcendence of destruction, so he’s made me hungry to somehow experience that, too—though I couldn’t have said I wanted to experience destruction. In the end, it’s satisfying to have my expectations destroyed, to be told this narrator, this writer, can do nothing for me. He’s said he wants to communicate, he wants to talk about dreams and reality, but we can’t. Yet, paradoxically, this does something for me—it gives me an experience I’ve never before had. There’s a satisfying duality in this ending, which I’ll say more about a bit later.

I think a lesson can be learned from this story—car crashes are not inherently surprising, or even inherently interesting. What happens in a story is not important, what’s important is who it happens to. Characters make plots resonant. Though, effective surprise does not have to be as dramatic as this. I’ll briefly look at two other stories.

At the end of Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral” the narrator—who has no friends, whose own wife doesn’t really like him—intimately touches hands and draws cathedrals with the blind guest he’s made clear he dislikes. But what’s so great about this surprising ending is that it’s not a simple reversal of a jerk into a good guy. This is not a life-changing event; he’s going to be a jerk tomorrow, probably. But for this one moment, he’s feeling something I wanted him to have the capacity to feel, but I could not have possibly predicted he would feel it in precisely this way.

In Amy Hempel’s “The Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried,” the narrator leaves her best friend on her deathbed to instead drive her convertible “too fast down the Coast highway through the crab-smelling air […to] stop in Malibu for sangria, […] papaya and shrimp and watermelon ice, […then] vibrate with life, and stay up all night.” In “Cathedral,” I wanted to see a schmuck behave well, and here, I had an unarticulated appetite to see someone behave badly. But this story doesn’t end there; it doesn’t even end with humans. We’re told the friend was “moved to the cemetery, the one where Al Jolson is buried,” and the final paragraph is about a chimp who knows sign language, who taught its baby to sign, “And when the baby died, the mother stood over the body, her wrinkled hands moving with animal grace, forming again and again the words: Baby, come hug. Baby, come hug, fluent now in the language of grief.” It’s a bold move to leave the characters of the story behind, to go somewhere else entirely, but the narrator can’t explain her grief herself. The mosaic structure and lists of trivia throughout have prepared me to both be shocked by this ending, and see it as the only way to end.

The stories I’ve picked show my taste, but I think this same idea can be applied to stories both more conventional, and more unconventional—writers as far ranging as Flannery O’Connor, John Cheever, Gilbert Sorrentino, and Donald Bartleme do similar things in their fiction, and others.

In all ends of stories, surprising or not, I appreciate the sense of duality, feeling like the narrator or character is in two different times periods or two different places; duality allows me, the reader, to bounce around in the tension, be neither here nor there, and it makes an ending feel dynamic, not a static stopping. Anything surprising revealed in the end of a story must push the story forward, not simply throw the reader backward. That’s why pure reversal isn’t effective: there is no duality, only singularity. Complexity is diminished. When I learn the diamonds are fake, I go back and revise what I’ve read, but then the story is over. I don’t learn anything meaningful about any character. When I learn that Della has sold her hair for a watch chain and Jim has sold his watch for hair combs, their love is revealed, but the coincidence feels silly, tricky, not deep and abiding.

In the stories I talked about here I am pushed forward, past the story, to thinking about what will happen next, how my understandings of these characters has intensified. Susan Neville once told me that an ending should be like a spark that lights the fuse of a firecracker, which goes exploding back through the story. I agree. But I don’t want an ending to just do that—I have to imagine the sound moving outward as well. Maybe it’s more that an ending should be like a gong sounding, or a bell, those reverberations shaking back through the story, and forward also. Wells Tower just visited theUniversityofNorth Texas, and he described an ending’s forward momentum as “striking a note in the key of the future.” I think this forward and backward effect is not what makes an ending surprising, it’s what makes any ending good—I’m thinking of the ending to “Sonny’s Blues,” the cup of trembling, which is the perfect ending, but isn’t really shocking. This duality needs to exist in every ending, I believe. But when it’s present in a surprising ending, that’s what makes the ending not a static reversal. The best endings have that recognition of something I’ve never seen, the satisfaction of an appetite I hadn’t felt until it was satiated, the simultaneous realization of hunger and fulfillment.

* * *

Erin Stalcup’s fiction has appeared in [PANK],The Kenyon ReviewKenyon Review OnlineThe Sun, and other magazines. After receiving her MFA from Warren Wilson College’s Program for Writers, she taught in schools and prisons throughout New York City and Western North Carolina. She’s currently a PhD student at the University of North Texas, where she’s finishing her first collection,Gravity & Other Stories, and starting a novel.

My thanks to Erin Stalcup for permission to reprint her presentation.

“A Goldilocks Zone,” or Fitting Surprise

21 02 2012

How does music convey emotion?

According to McGill professor Dan Levitin, one important way is through the subtle manipulation of surprise.  Discussing Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” Levitin notes,

“At about the point when the right hand starts playing the melody four measures into the piece there’s this burst of feeling.  In general, what’s going on is that what we want as listeners is for music to surprise us but not too much.  If the music was completely surprising we’d be disoriented.  On the other extreme, if the music was completely predictable, we’d grow bored of it, and it would seem banal.  And hat the composer has to do is find that balance and get it just right: the Goldilocks zone.”

On the Media co-host Brooke Gladstone translates this as “the just-right amount of surprise.”

(Listen to the whole story–it’s terrific!–over at On the Media’s “How Music Conveys Emotion.”)

The power of this kind of surprise also has been recognized in fields other than music. To see the outlines of the conversation about fitting surprise in literature, especially poetry, check out this blog’s “Fitting Surprise.”

Visual and Verbal Wit

15 01 2012

Recently, I’ve been reading, and viewing, a terrific book: A Smile in the Mind: Witty Thinking in Graphic Design, by Beryl McAlhone and David Stuart.  It’s a beautiful book, filled with hundreds of eye-catching, brain-pleasing examples.

The book also has a really good introduction to wit, in general.  The authors state: “Graphic wit is not really very different from verbal wit.  The medium changes, but the underlying technique is the same.”  I’m sure they’re right.  And, of course, as I read, I couldn’t help but think about the role of the turn in making wit.

According to the authors, “Wit is…[a] frisky tendency, in that it makes its impact through sudden jumps, skips, somersaults and reversals in the mind.”  And, they add: “Witty thinking is always structural….If you want to recognize wit in graphics, look for ‘the familiar’ and ‘the play’….’The play involves an agile or acrobatic type of thinking–a leap, a somersault, a reversal, a sideways jump–where the outcome is unexpected….The two elements–‘the familiar’ and ‘the play’–are responsible for the two main emotions experienced by someone ‘getting’ a witty idea–recognition and surprise.”

Turns aren’t always a part of visual wit–some visual wit occurs immediately.  However, if you’re looking for examples of visual wit created with turns, I can think of few better places to, well, turn than The Perry Bible Fellowship.  Of course, you can just keep hitting the “Random” link and enjoy yourself immensely, but check out specific cartoons (cartoons with very few words in them), such as “Peak Performance,” “b,” and “Today’s My Birthday,” and you can get a very clear sense of the role of the turn in creating visual wit.

Then, check out the thinking on verbal wit here, and see if it applies to visual wit–I think it does.

McAlhone and Stuart explain why wit is so powerful in graphic design.  They note that wit “wins time,” “invites participation,” “gives the pleasure of decoding,” “gives a reward,” “amuses,” “gets under the guard,” “forms a bond,” “goes deeper,” and “is memorable.”  These are, as well, the benefits of wit in writing.  Turn, turn, turn.

Haiku and Fitting Surprise

8 07 2010

In a recent post, I cite a terrific paragraph from Arthur Plotnik’s Spunk & Bite.  That paragraph, titled “Surprisingly Apt,” reads:

“Ultimately, the devices of surprise may set up the pins, but they don’t guarantee the strike.  The essence of surprise is in its timing and execution: fast, graceful, and apt.  Aptness is paramount.  The best surprise of all may be how precisely an unexpected word or image pops a message.  Unexpected is easy; unexpectedly perfect helps separate writers from hacks.”

As I note in that post, what I like so much about this paragraph is that it jibes with a quality of writing that I’m very taken by: a quality I call “fitting surprise,” that moment in writing when something occurs that is both unexpected and yet truly apt.  “Fitting surprise” is not a kind of turn, but rather a quality of turn I value highly.

For those (potentially) interested in this quality of turn, I thought I’d highlight an essay I wrote a few years back that offers my clearest statement about what I think fitting surprise is: “Writing Degree ∞ (on Recent Haiku).”

While generally a review of some recent haiku, “Writing Degree ∞” also offers some history of the concept of fitting surprise (for example, how it is discussed by artists, writers, and critics such as Lee Gurga, Rene Magritte, Pierre Reverdy, Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Margaret Atwood, Antonya Nelson, and Randall Jarrell) and employs the concept critically, showing how the application of the concept actually can make a difference in how one thinks about, in this instance, haiku.  (I suggest that the more structural quality of fitting surprise should trump formal considerations when trying to determine what are successful (or: awesome, astounding, wonderful…) haiku–haiku form (three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables, respectively) offers very little in terms of how to judge the success of a haiku (anyone can write a 5-7-5 haiku!) whereas the mysterious, difficult, and amazing quality of fitting surprise offers a worthy criterion: if one detects the presence of fitting surprise in a haiku, that haiku is doing something powerful, something singular.)

Please note that while I hope all of “Writing Degree ∞” is worth paying attention to, the essay’s turn to discussing fitting surprise and its role in the evaluation of haiku begins with the final paragraph on p. 150.