The Build-and-Activate Structure


In “Inspiration, Guides, Exercises,” the final section of Structure & Surprise, I offer the following suggestion to help generate a poem:

“Invent a new kind of turn by taking your writing further than it might usually go….[W]rite a poem in which you construct a fantastic object or machine, a magical mechanism called ‘The Desire Vaporizer’ or ‘The Memory Box.’  Employ lots of odd, specific details.  At the end of the poem, turn the machine on and say what happens.  Of course, it could be interesting if nothing, or something very unexpected, happens.  If so, you may have a draft of a poem employing the ironic structure.”

Here is the poem that inspired the above suggestion:


Scale Model of Childhood

Who can say what calls me to work

these late hours

by lamplight and magnifying glass?

After the ladybug

retracts its long,

knife-point wingsbeneath its red shell,

I use the brush of one hair

to connect the black stars

stippled on its back:

Canis Minor,

who licks its teeth,

muzzle still red with Acteon’s blood,

Canis Minor,

waiting at the feet of the Twins

for crumbs to fall from their table.

In another room,

my parents sleep lightly,

never dreaming,

mouths open

as though ready always

to call my name.

When my constellation is finished,

I pierce it with a pin,

my little dog,

and place it

in a miniature box,

size of my thumbnail,

a window for the shoe box diorama

I assemble each night

from tidbits no one will miss.

When I was a child

feral dogs ran the woods

beyond our door.

Even the hound my father shot

slipped away by morning,

a line of blood pocking the snow.

My parents instructed me,

never stray outside.

Nights, my back on the bed

and my head tilted back,

I watched stars scroll past

my narrow window’s frame.

Once I thought I’d step from childhood

as from a doorway

into a night blazing with stars

so numerous

they defied constellation.

I’d stride into the revealed world

away from the house

and my parents framed by a window

as they sat at a table

holding forks

with no morsels pierced

near parted lips.

Pull the lever on the side of the box

and their forks will scrape

empty plates

while an unseen dog

howls for its dinner

in an almost human voice.

—Corey Marks

From Renunciation (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois, 2000).  Reprinted by permission of the author.


In “Inspiration, Guides, Exercises” I suggest that poetic structures can be used by working poets in many ways: to inspire, to draft, to revise.  “Scale Model of Childhood” seems to me to offer a very inspiring structure for poets and for teachers of poetry, one that has a lot of creative and pedagogical potential, but one which (largely because turns have not been a systematic part of our discussions of poetry and poetry writing) has yet to be as widely employed as it can (and perhaps should) be.


And here are some other poems that employ the “build-and-activate structure,” or something very much like it (perhaps, in Hirshfield’s poem, a “preparation-and-anticipation structure”):


“On Black Cloth with White Chalk I Drew the Stars,” by Landon Godfrey

“The Room,” by Jane Hirshfield

A few notes:

First, I have included “The Build-and-Activate Structure” in this blog’s “Pedagogy” section and not in “New Structures” because I’m reserving “New Structures” for structures which have been more widely employed.  (If there are other build-and-activate poems out there, please do let me know.)

Second, note that while the turn from construction to activation is vital in “Scale Model of Childhood” and “The Room,” it is not the only turn in these poems.  The construction sections have many important turns in them, as well (including, in “Scale Model of Childhood,” from construction to the sleeping parents to details of the past to the maker’s ideas of what he thought his childhood would lead to; and, in “The Room,” from the empty past to the sensed demand to the list of preparations).  If you’re going to try to make your own “build-and-activate” poem, consider employing some smaller turns within your own “build” section.


Third, if you’re looking for some inspiration for what or how to build, here are a few examples of poems that construct things:


“Instructions to the Artist,” by Billy Collins


“Inventing a Horse,” by Meghan O’Rourke

Building clearly is a big part of a lot of poems.  One way to make a satisfying poem is to build something, then activate it, turn it on–and, in the process turn your reader on!




And, finally…


If you like “Scale Model of Childhood,” by Corey Marks (who is, among many other things, the author of the chapter on “The Descriptive-Meditative Structure” in Structure & Surprise), you might like to read his poem “Portrait of a Child,” which I’ve included on the page in this blog which I call “Voltage!,” a page that features poems that take particularly thrilling turns.  And if you like these poems, of course, check out Corey’s book Renunciation.


And if you like “The Room,” by Jane Hirshfield, you should check out a number of the pages on this blog, which include links to many of her poems, and read her work, poems and criticism–which often features or is focused on the turn.

One response

15 04 2009
The Build-and-Activate Structure « Structure & Surprise

[…] added a new page to the “Pedagogy” section of this blog: “The Build-and-Activate Structure.”  Below is the content of that page (links are inserted on the […]

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