Ironic Structure

The ironic structure is a two-part structure which 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 ironic structure is discussed in detail in Structure & Surprise by Christopher Bakken.  Below are supplemental poems and discussion.

According to Bakken’s essay, Byron’s Don Juan exemplifies the use of this structure.  For more stanzas of Byron’s Don Juan (from Canto 1), click here.

For a good example of how Byron employs the ironic structure not only in each stanza but among stanzas, read stanzas XC-XCIV (a selection culminating in a stanza included in Structure & Surprise).  In these five stanzas, the young, love-sick Don Juan tries (unsuccessfully, but–at least for us readers–comically) to keep himself from fantasizing about his tutor Donna Julia by thinking about philosophy.

Here’s another poem which tries desperately (and ultimately unsuccessfully) to think about desire:

“Who will in fairest book of nature know…,” Sir Philip Sidney

And some other good examples:

“The Cathedral Is,” by John Ashbery

“We Were on the Terrace Drinking Gin and Tonics,” by John Ashbery

“Dusk,” by Rae Armantrout

Armantrout’s “Dusk” plays with Whitman’s “A noiseless, patient spider…,” discussed on this blog as a poem employing the metaphor-to-meaning structure.

For more on Armantrout’s use of the ironic structure, see Hank Lazer’s “Lyricism of the Swerve: The Poetry of Rae Armantrout” (in Lyric & Spirit: Selected Essays 1996-2008 (Richmond, CA: Omnidawn, 2008), pp. 95-126; and American Women Poets in the 21st Century: Where Lyric Meets Language, edited by Claudia Rankine and Juliana Spahr (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan, 2002), pp. 27-51).

“We Real Cool,” by Gwendolyn Brooks

“Wonderbread,” by Alfred Corn

“My Pain Keeps Me Regular,” by Edward Thomas Herrera

“Meditation on Ruin,” by Jay Hopler

“To Help the Monkey Cross the River,” by Thomas Lux

“When the War Is Over,” by W. S. Merwin

“How I Discovered Poetry,” by Marilyn Nelson

“A World of Light,” by John Reibetanz

In a twist on the ironic structure, the following two poems are so ironic that they go beyond their obvious initial irony to become hyper-ironic, or else (or is it that is?) naturalized and not ironic.

“Sonnet Reversed,” by Rupert Brooke

“The War Works Hard,” by Dunya Mikhail

12 responses

18 02 2009
Over a Seascape « Structure & Surprise

[…] The above is a wonderfully funny poem created via a collaboration between Kiron Fowler and Jessica Obernuefemann, two students I met and worked with on Monday while visiting the poetry classroom of the excellent Tom McCulley at Heartland Community College in order to discuss Structure & Surprise.  With its rising/falling, set-up/punch-line action, “Over a Seascape” is, of course, a fine example of the ironic structure. […]

28 07 2009
Poetry and Uncertainty, and the Turn « Structure & Surprise

[…] 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 […]

9 01 2011
Close Reading “Close Reading: Windows” « Structure & Surprise

[…] The turn in the final stanza of Philip Larkin’s “High Windows” is the major window-moment in the poem, the place where, according to Hirshfield, the poem “suddenly turns.”  (In Structure & Surprise, Christopher Bakken considers “High Windows” a poem employing an ironic structure.)   […]

19 02 2012
Six Approaches to Structuring a Poem « Structure & Surprise

[…] the ironic structure—the one exercise which everyone in both workshops shared with the group—I handed out a list of […]

1 02 2016
Poetic Turns in the Lyric Essay | Structure & Surprise

[…] Ironic Structure […]

25 05 2016
Major Turn A”head”! | Structure & Surprise

[…] Ironic Structure […]

7 07 2017
25 03 2018
“Beauty”–Full of Turns | Structure & Surprise

[…] Ironic Structure […]

30 05 2018
The Ink Dark Moon | Structure & Surprise

[…] Ironic Structure […]

16 06 2018
Saigyo’s Turns | Structure & Surprise

[…] Ironic Structure […]

28 04 2020
NaPoWriMo Quarantine Edition – Exercise 29 – A Dark Feathered Art

[…] of twist at the end that Cavafy uses (those of you who know your Poetic Turns should recognise an Ironic here), but try to do more than just give us a Me Good – Them Bad! […]

27 06 2022

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