Maureen N. McLane’s “Twisting and Turning”

30 03 2009


The turn is so rarely discussed in the conversation about contemporary American poetry that it’s always worth noting when the turn in fact does come up in that conversation.

The latest issue of American Poet (36 (Spring 2009)) contains one such new discussion: Maureen N. McLane’s “Twisting and Turning.”  This essay, subtitled “A Divagation Prompted by the Poets Forum Panel of November 8, 2008,” is a kind of round-up or encapsulation of the panel on “Twisting and Turning” (a panel featuring McLane, Ron Padgett, Robert Pinsky, Kay Ryan, and Susan Stewart) at the Academy of American Poets’ Poets Forum in New York.

On the one hand, there truly is much to like about this essay.  It draws attention to the turn, giving a feel for the great range of ideas and perspectives that must have arisen during the panel discussion.  And, more specifically, the essay offers some very good information; for example, it points to some poems that not only make turns but also refer to turns or the action of turning.  These poems include William Wordsworth’s “Surprised by joy…,” Frank Bidart’s “The Yoke,” and Bernadette Mayer’s “First turn to me….”  “Twisting and Turning” is a very good, occasional essay, worth the attention of anyone interested in the poetic turn.

However, on the other hand, the essay also shares a somewhat problematic trait with some other discussions of the turn: when discussed too broadly the turn, in fact, becomes too diffuse to be considered the active part of poems it really is.  For example, McLane writes:

“One could, of course, explore poetic turns at multiple levels: morphemic, lexical, phrasal, tropological, conceptual, structural, generic, transmedial.  We might consider how poetry turns away from or turns toward their various inheritances; how bilingual or multilingual poets turn their poems through various linguistic and semantic and cultural grids.  From a certain vantage, of course, there is nothing that is not a turn in poetry: The very word verse comes from versus, ‘turn’ in Latin.”

Of course, it certainly is the case that, defined so broadly, turns are everywhere in poetry, and that all of the issues and components in and among poems that McLane says are turns might in fact be labeled turns.  The problem with this, however, is that, defined this way, the turn, which is meant to mean so much, loses all of its specific meaning.  For example, directly following the above quote, the turn turns into one more discussion of form; McLane writes:

“(Let us defer for another essay the question of whether poetry = verse: obviously it doesn’t!  Or rather, let’s concede that the equation of poetry and verse has been vexed in English-language poetries for some two hundred years [see Wordsworth, even before Baudelaire].  Nevertheless.)”

“Twisting and Turning” begins by referencing the sonnet’s turn, which McLane calls “only the most conspicuous example of the formal and cognitive turns a poem may enact.”  But then it leaps out to consider, or rather mention, all the various kinds of turns there could potentially be in a poem, and the turn comes to mean everything, even formal verse.  However, while such a move is theoretically justifiable (and, indeed, very likely was necessitated by the essay’s drive to include a variety of perspectives and takes on the turn), it should be noted that this leap also leaps over much of the detailed work there is to do to think about and bring to light the kinds of turning specifically focused on in Structure & Surprise, the kind of rhetorical and dramatic turn that T.S. Eliot calls “one of the most important means of poetic effect since Homer.”

As I discuss in my own American Poet essay, we need to try to be more specific when it comes to defining and discussing turns.  I think we more fully give the turn its due when we consider as a turn the structural turns featured in so many poems.  Somewhat paradoxically, this limits the conversation about turns, but in this way it also focuses and concentrates the conversation, making it potentially even more helpful and productive: in this way we can, for example, see that there are specific (if under-discussed) trends and traditions in terms of how poems turn, and we can appreciate poems for the ways they deploy and invent their structural twists and turns.  In this way, the turn becomes a truly well-known quantity, an unavoidable one, one which then can be further problematized and investigated.

Kudos to Maureen McLane for a lively discussion of the turn, one which gives anyone interested in turns much to appreciate and to think over.