From Tania Runyan’s How to Write a Poem

13 05 2016

A switch can be a sensory detail that socks a reader. It can be a sound that echoes long after the reader has put the book down. Or it can be a “turn” in structure that sparks an insight no reader could have predicted. In his essay “Poetic Structure and Poetic Form: A Necessary Differentiation,” Michael Theune defines the turn as “a significant shift in the poem’s rhetorical progress.” In other words, the poem’s line of thought shifts into new territory. Theune goes on to discuss how a poem’s structure can facilitate these turns. And “structure” should not be seen as a scary word, for it “is more than logic; it organizes and encourages a poem’s leaps and landings, it arrives at places at once prepared-for yet seemingly unexpected.”

Preparing for the unexpected. You, poet, should be surprised by your own work. And you can work toward those surprises.

–Tania Runyan, How to Write a Poem: Based on the Billy Collins Poem “Introduction to Poetry”

What a treat, to find thinking about the turn making its way more generally into the teaching of poetry–terrific!

Fitting, that it occur in a book inspired by Collins’s “Introduction to Poetry,” a poem, like so many of Collins’s poems, focused on skillful turning. Fitting, too, that it is featured in a book by Tania Runyan, a poet who regularly deploys vital turns in her own work–check out the significant and complex turning in her poem “The Bee Box.”





High Voltage Poetry: On the Poetic Turn

13 05 2016

As part of the programming for the inauguration of Illinois Wesleyan University’s nineteenth president, Eric Jensen, on Friday, April 1, some colleagues and I participated in a series of lightning talks highlighting some of the artistic and scholarly projects taking place at IWU. Along with poet Dan Smart (among other things, the author of the great poetry blog “Rhythm Is the Instrument”) and student respondents Kristina Dehlin and Jake Morris, I was a part of the presentation “High Voltage Poetry: On the Poetic Turn.” Check it out for a succinct introduction to the turn, for Dan’s terrific reflections on ways in which the turn has informed his own work, and for Kristina’s and Jake’s very smart reflections and questions–

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The High Voltage Poetry Team: Dan Smart, Jake Morris, Kristina Dehlin, and Mike Theune

 





Upcoming Workshop on the Turn

1 02 2016

wagner

In Denver on March 5? Want to learn more about and even try your hand at some poetic turns? Sign up for “Poetic Turns,” a day-long workshop led by Lynn Wagner.

Here’s the workshop description:

In this craft-centered class, we will explore ways to change direction using rhetorical moves and poetic structures. We’ll make lists with a twist, become ironic, switch it up halfway through and be concessional—not confessional. Inspired by Michael Theune’s Structure & Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns, a book recommended by Kim Addonizio on her visit to Lighthouse, the craft shack is the perfect place to make and play—exercises, experiments, and mini workshops. Poets and prose writers both welcome. Get ready for a revolution.

Lynn Wagner is the right person to lead such a workshop. She’s expert with the turn–just check out her poem “Black Dog / White Snow.” And then read more of her work on her website.

Turn, turn, turn!

 





The Hidden Turn in X. J. Kennedy’s Introduction to Poetry

20 01 2016

As I argue here, there is a necessary difference between poetic form and poetic structure.

Though I did not make this case in the linked-to essay, it also is the case that discussions of form often hide discussions of structure (by “structure,” I mean specifically the pattern of a poem’s turning). Something like this happens in Helen Vendler’s Poems, Poets, Poetry: An Introduction and Anthology, and I write about this here.

This also happens in X. J. Kennedy’s An Introduction to Poetry (1966). The first two paragraphs of chapter 10, “Form,” state:

Form, as a general idea, denotes the shape or design of a thing as a whole, the configuration of its parts. Among its connotations is that of order made from chaos: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void…”

Like irony, the word form has been favored in literary criticism with several meanings. This chapter will deal with five of these: (1) form as pattern of sound and rhythm, (2) form as a shape that meets the eye, (3) flexible form or free verse, (4) form in the sense of a genre, or particular kind of poem, and (5) form as the structure of a poem–the ways in which its materials are organized. (164)

Though one of the five kinds of form, the fifth, “the structure of a poem,” clearly stands apart. Kennedy notes, “Within a poem, this organization of materials other than stresses, sounds, and visual shapes is the kind of form called structure” (191). And, when one examines the discussion of structure, it quickly becomes clear that this section very much is about structure as the pattern turns in a poem. After acknowledging that all poems have their own unique structure, and that, therefore, “brief descriptions of the structures of poems can be no more than rough sketches,” Kennedy notes, “but certain types of structure are encountered frequently” (191). Among the at least six brief descriptions he offers, five describe kinds of turns:

A poem, like many a piece of expository prose, may open with a general statement, which it then illustrates and amplifies by particulars, as does Mrs. Browning’s sonnet beginning “I tell you, hopeless grief is passionless” (p. 185) (191).

Or it might move from details to more general statement, as does Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (p. 321), presenting details of the urn’s pattern and arriving at the conclusion, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” (191).

A poem may set two elements in parallel structure:… [Here, Kennedy offers Alexander Pope’s “Epigram Engraved on the Collar of a Dog Which I Gave to His Royal Highness” as an example.] (191)

A poem may also set two elements in an antithesis, as the two halves of Robert Frost’s short poem quoted at the beginning of this book: “We dance round in a ring and suppose, / But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.” (Not all poems containing parallels or antitheses need be so brief; and some contain other things in addition to statements set side by side. (192)

If a poems tells a story, it may build to a crisis or turning point in the action, as might a novel or play. (192)

Noting that “[t]hese are just a few kinds of structure possible,” Kennedy then performs a close reading of Robert Herrick’s “Divination by a Daffodil” to identify and describe the many kinds of turns in the poem, “a poem containing–like most poems–more than one kind” (192):

This poem is arranged in two halves, bound together by a metaphor. In the first three lines, the speaker sees a drooping daffodil; in the last three, he foresees his own eventual drooping in like manner. There is another relationship, too: the second half of the poem explains the first half, it specifies “what I must be.” Furthermore, the last three lines make a one-two-three listing of the stages of dying and being buried. There is also in these lines a progression of narrative: the events take place one after another. (192)

Asking “How do we look for structure?,” Kennedy suggests fourteen “methods of approach to a poem” to help one find a poem’s structure (192). While he notes that such work to newly approach a poem must also entail a return to and a more deeply informed rereading of the poem, Kennedy is clear about the kind of ingress structural awareness gives to understanding, stating that applying such knowledge to a poem “can be a means of entrance into the most difficult of poems, whether conventional in form or flexible, whether an epic or an epigram” (193).

Of course, I admire greatly Kennedy’s work with structure, and his sense that structure is something significantly different from form. However, of course I also wish that Kennedy would have gone further and released structure’s turning from the discussion of form. I wish Kennedy might have gone so far as to give structure its own chapter, as it received in John Ciardi’s How Does a Poem Mean? (which I discuss here). Such focus is, alas, extremely rare, but it shouldn’t be: it’s simply a matter of being clear about what the vital elements of poetry in fact are, about what we really do, in fact, value in poems. Great turning certainly is one of those values.





Writing a Metaphor-to-Meaning Poem

8 05 2012

Though in my intro to poetry writing class I typically do not focus on the turn until the second half of the semester (there is so much to cover prior to this: creative process, artistic recklessness, the poetic leap, the many means to create surprise, etc), I recently have taken to providing students with an exercise focused on the turn in the first day of class.

After performing the rituals of the beginning of the semester (taking roll, handing out and discussing the syllabus, etc), I introduce my students to the metaphor-to-meaning structure.  We examine a couple of key examples (often Whitman’s clear “A noiseless, patient spider” and Rod Smith’s wild “Ted’s Head”)—I describe the metaphor-to-meaning structure, and I ask students to locate and explain the turn, which they can, and do.  We then examine a handful of metaphor-to-meaning poems in which the turn reveals that the metaphor was meant to stand for or say something about poetry, or the poem, or that poet.  Baudelaire’s “The Albatross” and Zbigniew Herbert’s “The Hen” work very well for this.  We take some time, explore and appreciate these poems, and then I give my students their assignment: write a poem like these—write a poem that opens with a metaphor and closes by revealing that the metaphor (somehow) relates to poetry, poems, or the figure of the poet.  The main bit of advice I give my students is to try to come up with a description of something very different from poetry to serve as the metaphor—much of the fun of reading a metaphor-to-meaning poem about poetry is the surprise that comes with finding out that, in fact, it is in some way about poetry.

This, of course, seems like a lot to give students, especially on the first day.  However, perhaps because it’s the beginning of the semester and everyone is excited to get underway, and/or because students want to begin to describe their orientation to poetry, and/or because, in fact, I keep this a low-stakes assignment (due the next class meeting, in which it is read but not workshopped—if students want to workshop it, they can later in the semester), and/or because no one has yet given such demanding assignments, my students typically have taken this assignment and run with it, and they’ve made some very nice poems as a result.

Here are two student poems that ended up fitting the metaphor-to-meaning structure perfectly.  Yet, even though these poems closely engage the structure, they do so in very different ways.  With the metaphoric status of the blister(-as-poem) remaining a mystery until the end, Anjelica Rodriguez’s “Blister” makes a beautiful kind of surprising sense.  However, the turn in Stephen Whitfield’s “Maturity” is more sudden, more shocking—it resonates with what Rachel Zucker calls the epiphanic structure.

 

Blister

by Anjelica Rodriguez

 

You think only of the pain,

When there is only healing.

 

And now you know how it feels

To write a poem.

 

***

 

Maturity

by Stephen Whitfield

 

Shining vaguely under the water,

She is like the ghost I claimed to see in the attic

Swimming in circles she will never understand

 

She cannot sit still

She cannot close her eyes

She is looking for something anonymous and vital

 

Something absurd and perfect

It catches her eye and she ascends like a raptured priest

Gasping, fighting an inconceivable pull

 

She is alive again only when released

Already semi-desperate to fight it again

 

I miss the urgency of my first poems.

 

***

Some students used the metaphor-to-meaning structure as more of a launching pad.  They ended up creating strong poems, but poems that, in the end, are not actually metaphor-to-meaning poems.  Brittany Gonio’s “My Kind of Poetry” ended up as more of a cliché-and-critique poem.  And I’m frankly not sure what to call Colleen O’Connor’s “Where We Sleep.”  While it clearly is in dialogue with the metaphor-to-meaning structure, it is not, strictly speaking, a metaphor-to-meaning poem.  But, of course, in the end this does not matter—what matters is that it, like the other poems gathered here, is a thrilling, engaging poem.

 

My Kind of Poetry

by Brittany Gonio

 

My kind of poetry

is not an ornate object

on display in an upper class suburban home.

It is not the family jewels

hidden away in a safety deposit box,

for which the children

have only a false appreciation.

My poetry will never cradle me

like goose feathered bedspreads

and waterbed mattresses,

nor will it be the pillow talk

my lover whispers to me

(whether his intention be from his heart

or his groin).

It is not a hospital recovery room

with extended visiting hours

and the promise of being

“just like brand new”

in a couple of days.

 

My poetry is a boxing match

where I never have to look

to the jumbotron to channel

the intensity in my chaotically

coordinated opponent.

Every punch that grazes only air

depletes my resolve and loses support

of my knees.

Every jab met with hard muscle

sends a surge of endorphins

through my knuckles and veins.

I flit through the entirety

of the human spectrum of emotion

in the rounds between bell chimes,

and leave the ring

swallowing tears,

grinning through migraines.

 

My poetry breaks me

repeatedly,

and I,

like a teenage lover,

consistently return to it,

because I am married to it

in a way that has nothing to do

with religion

or income laws,

but in that

“bigger than yourself”

tidal wave revelation.

My poetry has made me

an adrenaline junkie;

I dread building up tolerance,

fear calluses that will hinder sharp stings,

loathe the body’s natural instinct

to protect itself.

For I yearn to sustain

and possess

the awe of aftershocks

each morning as

my fingers glide over

word-shaped bruises,

and chart muscles and flesh

I didn’t know

could feel.

 

***

 

Where We Sleep

by Colleen O’Connor

 

In the field behind his childhood home,

He buried two dogs,

A baby bird,

A stray cat,

The fish he wouldn’t flush,

A few chewed up toys,

And the rabbit

He never got to name.

 

It’s been thirty years.

In a different house,

A different dog skitters on the wood floors.

It growls at the rumbling washing machine,

Sleeps between him and the woman

Who reminds him of his mother.

 

He comes back to the field sometimes,

When the woman is at work and the dog has been fed

And the new backyard feels too small.

 

In the silence, the prairie grass mumbles,

Shifts in the wind,

Soft as the belly of a sleeping bear.

 

In the desk beside his end table,

He buried his poems.

 

He pulls them out sometimes, years later,

Once the woman is asleep and the dogs have been dead for years

And the bed feels too big.

 

In the silence, she mumbles,

Shifts in her sleep,

A shape in the shadows.

 

Under the light of his end table,

He flips the pages,

Unearths six girls,

One man,

A year in Amsterdam,

A tour with the coast guard,

Four bouts of depression,

And the daughter

He never got to name.

 

He holds the poems gently,

Like baby birds.

 

Tiny coffins, they are strangely light

For how much they hold.

 

***

If you like the poems you see here, I hope you’ll give this assignment a try.

For a variant of this assignment, see “Extended Metaphor as Ars Poetica” in Tom C. Hunley’s The Poetry Gymnasium: 94 Proven Exercises to Shape Your Best Verse (30-33).  In this assignment, Hunley suggests simply creating an extended metaphor (using anything that’s not poetry) and then calling the poem “Poetry” or “Ars Poetica.”  A kind of meaning-to-metaphor poem, which can have great result, as well.

***

My thanks to Anjelica, Stephen, Brittany, and Colleen for granting me permission to use their poems.





Turn, Turn, Turn

10 03 2012

The turn stars in three of my recent print publications.  Here they are…

“Raising the Net” appears in Spoon River Poetry Review 36.2 (Summer/Fall 2011).  “Raising the Net” is a review-essay that uses Christina Pugh’s ideas about “sonnet thought” to consider the fate of the turn in some contemporary books of sonnets, including The Reality Street Book of Sonnets (a glorious mixed bag), Iteration Nets (in terms of turns: there are none), Nick Demske (interesting, and problematic), and Severance Songs (pretty great).

I state in “Raising the Net” that “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.”

The Shadow of Sirius: A Critical Conversation” appears in Until Everything Is Continuous Again: American Poets on the Recent Work of W. S. Merwin, edited by Jonathan Weinert and Kevin Prufer (Seattle, WA: WordFarm, 2012).  “The Shadow of Sirius: A Critical Conversation” is an essay I co-authored with poet-critic Mark Halliday in which Mark and I debate the merit of Merwin’s latest book of poems–Mark: generally against; me, strongly for.

As I prepared to write my portion of the essay, it became clear to me that Merwin was a great poet of the surprising turn.  Though, of course, I make my case for this claim more fully in the published essay, a preview of my argument can be found here.

“Other Arrangements: The Vital Turn in Poetry Writing Pedagogy” appears in Beyond the Workshop.  “Other Arrangements” is, in large part, a friendly amendment to Tom C. Hunley’s excellent Teaching Poetry Writing: A Five-Canon Approach.  In his book, Hunley argues 1) that we need to get beyond the workshop as a core pedagogical method for teaching poetry writing, and 2) that one way to do this is to orient teaching toward the five canons of rhetoric: invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery.

I contribute to Hunley’s argument by arguing that strong consideration of the turn should be a key part of the discussion of the second canon, arrangement.  I wrote a little on this here, though, again, the published essay is much more complete.

It feels good to get more thought about the vital turn out into the world.  My thanks to my insightful and generous editors–Kirstin Hotelling Zona, Jonathan Weinert, Kevin Prufer, and Paul Perry–for allowing me the opportunity share my ideas, and for helping to make my writing and thinking on behalf of these ideas as strong as possible.





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





Poetic Structures Workshop

2 01 2012

If you live in or around Austin, Texas, and you want to explore how the poetic turn might encourage new poems or sharpen some drafts you already have, you may want to consider attending “Six Approaches to Structuring a Poem,” a day-long writing workshop led by poet Scott Wiggerman.  Check it out!





Add Excitation to Your Recitation: Attend to the Turn

27 08 2011

W.W. Norton & Company is organizing The Norton Anthology Recitation Contest.  This contest is open to college and high school students worldwide.  Additional information, including rules, can be found here.

Recitation is a demanding–but also very rewarding–art.  At poets.org, John Hollander’s “Committed to Memory” offers some helpful insights into and advice about recitation.

Here, I’d like to offer a simple but also powerful bit of advice to anyone preparing to recite a poem: attend to the poem’s turn.

A turn is a major shift in a poem’s rhetorical and/or dramatic trajectory.   Most poems–certainly most great poems–have turns.  And almost all of the recitation contest’s eight authorized poems have turns in them.  Any skilled recitation needs to communicate the power of the turn.

Writing about the volta–that is, the turn in a sonnet–Phillis Levin states, “[t]he reader’s experience of this turn (like a key change) reconfigures the experience of all the lines that both precede and follow it.”  Thus, when reciting a poem, the performer must know where the turn is–or, turns are–and must be aware of, and communicate, the nature of the turn’s key change: what is the argument and tone of the poem prior to the turn?  how does the argument and tone shift after the turn?

To assist potential performers with this aspect of their recitation, I offer a few notes on the turns in some of the authorized contest poems.  Links to some of the contest’s authorized poems are below.  Each link is followed by a brief discussion of the poem which locates and describes each poem’s major turn(s). 

A few details:

While there certainly are numerous minor–yet still significant–turns in each of the following poems, I will only discuss the major turns, offering what I hope will be a helpful orientation to the poem and introduction to some of the poem’s demands on the performer.

Additionally, I suggest that if you plan to participate in the contest, you should use the versions of these poems found in the Norton anthologies listed on the contest webpage–the Norton judges may be very particular about what edition of a poem is recited.

Sonnet 12 (“When I do count the clock that tells the time”), by William Shakespeare

This poem has two major turns: one at the end of line 8, and one at the end of line 13.  (Notice that there is no major turn at the end of line 12, where one might expect one in a Shakespearean sonnet.  For information on the mobile volta, click here.)

The first turn turns from an account of the omnipresence of aging and death to then consider the beauty of the person to whom the sonnet is addressed, which also will be subject to aging and decay.  The turn here goes from serious to even more serious, from general considerations of mortality to the mortality of the sonnet’s addressee.

The second turn turns from an impossible situation–the truth of the addressee’s mortality–to offer some hope: breed (this word requires a lot of emphasis), that is, have children so that you may brave death when it comes to take you away.

“Death be not proud,” by John Donne

The major turn of Donne’s sonnet occurs right before the sonnet starts.  One needs to imagine Donne’s speaker hearing someone (such as the speaker of Shakespeare’s sonnet, above) talk about how all-powerful death is, making claims the speaker recounts in lines 1 and 2: “some have called thee / Mighty and dreadful…”  

A kind of cliche-and-critique poem, Donne’s whole poem is a turn from thinking death is powerful to offer an alternative vision.  And it needs to be read this way, with emphasis on the words that stress the speaker’s alternative viewpoint.  Take, for example, the first two lines–they need to be read with the following rhetorical stresses:

“Death, be not proud, though some have called thee / [“]Mighty[“] and [“]dreadful[“], for thou art not so…”

(One can imagine scare quotes around “Mighty” and “dreadful”…)

So, the major turn occurs before the poem even starts, but there are some vital, minor turns in the poem.  The speaker turns at the end of line 4 from his almost mocking introduction to offer a picture of how peaceful death–which is no worse than rest or sleep–must actually be.  This new, softer kind of mockery of death ends at the end of line 8.  Lines 9-10 become heavy again, a direct attack on death.  And then comes, again, that softer approach to critiquing death in the next line-and-a-half.  The rest of the poem is explanatory, showing the reasons death should not “swell’st,” that is, get all puffed up with pride, and it is (for the poem’s speaker) glory: death is just sleep until the resurrection.

A great question for anyone thinking about reciting this poem is how to perform its final four words, “Death, thou shalt die.”  Certainly, as the end of the poem is making clear a paradox, “thou” must get a good deal of rhetorical stress, as in, “Surprise, Death: YOU are the one who will die.”  But what’s the voice here?  Is it heavy, growling, antagonistic?  Or is it already victorious, and, so, matter-of-fact?  Try it many ways, and see what works for you.

“Here Follows Some Verses upon the Burning of Our House, July 10th, 1666,” Anne Bradstreet

Bradstreet’s poem has three major turns: one in the midst of line 13, another at the end of line 20, and another at the end of line 36.

The first part of this poem is filled with distress and despair, fright and sadness, mixed with pleas for God’s assistance.  One must imagine a long pause at the end of line 12: the speaker has just realized that her whole house has been destoyed by fire.  But, in line 13, a virtual miracle is in the making: the speaker collects herself and realizes that, even in the midst of such (seeming) loss, she is participating in the playing out of the will of God, of the way things should be.  Again, one needs to pay attention to the rhetorical stresses in this section, especially those needed to make clear the speaker’s new realizations: that all that she had thought she had owned actually all along was God’s.

The next major shift occurs at the end of line 20.  There’s a temporal shift–the poem has moved beyond the night of the fire.  And there’s also an emotional shift: the confidence the speaker felt in the Lord’s will slips when she looks sadly upon the ashes of her house and remembers what life had been like in the house. 

But then, in the pit of despair–having acknowledged that it seems to her that “all’s vanity”–the speaker moves again to acceptance, and even to praise.  This final section–perhaps up until the final two lines, which might be read as summation–should largely be read as an ever-growing crescendo; the speaker, after all, is delivering a sermon, sharing a vision.

“How do I love thee,” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

The major turn in this poem occurs in the middle of line 13.

While any performer will have to work out how to modulate the voice while performing this list, it’s clear that there’s some crescendo from the middle of line 12 to the middle of line 13.  This crescendo suddenly stops, and the speaker, in the space between the words “life!” and “and” (one imagines there must be a significant pause here), realizes that death could end her love, and so prays quietly that God (whom she seemed earlier to have given up on) allow her and her beloved to live on after death.

* * *

Enjoy exploring these poems!  And, if you decide to participate: best wishes in the recitation contest!