Don’t Just “Use the Force” or “Go with the Flow”–You Gotta “Trust the Turn”!

27 07 2010

My essay “Trust the Turn: Focusing the Revision Process in Poetry” has just been published in Poets on Teaching: A Sourcebook, edited by Joshua Marie Wilkinson (U of Iowa P, 2010).

A version of the essay can be found here, but you should get the book–it’s terrific!  (The good John Gallaher agrees, here.)  Tons (99, to be exact) of great (micro-)essays on teaching poetry by some excellent poets and poet-teachers, including a number of those associated with Structure & Surprise, such as Timothy Liu, Peter Gizzi, Rachel Zucker, Prageeta Sharma, D. A. Powell, and Mark Yakich.  (Not to mention a whole bunch of friends, mentors, colleagues, sparring partners, and role models, including Srikanth Reddy, Laura Mullen, Mark Wallace, Catherine Wagner, Brenda Hillman, John Gallaher himself, Johannes Goransson, Arielle Greenberg, Kent Johnson, Matthew Zapruder, Lara Glenum, Sabrina Orah Mark…the list goes on!)

Do note that–if you do get the book and you are interested in turns–there is at least one other essay that reveals interest in turns: Karla Kelsey’s “Teaching Writing through the Sonnet Tradition.”  Kelsey includes the following among her “favorite prompts”:

“Reconsidering the turn: turn as rhetorical moment, as change in speaker, as change in perceptual attention, as change in visual register…”

Hopefully, Structure & Surprise serves as a good starting point for those who want to (re-)consider the turn!

Structure and Spunk

3 07 2010

My recent reading–both for re-thinking some of my writing pedagogy and the avoidance of such thinking–revealed some very interesting ideas about surprise and the structural nature of comedy.

Considering new texts for my first-year writing course (“S.W.A.T.: Sass, Wit, and Text”), I examined Spunk & Bite: A Writer’s Guide to Bold, Contemporary Style, by Arthur Plotnik, and I found this in a section of the book called “Freshness: The Wallop of the New,” in a chapter called “The Pleasures of Surprise”:

“Readers love surprise.  They love it when a sentence heads one way and jerks another.  They love the boing of a jack-in-the-box word.  They adore images that trot by like a unicorn in pajamas.

“Why does surprise please us?  Think of it as a survival mechanism: Unexpected stimuli exercise the neurons, keeping brains alert to danger, prey, and available taxis.  In fact, a recent study suggests that brains prefer surprise to the expected….

“But enough anthroposemiotic musing!  Everyone knows that good writing stimulates readers with inspired, sneaky surprises.  It does so at all levels, from surprises based on twists of plot and character to the smaller but keen surprises of language–the ones that concern us here.

“Is there a syntax of surprise, a formula for working it into our locutions?  Yes and no.  Surprise is like one of its vehicles: humor.  Try to parse it, and it’s hasta la vista, bubela.  Yet even humor yields an occasional secret to those who won’t let it alone….”

Of course, in agreement with Plotnik, the work in Structure & Surprise and on this blog has been, in part, to reveal that surprise does yield many of its secrets, does have a syntax (or structure) at those other levels.  (For my first-year writing class, in order to teach about those other, larger structures, I will use They Say/I Say, a book that jibes in very interesting ways with structural thinking, and especially The Cliche-and-Critique Structure.)  However, I’ve also tried to make a distinction between structure and plot.  (For this, see my blog post Against “Narrative”.)  Not a big issue, and certainly no critique of Plotnik’s book, which I’ve decided to use as a style guide for my first-year writing course. 

Though Plotnik had me at “surprise,” at the end of “The Pleasures of Surprise,” in a paragraph labeled “Surprisingly Apt,” Plotnik sealed the deal, writing,

“Ultimately, the devices of surprise may set up the pins, but they don’t guarantee the strike.  The essence of surprise is in its timing and execution: fast, graceful, and apt.  Aptness is paramount.  The best surprise of all may be how precisely an unexpected word or image pops a message.  Unexpected is easy; unexpectedly perfect helps separate writers from hacks.”

I couldn’t agree more.  For some time, I’ve been interested in what I’ve come to call “fitting surprise,” that moment in writing when something occurs that is both unexpected and yet truly apt.  “Fitting surprise” is not a kind of turn, but rather a quality of turn I value highly.  (Some of my thinking on fitting surprise can be found in this review-essay.)

I also just finished reading “First Banana: Steve Carell and the meticulous art of spontaneity,” Tad Friend’s terrific profile of comedian Steve Carell that appears in the July 5, 2010, issue of The New Yorker.

Structure, of course, is a vital part of the seeming spontaneity of comedy.  Discussing how there has been an increase in improvisation and collaboration (“Nowadays in the comedy industry, a Bucket Brigade of actors, writers, and directors pitches in to punch up one another’s films…”)in the creation of comedic movies in the last decade, Friend also is careful to emphasize the role carefully crafted structure plays in creating comedic effect; he states,

“It’s all a painstaking set of procedures aimed at maximum creativity, a huge planning effort to encourage accidents…But, even as members of the Bucket Brigade troll for every last chuckle, they remain mindful that it’s not the comedy in comedies that keeps people interested; it’s the structure.  ‘Revenge of the Nerds’ and ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’ were nearly devoid of laughs, but they were big hits simply because of their clockwork plots.  The screenwriter Dennis Klein observed, ‘In standup, improv is that ability to be funny at will, but in movies even Jim Carrey bending over and talking out of his ass will get cut if the improv doesn’t connect to the ongoing story.’  Dr. Evil’s ‘Sh!’ run works so well because his refusal to listen to Scott is what will allow Austin Powers to escape–and because he and Scott hate each other.”

Humor–and, more generally, good writing–needs surprise, and surprise needs structure.  This is true of any kind of writing or communication, including comedy and poetry, that wants to be fresh and pack the wallop of the new.

Learning Structure from Dante

11 06 2009


Paying attention to poetic structure, to the patterns of signficant turns in poems, is not by any means new–for a long time, thinking about poetic structure and turns has been a key feature in numerous significant discussions about poetry and types of poetry.  It is in large part this fact that makes the present-day tendency toward a lack of discussion of structure so noteworthy, and so clearly in need of redress.  Thus, a little book report on one of the great, earlier discussions of poetic structure: Dante’s La Vita Nuova.

La Vita Nuova is an anthology Dante created out of many of his own shorter poems.  The poems are interspersed among an ongoing prose commentary that has two main features.  The first is an account of the actual events which gave rise to the poems–essentially, the trajectory of Dante’s relationship with his great love, Beatrice.  The second (and the feature I want to focus on here) is an analysis of the poems.

Throughout his commentary, Dante discusses how his poems work, but what’s fascinating is how he does this: Dante consistently breaks his poems down into their “parts” to reveal the structure of his poems.  For example, considering his sonnet “To every captive soul and gentle lover,” Dante writes, “This sonnet is divided into two parts.  In the first I extend a greeting and ask for a reply; in the second I convey what it is that requires a reply.  The second part begins: Already of these hours…”  Elsewhere, Dante not only divides his poems into parts but also shows how the parts themselves can be subdivided.

For Dante the awareness of the parts, the divisions, of a poem is key to understanding the meaning of that poem.  At the conclusion of his analysis of his canzone “Ladies who know by insight what love is…” Dante states, “Certainly to uncover still more meaning in this canzone it would be necessary to divide it more minutely; but if anyone has not the wit to understand it with the help of the divisions already made he had best leave it alone.  Indeed I am afraid that I may have conveyed its meaning to too many by dividing it even as I have done, if it should come to the ears of too many.”

But why does Dante undertake, over and over again, this particular kind of structural analysis?

In her introduction to her translation of La Vita Nuova (the Penguin Classics edition; New York: Penguin, 1969), Barbara Reynolds suggests that Dante is trying to instruct readers who are acquainted and preoccupied with the features of poetic form as to how to read his poems more vitally and accurately.  Reynolds states, “What is interesting is that [Dante] evidently thinks it necessary to make clear to fellow-poets and instructed readers where the counter-divisions occur.  Perhaps he considered that preoccupation with the form of poetry or with its embellishments was tending to obscure lucidity of thought.”  Reynolds pursues this thinking:

“These severely arid analyses of poems…are really an invitation by Dante to enter his study and stand beside him while he runs a finger down the parchment page of his manuscript.  ‘Look,’ he seems to be saying, ‘here is a canzone.  You know, of course, how a canzone is constructed metrically, consisting of a sequence of identical stanzas, each stanza being composed of a frons, which is divided into two pedes, and a sirima, which is divided into two voltae.  What I want you to notice is the articulation of the thought-content, for this is by no means always identical with the structural [i.e., formal] articulation…'”

That is, according to Reynolds, Dante is thinking about poems in a way that anticipates, and prefigures (by over 600 years), a similar discussion about poetry: Randall Jarrell’s “Levels and Opposites: Structure in Poetry,” one of the great essays on poetic structure, and an essay Jarrell introduces by stating, “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.”  And, of course, Jarrell’s distinction between the musical structure [the form] of poetry and the other structures of poetry is a distinction that anticipated, prefigured, and inspired the structure-form distinction at the heart of the undertaking that is Structure & Surprise.

Fascinating to think, though, that issues very similar to those thought about in Structure & Surprise also were of concern to and being thought about by Dante some 700 years ago…


One additional note.  Even though it’s clear that structure is a vital component of poetry, not everyone likes the kind of analysis; as  Barbara Reynolds notes, “Some readers resent and may skip those sections of the commentary in which Dante indicates the divisions of the poems, feeling such matter-of-fact analysis to be an intrusion into the dream-world of ecstatic love which is conjured up by the consecrated tone of the rest of the work.  It is said, for instance, that Dante Gabriel Rossetti, through whose translation of the Vita Nova Dante and Beatrice became part of the pre-Raphaelite movement, so disliked the paragraphs in which the poems are analysed that he could not bear to translate them and had to ask his brother, William, to undertake this part of the task for him.”  Certainly, the analysis of the sections of, the turns in, a poem isn’t exactly sexy, rapturous work; however, it is, I think, a necessary part of a fuller engagement with a text, an engagement that encourages a more encompassing understanding of and feeling for how a poem moves and creates its affect.  And so, it is simply necessary to keep drawing attention to this aspect of engagement with poems, especially when it seems that this aspect is being overlooked in the conversation about poetry–whenever it is that such overlooking occurs.

Students Don’t Like Poetry? Teach Turns

26 04 2009




In “Why Students Don’t Like Poetry,” a Chronicle of Higher Education blog post from April 19, 2009, Mark Bauerlein argues that students don’t like poetry largely because they are introduced to the wrong kind of poetry: difficult poetry by the likes of John Ashbery, the kind of poetry it’s hard to understand “the basic meaning” of, poetry to which students “can’t relate.”


According to Bauerlein, when he “tried a different kind of verse, this one with rhyme and regularity and narrative,” the students took to the poetry.  The poem Bauerlein uses as an example of more student-friendly work is Dana Gioia’s “Summer Storm.”  According to Bauerlein, Gioia’s poem worked in the classroom because it “had rhyme and music,” and because it “had a subject they [the students] all could understand…”


While Bauerlein’s post gave rise to many interesting comments (especially by teachers telling about what they’ve done in the classroom to convey to students the pleasures and the discipline of poetry), many of the comments also are predictably polemical.  Some say Bauerlein is right on: poetry should be accessible.  Others argue that he is dumbing-down the real demand of difficult poetry merely to appeal to a generally uninformed audience.


Now, I don’t want to say that applying the turn to this conversation would offer a kind of cure-all for teaching poetry, but I do think that some judicious thinking about the turn can offer some helpful insights and ideas about and for pedagogy.


Thinking about the turn is called for in this case.  While Gioia’s “Summer Storm” does have “rhyme and regularity and narrative” it also has a clear and distinct turn: at the beginning of the third-to-last stanza, the poem turns from a memory to a consideration of the meaning of memory and the past.  However, as so often occurs in poems with turns, the turn goes by unrecognized as a significant feature in the poem.  (In fact, though he includes a link to the full text of Gioia’s poem, Bauerlein’s citations and summary of the poem include nothing of the poem after the turn.)


But, of course, I think the turn should have been mentioned.  Mentioning the turn is simply descriptively accurate: the poem in fact has a turn.  And the turn could have been one of the things the students liked and “got” about Gioia’s poem: Gioia’s poem offers something accessible to many 19 year olds: a story with a moral.


But focusing more attention on the turn could have offered even more to the conversation.  If not a cure-all, the turn at least could build bridges, including:


1) from the student’s own language to the poem’s maneuvering (students use turns in their own language; they easily can be shown how poems employ turns);


2) from a focus on a poem’s meaning to its being—showing students that poems are things that turn is one of the clearest and most succinct ways to show students that poems are more enactments and less easily-paraphrased statements; and


3) from accessible to more difficult poetry—aware that one of the key things that poems do is turn, students become better readers of all kinds of poems.  (The turn is at the heart of not only so many of the poems in Billy Collins’s Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry but also the poetics of Rae Armantrout and Jorie Graham.  (For a glance at the turn’s presence in Armantrout and Graham, click here.  Scroll down to read the quotations from Jorie Graham and Hank Lazer on Rae Armantrout.))


While Bauerlein’s choice of Gioia as an alternative to Ashbery is polemically fraught, raising specters of the ol’ American poetry wars, and in fact might depend on those old dichotomies (intentionally or not, it pits New Formalism against the Post Avant, and suggests that one way you figure out if a poem is accessible is if it rhymes), focusing on the turn could help to erase those dichotomies: what about teaching some (accessible?) poems that have clear and distinct, easily spotted and discussed turns and then teaching some (difficult?) poems that incorporate more complex movements, twists and turns that the students could work to map out and work through?  In this way, the turn can be used to link seemingly different kinds of poetry rather than contribute once again to problematic and predictable binaries.

Structure & Surprise: Recommended for Geniuses

22 04 2009



Cool news: Structure & Surprise is listed in the “Recommended Reading” section of Kim Addonizio’s new guide to poetry writing, Ordinary Genius.

For some time, Kim has been a supporter of Structure & Surprise, recommending it on her web site, but it’s terrific to get this kind of additional recognition.  Thank you, Kim–cheers!

The Build-and-Activate Structure

13 04 2009



I’ve 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 page):

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, I’d like to provide an example of a poem which employs just such a turn from building to activation.  It is, in fact, the poem that inspired me to write the above suggestion.  Here it is:



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 wings beneath 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: from inspiration, to drafting, to revision.  “Scale Model of Childhood” seems to me to offer a really 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.


A few notes on this poem:


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,” it is not the only poem’s only turn.  The construction section has many important turns in it, as well (including from construction to the sleeping parents to the maker’s ideas of what he thought his childhood would lead to…).  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, note that if you like this poem by Corey (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.  That is, after you write your own “build-and-activate” poem.

Q & A, Part 1

25 02 2009


On January 22, I gave a talk (“Voltage!: Engaging Turns in Poetry”) about the ideas behind Structure & Surprise at my undergraduate alma mater, Hope College, in Holland, Michigan.  The experience was a real treat for me for a variety of reasons (getting to see my former professors and long-time friends, getting to share my ideas, getting to continue to learn from the excellent conversations I had, etc).  One key reason, though, was that I got to visit a few classes at Hope (including Curtis Gruenler’s literary theory class, and Pablo Peschiera’s advanced poetry writing class) to meet and interact with some current Hope students.

What can I say?  I was mightily impressed.  All of the students I met were extremely perceptive and smart, deeply sincere, brightly funny, and truly engaged…

So engaged, in fact, that some from advanced poetry writing have sent me some further questions to consider.  I plan to supply responses to (or artfully dodge!) a number of these questions via blogpost over the next (approximately) two weeks.

The first question I want to address really is a cluster of questions, a cluster, if I read them correctly, growing out of one central concern: the place of poetic structure in the process of composition.  The questions in this cluster are:

–From Jon Dean: “How aware of structure do you think the poet should be while writing?  Should we set out thinking ‘This topic would work well in emblematic structure’ in the same way we set out saying ‘I will write this as a ghazal?'”

–From Karly Fogelsonger: “As a writer, do you think structure should come out of a poem (is it inherent in a poem from the poem’s genesis, and just needs to be identified and developed) or do you personally usually begin with an idea of structure, and model the form and content of a poem accordingly?”

–From Stephen Herrick: “The book [Structure & Surprise] is more of a critical work…so I wonder how its view of poetry affects the process of writing.”

Great, vital questions, all.  My intention here is to give a few straight answers to the above questions, but then I hope to complicate and develop those answers.

As I discuss a bit in the introduction to “Inspiration, Guides, Exercises” in S&S, the focused consideration of structure can enter into the poetic process at almost any stage, from inspiration and pre-writing, to drafting, to revision.

I tend to think of the close consideration of structure as a significant part of the revision process–that is, once you have a draft of a poem, you can, if you are aware of poetic turns and some of the pivotal maneuvers you can make with them in poems, examine your poem for many things: to see if it has structural interest (if there’s no turn in the poem, is this okay? is this intentional? does the poem need a turn? if so, where, and what kind?); to see if your poem, if it has any, is taking its turn(s) well (or if the turn is sloppy and might be improved).  (Here, in a little more detail, is how I think structure can aid with revisions.)  So, what I’m saying here, Karly, is that, in this view of poem-making, structure begins to emerge as the poem emerges–structure doesn’t have to be decided upon prior to the growth of the poem.

HOWEVER, I also am certain that structures can inspire and encourage poetry writing in just the way that, as Jon suggests, ghazals can.  Check out this page I recently put up on the blog, on writing collaborative, ironic, two-line poems.  In an hour or two of playful collaboration, you (and a friend or two) can probably make 20 really good ironic, two-line poems.  (That is, you’ll probably make about 40-80 poems; of which 25-50% of them will potentially be keepers.)  Here, poetic structure directly informs and feeds into the process of poem-making.

I think there remain to be discovered and shared many more such exercises/activities to promote the creation of poems-with-turns.  As this blog continues to grow, I anticipate posting many more.

Here’s one I’ll develop a bit more and post soon:

1) For your subject, decide on a process from nature (think of any branch of the sciences to help you come up with ideas: astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology) or technology (industrial processes, demolitions, etc)–note that this will work best if it’s a process you may be intrigued by but don’t know much about (you may need to do some research–that’s fine!);

2) Describe this process in GREAT detail; and then…

Well, try this first, they I’ll tell you the turn in, say, two days…!

Jon (and Karly…aw, heck, and Stephen!), you (all, essentially) ask if a poet should set out thinking s/he is going to write in a poem employing a particular structure.  As the above indicates, I think that’s a very fair way to begin crafting a poem.  However, I would of course add that at some point you cease drafting, examine what you have, and start revising, and just as your draft of your ghazal may in fact be the seed of a great villanelle, your draft of an ironic structure poem may turn out to be a dialectical argument poem…  Just as one should not force that poem to be a ghazal if it’s greatness resides in another form, so one should not force a poem to take a kind of turn if its greatness lies elsewhere.

I’d also add that just as some forms are tough (even downright scary) to write (and so it would probably be a mistake to try to start a poem using them) and others (such as the ghazal) are more productive and inviting, so, too, with structures: some, at least (right now) to me, seem tough (I’m looking at you, Emblem!) to write, but others (like some versions of the ironic) seem easier, more approachable.

And I’d add, lastly, that I hope that S&S and this blog will assist and encourage the development of creative pedagogy which might serve, more and more, to reveal how cool, funny, smart, revelatory, &c, &c poems can get written using the turn as a major building block of the poem.  We’re just at the start of this important conversation.

Ironic, Two-Line Poems

25 02 2009

So, you want to write a poem employing the ironic structure?  Or, you want a little help with teaching this structure in your creative writing class?

Check this out.