‘don’t know what to call it’: Robert Hass’s Elision of the Poetic Turn

20 06 2017


I shall have to disregard the musical structure of poetry: metre, stanza-form, rhyme, alliteration, quantity, and so on. I neglect these without too much regret: criticism has paid them an altogether disproportionate amount of attention….I am going to talk, primarily, about other sorts of structure in lyrical poetry.

  —Randall Jarrell, “Levels and Opposites: Structure in Poetry” (Georgia Review 50.4 (1996): 697-713)

Thought begins in disagreement, the terms of which demand to be articulated.

—Robert Hass (225)

Robert Hass’s A Little Book on Form: An Exploration into the Formal Imagination of Poetry in fact is a book about the importance of the poetic turn. Though odd, often careless and confounding, it is clearly a book (like some others, including Helen Vendler’s Poems, Poets, Poetry) that acknowledges the primacy of structure (understood as the pattern of a poem’s turning) over form.

In the book’s opening sentences Hass indicates his approach. His book will not be like typical books on form, which take “form to mean traditional rules previous to composition—rules for the formation of the sonnet, for example, or the villanelle” (1). While “useful,” such information “didn’t seem [to Hass] to have much to do with the way the formal imagination actually operates in poetry. It does not, for starters, address the formal principles, or impulses, that underlie the great majority of poetry in English and American literatures not written in these conventional forms” (1).

Hass offers some initial definitions of form:

  • One meaning of form that has currency has the meaning “traditional form,” which usually means the use of rhyme and meter.
  • Another meaning is that it refers to one of a number of traditional kinds of poems that apply particular rules of composition. As in “the sonnet is a form.”
  • Another meaning is “external shape.”
  • Another is “the arrangement and relationship of basic elements in a work of art, through which it produces a coherent whole.” (3)

While such “usages” are “common” and “useful,” according to Hass, “none of them capture the nature of the formal imagination—the intuitions that shape a work of art—or the pleasure form gives to writer and readers” (3). For Hass, “[c]loser might be:

  • The way the poem embodies the energy of the gesture of its making. (3)

This virtually mystical fifth option, though, remains merely suggestive—it in fact will go essentially unexplored by Hass. Hass actually largely conceives of form in the terms he presents in his fourth bullet point. He’s interested in basic elements, “the essential expressive gestures…inside forms” (2). And these gestures are best described as structures. Again and again, Hass will actively set aside issues of rhyme, meter, and external shape in order take apart poems to reveal the arrangements of and the relationships among their basic parts, their structural components, separated (and joined) by turns.

This certainly is the case when Hass explores the sonnet, a main dwelling-place for the turn in poetic forms. (For more on the sonnet and the turn, click here, and here, and here.) Hass understands the importance of the turn, or the volta, for the sonnet. In fact, the turn just may be the sonnet’s main attraction. He states:

Amazing the range of the work in the form. There really isn’t, as far as I know, a good study of whatever it is, formal or psychological, that has made the form—in all the European languages—so persistent and compelling. It might, as Peter Sacks has suggested, be the single gaze and the proportions of the face. But that doesn’t account for the importance of the turn. 8/6: say it long, say it a little shorter. In the Italian sonnet with the more musical twining rhymes in the sestet: say it, then sing it. Or say it and sing the opposite, or the qualification. And the Shakespearean sonnet, which usually has the strong turn, doesn’t have the formal change in the rhyme scheme, so if it has an 8/6 structure, it also has a 4/4/4/2 structure: say it, say it, contradict or qualify it, nail it….It may be something in the turn that echoes the process that we experience as constituting our subjectivity… (185)

Hass qualifies this statement a bit, noting that there are “descriptive” sonnets that “have no turn at all” (186). However, while Hass is correct, this in no way compromises the central place of the volta in terms of the significance of the sonnet (in the sonnet, the lack of a volta is significant), for Hass, this is a minor note: in Hass’s extensive discussion of the sonnet (pp. 121-186), which involves numerous references to the turn, he devotes a single sentence to the fact that there exist sonnets without turns.

The turn also is what gives power to two-line forms. Hass states, “[T]he two-line poem is based on a human pattern of exchange: question-and-answer, call-and-response. This was one of the basic forms of West African folk culture and both the work song and the spiritual evolved from it” (28). The two-line poems Hass provides follow this structure, turning from question to answer, from call to response by which, as with Bantu combinations, in which “[t]he first singer produces an image; the second supplies another,” a non-narrative, riddle-like “internal comparison” is created (29). (For further examples of the question-and-answer structure, click here. For further thinking on two-line poems, click here.) Hass points out that “[t]his is basically the principle upon which many haiku [though typically three-lined] are based…[a]nd it is…the basis of the couplets in the Persian ghazal” (28). In fact, when discussing the ghazal and its couplets, Hass quickly dismisses the importance of meter, stating, “The ghazal was intricately metrical in ways that we don’t need to go into” (a remarkable claim in a book about form!), and he turns to discuss internal structure: “In practice, though the couplets are discrete, they are linked by theme, and the subtlest of them proceed almost like a set of Bantu combinations, linked line by line, couplet by couplet, through internal comparison” (42).

Structure also is the defining characteristic of the Chinese quatrain called the chueh-chu. According to Hass, “The Chinese quatrain was one of the great literary forms of the Tang dynasty. It was called the chueh-chu, or ‘curtailed verse.’ It was a form of ‘regulated verse,’ or chin-t’i-shih, in which the pattern of tones followed certain rules” (103). Hass continues, citing Arthur Cooper: “‘…the fourfold structure [of this particular quatrain] has something at once like a little sonata-form and like the composition of a painting. The sonata form of these poems is reflected in the Chinese names of each of the lines: the first is called “Raising,” that is, the introduction of the theme; the second is called “Forwarding,” that is, development; the third, “Twisting,” or introduction of a new theme,[sic]; and the fourth “Concluding”’” (103).

Here is such a poem by Du Fu:

My rain-soaked herbs: some still sparse, some lush.
They freshen the porch and pavilion with their color.
These waste mountains are full of them. But what’s what?
I don’t know the names and the root shapes are terrifying. (104)

Throughout its supposed discussions of form A Little Book on Form in fact attends much more closely to structure. This is additionally apparent when, approximately mid-way through Little Book on Form, Hass turns from discussing form to discuss genre. Fascinatingly this is the point at which Hass’s interest in the turn really begins to reveal itself: genre is marked mainly by patterns of turns. Hass begins “A Note on Genre” by showing how much he wants to be done with form, as it is traditionally conceived:

1. So that’s it for poetic forms. Four hundred and fifty years of the sonnet, occasional sestinas and villanelles, the rarer occasional pantoum. One could add the ballad—short narrative poems, traditionally in four-line stanzas. And a couple more recent English language adaptation [sic]—the ghazal (see Chapter 2) from Persian and Arabic, the blues from the American vernacular.

2. Much richer in the literary tradition is the idea of kinds of poems, poems with particular subject matter and/or particular angles of approach that don’t, however, specify their length or a particular metrical patter or rhyme scheme. (197)

After one is done reeling from the fact that it’s a book on form that has the sentence “So that’s it for poetic forms” in it, one can then start to trace Hass’s particular interest: internal structure. Hass observes that “the impulse of prayer seems to be very near the origin of the lyric,” and prayer, he notes, has “[a] transparent structure. Praise, then ask” (202). Toward the end of this brief transitional section, Hass states, “Thinking about lyric, about the formal imagination working its way from the beginning of a poem to the end, one can turn to the work of genre, to the shapes of thought and arcs of feeling in the traditional kinds” (205). And this clearly is something other than form as traditionally conceived; Hass states, “So the rhythms of formal shaping in a poem are always working at at least a couple of levels—that of prosody, numbers falling through numbers to create the expressive effect of a piece, and that of—don’t know what to call it—thematic development, the way the poem makes its trajectory, creates its sense of movement (or doesn’t) from beginning to end, some of which is apt to get prompts from generic expectations, conscious or not” (205-206).

Hass may not know what to call it, but we do: structure, understood as the pattern of a poem’s turns. Nowhere is this clearer than in Hass’s discussion of the ode, the first genre to which he turns. Hass emphasizes the ode’s traditional three-part structure: Pindar’s “strophe, antistrophe, and epode,” or, in Jonson’s version, “turn, counterturn, and stand” (210). And, in what we should recognize as a move typical of Hass, he plays down metrical form in the process. While “[t]he strophe and antistrophe had the same stanza pattern, and the epode a different one,” that doesn’t matter much because “[i]n translation the three-part metrical pattern isn’t evident”—“but,” Hass adds, “the basic formal pattern is” (210). For Hass, the ode’s “formal pattern” is its three-part structure: “The clue to the formal structure—what gets echoed in the history of the ode—is the way they begin in a place, and then take their audience on a journey—the entertaining stories in the middle part of the after-dinner speech [the typical occasion of original Pindaric odes]—and then come to their graceful conclusion” (211). In the section called “Reading the Ode” (223-291), Hass consistently breaks down the odes into their constitutive parts, parts separated by turns. Sometimes, there are three parts (231, 240, 250-252, 256), once five (242), and twice “several” (244, 278).

Hass seems to be particularly taken with the pattern of the romantic ode. Derived in part from the three-part structure of the seventeenth-century meditative poem (which itself, as described in Louis Martz’s The Meditative Poem, has a three-part structure: “Begin with a scene from the story of the man-god and his suffering. Take the story in, focusing on its details and their meaning, and then return yourself to the scene fully in possession of it” (212)), the romantic ode “begins with [a] scene….Then the poem takes you on what one critic, M. H. Abrams, describes as ‘an inward journey’ where some work of transformation is done, and then returns you to the place where you began, with that place altered by the process” (211). (For more on this structure, which M. H. Abrams calls the “descriptive-meditative” structure, click here.) But, regardless of the particular kind of ode, odes consist of moving parts. Hass concludes his discussion of the ode this way:

The takeaway: Out of litany and prayer came the praise poem and endless lyric variations on the praise poem. In their formal development these poems have a beginning, middle, and end; an inescapable (unless you are Gertrude Stein) three-part structure. The beginning part is often initiated by desire or dissent. The middle section is almost infinitely variable. It can proceed by narrative, by argument, by association, by elaboration of a metaphor, by a mix of these. In postmodern practice development often proceeds by braiding and disparity, by disruption and non sequitur. An ode can have few or many parts. It can attempt to name, or possess, or stand at the right distance from, in the right relation to, even veer away, from the spoken or unspoken object of desire or imagination of value that initiates it, and its third and final section is apt to get to, or point toward, or try to instantiate, or ask a favor from that object or power. (Which is apt to be, at least implicitly, the power of poetry, or the action of the imagination of which poetry is an instance.) (290-291)

For Hass, the turn is also at the heart of the genre of elegy. In the sections of his book that addresses elegy, Hass draws heavily on Peter Sacks’s The English Elegy. (Sacks happens to be one of the great thinkers about the poetic turn. To find a link to Sacks’s lecture on a type of turn he calls the “dolphin’s turn,” a lecture introduced by Robert Hass, and a reflection on that lecture, click here.) For Sacks, the turn is at the heart of the elegy: as Hass cites, “‘Daphne’s “turning” into a tree matches Apollo’s “turning” from the object of his love to a sign of her, the laurel bough. It is the substitutive turn or act of troping that any mourner—perhaps that language—must perform’” (296). As he attends to Milton’s “Lycidas,” Shelley’s “Adonais,” and Lowell’s “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” Hass notes that “[p]artly [he] will be tracking Peter Sacks’s reading of the poems in his The English Elegy,” but in doing so, “[w]e are tracking old, inherited formal structures for surviving and transforming the kinds of devastating loss that can sicken the roots of life” (303). The next nearly 20 pages track the sections and turns of these poems.

After the sections on elegy, there’s some more to A Little Book on Form, including brief sections (about ten pages / section) on satire (325-334); georgic (335-343); variable stanzas and organic form (345-352); difficult forms (353-363); collage, abstraction, Oulipo, and procedural poetics (365-379); mixed forms (381-384); the prose poem (385-391); metrical stress (393-398); how to scan a poem (399-411); and how free verse works (413-429). However, as the brevity of these sections (and others: the section on blank verse is six pages long (115-120); the sestina and villanelle are given a total of nine pages (187-195); and the pantoum, slipped into the sestina and villanelle section, receives one page’s worth of attention) reveal: this is just clean up, just touching on some final topics, mere formalities. The real work of the book was already done, and that work was the work of troping our attention from metrical form to structural turning.


While for me, and perhaps for many of the readers of this blog, it is incredibly interesting to witness how much the turn intrigues Hass, I want to be clear: I do not recommend this book.

At all levels, it is considerably careless. Even if we allow, as Hass notes, that this book “began as a series of notes and reading lists for a seminar [he] was invited to teach at the University of Iowa Writers Workshop in the winter of 1995,” and so that the “[t]he notes are intended to be suggestive, not comprehensive” (1-2), it is still very problematic. It is poorly edited. Grammatical errors abound, and often partial and/or incorrect citations (David Mikics co-authored The Art of the Sonnet with Stephen Burt; Phillis Levin edited The Penguin Book of the Sonnet, not Phyllis) float about. Twice, M. H. Abrams great essay “Structure and Style in the Greater Romantic Lyric” is called “Style and Structure…” (214, 253).

Hass states, “I’m very much aware that [my notes] come from what I happen to have read or be reading and that other readers will bring other lists and perhaps better example drawn from other traditions to the issues of craft discussed here” (2). But too many times A Little Book on Form reveals what feels like an almost active disengagement with its subjects. In a section called “Reading the Sonnet” (133-186) Hass offers a number of sonnets to be perused, but he does not make clear why he’s offered these and not others (including anything from Astrophil and Stella, a glaring omission near the core of a tradition with which Hass is familiar). A Little Book on Form also contains a number of claims that, seeing them in print, print being prepared to become a book, should have given anyone, let alone someone as smart as Robert Hass, some pause. For example, Hass writes, “People kept experimenting with the [sonnet] form though it is hard to name a decisive instance after Yeats’s ‘Leda and the Swan’ in 1923 and Frost’s ‘Design’ in 1936” (130). This is preposterous: see The Reality Street Book of Sonnets. Additionally, of the villanelle, Hass states, “It is a form that has produced at least four quite powerful poems”; they are, as Hass recalls them, E. A. Robinson’s “House on the Hill,” Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” Theodore Roethke’s “The Waking,” and Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” (194). Hass is right about these poems, but it is alarming that he won’t (or can’t) name another out of this tight, well-know group. (Surprisingly, Hass’s range of reference to contemporary poets and scholars seems to be severely limited. The avant-garde barely seems to exist in A Little Book on Form, and there are strong links only to work by folk from particular environs familiar to Hass: the Bay area and greater Harvard, with a tiny outpost in Iowa City).

Replete with reading lists, Hass too-often relies on a reader’s willingness to do additional reading to collect insight rather than offer it himself. For example, Hass states, “The best way to get a sense of the four-line stanza in English is to pick up an anthology and read through it” (89). Such instruction is given or implied numerous times throughout the book. This level of disengagement is particularly disappointing when it comes to Hass’s unwillingness to enter into scholarly debate with other thinkers. When discussing the ghazal, Hass notes that “[b]y 2000 the Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali had objected to these freehanded appropriations of the classic form and published, by way of protest, an anthology of poems, Ravishing Disunities: Real Ghazals in English, which follow the rhyme scheme and something like the meter of the classic Muslim form” (45). However, though he offers a smattering of examples of “real ghazals” (two couplets from three poems), Hass seems totally unconcerned about the issue of formal correctness—a shocking stance in a book (purportedly—though, as we now know, not really) about form. And nor does Hass engage Stephen Burt’s skepticism about the sestina. As Hass notes, in a 2012 essay called “Sestina! Or, The Fate of the Idea of Form,” Burt “reads the phenomenon [of “a recent explosion of sestinas”] as a product of the teaching of creative writing and as a symptom of ‘diminished hope for the art,’ a way ‘to emphasize technique, and to disavow at once tradition, organicism, and social and spiritual efficacy’” (193). Whoa. So, what does Hass think about this? We have no idea: we’re instructed to read Burt’s essay, and many of the sestinas he lists (Hass doesn’t make his own), and judge for ourselves (193). This disengagement reaches its apotheosis in the book when, in his brief discussion of satire Hass can’t even be bothered to consider its structural elements. Instead he states, “One would have to do more study of Horace and Juvenal and the Hebrew prophets than I’ve done to answer the question of whether there is a pattern of development, an inner logic to the shape of satire and prophecy like the ones one can make out in the ode and the elegy. It would seem that satire’s natural form would be the list, the bill of particulars” (328). And that’s that.

But, of course, the real, deep disengagement results in nothing that is in the book but, rather, is a result of vital material having been left out. Hass seems to think that nothing of interest has been written about the poetic structure and its turn. But there has been a great deal of high-quality, insightful conversation about the turn. Jorie Graham has some very interesting takes on the turn. In fact, I was introduced to the turn by Graham in the fall of 1994, when I was just starting my studies as an MFA student in poetry at the University of Iowa–that is, the semester before Hass taught his first course on forms there. (A brief reflection on Graham’s thinking about the turn, and about what I learned about the turn, at Iowa can be found here.) And even if we focus solely on the sonnet’s volta, there are Paul FussellChristina Pugh, and—oh, yes—Dante. What is perhaps deeply disappointing for me about Hass’s book is that it makes it seem as though there is no conversation about the volta, or, more broadly, the turn. Therefore, Hass gets stuck. He doesn’t seem to have a language, or a way to think more deeply into poetry via the turn. His book suffers greatly because of it.

The penultimate paragraph of A Little Book on Form recounts this story:

Stanley Kunitz saying there were three ways a poem moves: in a straight line from A to B, in a circle beginning with A and passing through various place [sic] and coming back to A, or by braiding two, three, even five elements in such a way that by the end their relation to each other becomes clear. And I said, “What about pointillism or a Calder mobile, where elements just hang there in relation to each other or not, the connection unstated?” And Stanley, “Yes, that would be a fourth way.” “Or a list,” I said, “that would just be A A A A.” “Yes, yes,” said Stanley, getting a little weary. (428)

If only A Little Book on Form had been restructured so that it started here, so that it could have ended someplace much more revealing and surprising.

From Tania Runyan’s How to Write a Poem

13 05 2016

A switch can be a sensory detail that socks a reader. It can be a sound that echoes long after the reader has put the book down. Or it can be a “turn” in structure that sparks an insight no reader could have predicted. In his essay “Poetic Structure and Poetic Form: A Necessary Differentiation,” Michael Theune defines the turn as “a significant shift in the poem’s rhetorical progress.” In other words, the poem’s line of thought shifts into new territory. Theune goes on to discuss how a poem’s structure can facilitate these turns. And “structure” should not be seen as a scary word, for it “is more than logic; it organizes and encourages a poem’s leaps and landings, it arrives at places at once prepared-for yet seemingly unexpected.”

Preparing for the unexpected. You, poet, should be surprised by your own work. And you can work toward those surprises.

–Tania Runyan, How to Write a Poem: Based on the Billy Collins Poem “Introduction to Poetry”

What a treat, to find thinking about the turn making its way more generally into the teaching of poetry–terrific!

Fitting, that it occur in a book inspired by Collins’s “Introduction to Poetry,” a poem, like so many of Collins’s poems, focused on skillful turning. Fitting, too, that it is featured in a book by Tania Runyan, a poet who regularly deploys vital turns in her own work–check out the significant and complex turning in her poem “The Bee Box.”

Upcoming Workshop on the Turn

1 02 2016


In Denver on March 5? Want to learn more about and even try your hand at some poetic turns? Sign up for “Poetic Turns,” a day-long workshop led by Lynn Wagner.

Here’s the workshop description:

In this craft-centered class, we will explore ways to change direction using rhetorical moves and poetic structures. We’ll make lists with a twist, become ironic, switch it up halfway through and be concessional—not confessional. Inspired by Michael Theune’s Structure & Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns, a book recommended by Kim Addonizio on her visit to Lighthouse, the craft shack is the perfect place to make and play—exercises, experiments, and mini workshops. Poets and prose writers both welcome. Get ready for a revolution.

Lynn Wagner is the right person to lead such a workshop. She’s expert with the turn–just check out her poem “Black Dog / White Snow.” And then read more of her work on her website.

Turn, turn, turn!


The Hidden Turn in X. J. Kennedy’s Introduction to Poetry

20 01 2016

As I argue here, there is a necessary difference between poetic form and poetic structure.

Though I did not make this case in the linked-to essay, it also is the case that discussions of form often hide discussions of structure (by “structure,” I mean specifically the pattern of a poem’s turning). Something like this happens in Helen Vendler’s Poems, Poets, Poetry: An Introduction and Anthology, and I write about this here.

This also happens in X. J. Kennedy’s An Introduction to Poetry (1966). The first two paragraphs of chapter 10, “Form,” state:

Form, as a general idea, denotes the shape or design of a thing as a whole, the configuration of its parts. Among its connotations is that of order made from chaos: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void…”

Like irony, the word form has been favored in literary criticism with several meanings. This chapter will deal with five of these: (1) form as pattern of sound and rhythm, (2) form as a shape that meets the eye, (3) flexible form or free verse, (4) form in the sense of a genre, or particular kind of poem, and (5) form as the structure of a poem–the ways in which its materials are organized. (164)

Though one of the five kinds of form, the fifth, “the structure of a poem,” clearly stands apart. Kennedy notes, “Within a poem, this organization of materials other than stresses, sounds, and visual shapes is the kind of form called structure” (191). And, when one examines the discussion of structure, it quickly becomes clear that this section very much is about structure as the pattern turns in a poem. After acknowledging that all poems have their own unique structure, and that, therefore, “brief descriptions of the structures of poems can be no more than rough sketches,” Kennedy notes, “but certain types of structure are encountered frequently” (191). Among the at least six brief descriptions he offers, five describe kinds of turns:

A poem, like many a piece of expository prose, may open with a general statement, which it then illustrates and amplifies by particulars, as does Mrs. Browning’s sonnet beginning “I tell you, hopeless grief is passionless” (p. 185) (191).

Or it might move from details to more general statement, as does Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (p. 321), presenting details of the urn’s pattern and arriving at the conclusion, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” (191).

A poem may set two elements in parallel structure:… [Here, Kennedy offers Alexander Pope’s “Epigram Engraved on the Collar of a Dog Which I Gave to His Royal Highness” as an example.] (191)

A poem may also set two elements in an antithesis, as the two halves of Robert Frost’s short poem quoted at the beginning of this book: “We dance round in a ring and suppose, / But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.” (Not all poems containing parallels or antitheses need be so brief; and some contain other things in addition to statements set side by side. (192)

If a poems tells a story, it may build to a crisis or turning point in the action, as might a novel or play. (192)

Noting that “[t]hese are just a few kinds of structure possible,” Kennedy then performs a close reading of Robert Herrick’s “Divination by a Daffodil” to identify and describe the many kinds of turns in the poem, “a poem containing–like most poems–more than one kind” (192):

This poem is arranged in two halves, bound together by a metaphor. In the first three lines, the speaker sees a drooping daffodil; in the last three, he foresees his own eventual drooping in like manner. There is another relationship, too: the second half of the poem explains the first half, it specifies “what I must be.” Furthermore, the last three lines make a one-two-three listing of the stages of dying and being buried. There is also in these lines a progression of narrative: the events take place one after another. (192)

Asking “How do we look for structure?,” Kennedy suggests fourteen “methods of approach to a poem” to help one find a poem’s structure (192). While he notes that such work to newly approach a poem must also entail a return to and a more deeply informed rereading of the poem, Kennedy is clear about the kind of ingress structural awareness gives to understanding, stating that applying such knowledge to a poem “can be a means of entrance into the most difficult of poems, whether conventional in form or flexible, whether an epic or an epigram” (193).

Of course, I admire greatly Kennedy’s work with structure, and his sense that structure is something significantly different from form. However, of course I also wish that Kennedy would have gone further and released structure’s turning from the discussion of form. I wish Kennedy might have gone so far as to give structure its own chapter, as it received in John Ciardi’s How Does a Poem Mean? (which I discuss here). Such focus is, alas, extremely rare, but it shouldn’t be: it’s simply a matter of being clear about what the vital elements of poetry in fact are, about what we really do, in fact, value in poems. Great turning certainly is one of those values.

Writing a Metaphor-to-Meaning Poem

8 05 2012

Though in my intro to poetry writing class I typically do not focus on the turn until the second half of the semester (there is so much to cover prior to this: creative process, artistic recklessness, the poetic leap, the many means to create surprise, etc), I recently have taken to providing students with an exercise focused on the turn in the first day of class.

After performing the rituals of the beginning of the semester (taking roll, handing out and discussing the syllabus, etc), I introduce my students to the metaphor-to-meaning structure.  We examine a couple of key examples (often Whitman’s clear “A noiseless, patient spider” and Rod Smith’s wild “Ted’s Head”)—I describe the metaphor-to-meaning structure, and I ask students to locate and explain the turn, which they can, and do.  We then examine a handful of metaphor-to-meaning poems in which the turn reveals that the metaphor was meant to stand for or say something about poetry, or the poem, or that poet.  Baudelaire’s “The Albatross” and Zbigniew Herbert’s “The Hen” work very well for this.  We take some time, explore and appreciate these poems, and then I give my students their assignment: write a poem like these—write a poem that opens with a metaphor and closes by revealing that the metaphor (somehow) relates to poetry, poems, or the figure of the poet.  The main bit of advice I give my students is to try to come up with a description of something very different from poetry to serve as the metaphor—much of the fun of reading a metaphor-to-meaning poem about poetry is the surprise that comes with finding out that, in fact, it is in some way about poetry.

This, of course, seems like a lot to give students, especially on the first day.  However, perhaps because it’s the beginning of the semester and everyone is excited to get underway, and/or because students want to begin to describe their orientation to poetry, and/or because, in fact, I keep this a low-stakes assignment (due the next class meeting, in which it is read but not workshopped—if students want to workshop it, they can later in the semester), and/or because no one has yet given such demanding assignments, my students typically have taken this assignment and run with it, and they’ve made some very nice poems as a result.

Here are two student poems that ended up fitting the metaphor-to-meaning structure perfectly.  Yet, even though these poems closely engage the structure, they do so in very different ways.  With the metaphoric status of the blister(-as-poem) remaining a mystery until the end, Anjelica Rodriguez’s “Blister” makes a beautiful kind of surprising sense.  However, the turn in Stephen Whitfield’s “Maturity” is more sudden, more shocking—it resonates with what Rachel Zucker calls the epiphanic structure.



by Anjelica Rodriguez


You think only of the pain,

When there is only healing.


And now you know how it feels

To write a poem.





by Stephen Whitfield


Shining vaguely under the water,

She is like the ghost I claimed to see in the attic

Swimming in circles she will never understand


She cannot sit still

She cannot close her eyes

She is looking for something anonymous and vital


Something absurd and perfect

It catches her eye and she ascends like a raptured priest

Gasping, fighting an inconceivable pull


She is alive again only when released

Already semi-desperate to fight it again


I miss the urgency of my first poems.



Some students used the metaphor-to-meaning structure as more of a launching pad.  They ended up creating strong poems, but poems that, in the end, are not actually metaphor-to-meaning poems.  Brittany Gonio’s “My Kind of Poetry” ended up as more of a cliché-and-critique poem.  And I’m frankly not sure what to call Colleen O’Connor’s “Where We Sleep.”  While it clearly is in dialogue with the metaphor-to-meaning structure, it is not, strictly speaking, a metaphor-to-meaning poem.  But, of course, in the end this does not matter—what matters is that it, like the other poems gathered here, is a thrilling, engaging poem.


My Kind of Poetry

by Brittany Gonio


My kind of poetry

is not an ornate object

on display in an upper class suburban home.

It is not the family jewels

hidden away in a safety deposit box,

for which the children

have only a false appreciation.

My poetry will never cradle me

like goose feathered bedspreads

and waterbed mattresses,

nor will it be the pillow talk

my lover whispers to me

(whether his intention be from his heart

or his groin).

It is not a hospital recovery room

with extended visiting hours

and the promise of being

“just like brand new”

in a couple of days.


My poetry is a boxing match

where I never have to look

to the jumbotron to channel

the intensity in my chaotically

coordinated opponent.

Every punch that grazes only air

depletes my resolve and loses support

of my knees.

Every jab met with hard muscle

sends a surge of endorphins

through my knuckles and veins.

I flit through the entirety

of the human spectrum of emotion

in the rounds between bell chimes,

and leave the ring

swallowing tears,

grinning through migraines.


My poetry breaks me


and I,

like a teenage lover,

consistently return to it,

because I am married to it

in a way that has nothing to do

with religion

or income laws,

but in that

“bigger than yourself”

tidal wave revelation.

My poetry has made me

an adrenaline junkie;

I dread building up tolerance,

fear calluses that will hinder sharp stings,

loathe the body’s natural instinct

to protect itself.

For I yearn to sustain

and possess

the awe of aftershocks

each morning as

my fingers glide over

word-shaped bruises,

and chart muscles and flesh

I didn’t know

could feel.




Where We Sleep

by Colleen O’Connor


In the field behind his childhood home,

He buried two dogs,

A baby bird,

A stray cat,

The fish he wouldn’t flush,

A few chewed up toys,

And the rabbit

He never got to name.


It’s been thirty years.

In a different house,

A different dog skitters on the wood floors.

It growls at the rumbling washing machine,

Sleeps between him and the woman

Who reminds him of his mother.


He comes back to the field sometimes,

When the woman is at work and the dog has been fed

And the new backyard feels too small.


In the silence, the prairie grass mumbles,

Shifts in the wind,

Soft as the belly of a sleeping bear.


In the desk beside his end table,

He buried his poems.


He pulls them out sometimes, years later,

Once the woman is asleep and the dogs have been dead for years

And the bed feels too big.


In the silence, she mumbles,

Shifts in her sleep,

A shape in the shadows.


Under the light of his end table,

He flips the pages,

Unearths six girls,

One man,

A year in Amsterdam,

A tour with the coast guard,

Four bouts of depression,

And the daughter

He never got to name.


He holds the poems gently,

Like baby birds.


Tiny coffins, they are strangely light

For how much they hold.



If you like the poems you see here, I hope you’ll give this assignment a try.

For a variant of this assignment, see “Extended Metaphor as Ars Poetica” in Tom C. Hunley’s The Poetry Gymnasium: 94 Proven Exercises to Shape Your Best Verse (30-33).  In this assignment, Hunley suggests simply creating an extended metaphor (using anything that’s not poetry) and then calling the poem “Poetry” or “Ars Poetica.”  A kind of meaning-to-metaphor poem, which can have great result, as well.


My thanks to Anjelica, Stephen, Brittany, and Colleen for granting me permission to use their poems.

Turn, Turn, Turn

10 03 2012

The turn stars in three of my recent print publications.  Here they are…

“Raising the Net” appears in Spoon River Poetry Review 36.2 (Summer/Fall 2011).  “Raising the Net” is a review-essay that uses Christina Pugh’s ideas about “sonnet thought” to consider the fate of the turn in some contemporary books of sonnets, including The Reality Street Book of Sonnets (a glorious mixed bag), Iteration Nets (in terms of turns: there are none), Nick Demske (interesting, and problematic), and Severance Songs (pretty great).

I state in “Raising the Net” that “I revise Robert Frost’s idea that writing free verse is like ‘playing tennis with the net down.’  Writing formal sonnets, it turns out, is not too difficult; it’s the writing of sonnets without great turns that’s akin to a netless game.  In contrast, crafting sonnets with an eye toward their turns as well as a critical approach that can account for them not only raises the net but also raises the bar on what we expect from sonnets.”

The Shadow of Sirius: A Critical Conversation” appears in Until Everything Is Continuous Again: American Poets on the Recent Work of W. S. Merwin, edited by Jonathan Weinert and Kevin Prufer (Seattle, WA: WordFarm, 2012).  “The Shadow of Sirius: A Critical Conversation” is an essay I co-authored with poet-critic Mark Halliday in which Mark and I debate the merit of Merwin’s latest book of poems–Mark: generally against; me, strongly for.

As I prepared to write my portion of the essay, it became clear to me that Merwin was a great poet of the surprising turn.  Though, of course, I make my case for this claim more fully in the published essay, a preview of my argument can be found here.

“Other Arrangements: The Vital Turn in Poetry Writing Pedagogy” appears in Beyond the Workshop.  “Other Arrangements” is, in large part, a friendly amendment to Tom C. Hunley’s excellent Teaching Poetry Writing: A Five-Canon Approach.  In his book, Hunley argues 1) that we need to get beyond the workshop as a core pedagogical method for teaching poetry writing, and 2) that one way to do this is to orient teaching toward the five canons of rhetoric: invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery.

I contribute to Hunley’s argument by arguing that strong consideration of the turn should be a key part of the discussion of the second canon, arrangement.  I wrote a little on this here, though, again, the published essay is much more complete.

It feels good to get more thought about the vital turn out into the world.  My thanks to my insightful and generous editors–Kirstin Hotelling Zona, Jonathan Weinert, Kevin Prufer, and Paul Perry–for allowing me the opportunity share my ideas, and for helping to make my writing and thinking on behalf of these ideas as strong as possible.

The Turn in A Poet’s Craft

6 03 2012

Cover Image for A Poet's Craft

Annie Finch’s A Poet’s Craft: A Comprehensive Guide to Making and Sharing Your Poetry is now out.  It’s a big (almost 700-pages!) compendium that combines the genres of textbook, poetry guide, and guide to poetic forms.  It’s totally worth getting because it contains so much: great discussion, exercises, and poems.  It’s wide-ranging and insightful.

And I’m happy to report that Structure & Surprise makes a couple of appearances in it.  Structure & Surprise is included in “A Poet’s Bookshelf: For Further Reading,” the lone book listed under “Syntax and Rhetoric.”  Additionally, Structure & Surprise makes an appearance at the end of the chapter called “Syntax and Rhetorical Structure: Words in Order and Disorder,” in a section called “Rhetorical Structure and Strategy.”

In this section, Finch writes, “Every time you write a poem, and probably before you even begin, you make a myriad of even more fundamental choices about its rhetorical stance and structure.  Many of these choices are unconscious, based on ideas of ‘what a poem is’ that you have absorbed long before.  To make these choices conscious, at least once in a while, can be refreshing and even eye-opening.”  Finch then offers a list of questions to ask regarding a poem’s rhetorical structure and strategy, the last of which asks, “And finally, what are the rhetorical turns taken in the poem?  How does the poem shape itself so that, when one has finished reading, one feels the poem is over, that something has happened, that something has changed?”

And Finch continues:

“For example, Michael Theune’s book Structure and Surprise describes nine kinds of rhetorical turns, the most important of which are the ironic turn, the dialectical turn, and the descriptive turn.  In a poem using the ironic turn, the second part of the poem (which can be any length, from half the poem to just a line or two) undercuts or alters what has come before, like the punch line of a joke.  In a poem using the dialectical turn, the first part of the poem sets up one voice or attitude, and the second offers a very different tone of voice or perspective (the ‘turn’ in the sonnet is often of this type).  In a poem using the descriptive turn, the speaker describes a scene, object, or memory, and then turns to meditate on its meaning.”

I hope you’ll check out A Poet’s Craft.  And I hope that anyone reading A Poet’s Craft will look further into the possibilities of poetic structure by reading Structure & Surprise.  However, this blog also is a good place to start.  Check out the structures covered in Structure & Surprise here.  And check out nine additional structures here.

Happy reading!

Six Approaches to Structuring a Poem

19 02 2012

Last month I had the honor of introducing two separate groups of writers to principles of poetic structure as put forth in Michael Theune’s extraordinary Structure and Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns.  The book made such a significant paradigm shift in the way I approach my own drafts that I wanted to share my discovery with others by offering a workshop.  My plan was to spend a full Saturday at the Writing Barn working through six of the structures with a small group of poets in my town of Austin, Texas.  I sent out emails and posted Facebook notices for the workshop.  The response to the workshop was overwhelming; within a week I had twenty people registered and had started to turn others away, but then I decided to repeat the class on a second Saturday, this one closer to my idea of a small group, thirteen.

I organized the workshop—called “Six Approaches to Structuring a Poem”—so  that we covered three structures in the first half of the day (emblem, ironic, concessional) and three structures—following lunch—in the second half of the day (retrospective-prospective, dialectical, descriptive-meditative).  As much as I would have liked to include the elegiac structures, mid-course turns, and substructures—the other structures covered in Structure and Surprise—I was glad I kept the day to the six I chose, as time was tight even for those.  We approached each structure in the same way, beginning with a short description of the basic structure; followed by an in-depth look at seven poems that exemplified the structure; followed by a short writing exercise whereby the participants could try their hands at using the structure; and ending with discussion and sharing of newly drafted works-in-progress.

The descriptions of the structures came straight from the chapters in Structure and Surprise, as did a number of the example poems, though I added a Texas touch by including a number of Texas poets throughout the day—Benjamin Saenz, Naomi Nye, Larry Thomas, myself, and others.  I was also able to find recordings for about a third of the poems I used, read by the poets themselves.  Given that we covered forty-two poems throughout the day, it was nice to hear voices other than our own, and for many, it was the first time to hear Mark Doty, Philip Larkin, Harryette Mullen, Li-Young Lee, Natasha Trethewey, and others.   The focus was on structure, form, and turns, and how different poets used the same structure to achieve very different kinds of poems.

I believe that writing is the best way to see if principles of a workshop are being learned, so with each structure I designed a brief exercise.  I gave participants no more than fifteen minutes for each exercise, but no one had to share their drafts 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 from description to meditation in their poem.

Here is an untitled poem from Beverly Voss, based on Klimt’s Mäda Primavesi:


You stare out, young beauty,

arms akimbo, your gaze bold.

Persephone in her meadow:

roses, buttercups, narcissi

awash in violet beauty, the

green world at your feet.

Glory falling on you from

the heavens, your birthright—


and a bright white innocence.


How will your gaze change after

the earth opens and swallows you up?

When Demeter wails, keens, laments

until the meadow freezes with her tears.

Until the earth is nearly dead?


She doesn’t yet know but you will return.

Having been split open

like the pomegranate you ate—

the red juice forever staining your mouth.

Your gaze, I think, will have more depth.

You will bring a dark knowing

back with you.

More woman than girl.

More witch than woman.

More goddess than the wheat.


–Beverly Voss


For the ironic structure—the one exercise which everyone in both workshops shared with the group—I handed out a list of 26 first lines, half from Sharon Olds’ Strike Sparks and half from Martín Espada’s Alabanza.  Participants were asked to respond to several of the first lines with a follow-up line (or lines) that provided an ironic turn, many of which brought howls of laughter.  I told them to keep them short, and they did.  Here are several examples (the Olds and Espada lines in italics):




In the middle of the night,

when we get up, we navigate

by ambient light—

around the bedstead,

through the house, sure-footed,

no stubbed toes, scraped shins.

Yet, once sunlight penetrates the blinds

we stagger from our beds,

stumbling, clumsy and blind.


–Ann Howells




there are some things doctors can’t fix:

their own mistakes. My trust escaping out of the hole the needle made.


–Beth Kropf


No pets in the project

the lease said.

So I lost the cat.

Sold the dog.

Asked for money back

when the place came

equipped with a rat.


–Beverly Voss


Family Holidays


This was the first Thanksgiving with my wife’s family.

The next one will be without my wife

or without her family.


–Christine Wenk-Harrison


For the concessional structure, I had students use the same “First Lines” handout, but this time they were to choose one line, add “Suppose” to the front of it, and use that line as a concession until the turn in their poems.  Here’s Jean Jackson’s take on the structure (I told them that they could alter the first line if they needed to):


Mr. Fix-It


I suppose there are some things you can’t fix,

but you set such grand expectations

right from the beginning 46 years ago.

First there were the holes in the floor boards

of the ’57 Chevy that you repaired

by riveting cookie sheets in place.

So many holes have been fixed since then.


And the plumbing! How many times

have you found the leak, dug through mud

and saved a bundle, all the while

hating the job?

I admit you’re getting older

and that last time was a bear–

two days in the cold and rain.


I know you’ve felt put upon at times

fixing the antiques that I sell in my business

and you want me to quit since sales are down,

but there was a time when you were

as enthusiastic as I was and bought enough

fix-up furniture to last for an age–

you even said you liked making the repairs,

though you drew the line at refinishing.


What I’m saying is that I’m not ready to let go now.

It’s in my blood, and you’re so good at what you do,

that I know I’ll probably ask you to fix small flaws

once in a while. You do such a good job

and, well, it’s just so you!


–Jean Jackson


For the retrospective-prospective structure, I gave participants a new handout, one of “Last Lines” from the same two poets, Olds and Espada, but not necessarily from the same poems.  This time they were to use one of the last lines as a starting point for a poem that contrasted “then” with “now.”  Here is a draft by Christa Pandey that uses an Espada line to begin:


If only history were like your hands,
your fingers easily discerned, long and
slender bony, shapely nails, the pinky
short like last night’s TV episode.
The rivers of your veins concealed—
you are still young—unlike those
of history, full of bloody spills,
gnarled centuries like knuckles
of your coming age. The skin of our
tortured earth is deeply wrinkled.
May that stage not befall your hands.
If only history had your touch,
the thrill of your smooth soothing
on my longing skin.

–Christa Pandey


The dialectical argument structure proved to be the most difficult of the structures we looked at during the workshop, in part because it is a three-part structure, and in part because it is not a structure that poets tend to use as often as others.  Because I limited the time on exercises, I tried to make the move from thesis to antithesis to synthesis as easy as possible in the exercise.  For this one, I handed out a copy of Nick Laird’s “Epithalamium,” and asked the participants to follow his “you vs. I” dialectic in their drafts.  Here are two wildly different takes on this exercise:




Your refrigerator is a Marine

standing at attention.

Knees locked, shoulders back.

Or art by Mondrian:  primary colors

painted with a measuring stick.

Mine is a Marc Chagall.  Capers float on high.

Mayonnaises (three kinds) dance cheek to cheek

with a concupiscence of condiments.


You pride yourself on order:

Top shelf:  Milk. And all things white with protein.

Middle shelf:  Leftovers and eggs.

Bottom:  Vegetables and fruit.

Beer:  always in the bin.


You scorn the wild Hungarian dance

of my old and humming fridge.

Where the spinach makes whoopee

with the squash and carrots compost

near the beer.


Ah love, dear love . . . you

let me use your toothbrush.

Share with me your bed and key.

Consider this:  I’ll line up all my juices

if you’ll set your collards free.


–Beverly Voss




dried roses for a wedding  bouquet

their love already drying out, color drained


he raises the gun

she loads the bullet


he puts up his un-tired feet

she brings him slippers


he throws fire

she spreads gasoline


he punishes

she accepts

both dismantling their home, hands ripping out nails

making grenades  out of wounds

clouding mirrors until

their children cannot see


their vows—hollow vessels

their rings, engorged with hate

nooses around their necks


–Beth Kropf


Finally, for the descriptive-meditative structure at the end of a long day, I had participants follow the basic structure of Charles Wright’s “Clear Night,” just as Kevin Prufer had done in “Astronomer’s Prayer to the Andromeda Galaxy,” both poems we had looked at and discussed.  I asked them to write an imitation that was focused on a natural object, and here’s what Ann Howells came up with:


Autumn Night

after Charles Wright

Calm sea, moon reflected and reflected, endlessly.

Boat, pier and pines are monochrome—black on black.

Tidal pools drain, echo an eerie, hollow sound,

like a didgeridoo.

Gulls and crabs and snails sleep.


I am a tumult, a tempest moaning and shrieking,

tearing my hair.

I want to roil the waters, shatter the sky.

I want sea and moon and wind to rage.

I want the world to howl.


And the moon neither blinks nor winks.

And the sea is a seamless pane of smoked glass.

And the tidal pool continues its woodwind lullaby.

And the gulls and crabs and snails dream on.

They dream on.


–Ann Howells


In case you’re wondering why I used the same poets throughout this piece, it’s very simple: they are the ones who sent me their work after the workshop, though I assure you that we heard many other truly fine poems throughout the day (and keep in mind the short amount of time we had for writing).  I received many wonderful emails from the students in the days to follow, like this one from Gloria Amescua, “I gained so much from your presentation, the variety of examples, and the chance to start some poems.  I can really say it’s one of best workshops I’ve attended.”  But as I reminded them, none of the ideas presented were original on my part.  Most of the kudos must go to Michael Theune and the contributors to Structure and Surprise.  I feel honored to be able to spread the word.

Scott Wiggerman




Scott Wiggerman is the author of two books of poetry, Presence, new from Pecan Grove Press, and Vegetables and Other Relationships.  Recent poems have appeared in Switched-On Gutenberg, Assaracus, Naugatuck River Review, Contemporary Sonnet, and Hobble Creek Review, which nominated “The Egret Sonnet” for a Pushcart.  A frequent workshop instructor, he is also an editor for Dos Gatos Press, publisher of the annual Texas Poetry Calendar, now in its fifteenth year, and the recent collection of poetry exercises, Wingbeats.  His website is http://swig.tripod.com

Helen Vendler: Approaching the Turn

8 06 2011

One of this blog’s key arguments has been that more concerted efforts to differentiate poetic structure and poetic form and to more systematically examine poetic structure would benefit the practices of conceptualizing, reading, writing, and teaching poetry.  (For information on the structure / form distinction, click here.)

I’m not the only one to think this.  Many of those who write poetry textbooks agree.  However, though they agree, their books often fall short of advocating for increased attention to poetic structure, and its attendant turn–and not only to the extent that I hope for but also to the extent that their own texts seem to suggest is proper.

Here, I would like to consider Helen Vendler’s Poems, Poets, Poetry: An Introduction and Anthology.  In this textbook, Vendler maintains the structure / form distinction—though her maintenance of the distinction involves some overlap in terminology—recognizing that, on the one hand, “[a] poem can…be classified according to various aspects of its outer form, having to do with meter, rhyme, and stanza-form” (117) and that, on the other hand, “[b]esides its outer form (“This is a poem in quatrains in falling rhythm rhyming aabb”—a description of Blake’s “Tyger”), every poem has internal structural form” (119).  (Please note that though Vendler’s book is in its third edition, I cite from my copy of the second edition.)

Vendler describes inner structural form as a poem’s “dynamic shape, which derives from the curve traced by the emotions of the poem as they change over its duration” (119).  Though Vendler never uses the word “turn,” this shape clearly concerns a poem’s turning; according to Vendler, “That emotional curve is plotted by connecting two, three, or more points of the poem, a rise from depression to hope to joy, for instance—or a decline from triumph through doubt to despair.  Very few poems represent an unchanging steady state of the same emotion all through” (119).  The emotional trajectory Vendler cites here is a pattern of poetic turning that I call the “Dejection-Elation Structure.”  Additionally, Vendler notes, “In investigating the internal structure of a poem, one should try to divide it into parts along its ‘fault lines.’  Where does the logic of the argument seem to break?  Where does the poem seem to change from first person to second person?  Where does the major change in tense or speech act take place?” (120)  In asking readers to locate a poem’s “fault lines,” Vendler seems to ask readers to identify and track the poem according to its turns.

Vendler then proceeds to offer a cursory list of internal structural forms.  She notes that “[s]ome poems are two-part (binary) poems, like William Wordsworth’s ‘A slumber did my spirit seal’ (which we saw changing from illusion to stern knowledge) or like Dickinson’s ‘The Heart asks Pleasure—first—’ (which we saw changing its conception of God from benevolence to cruelty” (119).  Vendler also notes that “[t]here are also many three-part (ternary) poems, which often take on the internal structure of beginning, modulation, and end (a song-form preserved in lyric),” and, additionally, that “[o]ne well-known internal structure is that of the ‘surprise’ ending, where the last few lines reverse everything that has gone before” (119).  Additionally, according to Vendler, “Internal forms are infinitely variable, since they represent emotional response, always volatile” (119).  Such a list seems like the beginning of the list (constantly under construction) of poetic structures, patterns of poetic turning, located here.

Indeed, for Vendler, mapping a poem’s internal structural form, and an inner structural form very much focused upon the turn, is key to the process she refers to as “Exploring a Poem” (125).  In this process, in which Vendler names a total of 13 elements of the poem for a reader to examine in order to explore a poem—including 1. Meaning; 2. Antecedent Scenario; 3. A Division into Structural Parts; 4. The Climax; 5. The Other Parts; 6. Find the Skeleton; 7. Games the Poet Plays with the Skeleton; 8. Language; 9. Tone; 10. Agency and Speech Acts; 11. Roads Not Taken; 12. Genre, Form, Rhythm; 13. Imagination—at least five have to do very directly with deciphering and determining the poem’s internal structural form: the division into structural parts; the climax; the other parts; find the skeleton; and games the poet plays with the skeleton.  For example, regarding “The Other Parts,” Vendler states, “About each part it is useful to ask how it differs from the other parts.  What is distinctive in it by contrast to the other members of the poem?  Does something shift gears?” (127)  And, regarding “Find the Skeleton,” Vendler essentially instructs readers to decipher the poem’s inner structural form; she asks, “What is the dynamic curve of emotion on which the whole poem is arranged?” (128)

While Vendler’s book does an admirable job of trying to advance structure alongside form, there are, however, problems with this aspect of Vendler’s textbook.  One problem is that it does not advance structure consistently.  “Structure,” or “structural,” means many things to Vendler.   “Inner structural form,” remember, is “dynamic shape, which derives from the curve traced by the emotions of the poem as they change over its duration.”  However, in the section called “Structure,” structure is defined as something more intellectual or logical; Vendler states, “The structures of a poem are the intellectual or logical shapes into which its thoughts are dynamically organized” (82).  Additionally, according to Vendler, one discovers a poem’s structures—according to Vendler, “Any overarching structure can have many substructures” (82)—by looking for patterns, but these patterns are everywhere and on every scale: “Patterns occur at many levels in poetry, just as they do in the physical universe: one can look for patterns in subatomic behavior, in atomic behavior, in molecular behavior, and so on, all the way up to the patterns of the planets and the stars” (83).  And, in the end, structure can be just about anything, including form; Vendler concludes her discussion of “Structure,” stating, “The important thing is to be accustomed to looking, in any poem, at several levels—the sound, the rhythms and rhymes, the grammar, the images, the sentences, the plot, the assertions, the allusions, the self-contradictions.  Somewhere the energy of the poem awaits you.  The moment you see the main and subordinate patterns, you smile, and it ‘all makes sense’” (87).

Another problem with Vendler’s advocacy of structure is that, for however much Vendler recognizes the importance of the non-formal organizational elements of a poem, she tends to give form precedence over these elements, including structure and its turn.  For example, the discussion of “Structure” comes after discussions of both “Rhythm” and “Rhyme”—and a discussion of “Argument” comes even later.  Additionally, in the section called “Classifying Lyric Poems” in the chapter “Describing Poems,” Vendler notes that “[l]yric poems themselves are generally classified in three ways: by content, by speech act, and by outer form” (110).  This, however, also is the section of the book that includes discussion of “Inner Structural Form,” a discussion that, with little commentary, simply gets tacked onto the previous discussion of “Outer Form.”

A final problem—or, perhaps, difficulty—with her advocacy of structure is that, perhaps as a result of the shiftiness of what structure is, Vendler never manages, in my opinion, to be clear about how knowing about structure can deeply inform one’s reading of a poem.  That is, though Vendler suggests that the main pattern, the structure, seems to have a lot to do with major transitions in a poem, how the poem moves, she is not explicit about what a poem’s “main pattern” is.  And, beyond this, there is never any detailed discussion of what the significance of these shapes are, why they are worth examining.  In large part because it never embraces structure and the turn—not even to the extent that I might want it to, but even, only, to the extent that its own discussion of poems suggests that it should—and because it never gets clear on the centrality of the turn for its system, Vendler’s discussions of “structure” and the “structural” tend to be a bit confusing, both offering imprecise or simply too numerous tools for finding structure and not offering enough for people to actually know what they are looking for when looking for structure, or exactly why they are looking for it.

Vendler’s Poems, Poets, Poetry reveals the desire of one major critic to differentiate structure and form.  It also reveals, however, that this desire alone is not quite enough to do the job of significantly differentiating structure and form.  For this, I believe more needs to be done.

I believe we–readers, poets, critics, teachers–have to get very clear in our use of the terms “structure” and “form,” or else things will continue as they so far have, with structure seeming some amorphous, secondary derivative of form.

I believe structure has to be linked to something vital and distinctive—something singular—in poetry, and that is the poetic turn.

I believe that we need to present the turn not only as something that is important in what poems are and how poems work but also as something that—just as form has its own vocabulary and grammar, or, if you will, its own lingo: iambic, trochaic, pentameter, slant rhyme—has its own vocabulary and grammar, its own intricacies.  My reasons for believing this are, on the one hand, substantive—I think that the developing vocabulary and grammar of the turn describes real and significant aspects of poems—and, on the other hand, pragmatic—form may tend to get more attention in our textbooks largely because it has a well-developed terminology, and thus, a more well-developed terminology (beyond Vendler’s cursory list of inner structural forms) may help give structure the attention it deserves.

I believe that, for as much work as the above seems, once this work is done it will greatly open up–and deepen–the conceptualization, reading, writing, and teaching of poems.  What is a poem?  Language that turns.  How do I read a poem?  Track the turns.  How do I write a great poem?  Create language that turns thrillingly.  How do I teach poems?  Take the turn into account.  Of course, these answers are incomplete, but they are vital and new, and I believe such answers will add significantly to the appreciation and creation of, the conversation about, poetry.

Jeremy Tambling’s RE: Verse–Turning towards Poetry

31 05 2011

For years, I’ve thought that an important next step for educating poetry readers about the turn would be to incorporate, and perhaps even highlight, the turn in an introduction to poetry textbook.  So far, this has been done only once, in John Ciardi’s How Does a Poem Mean?  In that book, the final chapter—but also the chapter that Ciardi refers to in his introduction as the most important one—“The Poem in Countermotion” focuses on turns in poems, though Ciardi refers to the turn as the “fulcrum.”  Ciardi’s book, however, was published in 1959—and his focus on the turn was not picked up on by any subsequent introduction to poetry textbooks.

Needless to say, then, I was heartened to see Jeremy Tambling’s RE: Verse—Turning towards Poetry.  The book’s title, at least, indicated that there might be some focus on the turn in the book.  And there is, but, alas, just some.  However, seeing what happens to the turn—how it is both raised as a topic of conversation, and then elided—in RE: Verse can be instructive.

The turn comes up on page one of RE: Verse.  Defining “verse,” Tambling writes,

“[I]t comes from the Latin versus, meaning “a line or row, especially a line of writing (so named from turning to begin another line), verse, from vertere to turn” (Oxford English Dictionary).  Verse means both a line of writing and the turn by which another line is reached, going from line to line.  In English, the turn at the end of the line on the right hand edge of the page means a reverse back to the left.  Verse and reverse: the turn turns back.”

It is important to note here that the turn is an element of the poem’s form.  However, the term “turn” quickly comes to mean other things, as well.  According to Tambling, though it may consist of only one line, Japanese waku can still be thought of as turning, so “you may have to look for the turn inside the one line itself.”  Tambling, however, is not clear how one would find this turn in a one-line poem, and he further complicates his use and sense of the turn when, after having quoted three lines from Paul Muldoon’s “Incantata” (“I thought again of how art may be made, was it was by Andre Derain, / of nothing more than a turn / in the road…”), he notes, “This book starts with the proposition that poetry is always a form of turning, and if for Paul Muldoon it is a “turn in the road,” then the way the poem twists and turns will suggest a very winding path.”  How would a formally twisting and turning poem suggest a very winding path?  Would it slither down the page in the manner of, say, an e.e. cummings poem?

But this is not what Tambling means by the “very winding path” of the poem—virtually all of the poems he cites at length in RE: Verse left-justified.  Tambling, in fact, is interested in helping readers recognize, and recognize the importance of, structural turns in poems.  (For information on the difference between form and structure, click here.)

The first poem Tambling examines closely is William Blake’s “London.”  In a sentence immediately following his observation that “the way the poem twists and turns will suggest a very winding path,” Tambling introduces his discussion of “London” by noting that “[w]riting poetry often plays on this idea of turning.”  And his discussion of the poem, when it focuses on the turn, focuses on the structural turn.  Tambling asks of the poem, “How shall we approach it?”  And his first of a few “hints” he offer is: “[L]ook for the turn: the moment where the poem changes direction, or shape.  (There may be more than one turn, of course.)  Nearly all poetry will have such a turn…”  Tambling also eventually locates the poem’s major turn (notice that there are not 15 turns, as one might expect if turns occurred as one line turned into the next) at the beginning of the fourth stanza, about which he writes: “[S]tarting with “But most” indicates a turn, a new emphasis, something different from the first three stanzas.”

The second poem Tambling examines closely is William Wordsworth’s sonnet “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802.”  Discussing the sonnet, Tambling, quoting Paul Muldoon’s interview with Lynn Keller, states,

“The sonnet began as an Italian form in the thirteenth century, and the word implies a song.  The Italian, or Petrarchan sonnet, of which this [“Westminster Bridge”] is one, is divided by a pause, or a turn, into eight lines followed by six.  Paul Muldoon, who like many other modern poets, has written many sonnets, speaks in an interview about the “thought process of the sonnet”.  “You establish something and then there’s a slight change”, he says; and he associates this change with “the turn”….”

And speaking of the shift from octave to sestet in “Westminster Bridge,” Tambling states, “We have already noted a break at that point, and when reading poetry, any such turn, change of tone, or of approach, should be noted.”

Tambling clearly believes that knowledge of the structural turn is vital for reading poetry.  However, the attention he pays to the structural turn is less systematic and more sporadic.  In his book’s second chapter, “Five Ideas for Reading,” Tambling offers “five points, or principles, for reading” poetry—but a principle such as “look for turns” is not included in this list.  Even though, it should be added, that there are plenty of poems featuring turns in them that follow Tambling’s list of principles.

Why this assertion and (unintentional, it seems…) denial of the power of the structural turn?  I can only speculate, but I offer a few ideas.

First, it seems as though seeing turns and their importance is not enough.  We need to continue to develop and teach the language, the grammar, of turning.  It’s not that poems simply turn, it’s that, often, they turn in identifiable ways, ways which, once recognized, greatly help one see what’s going on in a poet, or, as Ciardi puts it, how a poem means.

Additionally, we need to think more about the ways that assessment influences what we teach when we teach poems.  Tambling wrote his book with some specific audiences in mind.  While being attentive to the needs of a general reader Tambling has written with a target audience in mind; he states, “I have tried, in writing, to consider the needs of people starting with poetry at GCSE, where anthologies of poetry are frequently set, and people working on specific poets for A Level.  I have tried to work with questions that undergraduates will want to know answers to…”  It could simply be that the exams for which Tambling prepares many of his readers do not concern themselves much with the identification and discussion of turns, so turns, while acknowledged, are not focused on.

Overall, Tambling’s RE: Verse reminds us that we need to revise the ways we discuss and teach poetry.  His good, but also problematic, book reminds us that to talk seriously about structural turns in poetry we have to be ready to allow the turn to let us talk about different poems differently.  We must be willing ourselves to be transformed by the turn.