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.





Haiku and Fitting Surprise

8 07 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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





Turning: Writing into Poetry

21 09 2009

zapruder

In “Off the Shelf: Finding the Pieces that Turn Writing into Poetry,” a recent essay in The Los Angeles Times, poet Matthew Zapruder looks back over his own development as a poet, and over large swaths of poetic history, to try to answer the question: what is it that makes a poem a poem?

Of central importance to Zapruder’s essay is the fact that poetic form–in an age in which many, many great poems have been written in free verse–does not offer a satisfactory answer to Zapruder’s question.  Zapruder thus looks elsewhere for his answer, and he finds it in the movements and leaps of poetry:

“Poetry at its most basic level is about the movement of the mind. This is why it is translatable, even from a language such as Chinese, which has very little in common with English. What can be translated is the leap from one thought to another: what I call the associative movement particular to poetry. That leap, that movement, is what makes poetry poetry.”

Zapruder’s essay is worth reading for many reasons–it’s personal and engaging.  However, here, I want to focus on why readers of this blog might be interested in reading Zapruder’s essay: it very clearly jibes with the thinking taking place in Structure & Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns, and on this blog.  Zapruder’s ideas about how something essential to poetry might be found in a poem’s non-formal leaps and movements at least is very much like what is argued in “Poetic Structure and Poetic Form: The Necessary Differentiation.”

Concomitantly, those interested in Zapruder’s ideas in “Off the Shelf” might also be interested in exploring a bit this blog (including the post “What Is Poetry?”) to see some of the work that has taken place to make explicit some of the exciting and energizing leaps and turns that are a big part of the heart of the mystery of what poetry is.





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.”

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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.





Learning Structure from Dante

11 06 2009

dante

Paying attention to poetic structure, to the patterns of signficant turns in poems, is not by any means new–for a long time, thinking about poetic structure and turns has been a key feature in numerous significant discussions about poetry and types of poetry.  It is in large part this fact that makes the present-day tendency toward a lack of discussion of structure so noteworthy, and so clearly in need of redress.  Thus, a little book report on one of the great, earlier discussions of poetic structure: Dante’s La Vita Nuova.

La Vita Nuova is an anthology Dante created out of many of his own shorter poems.  The poems are interspersed among an ongoing prose commentary that has two main features.  The first is an account of the actual events which gave rise to the poems–essentially, the trajectory of Dante’s relationship with his great love, Beatrice.  The second (and the feature I want to focus on here) is an analysis of the poems.

Throughout his commentary, Dante discusses how his poems work, but what’s fascinating is how he does this: Dante consistently breaks his poems down into their “parts” to reveal the structure of his poems.  For example, considering his sonnet “To every captive soul and gentle lover,” Dante writes, “This sonnet is divided into two parts.  In the first I extend a greeting and ask for a reply; in the second I convey what it is that requires a reply.  The second part begins: Already of these hours…”  Elsewhere, Dante not only divides his poems into parts but also shows how the parts themselves can be subdivided.

For Dante the awareness of the parts, the divisions, of a poem is key to understanding the meaning of that poem.  At the conclusion of his analysis of his canzone “Ladies who know by insight what love is…” Dante states, “Certainly to uncover still more meaning in this canzone it would be necessary to divide it more minutely; but if anyone has not the wit to understand it with the help of the divisions already made he had best leave it alone.  Indeed I am afraid that I may have conveyed its meaning to too many by dividing it even as I have done, if it should come to the ears of too many.”

But why does Dante undertake, over and over again, this particular kind of structural analysis?

In her introduction to her translation of La Vita Nuova (the Penguin Classics edition; New York: Penguin, 1969), Barbara Reynolds suggests that Dante is trying to instruct readers who are acquainted and preoccupied with the features of poetic form as to how to read his poems more vitally and accurately.  Reynolds states, “What is interesting is that [Dante] evidently thinks it necessary to make clear to fellow-poets and instructed readers where the counter-divisions occur.  Perhaps he considered that preoccupation with the form of poetry or with its embellishments was tending to obscure lucidity of thought.”  Reynolds pursues this thinking:

“These severely arid analyses of poems…are really an invitation by Dante to enter his study and stand beside him while he runs a finger down the parchment page of his manuscript.  ‘Look,’ he seems to be saying, ‘here is a canzone.  You know, of course, how a canzone is constructed metrically, consisting of a sequence of identical stanzas, each stanza being composed of a frons, which is divided into two pedes, and a sirima, which is divided into two voltae.  What I want you to notice is the articulation of the thought-content, for this is by no means always identical with the structural [i.e., formal] articulation…'”

That is, according to Reynolds, Dante is thinking about poems in a way that anticipates, and prefigures (by over 600 years), a similar discussion about poetry: Randall Jarrell’s “Levels and Opposites: Structure in Poetry,” one of the great essays on poetic structure, and an essay Jarrell introduces by stating, “I shall have to disregard the musical structure of poetry: metre, stanza-form, rhyme, alliteration, quantity, and so on.  I neglect these without too much regret: criticism has paid them an altogether disproportionate amount of attention….I am going to talk, primarily, about other sorts of structure in lyrical poetry.”  And, of course, Jarrell’s distinction between the musical structure [the form] of poetry and the other structures of poetry is a distinction that anticipated, prefigured, and inspired the structure-form distinction at the heart of the undertaking that is Structure & Surprise.

Fascinating to think, though, that issues very similar to those thought about in Structure & Surprise also were of concern to and being thought about by Dante some 700 years ago…

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One additional note.  Even though it’s clear that structure is a vital component of poetry, not everyone likes the kind of analysis; as  Barbara Reynolds notes, “Some readers resent and may skip those sections of the commentary in which Dante indicates the divisions of the poems, feeling such matter-of-fact analysis to be an intrusion into the dream-world of ecstatic love which is conjured up by the consecrated tone of the rest of the work.  It is said, for instance, that Dante Gabriel Rossetti, through whose translation of the Vita Nova Dante and Beatrice became part of the pre-Raphaelite movement, so disliked the paragraphs in which the poems are analysed that he could not bear to translate them and had to ask his brother, William, to undertake this part of the task for him.”  Certainly, the analysis of the sections of, the turns in, a poem isn’t exactly sexy, rapturous work; however, it is, I think, a necessary part of a fuller engagement with a text, an engagement that encourages a more encompassing understanding of and feeling for how a poem moves and creates its affect.  And so, it is simply necessary to keep drawing attention to this aspect of engagement with poems, especially when it seems that this aspect is being overlooked in the conversation about poetry–whenever it is that such overlooking occurs.