Halliday on Hoagland

2 02 2011

There’s an excellent review by Mark Halliday of Tony Hoagland’s latest book, Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty, in the most recent issue of Pleiades (31.1 (2011)).

There are numerous highlights in this review, among them:

–the development of a hilarious new acronym: ICFU, which stands for those who have “Instant Contempt For the Understandable”;

–an amazing, in-depth challenge to certain ways that the criterion of musicality is applied to the assessment of poetry; and, most relevant to the concerns of this blog:

–an admiration of the ways Hoagland’s poems turn. 

Here is a key paragraph:

In Unincorporated Persons the sensation of painfully half-voluntary complicity in political and cultural harm comes across in many good poems, though what the poems express is not simply limited to that sensation.  Such poems include “Food Court,” “Big Grab,” “Hard Rain,” “Confinement,” “Poor Britney Spears,” “Expensive Hotel,” “Complicit With Everything,” “Hinge,” “Foghorn,” “Disaster Movie,” “The Allegory of the Temp Agency,” “Snowglobe.”  There is plenty say about those, and critics should write about them carefully enough to move past categorizing them as “political poems.”  A long article waits to be written about their endings and how, in a poem’s closing lines, Hoagland twists the knife, to make the poem disturb you after you felt sure you knew where he was going.  An example is “The Allegory of the Temp Agency” which, thanks to the machete-slash of its last lines, manages to become both a satirical critique of banal polemical art and a startling reminder that banal political protests against global capitalism arise from horrible inequities that suave mockery cannot remove.

The only online version of “The Allegory of the Temp Agency” I could find is here.  (Sorry.)  But do read it; there is a nice turn in this poem, one that delivers an interesting, insightful moral (one that helps explain why the (admittedly, very beautiful) mural at Goldman Sachs looks like this).  It’s also a self-reflexive turn, signaling its turn with the words “in turn.”

Halliday is right: it does indeed seem “a long article waits to be written” about these turns…  Someone’s got their work cut out for them.

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.

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.

Peter Sacks and the Dolphin’s Turn

1 07 2010

I’ve recently become aware of and intrigued by some new thinking and work on the turn: Peter Sacks’s “You Only Guide Me by Surprise”: Poetry and the Dolphin’s Turn.

This work was first delivered on May 7, 2004, at The University of California, Berkeley, as the Second Memorial Judith Lee Stronach Lecture on the Teaching of Poetry.  (You can hear the lecture here.)  500 copies of the lecture, printed by Autumn Press, have been published by The Bancroft Library of The University of California, Berkeley.  For those interested in poetic turns, this slim volume is worth getting a hold of—it contains some fascinating reflections on a new kind (or, rather, an ancient kind—just one that so far has not been theorized) of turn: the dolphin’s turn.

According to Sacks, the dolphin’s turn is “a transformative veering from one course to another, a way of being drawn off track to an unexpected destination…”  (Sacks adds: “[T]his turn is paradigmatic for the transportation system of poetry itself, both in its technical “versing,” and in its thematic and figural changes.”)  The dolphin is associated with such turning, of course, because it is a creature that itself is always transgressing boundaries, leaping and diving.  Sacks states,

“Imagine that we are sailing, or swimming, or watching, or drowning—which we are.  Suddenly (a natural adverb of the dolphin, since sudden derives from underneath, from the same sub as sub-marine, going below or above, sur-facing, by sur-prise, as from hidden depths), a creature emerges.  It breaks the surface between two elements, perhaps as the poem breaks from silence to sound and back, line after line, leaping and turning through what differentiates poetry from prose: its more frequent encounters with wordlessness, its high quota of turns, both of speech and thought, and of actual lineation, its navigating according to its own frequency even as it finds its course, responsively, by echolocation, by soundings.”

The dolphin’s turn, however, is more specific than this.  According to Sacks, the dolphin’s turn is signaled by the actual presence of dolphins in a poem.  That is, the dolphin becomes a kind of totemic animal, a familiar whose presence marks the presence of other, larger forces: the sighting of a dolphin in a poem often announces the advent of a radical turn.  As Sacks states,

“[A]s the dolphin appears, imagine it has leapt not merely into your sight, but into your blood, breath, and the primal reaches of the mammalian mind, the part of us ‘in here’ that responds and perhaps corresponds to the creature ‘out there’….[T]his partial correspondence has charged the human imagination since the earliest poems of history.  As we send exploratory pulses out toward the origins of poetry itself, the soundings ripple back to us through the waters of almost three millennia, from the “Homeric Hymn to Apollo” to such twentieth century poets as Eliot, Rilke, Mandelstam and Celan, as well as Lowell, Walcott, and Bishop, whose great vocational portrait, “The Riverman,” begins “I got up in the night / for the dolphin spoke to me.”  Always en route, the dolphin makes its way, and poetry’s way, via Shakespeare, Milton, and many others.  You may already be recalling that the crucial turning point of “Lycidas” (1637), “Weep no more, woeful shepherds, weep no more, / For Lycidas your sorrow is not dead,” leaps from the preceding lines, “Look homeward angel now, and melt with ruth: / And, O ye dolphins, waft the hapless youth.”

Etymologically connecting dolphin via its Greek designation, delphin, to the oracular Apollo of Delphi, Sacks notes, in fact, that “[t]he link between dolphin and lyric poetry could hardly be closer.”  And Sacks’s lecture, then, becomes, largely, a consideration of many of the instances of the dolphin’s turn in poetry, investigating poems such as:

“Homeric Hymn to Pythian Apollo” (“Celebrating the inauguration of the Delphic oracle, and most importantly, Apollo’s selection of his first priests, a scene of election that literally turns them from one life-course to another, the poem enacts the ur trope of poesis itself.  This marks one of the first, but by no means the last, scenes of hijacking in all of literature, and we may wonder to what degree the experience of a lyric poem resembles the action of being hijacked”);

Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Delphine” (“The poem speaks completely for itself, returning explicitly to a wondrous silence which it has served to deepen, even as it has mediated between otherwise separate categories of human, animal, divine, of ocean, earth, and heaven, of language, music, wordlessness”);

Osip Mandelstam’s “There is no need for speech” (“It’s a brief poem, two quatrains, in which the Russian word delphinom becomes the literal vehicle for the metaphoric tenor of the soul, a being that swims way beyond or beneath language or pedagogy, into the furthest reaches of consciousness or of the world as we perceive it”);

Paul Celan’s “What’s written goes hollow, what’s” (from Celan’s Atemwende, or Breathturn; “[t]he dolphin here draws the poet through the surfaces of language, into a primordial form of breath and drastic luminosity, inseparable from an eternalized, as well as internalized, quadrant of shadows”);

W.B. Yeats’s “News for the Delphic Oracle” (in which “a dolphin plunges through the whole middle stanza”);

early versions of Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium” (“When the stricken, aging speaker calls to the transfigured world of the mosaics, and prays that the sages who stand in God’s holy fire might gather him into the artifice of eternity, we might want to know that earlier drafts of this passage had included the lines “O send the dolphins back & gather me / Into the artifice of eternity.”  Drafts of earlier passages of the poem show more instances of the legendary creature, seen through the foam “where the dark drowsy fins a moment rise / Of fish, that carry souls to paradise”);

Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (a dolphin appears at “the moment when Melville’s prose literally turns to poetry…to pray for a specifically Delphic salvation from the threatening whale”);

Robert Lowell’s “Dolphin” (from his penultimate collection, The Dolphin; “[h]ere the dolphin, figure also for the new beloved, cuts through the speaker’s self-imprisoning net of cerebration and will, releasing him and orienting him at once toward his ongoing vitality, and thence to his capacity for acknowledging the consequences of his past”);

and Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Riverman” (“a conversionary calling of a man by a dolphin, leading him to initiation as a shamanic servant of the natural and supernatural worlds”; “It strikes me as no coincidence that Bishop’s fullest exploration of shamanic election, of initiation into a salvific region involving its own language, i[t]s own elusive journeys and trysts, its devotion to the well-being of a community, should follow the calling of the dolphin.  Not a poet usually given to myth-making, Bishop here delegates a receiver by whom she can express the strongest, most mysterious reach of her own vocation.  In a sense, the dolphin has surprised her and admitted her into one of her own deepest acknowledgments of the summons to poetry and to the world”).

In a final note, Sacks also acknowledges other examples of the dolphin’s turn in poetry, including Robert Browning’s “Fifine at the Fair,” Theodore Roethke’s “A Dolphin at My Door,” C. Day-Lewis’s “Boy with Dolphin: Verocchio,” and (“the magnificent close of”) Derek Walcott’s book-length poem, The Prodigal.

 Original, resonant, wide-ranging, deep, and new, Peter Sacks’s thinking about the dolphin’s turn is worth careful consideration.  I highly recommend it.

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.

Poetic Structures, Summarized

15 06 2010

Poetic Structures

A turn is a shift in the rhetorical and/or dramatic progression of a poem.  The pattern of a poem’s turning is its structure.  The following are some of the structures that poems have, the kinds of turns that poems make.

Please note: the following list is not exhaustive—rather, it is just a beginning.  Poems are structured in a wide variety of ways, including variations on and combinations of the kinds of structures included here.  While the following list may offer some structures that can be applied directly to one’s reading and understanding of a particular poem, one should not try to force any structure on any particular poem.  While it is important to be attuned to the presence and the power of turns in poems, in terms of really trying to understand a poem nothing should replace attentiveness to the singular details of a particular poem.

Two-part Structures

The cliché-and-critique structure begins with a cliché (or clichés) then turn to critique that cliché.

The concessional structure turns from making concessions (that is, admitting the problems or difficulties in the argument one wants to make) to then, in fact, making the argument.

The dejection-to-elation structure turns (often as a result of some kind of triggering event) from sadness to happiness.

The dream-to-waking structure is a two-part structure that, first, provides a dream (or a daydream, or reverie, or a vision), and then, second, wakes from that dream.  (Note that waking has the power to confirm or to negate the power of the dream.  So, if the dream is undermined, it is likely that the poem will be structurally similar to poems that employ the ironic structure.)

The elegiac mode has three kinds of structures, each one revealing a different way of handling grief: one turns from grief to consolation; one turns from grief to the refusal of consolation; and one turns from grief to deeper grief.

The emblem structure turns from an organized description of an object to a meditation on, a consideration of, the meaning of that object.

The ironic structure turns from making an assertion to undercutting that assertion, or pulling the rug out from underneath what (one had thought) had been established in the poem.

The list-with-a-twist structure includes a list that turns–or twists–significantly toward the end.  (Note: lots of poems use the list-with-a-twist structure; many of the structures listed here are more specific varieties of the list-with-a-twist.)

The metaphor-to-meaning structure is a two-part structure that moves from supplying a metaphor for something (a thing, or a situation) to revealing the meaning of, the significance behind, that metaphor.

The question-and-answer structure.  Q. Is this structure really as self-explanatory as it seems?  A. Yes.

The retrospective-prospective structure begins with a consideration of past events and then turns to look ahead to the future or else look at a present situation differently.

The story-with-a-moral structure turns from telling a story to offering the lesson(s) of that story.

Three-part Structures

The circular structure begins in one place, then journeys away from that place, only to (as you may have guessed) circle back to the beginning.

The descriptive-meditative structure opens with the description of a scene, then (often due to an external trigger) turns to an interior meditation (for example, the expression and/or consideration of memories, concerns, anticipation), and then turns to a re-description of the scene, a scene that now seems different due to the changed mindset of the poem’s speaker.

The dialectical argument structure begins with the statement of a thesis (one argumentative position), then turns to offer an antithesis (a counterpoint to the thesis), turning once again to a synthesis, a combination of the two seemingly opposing views.

—from Structure & Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns, edited by Michael Theune (Teachers & Writers, 2007), and https://structureandsurprise.wordpress.com

Eshleman and the Turn

27 05 2010

As a part of some work with a colleague to rethink a particular poetry writing course, I spent a terrific two hours this afternoon sailing through Clayton Eshleman‘s Novices: A Study of Poetic Apprenticeship.  A strange and magical book, I think.

As its subtitle indicates, Novices primarily is an excellent collection of reflections on the fuller demands of poetic apprenticeship.  One of the aspects of the book that I like very much is that it presents some “plans,” “outlines,” and “curricula” for a training in poetry that other poets have suggested, including those by Charles Olson, Gary Snyder, and (though Eshleman is critical of his “daydream College for Bards”) W.H. Auden.  Perhaps my favorite chapter in the book is Chapter 9, in which Eshleman uses Snyder’s “What You Should Know to Be a Poet” as a springboard to launch himself into a discussion of his own theory of apprenticeship, which consists of four “nodes”: “EXPERIENCE,” “RESEARCH,” “SELF-REGULATION,” and “EXPERIMENT.”  Worth looking into.

(Those intrigued by the prospect of thinking more deeply about a fuller poetic apprenticeship might also read H.L. Hix’s “Training for Poets” in As Easy as Lying: Essays on Poetry.)

Of course, though, what also caught my eye (trained on the turn) was a passage from Novices‘ Chapter 7 in which Eshleman emphasizes the role of the turn (or turns) in poems.  He states:

“There is an archetypal poem, and its most ancient design is probably the labyrinth.  One suddenly cuts in, leaving the green world for the apparent stasis and darkness of the cave.  The first words of a poem propose and nose forward toward a confrontation with what the writer is only partially aware of, or may not be prepared to address until it emerges, flushed forth by digressions and meanders.  Poetry twists toward the unknown and seeks to realize something beyond the poet’s initial awareness.  What it seeks to know might be described as the unlimited interiority of its initial impetus.”

Whether a labyrinth or something else, it certainly is true that poetry twists and turns.  While in the process of learning much and cultivating a variety of necessary dispositions and skills, any apprentice to the art of poetry must attend to this aspect of poetry, considering and practicing the art of the turn.

Keats, Negative Capability, and the Turn (part 1 of 3)

29 08 2009


John Keats loved the poetic turn.

Perhaps this goes without saying.  Countless significant poets love turns, employing turns beautifully and strategically in their poems.

But it’s especially important to acknowledge Keats’s love of the turn because of how it stands as a challenge to something else Keats is much more famous for valuing in poetry: negative capability.

A number of the details of Keats’s life and work point to the importance of the turn for him and his poetry.

Keats loved humor.  Even Keats’s most famous biographer Walter Jackson Bate, a biographer who does not emphasize Keats’s humor, acknowledges that Keats possessed an “efforvescent humor.”  And humor thrives on the turn–jokes, as combinations set-ups and punch lines, almost are archetypes of structure and surprise.   Turns, as we will see, occur throughout Keats’s oeuvre, including, of course, his light verse.

The techniques required for the successful deployment of humor are not foreign to more serious poetic undertakings.  As noted in this blog’s Turned onto Turns: Comments on Structure, M. L. Rosenthal notes in The Poet’s Art,

Pleasure, play, wit, comedy: it is hard, offhand, to think of these words, or concepts, in relation to deeply serious poetry.  The connection, in fact, may be the most difficult thing about any art for people to grasp (apart from being attuned to the medium itself if its values—color, bodily movement, spatial balancings, currents of tonality, dynamics, and so on—are unfamiliar).  Much of the character of poetry as an art, rather than as a mere statement of ideas or personal expression, depends on this quality of formal play.  This quality militates against sentimentality (the demand for unearned emotional response) and other sorts of false eloquence.  It provides the distancing that allows a poem to build itself as an organic construct in its own right.”

What Rosenthal calls “formal play,” I might prefer to call “structural play,” but regardless of terms, the deeper truth remains: there is less of a distance between vital comedic and vital serious poetry than might appear at first glance.  Such closeness is made clear in Keats’s oeuvre in many places, but I’ll point here to just two.

In the letter Keats sends to his friend Benjamin Bailey on March 13, 1818, Keats reveals how important the turn is to him in a way that is both serious and witty.  In the list of “Things real, things semi-real, and no things” he lists in this letter, the real things Keats names are: “existences of Sun Moon & Stars and passages of Shakespeare.”  Much more than either a simple enumeration of what for Keats is substantive or yet another Keatsian celebration of the stellar Shakespeare, this list of real things importantly is a demonstration of what for Keats is a substantial reality: the surprising poetic turn.  That is, not only are those heavenly bodies real, and not only is Shakespeare’s writing also real in addition to them, but, we must understand, the surprise which Keats creates–and which we feel when we, after being lulled by the rote listing of the astronomical bodies, recognize the thrilling incorporation of the seemingly out of place “and passages of Shakespeare”–also is very real.  Keats is being serious and lovely here, of course, but he’s also being witty.  He certainly deploys the structural strategies of the joke (set-up and punch line), and in deploying these strategies he’s also pointing to how real such a strategy (and its effects) is (and are) for him.

Keats’s letters are filled with such turns.  In “Multiple Readers, Multiple Texts, Multiple Keats,” (in Romantic Complexity: Keats, Coleridge, and Wordsworth), Keats scholar Jack Stillinger states that the “oscillation between seriousness and hilarity, which we find throughout the letters, is one of their chief attractions to readers.”  According to Stillinger (and I agree wholeheartedly–I’ve included it as the only letter in Voltage!, my list of poems with great turns), one of Keats’s funniest and greatest letters is his letter of August 6, 1818, to Mrs. James Wylie, the mother-in-law of Keats’s brother George.  George and his wife Georgiana have emigrated to the United States, leaving Mrs. Wylie bereft of their company, and Keats, also away (on a walking tour), writes a letter to Mrs. Wylie that begins in tones of utmost seriousness about how he wishes that he could be a comfort to her in her loneliness.  Keats writes,

“It was a great regret to me that I should leave all my friends, just at the moment when I might have helped to soften away the time for them….I should have liked to remain near you, were it but for an atom of consolation, after parting with so dear a daughter…I wish above all things, to say a word of Comfort to you, but I know not how.  It is impossible to prove that black is white, It is impossible to make out, that sorrow is joy or joy is sorrow…”

At this point in the letter, Keats suddenly breaks from this train of thought.  (The break is inscribed in the letter with a very long dash.)  He in fact turns to give an account of his walking tour, an account which is a comic tour de force.  For the rest of the letter, Keats is silly, absurd, and ribald.  (If you haven’t, do read the letter–you won’t regret it.)  Keats famously says that the Grecian Urn “dost tease us out of thought,” but this also is exactly what Keats is attempting to do with this letter: to tease Mrs. Wylie out of her own loneliness.  And it’s hard to imagine Keats not succeeding in his endeavor at least to some extent.  It’s hard to imagine Mrs. Wylie not smiling or laughing at Keats’s lovely, friendly buffoonery; it’s hard to imagine Mrs. Wylie not being transported, if only for a moment, from what one could only imagine to have been her real sorrow.

Even given the above evidence, that turns are real things for Keats, however, is most evident in his sonneteering, an aspect of Keats’s work I plan to explore in the next part of this series of posts.  For now, though, I want to close with a speculation: we also can see the importance of the turn in Keats’s poetic work in the places where he is confounded by a turn.  Most famously, this occurs in the fragments of Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion.  Each of these poems breaks (and so becomes and is abandoned as a fragment) right where a major turn is taking place: where the new god Apollo comes onto the scene.

It’s understandable that Keats did not succeed in making this turn: this is a tough turn to make, perhaps even an impossible one.  That is, while it is possible to represent the old gods (of power, identity, and rhetoric), or to describe a scene between narrator and muse, it’s quite another matter to sort out how to represent a new god who somehow signifies a whole new manner of expression and artistry.  (As a number of critics have pointed out, Keats succeeds in taking this turn by giving up these two planned epics and taking up the task of speaking in the new way in his Odes.)

But it’s not insignificant that Keats’s epics stopped where they did.  That they stopped at a major turn underscores the fact that Keats as poet strove to take turns.  He worked to make the turn occur, even trying to greatly rewrite Hyperion into The Fall of Hyperion.  And when the turn did not take shape, the poem was left by Keats as an unfinished fragment.

Successful turns abound in Keats’s oeuvre just as they do in the oeuvres of so many great poets.  But even where unsuccessful, these efforts toward making turns reveal Keats’s great interest in the turn as a vital part of what makes great poems.

To be continued…

Poetry and Uncertainty, and the Turn

28 07 2009


 In a recent post, I outlined how the July/August 2009 issue of Poetry, though officially the Flarf/Conceptual Poetry issue, also is, like so many other issues of Poetry, the turn issue.  That is, though unacknowledged, Poetry actually features a large number of poems that themselves feature turns.

This situation is not at all unique to Poetry.  Turns are virtually ubiquitous in poetry, but we (poets, critics, teachers, readers) have barely attended to them.  It’s for this reason that one of the tasks of this blog is to point out some of the discussions of turns that do occur–especially those discussions, like the recent issue of Poetry, in which the turn is present but not named.  We need to see how much we in fact do focus on the turn so that we can become conscious of our attention, and so that we can be encouraged to think more deeply about the role of the turn in poetry.

One of the poems in the recent issue of Poetry that employs a distinct turn is “Perishable, It Said,” by Jane Hirshfield.  While I don’t think it is accurate to say that some poets are poets of the turn more than others, there do seem to be some poets (A. R. Ammons, Billy Collins, Rae Armantrout, and Jorie Graham, to name a few) who are really taken by the turn, and employ it often in significant ways in their poetry and, at times, criticism.  Hirshfield, also, is this kind of poet…and critic: turns often are significant features of the poems Hirshfield discusses in her criticism, though they typically are not remarked upon in her commentary on those poems.

This certainly is the case with Hirshfield’s essay “Poetry and Uncertainty” (from The American Poetry Review 34.6 (2005): 63-72).  In this essay, Hirshfield considers the ways in which poetry incorporates and communicates uncertainty.  Though Hirshfield never mentions the turn as one of the key tools for such undertakings, it is clear that the turn is central in these efforts.  Of the eleven poems Hirshfield cites in full, nine contain clear and significant turns.  These poems are:

“It is true…,” by Izumi Shikibu (click on the link, and looking under “Gate 1. Permeability”);

“Poetry Reading,” by Anna Swir;

“When I Heard the Learned Astronomer,” by Walt Whitman;

“Encounter,” by Czeslaw Milosz;

“They spoke to me of people, and of humanity…,” by Fernando Pessoa (see p. 85);

“A Great Tranquility: Questions and Answers,” by Yehuda Amichai;

Ode I. 11 (“Leucon, no one’s allowed to know his fate…”), by Horace (located under “Gate 4. Horace’s Zen”);

“This may be the last day of my life…,” by Fernando Pessoa (on p. 92); and

“The Fly,” by Miroslav Holub

Though Hirshfield does not discuss the turn, the turn is implicit in her discussion of these poems when she notes their connection to jokes, stating, “[A] good poem, like a good joke, doesn’t allay anxiety with answers–it startles its readers out of the general trance, awakening an enlarged reality by means of a close-paid attention to its own ground.”  Jokes, of course, have clear turns in them: from set-up to punch line.  And Hirshfield acknowledges that poems often have this kind of movement, leaping from ground to larger reality, from trance to wakefulness–maneuvers that are featured in the Ironic Structure and the Dream-to-Waking Structure discussed on this blog.  (Hirshfield in fact notes that irony is at work in a number of the poems she cites, stating, “This is why lyric poems are so rife…with irony–good poems undercut their own yearning to say one thing well, because to say one thing is simply not to say enough.”)

Clearly, the turn is present, if largely unacknowledged, in Hirshfield’s essay–but why is this important to recognize?  The answer is simple: descriptive accuracy.

Hirshfield’s essay not only tries to show the relations between poetry and uncertainty but also wants to offer some insights into how good, moving poems are made out of such relations.  For example, Hirshfield states, “The making of good poetry entails control; it also requires surrender and a light hand.”  However, upon seeing how centrally the turn is featured in the poems she presents and how the turn is implicit in so many of her remarks on those poems, it seems that Hirshfield also could say: the making of good poetry entails a knowledge of turns, and skill in employing them in your poems.

Taking Turns (for Granted) in Sijo and Haiku

14 07 2009


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.