Merwin’s Turn

13 06 2011

A recent issue of The New Yorker contains a new poem by W. S. Merwin, called “Turning.”

The publication of “Turning” draws attention (as we will see, once again) to the fact that the turn is vital to this major poet.

Much has been made of the fact that Merwin has a very specific poetic vocabulary.  In “The Present Voices: W. S. Merwin since 1970” (in W. S. Merwin: Essays on the Poetry, edited by Cary Nelson and Ed Folsom), Thomas B. Byers notes that Merwin deploys a particular set of “disembodied icons,” including “doors, birds, glass, clouds, eyes, hair, ash, dust, statues, wings, water, stone, feet, bells, fire, veins” (251).  And, in their introduction, Folsom and Nelson note that “[Helen] Vendler identified a ‘Merwin dictionary’ of word-talismans” (14).  Most of the lists drawn up of Merwin’s word-talismans are lists of nouns, of things.  However, were one to include in these lists verbs (or words that are most often used by Merwin as verbs) deployed by Merwin, “turn” would definitely make the cut. 

“Turn” and derivations of the word (“turns,” “turned,” “turning”—not to mention all the versions of the word “return”) are conspicuously present in Merwin’s poetry.  Dozens of Merwin’s poems employ the word, or derivations of the word, “turn.”  Many of Merwin’s poems employ “turn” or its derivations multiple times; an incomplete list of these poems includes: “Song” (The First Four Books of Poems 62-3), “On the Subject of Poetry” (First Four 109), “Canso” (First Four 131-35), “River Sound Remembered” (First Four 190), “Fog” (First Four 212-13), “The Frozen Sea” (First Four 227), “Sailor Ashore” (First Four 228), “Blind Girl” (First Four 257-8), “Cuckoo Myth” (The Second Four Books of Poems 200-201), “A Door” (Second Four 245-7), “Fox Sleep” (The Vixen 3-6), “Gate” (The Vixen 7), “End of a Day” (The Vixen 25), “The Shortest Night” (The Vixen 57), “The Marfa Lights” (The Pupil 11-13), “Migrants by Night (The Pupil 14-15), “To the Morning (1)” (Present Company 71), “To a Friend Turning Fifty” (Present Company 118-19), “To Paula” (Present Company 131), and “Near Field” (The Shadow of Sirius 83).  Additionally, the second section in Finding the Islands, named for one of the poems in the section, is called “Turning to You,” and Travels contains another poem called “Turning” (135).

Turning has multiple meanings for Merwin.  Turning very often is an important part of the subject of Merwin’s poems.  For the Buddhist Merwin, turning—the turning of the world from day into night into day again, the turning seasons, transformation / turning into, returning / turning back, and the way in which turning away invariably turns into turning toward—is an essential part of the transient, ever-changing world.  

Turning in Merwin’s poetry also often means formal turning.  Merwin’s poems, like almost all poems, turn at the end of their lines to the beginning of the next line—it is precisely this movement that allows poetry to be called “verse.”  (The formal turn is perhaps more palpable in Merwin’s poems than in the work of most poets due to the unpunctuated run of his lines—the line break’s turn, thus, is clearer because punctuation creates no other competing breaks in the line.)

However, while Merwin’s formal accomplishments, including his mastery of formal turning, have been widely commented on, much less commented on has been the structural turning of Merwin’s poems: the turn in Merwin’s poem also often refers to the enactment of a major shift in a poem’s rhetorical and/or dramatic trajectory. 

Sometimes, Merwin even acknowledges this kind of turn by employing the word, or, again, derivatives of the word, “turn” as he makes this kind of structural maneuver.  Such self-reflexive turning occurs in poems such as “Proteus” (First Four 110-12), “Fog” (First Four 212-13), “Sailor Ashore” (First Four 228), “The Different Stars” (Second Four 136-37), “Ascent” (Second Four 188), “To the Hand” (Second Four 267-8), “The Flight” (Flower & Hand 66), “To the Dust of the Road” (Present Company 48), “To the Margin” (Present Company 75), and “To the Morning (2)” (Present Company 121).

It is time we follow Merwin’s lead, and recognize more consistently how invested in the structural turn he is.  Of course, some critics already have recognized this aspect of Merwin’s craft.  Helen Vendler and Marjorie Perloff, each recognize Merwin’s tendency to turn and skill with structural turning. 

In her review of The Shadow of Sirius, Vendler feels moved to see some of that book’s poems—“One of the Butterflies” and “Youth in Grass”—as sonnets even though, formally, the poems, of 13 and 15 lines, respectively, are not sonnets.  Vendler recognizes these poems as sonnets in part because they look like sonnets but also because they act like sonnets, because they have structural turns, which, in sonnets, are called voltas.  Of “One of the Butterflies,” Vendler notes, “I could print these thirteen lines as a quasi-sonnet…thereby suggesting it European lineage and its division into a problem (the timing of pleasure) and a conclusion (its elusiveness past and present)” (37).  And Vendler describes “Youth in Grass” as “a fifteen-line sonnet-like meditation…on the rapidity with which…a year turns from spring to autumn” (38).  Vendler states, “The most salient aspect of the Merwin mind in meditation is its tenacity to its perplexity.  Nothing can interrupt it once it has located its chosen difficulty—whether in perception, in thought, in human relations, or in memory” (38).  I think Vendler’s insight is accurate; I would only add that a major part of Merwin’s tenacity is the accomplishment of the turn.

In her own way, Marjorie Perloff makes a similar case.  In her 1987 essay “Apocalypse Then: Merwin and the Sorrows of Literary History,” Perloff critiques the notion that Merwin’s work might accurately be linked to or described with “phrases like ‘prophecy’ or ‘negative mysticism’ or ‘naked poetry’ or ‘the opening of the field’” (Essays 143).  Instead, Perloff makes the case that Merwin’s poetry “carried on the tradition of the well-made poem,” a kind of poem marked by “authorial control” (134).  While Perloff comments on Merwin’s formal control, she consistently roots Merwin’s authorial control in structural control, in the management of turns.  For example, Perloff initiates her examination of the “strong sense of closure” in Merwin’s “For the Anniversary of My Death” by discussing the structural motion of the poem, stating, “The first stanza (five lines) describes what happens “Every year”; the second (eight lines) refers to “Then” (when I will be dead)” (134).  Further on in her analysis, Perloff makes the case that “[t]he poem’s closure is reflected in its formal verse structure” (135).  Perloff concludes her analysis with the claim that “‘For the Anniversary of My Death’ is thus a very elegant, well-made poem; it has a finish that would be the envy of any number of poets…” (136). 

And the other two poems Perloff scrutinizes also have turns.  Perloff makes this clear in her discussion of “Beginning of the Plains,” about which she notes that the first line of that poem’s final stanza “marks the turn” (140).  And “Dusk in Winter,” the poem that Perloff suggests is exemplary of Merwin’s accomplished work, also contains a clear turn, one that pivots at the beginning of the fourth line, on the transition from day to night: “The sun sets in the cold without friends / Without reproaches after all it has done for us / It goes down believing in nothing / When it has gone I hear the stream running after it / It has brought its flute it is a long way” (qtd. in Essays 142).

What is it that Merwin is after with his deployment of structural turning?  Surprise.

Surprise is vital to Merwin.  In a 1947 letter to Ezra Pound, Merwin offers the reason he prefers Personae to The Cantos, claiming that there is more “sheer poetic magic” in Personae, and he defines poetic magic as “that element of perpetual and delicious surprise” (qtd. in Essays 358).  And surprise is a key element of Merwin’s poems.  In “Reading Merwin Semiotically,” Robert Scholes, who states that a semiotic reading, in part, views the poem as “achieving poetic status by violating certain kinds of expectation” (Essays 65), reads three earlier poems by Merwin and shows the way in which they all deliver (often multiple) surprises.  In a discussion of some of Merwin’s earlier poems in his Understanding W. S. Merwin, H. L. Hix notes that these poems employ myth “as a set of expectations to subvert” (33).  In Merwin’s “To Dido,” what the poem is made out of–or what the poem is–is, in part, “a still place of perpetual surprise” (First Four 139).  Merwin’s “The Blind Seer of Ambon,” in which the blind seer is a figure for the poet, concludes: “everything takes me by surprise / it is all awake in the darkness” (Travels 4).

W. S. Merwin is one of the great poets of the turn, of structure and surprise.  I’m at work on developing these ideas in an essay, focusing on Merwin’s The Shadow of Sirius, which I’m co-authoring with Mark Halliday for a book on Merwin’s more-recent poetry, a book edited by Kevin Prufer and Jonathan Weinert, forthcoming from WordFarm Editions.  I hope you’ll check it out.





Helen Vendler: Approaching the Turn

8 06 2011

One of this blog’s key arguments has been that more concerted efforts to differentiate poetic structure and poetic form and to more systematically examine poetic structure would benefit the practices of conceptualizing, reading, writing, and teaching poetry.  (For information on the structure / form distinction, click here.)

I’m not the only one to think this.  Many of those who write poetry textbooks agree.  However, though they agree, their books often fall short of advocating for increased attention to poetic structure, and its attendant turn–and not only to the extent that I hope for but also to the extent that their own texts seem to suggest is proper.

Here, I would like to consider Helen Vendler’s Poems, Poets, Poetry: An Introduction and Anthology.  In this textbook, Vendler maintains the structure / form distinction—though her maintenance of the distinction involves some overlap in terminology—recognizing that, on the one hand, “[a] poem can…be classified according to various aspects of its outer form, having to do with meter, rhyme, and stanza-form” (117) and that, on the other hand, “[b]esides its outer form (“This is a poem in quatrains in falling rhythm rhyming aabb”—a description of Blake’s “Tyger”), every poem has internal structural form” (119).  (Please note that though Vendler’s book is in its third edition, I cite from my copy of the second edition.)

Vendler describes inner structural form as a poem’s “dynamic shape, which derives from the curve traced by the emotions of the poem as they change over its duration” (119).  Though Vendler never uses the word “turn,” this shape clearly concerns a poem’s turning; according to Vendler, “That emotional curve is plotted by connecting two, three, or more points of the poem, a rise from depression to hope to joy, for instance—or a decline from triumph through doubt to despair.  Very few poems represent an unchanging steady state of the same emotion all through” (119).  The emotional trajectory Vendler cites here is a pattern of poetic turning that I call the “Dejection-Elation Structure.”  Additionally, Vendler notes, “In investigating the internal structure of a poem, one should try to divide it into parts along its ‘fault lines.’  Where does the logic of the argument seem to break?  Where does the poem seem to change from first person to second person?  Where does the major change in tense or speech act take place?” (120)  In asking readers to locate a poem’s “fault lines,” Vendler seems to ask readers to identify and track the poem according to its turns.

Vendler then proceeds to offer a cursory list of internal structural forms.  She notes that “[s]ome poems are two-part (binary) poems, like William Wordsworth’s ‘A slumber did my spirit seal’ (which we saw changing from illusion to stern knowledge) or like Dickinson’s ‘The Heart asks Pleasure—first—’ (which we saw changing its conception of God from benevolence to cruelty” (119).  Vendler also notes that “[t]here are also many three-part (ternary) poems, which often take on the internal structure of beginning, modulation, and end (a song-form preserved in lyric),” and, additionally, that “[o]ne well-known internal structure is that of the ‘surprise’ ending, where the last few lines reverse everything that has gone before” (119).  Additionally, according to Vendler, “Internal forms are infinitely variable, since they represent emotional response, always volatile” (119).  Such a list seems like the beginning of the list (constantly under construction) of poetic structures, patterns of poetic turning, located here.

Indeed, for Vendler, mapping a poem’s internal structural form, and an inner structural form very much focused upon the turn, is key to the process she refers to as “Exploring a Poem” (125).  In this process, in which Vendler names a total of 13 elements of the poem for a reader to examine in order to explore a poem—including 1. Meaning; 2. Antecedent Scenario; 3. A Division into Structural Parts; 4. The Climax; 5. The Other Parts; 6. Find the Skeleton; 7. Games the Poet Plays with the Skeleton; 8. Language; 9. Tone; 10. Agency and Speech Acts; 11. Roads Not Taken; 12. Genre, Form, Rhythm; 13. Imagination—at least five have to do very directly with deciphering and determining the poem’s internal structural form: the division into structural parts; the climax; the other parts; find the skeleton; and games the poet plays with the skeleton.  For example, regarding “The Other Parts,” Vendler states, “About each part it is useful to ask how it differs from the other parts.  What is distinctive in it by contrast to the other members of the poem?  Does something shift gears?” (127)  And, regarding “Find the Skeleton,” Vendler essentially instructs readers to decipher the poem’s inner structural form; she asks, “What is the dynamic curve of emotion on which the whole poem is arranged?” (128)

While Vendler’s book does an admirable job of trying to advance structure alongside form, there are, however, problems with this aspect of Vendler’s textbook.  One problem is that it does not advance structure consistently.  “Structure,” or “structural,” means many things to Vendler.   “Inner structural form,” remember, is “dynamic shape, which derives from the curve traced by the emotions of the poem as they change over its duration.”  However, in the section called “Structure,” structure is defined as something more intellectual or logical; Vendler states, “The structures of a poem are the intellectual or logical shapes into which its thoughts are dynamically organized” (82).  Additionally, according to Vendler, one discovers a poem’s structures—according to Vendler, “Any overarching structure can have many substructures” (82)—by looking for patterns, but these patterns are everywhere and on every scale: “Patterns occur at many levels in poetry, just as they do in the physical universe: one can look for patterns in subatomic behavior, in atomic behavior, in molecular behavior, and so on, all the way up to the patterns of the planets and the stars” (83).  And, in the end, structure can be just about anything, including form; Vendler concludes her discussion of “Structure,” stating, “The important thing is to be accustomed to looking, in any poem, at several levels—the sound, the rhythms and rhymes, the grammar, the images, the sentences, the plot, the assertions, the allusions, the self-contradictions.  Somewhere the energy of the poem awaits you.  The moment you see the main and subordinate patterns, you smile, and it ‘all makes sense’” (87).

Another problem with Vendler’s advocacy of structure is that, for however much Vendler recognizes the importance of the non-formal organizational elements of a poem, she tends to give form precedence over these elements, including structure and its turn.  For example, the discussion of “Structure” comes after discussions of both “Rhythm” and “Rhyme”—and a discussion of “Argument” comes even later.  Additionally, in the section called “Classifying Lyric Poems” in the chapter “Describing Poems,” Vendler notes that “[l]yric poems themselves are generally classified in three ways: by content, by speech act, and by outer form” (110).  This, however, also is the section of the book that includes discussion of “Inner Structural Form,” a discussion that, with little commentary, simply gets tacked onto the previous discussion of “Outer Form.”

A final problem—or, perhaps, difficulty—with her advocacy of structure is that, perhaps as a result of the shiftiness of what structure is, Vendler never manages, in my opinion, to be clear about how knowing about structure can deeply inform one’s reading of a poem.  That is, though Vendler suggests that the main pattern, the structure, seems to have a lot to do with major transitions in a poem, how the poem moves, she is not explicit about what a poem’s “main pattern” is.  And, beyond this, there is never any detailed discussion of what the significance of these shapes are, why they are worth examining.  In large part because it never embraces structure and the turn—not even to the extent that I might want it to, but even, only, to the extent that its own discussion of poems suggests that it should—and because it never gets clear on the centrality of the turn for its system, Vendler’s discussions of “structure” and the “structural” tend to be a bit confusing, both offering imprecise or simply too numerous tools for finding structure and not offering enough for people to actually know what they are looking for when looking for structure, or exactly why they are looking for it.

Vendler’s Poems, Poets, Poetry reveals the desire of one major critic to differentiate structure and form.  It also reveals, however, that this desire alone is not quite enough to do the job of significantly differentiating structure and form.  For this, I believe more needs to be done.

I believe we–readers, poets, critics, teachers–have to get very clear in our use of the terms “structure” and “form,” or else things will continue as they so far have, with structure seeming some amorphous, secondary derivative of form.

I believe structure has to be linked to something vital and distinctive—something singular—in poetry, and that is the poetic turn.

I believe that we need to present the turn not only as something that is important in what poems are and how poems work but also as something that—just as form has its own vocabulary and grammar, or, if you will, its own lingo: iambic, trochaic, pentameter, slant rhyme—has its own vocabulary and grammar, its own intricacies.  My reasons for believing this are, on the one hand, substantive—I think that the developing vocabulary and grammar of the turn describes real and significant aspects of poems—and, on the other hand, pragmatic—form may tend to get more attention in our textbooks largely because it has a well-developed terminology, and thus, a more well-developed terminology (beyond Vendler’s cursory list of inner structural forms) may help give structure the attention it deserves.

I believe that, for as much work as the above seems, once this work is done it will greatly open up–and deepen–the conceptualization, reading, writing, and teaching of poems.  What is a poem?  Language that turns.  How do I read a poem?  Track the turns.  How do I write a great poem?  Create language that turns thrillingly.  How do I teach poems?  Take the turn into account.  Of course, these answers are incomplete, but they are vital and new, and I believe such answers will add significantly to the appreciation and creation of, the conversation about, poetry.





Jeremy Tambling’s RE: Verse–Turning towards Poetry

31 05 2011

For years, I’ve thought that an important next step for educating poetry readers about the turn would be to incorporate, and perhaps even highlight, the turn in an introduction to poetry textbook.  So far, this has been done only once, in John Ciardi’s How Does a Poem Mean?  In that book, the final chapter—but also the chapter that Ciardi refers to in his introduction as the most important one—“The Poem in Countermotion” focuses on turns in poems, though Ciardi refers to the turn as the “fulcrum.”  Ciardi’s book, however, was published in 1959—and his focus on the turn was not picked up on by any subsequent introduction to poetry textbooks.

Needless to say, then, I was heartened to see Jeremy Tambling’s RE: Verse—Turning towards Poetry.  The book’s title, at least, indicated that there might be some focus on the turn in the book.  And there is, but, alas, just some.  However, seeing what happens to the turn—how it is both raised as a topic of conversation, and then elided—in RE: Verse can be instructive.

The turn comes up on page one of RE: Verse.  Defining “verse,” Tambling writes,

“[I]t comes from the Latin versus, meaning “a line or row, especially a line of writing (so named from turning to begin another line), verse, from vertere to turn” (Oxford English Dictionary).  Verse means both a line of writing and the turn by which another line is reached, going from line to line.  In English, the turn at the end of the line on the right hand edge of the page means a reverse back to the left.  Verse and reverse: the turn turns back.”

It is important to note here that the turn is an element of the poem’s form.  However, the term “turn” quickly comes to mean other things, as well.  According to Tambling, though it may consist of only one line, Japanese waku can still be thought of as turning, so “you may have to look for the turn inside the one line itself.”  Tambling, however, is not clear how one would find this turn in a one-line poem, and he further complicates his use and sense of the turn when, after having quoted three lines from Paul Muldoon’s “Incantata” (“I thought again of how art may be made, was it was by Andre Derain, / of nothing more than a turn / in the road…”), he notes, “This book starts with the proposition that poetry is always a form of turning, and if for Paul Muldoon it is a “turn in the road,” then the way the poem twists and turns will suggest a very winding path.”  How would a formally twisting and turning poem suggest a very winding path?  Would it slither down the page in the manner of, say, an e.e. cummings poem?

But this is not what Tambling means by the “very winding path” of the poem—virtually all of the poems he cites at length in RE: Verse left-justified.  Tambling, in fact, is interested in helping readers recognize, and recognize the importance of, structural turns in poems.  (For information on the difference between form and structure, click here.)

The first poem Tambling examines closely is William Blake’s “London.”  In a sentence immediately following his observation that “the way the poem twists and turns will suggest a very winding path,” Tambling introduces his discussion of “London” by noting that “[w]riting poetry often plays on this idea of turning.”  And his discussion of the poem, when it focuses on the turn, focuses on the structural turn.  Tambling asks of the poem, “How shall we approach it?”  And his first of a few “hints” he offer is: “[L]ook for the turn: the moment where the poem changes direction, or shape.  (There may be more than one turn, of course.)  Nearly all poetry will have such a turn…”  Tambling also eventually locates the poem’s major turn (notice that there are not 15 turns, as one might expect if turns occurred as one line turned into the next) at the beginning of the fourth stanza, about which he writes: “[S]tarting with “But most” indicates a turn, a new emphasis, something different from the first three stanzas.”

The second poem Tambling examines closely is William Wordsworth’s sonnet “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802.”  Discussing the sonnet, Tambling, quoting Paul Muldoon’s interview with Lynn Keller, states,

“The sonnet began as an Italian form in the thirteenth century, and the word implies a song.  The Italian, or Petrarchan sonnet, of which this [“Westminster Bridge”] is one, is divided by a pause, or a turn, into eight lines followed by six.  Paul Muldoon, who like many other modern poets, has written many sonnets, speaks in an interview about the “thought process of the sonnet”.  “You establish something and then there’s a slight change”, he says; and he associates this change with “the turn”….”

And speaking of the shift from octave to sestet in “Westminster Bridge,” Tambling states, “We have already noted a break at that point, and when reading poetry, any such turn, change of tone, or of approach, should be noted.”

Tambling clearly believes that knowledge of the structural turn is vital for reading poetry.  However, the attention he pays to the structural turn is less systematic and more sporadic.  In his book’s second chapter, “Five Ideas for Reading,” Tambling offers “five points, or principles, for reading” poetry—but a principle such as “look for turns” is not included in this list.  Even though, it should be added, that there are plenty of poems featuring turns in them that follow Tambling’s list of principles.

Why this assertion and (unintentional, it seems…) denial of the power of the structural turn?  I can only speculate, but I offer a few ideas.

First, it seems as though seeing turns and their importance is not enough.  We need to continue to develop and teach the language, the grammar, of turning.  It’s not that poems simply turn, it’s that, often, they turn in identifiable ways, ways which, once recognized, greatly help one see what’s going on in a poet, or, as Ciardi puts it, how a poem means.

Additionally, we need to think more about the ways that assessment influences what we teach when we teach poems.  Tambling wrote his book with some specific audiences in mind.  While being attentive to the needs of a general reader Tambling has written with a target audience in mind; he states, “I have tried, in writing, to consider the needs of people starting with poetry at GCSE, where anthologies of poetry are frequently set, and people working on specific poets for A Level.  I have tried to work with questions that undergraduates will want to know answers to…”  It could simply be that the exams for which Tambling prepares many of his readers do not concern themselves much with the identification and discussion of turns, so turns, while acknowledged, are not focused on.

Overall, Tambling’s RE: Verse reminds us that we need to revise the ways we discuss and teach poetry.  His good, but also problematic, book reminds us that to talk seriously about structural turns in poetry we have to be ready to allow the turn to let us talk about different poems differently.  We must be willing ourselves to be transformed by the turn.





I Do…like Dialectical Arguments

25 01 2011

I just came across Nick Laird’s Epithalamium last night, while reading some recent issues of The New Yorker (January 24, 2011).  A really fun poem.

The poem makes great use of the dialectical argument structure, its shuttling back and forth between “you” and “I” is a constant consideration and reconsideration of thesis and antithesis.  And the conclusion (“or I am, or you are”) is an effort at synthesis, suggesting that the “you” and the “I” are united in that they, in fact, are potentially (for all their wild specificity) the same.

I think Laird’s poem is incredibly teachable.  For insights on how to encourage and guide students to write a poem like this, check out this blog’s “Teaching Collaborative, Dialectical Argument Poems” page.





Don’t Just “Use the Force” or “Go with the Flow”–You Gotta “Trust the Turn”!

27 07 2010

My essay “Trust the Turn: Focusing the Revision Process in Poetry” has just been published in Poets on Teaching: A Sourcebook, edited by Joshua Marie Wilkinson (U of Iowa P, 2010).

A version of the essay can be found here, but you should get the book–it’s terrific!  (The good John Gallaher agrees, here.)  Tons (99, to be exact) of great (micro-)essays on teaching poetry by some excellent poets and poet-teachers, including a number of those associated with Structure & Surprise, such as Timothy Liu, Peter Gizzi, Rachel Zucker, Prageeta Sharma, D. A. Powell, and Mark Yakich.  (Not to mention a whole bunch of friends, mentors, colleagues, sparring partners, and role models, including Srikanth Reddy, Laura Mullen, Mark Wallace, Catherine Wagner, Brenda Hillman, John Gallaher himself, Johannes Goransson, Arielle Greenberg, Kent Johnson, Matthew Zapruder, Lara Glenum, Sabrina Orah Mark…the list goes on!)

Do note that–if you do get the book and you are interested in turns–there is at least one other essay that reveals interest in turns: Karla Kelsey’s “Teaching Writing through the Sonnet Tradition.”  Kelsey includes the following among her “favorite prompts”:

“Reconsidering the turn: turn as rhetorical moment, as change in speaker, as change in perceptual attention, as change in visual register…”

Hopefully, Structure & Surprise serves as a good starting point for those who want to (re-)consider the turn!





Structure and Spunk

3 07 2010

My recent reading–both for re-thinking some of my writing pedagogy and the avoidance of such thinking–revealed some very interesting ideas about surprise and the structural nature of comedy.

Considering new texts for my first-year writing course (“S.W.A.T.: Sass, Wit, and Text”), I examined Spunk & Bite: A Writer’s Guide to Bold, Contemporary Style, by Arthur Plotnik, and I found this in a section of the book called “Freshness: The Wallop of the New,” in a chapter called “The Pleasures of Surprise”:

“Readers love surprise.  They love it when a sentence heads one way and jerks another.  They love the boing of a jack-in-the-box word.  They adore images that trot by like a unicorn in pajamas.

“Why does surprise please us?  Think of it as a survival mechanism: Unexpected stimuli exercise the neurons, keeping brains alert to danger, prey, and available taxis.  In fact, a recent study suggests that brains prefer surprise to the expected….

“But enough anthroposemiotic musing!  Everyone knows that good writing stimulates readers with inspired, sneaky surprises.  It does so at all levels, from surprises based on twists of plot and character to the smaller but keen surprises of language–the ones that concern us here.

“Is there a syntax of surprise, a formula for working it into our locutions?  Yes and no.  Surprise is like one of its vehicles: humor.  Try to parse it, and it’s hasta la vista, bubela.  Yet even humor yields an occasional secret to those who won’t let it alone….”

Of course, in agreement with Plotnik, the work in Structure & Surprise and on this blog has been, in part, to reveal that surprise does yield many of its secrets, does have a syntax (or structure) at those other levels.  (For my first-year writing class, in order to teach about those other, larger structures, I will use They Say/I Say, a book that jibes in very interesting ways with structural thinking, and especially The Cliche-and-Critique Structure.)  However, I’ve also tried to make a distinction between structure and plot.  (For this, see my blog post Against “Narrative”.)  Not a big issue, and certainly no critique of Plotnik’s book, which I’ve decided to use as a style guide for my first-year writing course. 

Though Plotnik had me at “surprise,” at the end of “The Pleasures of Surprise,” in a paragraph labeled “Surprisingly Apt,” Plotnik sealed the deal, writing,

“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.”

I couldn’t agree more.  For some time, I’ve been interested in what I’ve come to 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.  (Some of my thinking on fitting surprise can be found in this review-essay.)

I also just finished reading “First Banana: Steve Carell and the meticulous art of spontaneity,” Tad Friend’s terrific profile of comedian Steve Carell that appears in the July 5, 2010, issue of The New Yorker.

Structure, of course, is a vital part of the seeming spontaneity of comedy.  Discussing how there has been an increase in improvisation and collaboration (“Nowadays in the comedy industry, a Bucket Brigade of actors, writers, and directors pitches in to punch up one another’s films…”)in the creation of comedic movies in the last decade, Friend also is careful to emphasize the role carefully crafted structure plays in creating comedic effect; he states,

“It’s all a painstaking set of procedures aimed at maximum creativity, a huge planning effort to encourage accidents…But, even as members of the Bucket Brigade troll for every last chuckle, they remain mindful that it’s not the comedy in comedies that keeps people interested; it’s the structure.  ‘Revenge of the Nerds’ and ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’ were nearly devoid of laughs, but they were big hits simply because of their clockwork plots.  The screenwriter Dennis Klein observed, ‘In standup, improv is that ability to be funny at will, but in movies even Jim Carrey bending over and talking out of his ass will get cut if the improv doesn’t connect to the ongoing story.’  Dr. Evil’s ‘Sh!’ run works so well because his refusal to listen to Scott is what will allow Austin Powers to escape–and because he and Scott hate each other.”

Humor–and, more generally, good writing–needs surprise, and surprise needs structure.  This is true of any kind of writing or communication, including comedy and poetry, that wants to be fresh and pack the wallop of the new.





Showing My Work

21 06 2010

Researching for a project I’m working on regarding the ways we value poems (or, more specifically, the ways we avoid talking seriously about what we value in poetry), I looked again at Matthew Zapruder’s “Show Your Work!”

Looking at the comments following Zapruder’s essay, I came across some of my own comments, many of which discuss the turn.  As they’re relevant to what is covered on this blog, and as, in them, I make some significant claims about the power of paying attention to turns, I’ve decided to re-publish a few of them below.  I think these comments have some good ideas in them that can be understood on their own, but I offer a few other comments in order to provide context.  For full context, of course, just click on the above link and read away!

My discussion of the turn was prompted by the following comment:

A thoughtful essay. But what’s missing, I think, is a discussion regarding the influence that K-12 education has on criticism, poetry appreciation, and the writing of poems. Contemporary poetry may be discussed, with some limits, in the college or mfa program, but rarely is it touched thoughtfully in k-12 education. The problem with poetry appreciation and a newer, creative reading of newer works may be that the template for a poem, as was learned by so many of us in our k-12 experience, denies that kind of thing. Many k-12 educators go as far and Langston Hughes, and that’s all.

So anyhow, I lost my train of thought. Here’s my final comment: we need critics who are familiar with not just poetry, but design, music , art and current events so as to coin a new critical language. The new critic should have a strong background in multiple disciplines to be of any use. Then, once their criticism is deemed valuable, the crticism must be published, and not just in jounals, but elsewhere for those who have had a template- experience of the rhymed art.

There’s a problem in marketing that should also be discussed.

Random J

To this I responded:

J,

If I may be so bold (having been emboldened by your recognition of the need for greater marketing for certain kinds of poetry):

I’ve been doing some work to try to create (or, rather, to make clear), to use your phrase, one new “template” for encountering and writing poems, one which provides a way to engage a variety poems, from the canonical and traditional to the avant-garde. My “template” has much less interest in poetry as “rhymed art” but instead considers poems in terms of their structure, the types of turns they take. I think a focus on the poetic turn is one way to potentially spark more interest in poetry, and to show the connections between (seemingly) more accessible poetry and (seemingly) more difficult poetry.

If you’re interested, you can read more on this at my blog…

Best,
Mike

Prompted by a request for more information, I added the followng:

I’m happy to say a few more words about my work with turns.

***

Matthew notes in his essay that “…poets and poetry critics have not done the hard work necessary to explore, refine, and develop whatever terms might help us to even begin to talk about poetry in ways useful to understanding it,” and this, in large part, is a result and a continuation of a situation in which so many of the terms we currently use (such as, as Matthew suggests, “narrative” and “lyric”) “don’t exclude or refine any behavior at all in poetry.” I think that the turn offers a new term (or reintroduces a term) to the conversation about poetry, one which has real potential to shake things up, to change behaviors, both in terms of criticism and pedagogy. I will very briefly sketch out that potential here.

***

In criticism, attention to the turn reveals connections between seemingly disparate kinds of poems and aesthetics. The turn certainly is a feature of “accessible” poetry. A very large percentage of the poems in Billy Collins’s Poetry 180 feature the turn. However, the turn also is a key to the poetics of many “difficult” poets. In “Something of Moment,” her introduction to the issue of Ploughshares she edited (in Winter 2001-02), Jorie Graham argues that “[i]n a poem, one is always given…a stage upon which the urgent act of mind of this particular lyric occasion… ‘takes place,’” thus offering the poem an opportunity to “break.” According to Graham, “All such moments—where we are taken by surprise and asked to react—are marked places in consciousness, places where a ‘turn’ is required.” In fact, Hank Lazer, in “Lyricism of the Swerve: The Poetry of Rae Armantrout” (in American Women Poets in the 21st Century, and in Lyric and Spirit), argues that the turn is a central feature of Armantrout’s poetry.

***

Paying attention to the fact that a lot of poems turn, then, is one way, if one wants, to break down distinctions between established groups of poems. However, paying attention to exquisite, thrilling, truly witty, or sublime turns also offers a way to create new distinctions. There have been (in other discussions, including Reginald Shepherd’s “One State of the Art”) numerous calls for more attention to the poem and not to poets or movements, etc. The turn provides one way to turn the attention to individual, singular poems. And recognizing poems with particularly intriguing turns offers one way to divide oeuvres and schools: some of the poems in any oeuvre or school have turns that are flat and unsurprising, and some have turns that are random, and some have turns that amaze.

***

Such thinking has many applications. (In fact, my current project is writing a book which spells out these applications.) Here, I’ll simply note that attention to the turn has been influential in my own criticism (much of it published in Pleiades). It has offered me a way to combine the jobs of the critic, to argue, at times, that “something is good, or bad,” but it also has allowed me (to some extent) “to write, with focus and clarity, about how the piece of art works, what choices the artist has made, and how that might affect a reader,” but without relying too much on my own personality. (One quick example: in a review of recent haiku, I considered haiku not as a formal unit (5-7-5) but as a structural unit incorporating a turn. Not many of the haiku I reviewed were, in that new light, at all good—no surprises there—but I do think that I also made the value of those few haiku that did have structural intrigue clear. Attention to turns also allowed me to disregard many previous distinctions between haiku—poet, school, etc—and to value individual haiku across the spectrum of poets and schools.)

***

The really substantive application for the turn, however, is in pedagogy, which might be considered enacted criticism. In pedagogy, the turn offers much. The turn is, or easily can be made to seem, familiar to students—everyday language includes all kinds of argumentative, dramatic, and emotional turns; with a little training, students (high school…perhaps junior high?) can see this. Reminded that they themselves in fact are sophisticated language users, students then can recognize and appreciate turns in poems, and perhaps be more ready, able, and willing to apply such recognition and appreciation to not only accessible poetry but also more seemingly difficult poetry. How much better off (college/graduate) poetry classrooms would be if, rather than entering those classes thinking that poems “flow” students instead knew that (lots of) poems “turn”…

***

I’ve gone on way too long. For more info, check out the turn blog…

***

Cheers,
Mike





Poetic Structures, Summarized

15 06 2010

I’ve added a new page to the Pedagogy section of this blog, Poetic Structures, Summarized.

This page is designed to serve as a convenient handout for educators, and a helpful cribsheet for students.





Taking Turns (for Granted) in Sijo and Haiku

14 07 2009

sijo

According to a recent article in The Boston Globe, another poetic form seeks the attention of contemporary American poets, readers, and educators.  The sijo (pronounced SHEE-jo) is a Korean form that has three lines, a total of 43 to 45 syllables, and a third line that “contains a twist on the theme developed in the first two.”

Two points (very much related, I think) in this article are of particular interest.  First is the way that the sijo is clearly being proposed as an alternative to the Japanese haiku.  The two forms are considered similar, but also significantly different.  As this article states, “With its three lines, sijo resembles haiku, but the sijo poet has more room to develop a theme, narrative, or image before twisting and resolving it in the final line.”  One scholar notes, “Sijo is much more flexible than haiku….If you have 15 syllables per line, that’s much more than the haiku.”  And a teacher who had her students write sijo instead of haiku states, “‘The sijo was really fun and different.  With haiku, they would have gone, ‘Oh, another haiku.’”  The second point of interest (naturally, as this blog focuses on the poetic twist, or turn, or swerve) is the focus, in discussion of the sijo, on the twist in the third line.

What’s problematic about this article, however, is that it seems to imply that the twist is a feature of sijo more than it is of haiku.  Largely, this implication is a result of the way this article characterizes haiku: as merely a “three-line, 17-syllable” form, without any reference to any kind of structural development (i.e., a twist or turn…).  And this characterization seems to result from the ways haiku are more largely considered: as primarily a form consisting of three lines of 5-7-5 syllables.  (…A characterization which itself likely (at least in part) results from a general, pervasive tendency to focus on form rather than structure in poetry.)

The notion of haiku as form, as a three-line poem of 5-7-5 syllables, respectively, is problematic in that it is radically incomplete.  Among other things, good haiku almost always also contain twists.  In Haiku: A Poet’s Guide, Lee Gurga—who at one point states plainly: “Haiku is often mistakenly thought to be a form”—discusses the use of “the Japanese device of kake kotoba (“pivot word”), or, more commonly in American haiku, the pivot or swing line.”  According to Gurga, “This [the pivot/swing] is a word or phrase that combines with the foregoing text in one way and with the following text in another.  In contemporary English-language haiku this device [is] used to add dynamism to haiku images.”  More generally, but perhaps even more importantly, Gurga also acknowledges the central role juxtaposition plays in haiku, noting that “[William J.]Higginson has called this interaction between two images the ‘heart of haiku.’”

The pivot or swing line and the juxtaposition it often indicates and serves are central to haiku, but they are rarely dealt with as such.  Instead, focus on form typically manages to take precedence over such structural issues and maneuvers.

This large-scale lack of discussion of structural maneuvers—pivots, swings, twists, turns, swerves, etc—in poetry was the occasion for the creation of Structure & Surprise and this blog.  The lack of discussion of such structural maneuvers in haiku was the occasion, it seems, for Jane Reichhold’s “Haiku Techniques” (in The New Writer’s Handbook 2007: A Practical Anthology of Best Advice for Your Craft & Career; a (just) slightly different version of the essay appears here).

In her essay, Reichhold discusses the frustration she felt due to the fact that, for some time, she was unable to sort out how successful haiku came together–until she read Betty Drevniok’s Aware: A Haiku Primer.  According to Reichhold, “Among the many great tips for writing haiku I came away with this: ‘Write [haiku] in three short lines using the principles of comparison, contrast, or association.’  [Drevniok] used an expression I had been missing in the discussion of haiku when she wrote: ‘This technique provides the pivot on which the reader’s thought turns and expands.’”

This information was transformative for Reichhold, who states, “Technique!  So there are tools one can use!  I thought joyfully.  And I practiced her methods with glee and relative (to me) success and increased enjoyment.  Suddenly I could figure out what was wrong with a haiku that failed to jell.”

Reichhold’s essay is very good—it provides much practical assistance for anyone starting to write and/or teach haiku, offering 18 techniques for maneuvering through a haiku, including the techniques of comparison, contrast, association, riddle, sense-switching, narrowing focus, metaphor, simile, close linkage, leap linkage, and humor.  But beyond its practical aspects, it also is important for the way it stands as another marker of how important it is to talk about the structural maneuvers in poetry.  Such maneuvers indeed are at the heart of the power and intrigue of so many poems—they need to be identified, taught, and employed.

I hope those who currently are promoting the sijo in America as a friendly alternative to haiku will not give lip service to the sijo’s twist but rather foreground it, offer specific instruction for engaging the sijo’s swing.  That is, I hope that, if the sijo does catch on, there will be no need down the road for an essay like Reichhold’s to be written about someone having to feel like she has had to work hard to discover for herself the structural maneuvers at the core of sijo–such maneuvers should be highlighted from the outset, and easily available to all.  The twist is not some incidental part of poems–sijo, haiku, sonnet, or otherwise.  Rather, it often is one of the most crucial parts, and one of the most difficult parts to pull off.  As Randall Jarrell says in “Levels and Opposites: Structure in Poetry”:

“We must remember that it is essential relationships, not any entities or external forms or decorations that are really poetic; all the clouds and flowers and Love and Beauty and rhyme and metre and similes and alliteration that ever existed—not to mention all the logic and unity and morality—are not, in themselves, enough to make one little poem.”

*

Click here for information on teaching short (two-line), collaborative poems that focus on the turn.  Instructive and productive in and of itself, this exercise also can help students prepare to engage and employ turns in all manner of poem, including sijo and haiku.





(Re:)Arranging Poetry Writing Classes

12 05 2009

I’ve recently read, with great interest, Tom C. Hunley’s Teaching Poetry Writing: A Five-Canon Approach (Multilingual Matters Ltd., 2007).  My interest in this book is twofold: 1) I’m personally attracted to the alternative pedagogical system the book espouses, and 2) I think Hunley’s ideas in this book jibe nicely with an effort to incorporate greater focus on poetic structure and turns into poetry writing classes.

The big idea of Teaching Poetry Writing (TPW) is simple: we need to replace a largely ineffective workshop model in our poetry writing classes with what Hunley calls the “five-canon model.”  TPW’s first chapter (the title of which, “It Doesn’t Work for Me: A Critique of the Workshop Approach to Teaching Poetry Writing and a Suggestion for Revision,” says it all) largely is a critique of the workshop model, arguing, “The workshop model was not designed with undergraduates or the ruck of graduate students in mind.  It was designed for gifted, elite writers who needed very little instruction, though they may have benefited from criticism on their manuscripts.”  Knowing that it is not enough to simply critique the workshop model without offering another model which might replace it, Hunley suggests organizing a poetry writing class around the five canons of rhetoric: invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery.  That is, according to Hunley, poetry writing classes need to devote much more time to in-class prewriting activities, collaborations, formal play and stylistic imitations, and to the memorization and performing of poems.  (Workshopping and the offering of detailed, specific critiques, according to Hunley, can best be handled in conferences and online, employing instructional technologies such as Blackboard.)

I agree wholeheartedly with Hunley’s take on the need to replace the workshop model.  And I agree very largely with Hunley’s pointing teachers in the direction of an alternative method like the five-canon model.  My own experiences teaching undergraduate poetry writing have confirmed how ineffective the workshop model tends to be, and so I have taken steps in my own teaching to try something new.  Interestingly, my own choices largely have coincided with much of what Hunley suggests.  For example, I now do a LOT in terms of sharing invention strategies with students, and allowing students to practice some of those strategies in class.  And very often I match text-generating invention strategies with a poetic form to help students consider the methods with and by which they might craft their poems.  In fact, one of the big goals of my pedagogy is to get students to see that one very fruitful way to conceive of the task of the poet is to conceive of the poet as someone who gives her/himself creative assignments and then works to complete those assignments.  The pay-off for this kind of approach is immediate: students bring better work and thinking to the drafts of their poems, so, when we actually do discuss them, the drafts generally already are working in some big, vital ways.  (So far, I have not done much with memorization and delivery in the poetry writing class; however, I do teach a literature class called “Poetry through Performance,” and through the experience of teaching that course I know what a powerful pedagogical technique the performance of poetry can be—encouraged by Hunley’s writing, I will certainly consider employing this methodology in my poetry writing classes.)

TPW strikes me as offering something vital for poetry writing pedagogy now—anyone starting to teach poetry writing or beginning to re-think their own poetry writing pedagogy should carefully attend to it.  TPW does the massive work of suggesting the need for a paradigm shift in poetry writing pedagogy, and it does the vital detail work of offering a lot of specific guidance in terms of how to pull off such a shift: specific exercises, specific technologies, specific texts.

Although not mentioned in TPW (perhaps because the books were published in the same year), I think Structure & Surprise, along with many of the other poetry writing books cited and referenced by Hunley, offers many insights applicable to teaching using the five-canon approach.

S&S is most applicable to the second canon, arrangement.  Citing Covino and Jolliffe’s Rhetoric: Concepts, Definitions, Boundaries (Allyn & Bacon, 1995), Hunley notes, “Arrangement occurs in rhetoric when ‘the arguments devised through invention are placed in the most effective order.’  It is ‘the art of ordering the material in a text so that it is most appropriate for the needs of the audience and the purpose the text is designed to accomplish.’”  According to Hunley (who cites the Encyclopedia of Rhetoric and Composition), “Rhetoric’s second canon, arrangement…is ‘the art of dividing a discourse into its parts and the inclusion, omission, or ordering of those parts according to the rhetor’s needs and situation and constraints of the chosen genre.’  The least written about of the five canons, arrangement has always been a sort of neglected middle child, rarely stealing the spotlight away from invention and style, its attention-grabbing siblings on either side.”

Although structure is touched on in a section of TPW called “Arrangement in the Rhetorical Tradition” (in which it is noted, “In classical rhetoric, orators traditionally arranged their speeches into five parts: exordium, narratio, confirmatio, refutatio, peroratio”) and in some of the “Practical Classroom Applications” that grow out of this section, the methods for arranging the content of a poem offered in TPW focus mainly on poetic form, as is indicated by the section title “Arranging Poetry in the Verse Mode: Traditional Forms.”  Additionally, the section called “Arranging Poetry in the Prose Mode: Free Verse” also is largely about form, focusing on kinds of poetic lines and line breaks.  This is, of course, fitting: for a long time now, form has seemed generally to be the way to arrange poems, and form of course offers powerful tools for such arrangement.  However, I’d simply add that poetic structure, attention to the patterns of turns in poems, offers a significant additional way to think about the arrangement of poems, its own practical pedagogical applications (see this blog’s “Pedagogy” page for links to this developing conversation), and a reminder: non-formal arrangement is not only a concern primarily for rhetors but also for poets, who for a long time (Eliot calls the turn “one of the most important means of poetic effect since Homer”) have arranged poems—both formal and free—around turns.

With Teaching Poetry Writing, Tom Hunley has given me a name for what I do (or am trying to do) in my poetry writing classes, and he has given me lots of new information and methods for my teaching.  Perhaps, for others interested in Hunley’s approach to teaching poetry writing, Structure & Surprise (and this blog) can serve as a kind of supplement to the pedagogical model presented in Teaching Poetry Writing, offering helpful ways to think about and to teach another key means of arranging poems: poetic structure, the pattern of turning in poems.