Emblem Structure

The emblem structure is a two-part structure that turns from an organized description of an object to a meditation on, a consideration of, the meaning of that object.  I discuss the emblem structure more fully in Structure & Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns.  Below are supplemental poems and discussion.

“Meditation on a Grapefruit,” by Craig Arnold

“On Delacroix’s ‘Tasso in Prison,'” by Charles Baudelaire

“Sparrow,” by Peter Campion

“Stone,” by Peter Campion (in Other People (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2005), p. 59).

“Mouse in the Grocery,” by Henri Cole

“Watching Time-Lapse Videos of Peonies Blooming,” by Katy Didden

“Beach Roses,” by Mark Doty

“A Display of Mackerel,” by Mark Doty  This poem is included as a supplemental poem in Structure & Surprise.  I’ve linked to it here because this link also contains a terrific reflection on the composition of the poem.  Of special note is the thrill Doty expresses when he discovers in his compositional process what become the poem’s major turns.

“A Green Crab’s Shell,” by Mark Doty

“Spring Song for Symplocarpus Foetida and Me,” by Alan Dugan (in Poems Seven: New and Complete Poetry (New York: Seven Stories, 2002), p. 362).

“The Rhodora,” by Ralph Waldo Emerson

“The Weeping Nautilus,” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

One of the poems discussed in the chapter on the emblem poem in Structure & Surprise is Oliver Wendell Holmes’s “The Chambered Nautilus.” Gilman’s poem offers a very different take on the “meaning” of a chambered nautilus.

And here is Evan Lavender-Smith on the irresistible seduction of a chambered nautilus:

I received a chambered nautilus for my 29th birthday. I have never before held an object in my hands which spoke so forcefully, LOOK AT ME, IDIOT (From Old Notebooks (Westland, MI: Dzanc Books, 2010), p. 130).

“Willow in Spring Wind: A Showing,” by Jorie Graham

“Rabbit,” by francine j. harris

“Piss Christ,” by Andrew Hudgins

An ekphrastic poem that refers to a fairly well-known work of art, this emblem poem does not need to offer a great deal of description. It offers some–by way of offering details of the ways by which the art was made–but not much. It moves quickly to meditation, which is ramped up in the second stanzas, and then torqued up in the final two lines.

“Notre Dame,” by Osip Mandelstam

“On a Drop of Dew,” by Andrew Marvell

“NOTH / ING / NESS” (from “Haiku Edge”), by Michael McClure

“The Naturalist’s Last Love Poem,” by Ashley Anna McHugh

“The Figure-Head,” by Herman Melville

“The Figure-Head” is what John Ciardi, one of the great theorists of the turn, would call a “truncated poem”–that is, it’s clearly an emblem poem (the figure-head represents a failing marriage), but it doesn’t need to need to add a stanza to make this connection clear.

“Grace,” by Nadine Meyer (in Literary Imagination 13.2 (2011), p. 187).

Meyer’s poem moves from the emblem to what the emblem in fact stands for (the dying mother) to what the emblem means, or conveying the emblem’s further resonance.  The image that inspired Meyer’s poem can be found here.

“Vestigial Bones,” by Rajiv Mohabir

“Political Reflection,” by Howard Nemerov

“Wintering,” by Paul Perry

Watch and listen to Perry read “Wintering” here.

“A Work of Artifice,” by Marge Piercy

“Reading a Large Serving Dish,” by Marie Ponsot (in Collected Poems (New York: Knopf, 2016): 272).

“Outside Thermalito,” by D. A. Powell

“The Tree,” by James Reaney (in The Tree (Toronto: Coach House, 1969)).

“In Tennessee I Found a Firefly,” by Mary Szybist

“The Waiting,” by Mary Szybist (in Granted (Farmington, Maine: Alice James Books, 2003): 45-6).

“The Poppy,” by Jane Taylor

“The Violet,” by Jane Taylor

“Flower in the Crannied Wall,” by Alfred Tennyson

“Sonnet for Minimalists,” by Mona Van Duyn

Dejection-to-elation, turned emblem.

“I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing,” by Walt Whitman

“A Measuring Worm,” by Richard Wilbur

To see some early emblem poems which involve visual representations, check out:

The English Emblem Book Project, from Penn State

Book of Emblems, by Andrea Alciato

For more emblem poems (though no visual representations), you might also read some more poems by Coleridge.  According to Richard Holmes, the editor of Coleridge’s Selected Poems from Penguin Classics, “Some of [Coleridge’s] most powerful and disturbing fragments are ’emblem’ poems, where there is a strong sense of menacing or forbidding meanings.  Here again the small or tell-tale image mysteriously implies some much larger concept.”  Holmes includes in his list of Coleridge’s emblematic fragments “A Sunset,” “A Dark Sky,” “The Tropic Tree,” “Psyche,” and “The World That Spidery Witch.

The following three poems are intentionally unsuccessful emblem poems.  This is clear in Fried’s poem.  Plath’s poem does not progress toward knowledge and the ease such knowing can provide, and it, in fact, states, finally, that it cannot progress in such a way.  The reflection at the end of Blake’s poem is intentionally about as careless as the action which gives rise to it.

“Noa-Noa,” by Michael Fried (in The Next Bend in the Road, p. 37).

“Winter Trees,” by Sylvia Plath

“The Fly,” by William Blake

Knowing about poetic structures, the patterns of turns in poems, does not only help one better understand (and perhaps appreciate) poems that clearly are written within a particular structural tradition, but it also helps one to engage more deeply poems that reference particular structural traditions.  Such is the case with the following poems, which refer significantly to the emblem structure without employing the emblem’s turn from observation to reflection.

“Object Permanence,” by Rae Armantrout

“Coyote, with Mange,” by Mark Wunderlich

(For commentary on how knowing about the emblem structure informs a reading of Wunderlich’s poem, click here, and check out the post “Emblem, with Mange.”)

“Reconstruction: An Emblem,” by Christina Pugh (in Restoration: Poems (Evanston, Illinois: TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press, 2008): 15).

“Sea Urchin,” by J. Allyn Rosser

17 responses

23 02 2009
Joanne Diaz

Dear Mike,

Bravo to you for this exciting blog project! If I may, I want to share a link that you might like:

The English Emblem Book Project at Penn State:

This site features emblem books from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, so it might pre-date the emblematic structures that you cover in your chapter in Structure & Surprise. Even so, the quality of the images is great, and the illustrations, especially for Whitney’s *A Choice of Emblemes,* are remarkable.

Best wishes,

24 02 2009
Mike Theune

Thanks for your kind words about the blog, Joanne!

And you’ve certainly pointed out another great resource for those interested in learning more about emblem poems. Thanks! I will update the “Emblem Structure” page to include a link to Penn State’s English Emblem Book Project.


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[…] example, I discuss Graham’s great poem “Prayer” in terms of its relation to the emblem poem tradition, a tradition in which poems turn from a description of a thing to a meditation on the meaning of […]

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[…] if they did not want to (almost everyone, however, did share at least once during the day).  For the emblem structure, I brought in two dozen Gustav Klimt posters and had everyone choose one, where they were to move […]

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[…] For more on emblem poems, click here. […]

12 05 2013
Matthew Jude Luzitano

Finally picked up my copy of Structure and Surprise last week! Very excited to go through the book. The chapter on emblem structure has been particularly helpful to me. Just wanted to thank you for all this hard work.

15 05 2013
Mike Theune

Terrific, Matthew! I hope you continue to find your exploration of the turn productive. Happy reading! And thanks for your kind words!

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