Realizing the Turn in Jonathan Culler’s Theory of the Lyric

27 06 2022

I’ve recently just (finally!) read Jonathan Culler’s Theory of the Lyric. I’m blown away by it. It’s a fantastic book, both ambitious–it sets about redefining lyric poetry–well argued, and exciting. It’s filled with keen insights, teeming with ideas that are relevant to anyone thinking about poetry today. I can’t recommend it highly enough–truly.

That said, the book has at least one major blindspot: though obviously interested in the structural turning of lyric poetry, Culler never fully acknowledges this interest and so does not include turning in his redefinition of lyric poetry, though I believe he really could and should have. 

Here, I want to say a few words about what I think Culler gets so importantly right in his provocative book. But I also want to zero in on and investigate a crucial lacuna: the omission of serious discussion of the turn as one of lyric’s constitutive elements. 

Redefining and Defamiliarizing the Lyric

In Theory of the Lyric, Culler sets about nothing short of a new–a more fine-tuned–description of lyric. To establish a baseline understanding of lyric, Culler cites the work of theorist Eva Müller-Zettelmann, who notes “several ‘tendencies’” that set lyric apart from other genres: “(1) brevity, (2) a reduction in the fictional element, (3) more intense formal structuring, (4) greater aesthetic self-reference, (5) greater linguistic deviance, and (6) greater epistemological subjectivity” (33). Culler works to revise this list, mainly by offering “some more specific and salient parameters of variation” (34). These are: 

  1. That the “enunciative apparatus of lyric” centrally involves the indirect address to readers (34-5);
  2. That the lyric endeavors “to be itself an event rather than the representation of an event” (35);
  3. That the lyric is more “ritualistic” than is typically thought (37); and
  4. That lyrics tend to have “an explicitly hyperbolic quality, which is especially striking because they are brief” (37).

What’s most interesting here is Culler’s effort to make the lyric as odd as it really is. He is defamiliarizing it to make it more real, more present. We can, Culler suggests, see lyric more clearly when we see it in its fuller strangeness. Acknowledging this strangeness–which I’ll describe more fully in a bit–is vital because it is a corrective to the more limited way that Culler believes lyric is often approached–and taught–today.

Culler wants to use his ideas about lyric to challenge the current dominant understanding of lyric, a “variant” of “the romantic theory of lyric”–the “distinguishing feature” of this theory “is the centrality of subjectivity coming into consciousness of itself through experience and reflection”–“which treats the lyric not as mimesis of the experience of the poet but as a representation of the action of a fictional speaker: in this account, the lyric is spoken by a persona, whose situation and motivation one needs to reconstruct” (2). This variant theory “has become the dominant model in the pedagogy of the lyric in the Anglo-American world, if not elsewhere,” and in this system, “[s]tudents are asked, when confronting a poem, to work out who is speaking, in what circumstances, to what end, and to chart the drama of attitudes that the poem captures” (2). One result of this state of affairs is that “the dramatic monologue…has been made the model for lyric” (2).

The reasons for the rise of this model are many, including “the increasing priority of prose fiction in literary education”–an approach under which “[s]tudents are accustomed to the idea that every narrative has a narrator”; the way “the cultural weight of claims (first by modernists and then New Critics) about the impersonality of art objects leads to emphasis on the poem as artifact rather than effusion of the poet”; and its ideological seductiveness, which allows readers “to believe that our subjectivity is free and independent of contexts to which we might belong, and imagining the language of a poem as coming from a fictive, nearly contextless speaker, [which] reflects back to us an image of the subject we imagine ourselves to be” (115-16). 

However, though popular, this understanding comes at a price. It ends up distorting engagements with poetry and diminishing the lyric’s strange magic. As Culler repeatedly makes clear, approaching lyric poems as dramatic monologues is simply inappropriate for many lyrics. It leaves out a crucial tradition: epideictic poetry. Culler works to bring closer to the center of lyric poetry “epideixis–public discourse about meaning and value,” though, he adds, “made distinctive by its ritualistic elements” (350). (More on ritual further on.) He states, “Possibilities for an alternative model that treats lyric as fundamentally nonmimetic, nonfictional, a distinctive linguistic event,can [sic] be drawn from classical conceptions of lyric as encomiastic or epideictic discourse–discourse of praise of blame [sic], articulating values, not a species of fiction” (7). A host of particular lyric poems–such as Shakespeare’s “Th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame,” Dickinson’s “The Heart asks Pleasure–first–,” Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” Philip Larkin’s “This Be the Verse”–just don’t seem to have identifiable speakers and are better thought of as offering, as Culler puts it, “not a voice but a voicing” (31). For Culler, having a way to think about and value such poems will be a boon.

Culler also is wary of the flattening effect that approaching lyrics as dramatic monologues tends to have. He states, “[T]his model deflects attention from what is most singular, most mind-blowing even, in those lyrics, and puts readers on a prosaic, novelizing track: the reader looks for a speaker who can be treated as a character in a novel, whose situation and motives one must reconstruct” (2). This “novelizing account of the lyric…fails to respond to what is most extravagant and most distinctive” about lyric (3). Indeed, this flattening is so powerful that “[c]urrent models falsify the long tradition of lyric and encourage students to think about lyrics in ways that neglect some of the central features of lyric poetry, both present and past” (3). 

For Culler, the central features of lyric are not the, as he–following the work of Roland Greene–more routinely calls them, fictive but rather the ritualistic. The fictive “involves a plot and circumstances that suggest a fictional world”; it “is what we produce when we attempt to imagine a fictional speaker and a situation of utterance, as in the dramatic monologue, but also the past events that are evoked in the act of lyric enunciation and subordinated in various ways to present meaning” (123). Ritual is something else altogether. Citing Greene, Culler states, the ritualistic element is “everything that can be construed as ‘directions for a performance,” all the aspects of a poem, from “‘prosodic elements’” to “‘rhetorical, semantic, and symbolic features’” that make lyric “‘utterance uniquely disposed to be re-uttered,’” offering “‘a performative unity into which readers and auditors may enter at will’” (123).

According to Culler, Greene “maintains that ‘lyric discourse is defined by the dialectical play of ritual and fictional phenomena, or correlative modes of apprehension that are nearly always available in every lyric, though particular specimens, collections, and schools may try to protect one at the expense of the other’” (123). Culler works to draw attention to the ritualistic, and away from the overly attended-to fictive, which “involves a plot and circumstances that suggest a fictional world” (123). Though Culler states, “Lyric, I conclude, involves a tension between ritualistic and fictional elements–between formal elements that provide meaning and structure and serve as instructions for performance and those that work to represent character or event” (7), he also can be more emphatic, calling lyric “a ritualistic form with occasional fictional elements” (336). Elsewhere, Culler states that “we need a model that allows for [the dramatic monologue] by acknowledging the tension in lyric between story and character, on the one hand, and song on the other, but the ultimate dominance of song is distinctive of lyric” (122). Whether the relationship between fictive and ritualistic is that of “dialectical play” or “tension,” it’s clear what part of the binary Culler privileges.

Culler works to present the lyric as much more fundamentally itself an event and not the representation of other events. He investigates many of the ways that poems do this. This includes examining a number of strategies used to make lyric performance present at a variety of levels. Grandly and obviously this occurs through rhythm, to which Culler devotes a chapter (chapter 4, “Rhythm and Repetition”). Much more subtly, Culler examines lyric’s strange use of the English language’s “special nonprogressive present with verbs of action to incorporate events while reducing their fictional, narrative character and increasing their ritualistic feel” (287)–that is, hearing the difference between, say, “I wander through each chartered street” and “I am wandering through…” 

Most significantly, though, Culler links the lyric with the performative. At one level, this means that “lyrics are constructed for iterability” (123). But it also means the close linking of lyric to performative speech acts–which “perform the acts to which they refer” (125), that is, with “language which accomplishes the act to which it refers, as in ‘I hereby call this meeting to order,’” which “transforms the linguistic terrain: literature becomes no longer a marginal and derivative linguistic practice, a set of pseudo-assertions, but can claim a place among creative and world-changing modes of language that bring into being that to which they refer or accomplish that of which they speak” (15). 

Key among lyric’s performatives, among its most fundamental but also extravagant and mind-blowing aspects, is apostrophe. Citing Barbara Johnson, Culler offers “the modern usage of the term”: “‘Apostrophe in the sense in which I will be using it involves the direct address to an absent, dead, or inanimate being by a first-person speaker….’” (213).   For Culler, apostrophe is “inherently performative” (15). As a result, “Address to someone or something gives the poem a character of event, and the less ordinary the addressee, the more the poem seems to become a ritualistic invocation” (188).

To be clear, for Culler, apostrophe is not just one of lyric poetry’s many tactics; rather, he wants it to be understood as a fundamental condition of lyric. For Culler, lyric’s mode of address is “usually indirect” (191). Nearly foundational to lyric is “characteristic indirection,” which Culler refers to as “‘triangulated address’: addressing the audience of readers by addressing or pretending to address someone or something else, a lover, a god, natural forces, or personified abstractions” (8). This may now be a bit less like John Stuart Mills’s notion of “overhearing” the lyric address and more like the poet occasionally “winking at the reader,” but still the core indirection is the same (206). And the reader the poem posits is most typically an anonymous reader so that within poems “[a]ddress to a ‘you’ construable as the reader is rare…and the authoritative Handbook of Literary Rhetoric claims that such address has the effect of an apostrophe since it is an unusual turning away from the anonymity of readership” (192). Culler offers a brief but compelling reading of the changing value of the “you” in Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo”–from “any observer” to the sense that the reader themself is being addressed–in order to help account for that poem’s power (196).

Of course, lyrics also tend to deploy specific apostrophes–addresses to, say, the sun, the moon, the dead, Justice–that are used to various effects, and Culler offers a number of insights into these phenomena, as well. For example, he notes that apostrophes are often thought to be “intensifiers, images of invested passion” (213). While many are so, Culler notes that apostrophe–“a distinct poetic operation, a linguistic artifice” (213)–has a much wider range of usage. For Culler, apostrophe can offer “an intimate restructuring of affective space” (214). It can be used to create a “a displacement of great delicacy” (215). Or else it can be deployed–as in the initial turning from lover to flower in Edmund Waller’s “Song”–as “gracious and witty indirection” (221). Culler states, “[W]ith apostrophic address a range of effects are possible” (217), and among these effects are the “ceremonial-ritualistic”; the “socially adept”; and the “prophetic” (223). Culler even notes that “[t]he figure of apostrophe, which seems above all to seek to establish relations between self and other, can also on occasion be read as an act of radical interiorization and solipsism,” an effect, Culler suggests, that “comes out with special clarity in poems that multiply apostrophes to different figures,” as in Wordsworth’s Intimations Ode, in which the various apostrophes “function as nodes or concretizations of moments of poetic reflection” (225). For Culler, “This internalization is important because it works against narrative and its accompaniments: sequentiality, causality, linear time, teleological meaning” (225). Whatever the specific effect, for Culler, “The key is not passionate intensity, but rather the ritual invocation of elements of the universe, the attempt, even to evoke the possibility of a magical transformation. This is manifestly central to the tradition of song…” (216). The key, in short, is ritualistic engagement with the world. 

Apostrophe is so strange, so extravagant, it is a risk,and sometimes even an embarrassment. Culler states, “Such blatant apostrophes have been central to the lyric tradition and mark the vatic aspect of that tradition: invoking all manner of things, and thus presuming the potential responsiveness of the universe, in what is the acme of poetic presumption. The vatic stance is a potential embarrassment to poets…: they frequently revolt against it, mock it, or retreat from it, while still relying on it at some fundamental level. It is also an embarrassment to critics, who are inclined to ignore it or transform apostrophic address into description” (190). He adds, “Apostrophe is a palpable embarrassment, because it is a figure of all that is most radical, pretentious, and mystificatory in the lyric…” (190)

Still, despite all of this, for Culler, apostrophe is crucial to lyric:

As a figure endemic to poetry that finds little place in other discourses, apostrophe works as a mark of poetic vocation. Asking winds to blow or seasons to stay their coming or mountains to hear one’s cries is a ritual action, whereby voice calls in order to be calling, and seeks to manifest its calling, to establish its identity as poetical voice. A maker of poems constitutes him or herself as poet, by presuming to address various “you”s, weather in love poems or odes, or elegies, or just poetic observations, with address to leaves, or weeds. In an operation that sounds tautological, the vocative of apostrophe is a device which the poetic subject uses to establish with the object a relationship that helps to constitute the subject itself as poetic, even vatic. Apostrophic address works to establish a relation to the poetic tradition (critics who dismissed apostrophe as merely an inherited classical convention admit this much), as if each address to wind, flowers, mountains, gods, beloveds, were a repetition of earlier poetic calls.” (216-17)

And the vocation of the lyric poet is to create the sense of the lyric present:  

The fundamental characteristic of lyric, I am arguing, is not the description and interpretation of a past event but the iterative and iterable performance of an event in the lyric present, in the special “now,” of lyric articulation. The bold wager of poetic apostrophe is that the lyric can displace a time of narrative, of past events reported, and place us in the continuing present of apostrophic address, the “now” in which, for readers, a poetic event can repeatedly occur. (226)

This is thrilling. It is so deeply informing for me, on a variety of fronts. I can already tell that this will affect my teaching in many ways. I can imagine lessons on the ritualistic aspects of poetry for my introduction to poetry course and for my writing poetry course. I admit that in my introduction to poetry course I use Sound and Sense, one of the textbooks Culler singles out for the ways that it foregrounds the dramatic monologue approach to lyric (110). I can fine tune my students’ readings and the kinds of questions we ask about the poems we read. For my student poets, these ideas will undoubtedly further attune them to the traditions of the lyric, make them closer readers, offer them a wider range of maneuvers they might make in their own work. Heck, all of this is so inspiringly provocative, I now want to teach a course on the lyric–! We shall see.

Culler’s work also sheds light on details and aspects of my work with the turn. The turn at the end of Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” (mentioned above) has been the subject of discussion in two venues. In Structure & Surprise, it’s one of the poems with the shocking kind of turn that Rachel Zucker describes in her writing on the epiphanic turn. At the Voltage Poetry site, the dynamics of the poem’s turning are considered by James Pollock (here). Culler’s thinking on the poem contributes additionally to my understanding and appreciation of how that great poem operates. More largely, though, Culler’s thinking is directly applicable to a kind of turn I’ve been thinking about and gathering instances of: the turn-to-another structure. I’ve sensed intuitively how compelling such turning can be; however, I’ve not yet systematically tried to account for its power. Culler provides me with the understanding to see how this works.

As we’ll see, in the next section the fact that Culler attunes me to the turn is not at all coincidental. 

Culler’s Turns

Culler, of course, knows about turns and many of the structures of which they are a part. He also regularly recognizes turning in poems and quite often explicitly appreciates the dynamic of turning. Turns are mentioned by some of the theorists and critics Culler cites. For example, Hegel’s high esteem for Pindar centers on turning: “Pindar…is extravagantly praised (‘attains the summit of perfection’) as one who, while celebrating, on commission, a victor in games, ‘easily turns from the external stimuli given him to profound utterances on the general nature of mortality and religion, and then, along with this theme, on heroes, heroic deeds, the foundations of states, etc….’” (99). After citing the second stanza of Seamus Heaney’s “Death of a Naturalist,” where a dynamic turning of the poem is initiated and in which, in fact, the speaker reports, he “turned,” Culler cites critic Mutlu Konuk Blasing who, among other things, recognizes the significant turning, as well, stating, “‘The birth of a poet is at once a relearning of language, a reliving of what infantile amnesia forgets, and a “turning” away from it again, now into poetic language’” (175-6). 

Culler also partakes in this critical attentiveness to turns. He acknowledges the strong turning toward the end of Baudelaire’s “The Carcass.” In this poem, Culler reports, “a speaker reminds his mistress, going into considerable detail, of a rotting carcass they encountered this morning, and end ends [sic] by telling her, ‘–And yet you will be like this excrement, / This horrible infection, / O star of my eyes, sun of my being, / You, my angel, my passion’” (267). The surprise here is that “[t]his poem…turns out, strangely, not to be a carpe diem poem,” and in fact it “turns out to be, implausibly, a poem about the achievements of poetic form” (268). Culler also characterizes Dickinson’s “The Heart asks Pleasure–first–” as “a poetic reflection on the propensities of the human heart, with a real kicker in the tail” (112).

Perhaps we should not be surprised by this interest in the turn. It largely follows from Culler’s interest in apostrophe. The origins of apostrophe, as the etymology of the word indicates (literally, “to turn away”), is in turning:

Quintillian, speaking of oratory, defines apostrophe as “a diversion of our words to address someone other than the judge”; and though he cautions against it, “since it would certainly seem more natural that we should specifically address ourselves to those whose favor we desire to win,” he allows that occasionally “some striking expression of thought is necessary,…which can be given greater point and vehemence when addressed to some person other than the judge.” In forensic rhetoric, apostrophe is a turning from the actual audience to address someone or something else (the opponent, the fatherland, justice), and the etymology of the term emphasizes the turning rather than the anomalous address… (212). 

Culler argues that apostrophe in lyric is more thoroughgoing than just this kind of turning. That’s understandable, and he makes a good case for why this should be the case. Among other things, he notes (concluding the above quotation) that “but outside the courtroom, apostrophe has long denoted address to someone or something other than the actual audience; it includes address to individuals, but it especially denotes address to what is not an actual listener: abstractions, inanimate objects, or persons absent or dead” (212). 

But it also remains the case that apostrophe and turning are connected. Culler makes note of the specifically apostrophic turning in Sappho’s fragment 16: “Sappho cites the example of Helen, who left everything for the one she loved, but the poem suddenly turns at the end to Anactoria, who is now gone” (308). He states, as well, “The turn to Anactoria at the end is unexpected but links the individual thought and situation to the general theme in a way that comes to be characteristic of lyric” (309). The same with W. B. Yeats’s “Among School Children,” in which, Culler notes, “reiterated contrasts between age and youth from a structure from which the poem suddenly turns in the penultimate stanza with an apostrophe” (228). Commenting on J.D. McClatchy’s “Weeds”, Culler notes that the emergence of a “you”–“That sudden ‘you’”–is “a very effective touch–one we don’t expect” (189). The great effect is that it turns the poem into a successful lyric: “It moves the poem from poetic reflection to invocation, event, and makes it more than a musing on the resilience of some plants: a celebration of their overcoming of adversity, as the address to a ‘you’ brings speaker and plant together in the hope of dissemination” (189). But the emergence of this sudden you is prepared for by the poem’s turn: after talking about weeds in general in the first stanza, the poem turns in its second stanza to convert weed-like persistence into a symbol of “small / Unlooked for joy,” and then becomes a question: “Where did it come from, / With these pale shoots / And drooping lavender bell?” and all of this makes way for the lyricizing apostrophe. 

As with the above poems by Dickinson, Yeats, and McClatchy, so many of the poems cited by Culler contain clear, decisive, often thrilling turns. However, more generally their turns are not commented upon. Significant turns (just to cite some poems not mentioned elsewhere) occur in Sappho’s fragment 31 (“He seems to me equal to the gods that man”) (63); Baudelaire’s “Obsession” (79-80); George Herbert’s “Virtue” (112-13); Keats’s “This Living Hand” (197); “Western Wind” (216); the end of the ninth elegy in Rilke’s Duino Elegies (224); A. R. Ammons’s “Dominion” (230); Wordsworth’s “Daffodils” (324) and “Tintern Abbey” (327-30); Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” (337-8). All of these poems feature turns, as do so many others mentioned by Culler, including, of course, many sonnets, which bring with them their voltas.

The presence of the turn is important here. Theory of the Lyric begins with what Culler refers to as “an inductive approach”–the title of his book’s first chapter–to lyric, examining nine poems Culler believes are exemplary and then he investigates them to begin to make out the elements of lyric–the ritualistic, apostrophic, and minimalist fiction–that emerge inductively from this process. These poems include:

Sappho’s “Ode to Aphrodite”

Horace’s Ode 1.5

The first poem in Petrarch’s Canzoniere

Goethe’s “Heath Rose”

Leopardi’s “The Infinite”

Baudelaire’s “To a Woman Passing By”

Lorca’s “The Moon Comes Out”

Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow”

Ashbery’s “This Room”

Each and every one of these poems contains turning. Though its power may be turned down in the Lorca and Williams, the power is on very high in, at least, the Horace and the Baudelaire. Culler also uses a version of this inductive approach in an attempt to give evidence for his sense that the lyric favors the present tense: scanning The Norton Anthology of Poetry, he finds that “only 123 of 1,266 poems are in the past tense, 21 of which are ballads” (277). An endnote reveals another similar count: “Vendler’s Poems, Poets, Poetry provides an anthology with 194 poems in the present against 43 in past tenses, with another 11 moving from past to present” (379; n. 25). I’ve yet to do my own accounting, but it’s hard to imagine that the ratio of poems with turns to poems without would be at least as compelling as the numbers that sway Culler’s beliefs about lyric. 

I’ll think about this oversight in the section “Lyric Present and the Turn” (below). For now, I turn to a consideration of how Culler is not only interested in turns, but structures, as well.

Very Common Moves: Culler’s Lyric Structures

“Lyric Structures,” the sixth chapter of Theory of the Lyric, begins with these questions: “What different sorts of lyrics should we distinguish? What structures or modes of organization, in addition to rhythm and sound patterning, are particularly important and distinctive?” (244) Culler follows these questions with a brief survey of some idiosyncratic efforts to categorize lyric subgenres–including Alastair Fowler’s in Kinds of Literature; those found in Companion to Poetic Genre, edited by Erik Martiny; and Helen Vendler’s in Poems, Poets, Poetry–and an overview of the “recognized” categories: form–or “verse and stanza structure” (245)–occasion, “a combination of formal qualities and thematic orientation” (245). Ultimately, though, such efforts, in Culler’s view, end up “haphazard” and non-comprehensive (245). 

Still, Culler notes, they “are pedagogically useful, alerting readers to the sorts of things poems may be doing” (245). He notes, as well, that they “capture a salient fact about the lyric tradition,” which is the degree to which lyric poems tend to refer to one another (245). Culler makes clear: “Contributions to the study of lyric often take the form of identifying a particular sort of poem–a tradition not previously recognized but which seems significant once it is identified…” (245). He notes, “Grouping poems as instances of a type both singles out something notable that poets have done and makes salient the variations within this type” (246). He continues, “Such categories are valuable as a way of indicating the sorts of things that lyrics do and identifying different possibilities of lyric structure,” to then ask this question: “What sorts of distinctive lyric structures can we discover?” (246)

And then Culler clarifies that he himself wishes to differentiate between form and structure: “I speak of ‘lyric structures’ both because the term lyric form is best reserved for types defined by formal structure, such as the sonnet, villanelle, or sestina, and because my interest in the possibilities of lyric focuses as much on aspects of lyric and particular strategies and configurations within lyrics as on recognized types of lyric” (246). 

To be clear: by “structure” Culler does not mean specifically the pattern of a poem’s turning, as is meant by the word here, at this site. For Culler, structure remains a bit more loosely, more broadly defined. Though Culler in fact does not define it, it clearly means something like “organized in something other than strictly formal ways.” However, the stricter definition of structure as pattern of a poem’s turning certainly fits into Culler’s conception of structure, and turning in fact is featured in this chapter. 

Very interested in the play of tenses in lyric poems, Culler is keenly attuned to and aware of temporal turning in poetry. Culler notes, “A very common structure is the move from past to present: the past anecdote explicitly pulled into the lyric present at the end, with a present-tense reflection on the significance of the incident recounted or other references to a present of enunciation. This is more widespread as a lyric structure than the lyric narrative completely in the past” (285). Culler cites Wordsworth’s “I wandered lonely as a cloud” as a “classic example,” but also offers his “She dwelt among the untrodden ways” and Shelley’s “Ozymandias” as additional example before recognizing specifically that “[i]n Petrarch’s Canzoniere a quarter of the poems are structured by the contrast between then and now, past and present…” (285). Culler ultimately even claims that “[t]he structure is so common that it seems almost pointless to cite examples,” though, to his credit, he acknowledges that two of the nine poems in his first chapter’s inductive approach–Leopardi’s “The Infinite” and Baudelaire’s “To a Woman Passing By”–do in fact deploy this structure (286). 

Turns are particularly crucial, though, it seems, for Culler in one particular way: turns validate the poems which occur fully in the past tense and which Culler admires. Such poems, of course, are challenges to Culler’s system: they challenge his idea that lyric is primarily keyed to the present. So, even though, in a chapter subsection titled “Framing Past Events” Culler notes that there in fact are few canonical poems in the past tense (277), he takes time to endeavor to show how poems in the past tense still resonate. According to Culler, “Poems that remain in the past throughout often acquire an allegorical character. Readers wonder why we are being told about these past events, and if the poem declines explicitly to draw a present moral or conclusion, the implications may be easy to infer from cultural conventions” (279). Culler then shows how this occurs in a handful of poems; however, it also clearly is the case–it even occurs, at moments, to Culler–that turning is crucial for this. About one of his examples, George Herbert’s “Redemption,” Culler notes that it is “a narrative of past events” (279), but he also understands it to be transformed by its turn: “The sudden, chilling turn at the end powerfully jolts the reader out of the narrative of leases and landlords and into the Christian allegory” (280). Here, the turn redeems the narrative, successfully transfiguring it into a lyric poem. 

Though “a less dramatic example from a more modern era,” Walt Whitman’s “When I heard the Learn’d Astronomer” relies “on reader’s ability to recognize as self-evident a value-charged opposition between book learning and a more direct encounter with nature…” (280), an opposition clearly marked by the poem’s speaker’s decision to rise and glide out of the lecture–which occurs at the main turn of the poem. Dickinson’s “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” is one of the “[m]any” “enigmatical past-tense poems” by the poet that “take on this allegorical character…where the sequential narrative becomes an allegory of an experience otherwise impossible to recount, as the ending makes clear…” (280-1). For Culler, turns have the power to shift a poem into the domain of lyric.

Even beyond what is demonstrated in poems such as those above, Culler notes there are “other strategies for evoking significance while remaining in a narrative in the past” (281). They are subtler, but, though Culler doesn’t recognize it, here again the turn features. Examining Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill,” Culler notes how the poem “offers the rich evocation of a dreamy childhood without giving it a present function,” recognizing that “[t]he past is maintained even in the final stanza, when we might expect an explicit retrospective regret for the lost world” (282). Culler states, “But the claim not to have cared in the past of childhood that the farm would be forever fled and that to be green is to be already dying makes clear the nostalgic cast of this evocative narrative” (282). I appreciate that Culler brings his expectations to his reading, and that his expectations included the anticipation of a turn, and that the subversion of that expectation is significant to him. However, it also is the case that Culler misses a turn to the present at the end of the penultimate stanza: though at all other points in the poem time’s action takes place in the past tense (“Time let me hail and climb”; “Time let me play and be”) in the penultimate stanza it is expressed in the present tense: “And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows / In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs / Before the children green and golden / Follow him out of grace…” Though Culler misses it, the announced turn that then, indeed, fades back into the use of the past tense, contributes to his reading: time allowed for the past songs; it allows for even this one here, the one being sung in the recitation of “Fern Hill.”

My own understanding of another poem Culler discusses–in this case, Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz”–diverges from Culler’s understanding in similar ways: I believe Culler misses a turn in the poem. Culler notes, “In the twentieth century, especially…we find lyrics that remain resolutely in the past, without tying themselves to a function in the present of enunciation,” and he ends up reading “My Papa’s Waltz” through Barbara Herrnstein Smith’s assessment that this is one of the “‘pointless anecdotes’ that suffuse modern poetry,” but also in her recognition that one of the effects of the “‘non-assertive conclusion’ of such lyrics…is in fact to heighten the importance of what is presented…” (282). In short, it seems that for Culler, even this lyric in the past tense is transformed by pure lyric hyperbole. That certainly is part of the power of this short poem, but another part of the power is due to the poem’s subtle turn, initiated at the penultimate line’s “Then” and then completed with “still clinging,” a clear acknowledgement that–in addition to the rest of the poem–this memory has stayed with the speaker.

When considering the “many ways of classifying the structures of lyrics deploying the present tense,” Culler builds off of the work of German theoretician Wolfgang Kayser to determine that “[a]nother major group is what might be called poems of naming or definition, which use the simple present for supposedly atemporal truths…” (286). Here is lyric structure not obviously or necessarily tied to turning. However, it also just is the case that the three poems Culler cites as examples of this kind of epideictic poem–“Th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame”; “Correspondences”; and “‘Hope’ is a thing with feathers–”–all do have some clear turning in them (286). And turning seems to be a part of other structures Culler mentions, as well. About Dickinson’s “The Heart asks Pleasure–first–” he states that ultimately the poem is an “evocation of a present, continuing condition,” and one “cast in a minimal narrative form,” that and yet it is “structured as a narrative, for suspense and surprise” (286-7). Culler also notes that in other poems, such as Hopkins’s “As Kingfishers Catch Fire,” “[s]ometimes there is a framework of reasoning, as if the claim needed to be worked out and justified” (287). And finally: “Another possibility is a meditative structure, foregrounding reflections on one’s own thoughts, which,” Culler adds, “may, of course include references to past experiences” (287).

The chapter focused on “Lyrical Structures” does not contain everything Culler has to say about structure. Elsewhere, citing Paul de Man’s writing about Baudelaire’s “Correspondences,” he notes that “‘[t]he canon of romantic and post-romantic lyric poetry…offers innumerable versions and variations of this inside/outside pattern of exchange that founds the metaphor of lyrical voice as subject’” (80). Culler also is interested in 

poems which, in a very common move, substitute a nontemporal opposition for a temporal one, or substitute a temporality of discourse for a referential discourse. In lyrics of this kind a temporal problem is posed: something once present has been lost or attenuated; this loss can be narrated but the temporal sequence is irreversible, like time itself. Apostrophes displace this irreversible structure by removing it from linear time and locating it in a discursive time. The temporal movement from A to B, restructured by apostrophe, becomes a reversible alternation between A1 and B1: a play of presence and absence governed not by time but by poetic ingenuity or power.

The clearest example of this structure is the elege, which replaces an irreversible temporal disjunction, the movement of life to death, with a reversible alternation between mourning and consolation, evocations of absence and presence. (226-7)

Citing Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” Culler also acknowledges that “[p]oems that boldly apostrophize often end in questions and withdrawals” (235). 

So much of Culler’s discussion about structure–which he seems to think of broadly as other than merely formal organization–is focused specifically on turn-oriented structure. Culler’s thinking about structure certainly is amenable to, and can be supplemented by, it. The inside/outside structure is embodied in the dream-to-waking structure, as well as others, including the descriptive-meditative structure (which moves from outside to inside to outside). Elegiac structure is among the structures covered in Structure & Surprise. Turning to questions and withdrawals jibes with the ironic structure. The turn from past to present–or future–is captured in the retrospective-prospective structure. What exactly is meant by a “meditative structure”? Attention to turns offers multiple options: emblem structure; descriptive-meditative structure; metaphor-to-meaning structure. It’s hard to imagine that Culler also would not recognize as the kinds of lyric structures in which he is so interested so many of the structures in Structure & Surprise, and the additional structures discussed on the Structure & Surprise website.

Culler asks: What different sorts of lyrics should we distinguish? What structures or modes of organization…are particularly important and distinctive? What sorts of distinctive lyric structures can we discover? Culler, it seems, largely discovers structures organized around turns. In fact, when he states that [s]uch categories are valuable as a way of indicating the sorts of things that lyrics do, one of the very clear takeaways is that one of the things that a vast number of lyrics do is turn. 

So why is this aspect of lyric, the turn, not a more major part of Culler’s thinking?

Presenting the Lyrical Turn

It is fairly common, alas, to prize the turn but not know how to do so adequately, allowing one’s attention to the turn to meander, drift, and ultimately fade. As this website has revealed, this is the case with works by Helen Vendler and Robert Hass (discussed here and here), among others. These other thinkers love the turn, as well, but do not attend to the turn to the degree that their own admiration suggests they might, or should. In some instances, this might be due to the fact that the thinker–be they poet-critic, critic, or theorist–does not know what they’ve stumbled upon. In other instances, it may be that the thinker does realize how significant the turn and its structures are, or might be, and then turns away from that, from the immensity of taking on that new approach–often in addition to whatever other points they planned to make with their writing. Additionally, there’s also always the force of habit: so much discussion about poetry has been about form–it’s difficult to see other possibilities.

While, of course, it’s often not possible to discern the reasons or motivations behind missing the turn. And it may not be too important to do so: much more important is to see that it’s happening, recognize it, and reveal it.

Still, the place of the turn in Culler’s Theory of the Lyric is an incredibly strange one. Culler obviously prizes turns, which don’t simply crop up in his conversation but, in the chapter “Lyrical Structures,” actually accumulate into an understanding that is activated and, to an extent, systematized. My admittedly speculative assessment is that–whether or not he recognized his own great interest in turns–admitting the turn into his revision of the lyric would have been too much, too disruptive. Culler’s central effort in Theory of the Lyric is to demonstrate how poets create a ritualistic present in their poems; as he notes, “Fiction is about what happened next; lyric is about what happens now” (226). Culler’s focus is on that now, which is the possession of lyric, specifically. When Culler notes that “for the lyric…criticism must resist the dominance of the fictional, lest the distinctiveness of lyric be lost” (125), one can sense him giving himself instructions to resist giving too much credence to other elements he spots in the lyric, to maintain his focus. One can often see Culler wrestling with this. Culler states, “Nothing needs to happen in an apostrophic poem….In lyric there is characteristically dominance of the apostrophic and ritualistic. Nothing need happen in the poem because the poem is to be itself the happening” (226). But right after saying this, Culler acknowledges that “[t]he tension between the narrative and the apostrophic can be seen as the generative force behind a whole array of lyrics” (226). 

Two points are vital to make here. First, if it was not obvious before, it is obvious after hearing Culler say that “nothing need happen in a poem”: Culler’s is a book for those who consider poetry ex post facto. While, after the fact, it may seem that shifting a poem from the past to the present is a relatively simple affair, or that creating suspense and surprise in a poem is relatively simple, for anyone teaching a young poet how to do these things, such endeavors are in fact quite complex. Managing the fictional elements to craft a poem that offers the kind of structural development Culler and so many others so greatly prize involves the sophisticated negotiation of elements, and so necessitates close consideration.

Second, while excellent in and of itself, Theory of the Lyric has demonstrated the necessity of and opened the way for a fuller accounting of lyric. At its most basic, this fuller account would include the fact that lyrics turn rhetorically and/or dramatically. Due to this, the theory would need to do more than privilege the ritualistic aspects of lyric but rather think hard about the relationship between the ritualistic and the turn. Is it an interplay? A tension? A dialectical relation? Is the turn, in fact, a part of the lyric’s ritual? Does the turn create the narrative, the sequence, the temporality, that allows ritualistic making present to in fact become significant? For Culler, the lyric is, in a way, a moment’s monument, but that moment nearly always involves a turn and in fact often is centered on that action itself. What does this mean for the theory of the lyric? This should be pursued.

Culler himself notes that “[i]f students are not presented with an adequate model of lyric, they will read according to whatever inadequate models they have previously assimilated, whether from explicit accounts or halting surmise” (4). He continues, “We need to provide students and other readers with a better model of the lyric in order to make possible a richer, more perceptive experience of lyrics” (4-5). Culler’s Theory of the Lyric certainly details just such a better model, and it may even point to an even better one.

To Get to the Marrow, Turn

8 10 2019

For poet Adam O’Riordan, a sonnet stripped down to its most essential form is a sonnet focused on the turn. In “The Sonnet as a Silver Marrow Spoon,” O’Riordan recounts how, as a young sonneteer, he was overwhelmed by the demands of the sonnet form, and so he focused instead on the sonnet’s structure, which swerves around the volta.

It’s a lovely short essay on the power of the turn, one that emphasizes structure over form–an endeavor shared with this blog’s posts and pages. (See especially “The Structure-Form Distinction.”)

After you’ve read O’Riordan’s essay, be sure to read Richard Wilbur’s amazing “This Pleasing Anxious Being,” referred to by O’Riordan. And then be sure to check out some of O’Riordan’s own sonnets, which take some lovely, intricate turns. Two can be found here.


The Ink Dark Moon

30 05 2018


While preparing to team teach a course in Japanese poetry and poetics, I have had the great fortune to read The Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Court of Japan, translated by Jane Hirshfield, with Mariko Aratani. The poems (in translation) are marvelous. They are so for a variety of reasons, but key among them is that fact that, through and through, The Ink Dark Moon is a treasure trove of turns.

There are turns of all sorts. There are concessional turns:

Although the wind
blows terribly here,
the moonlight also leaks
between the roof planks
of this ruined house. (124)

There are ironic turns:

I think, “At least in my dreams
we’ll be able to meet…”
Moving my pillow
this way and that on the bed,
completely unable to sleep. (129)

There are questions and answers:

You ask my thoughts
through the long night?
I spent it listening
to the heavy rain
beating against the windows. (107)

There are ironic questions and answers:

If the one I’ve waited for
came now, what should I do?
This morning’s garden filled with snow
is far too lovely
for footsteps to mar. (132)

There are cliche and critiques:

I used to say,
“How poetic,”
but now I know
this dawn-rising men do
is merely tiresome! (63)

However, because the poets often use the natural world as a prism through which to observe and try to understand their inner lives, there are a great number of emblem and metaphor-to-meaning structures:

As pitiful as a diver
far out in Suma Bay
who has lost an oar from her boat,
this body
with no one to turn to. (33)


Night deepens
with the sound
of a calling deer,
and I hear
my own one-sided love. (9)


A string of jewels
from a broken necklace,
more difficult to keep hold of
even than these is one’s life. (141)


The dewdrop
on a bamboo leaf
stays longer
than you, who vanish
at dawn. (108)


If, in an autumn field,
a hundred flowers
can untie their streamers,
may I not also openly frolic,
as fearless of blame? (39)


Like a ripple
that chases the slightest caress
of the breeze–
is that how you want me
to follow you? (25)


Last year’s
fragile, vanished snow
is falling now again–
if only seeing you
could be like this. (88)


Watching the moon
at dawn,
solitary, mid-sky,
I knew myself completely,
no part left out. (89)


The emblematic nature of many of these poems is underscored by the fact that the poems in The Ink Dark Moon often accompanied gifts (acknowledged in headnotes to the poems), and use those gifts as lyric occasions:

Written for a current wife to send to an angry ex-wife, attached to a bamboo shoot

The bamboo’s
old root
hasn’t changed at all–
Is there even one night
he sleeps alone? No. (71)

The drive to make connections between the inner life and the external world is so powerful that it can’t be stopped, despite (supposedly) knowing better:

This heart is not
a summer field,
and yet…
how dense love’s foliage
has grown (103)


While all of the above poems employ the emblem or the metaphor-to-meaning turn, I want to share two poems that have at their core the relationship between the inner life and the natural world (conveyed as metaphor) but that turn in different kinds of ways.

The following poem is included among a group of poems mourning the death of Prince Atsumichi:

Remembering you…
The fireflies of this marsh
seem like sparks
that rise
from my body’s longing. (145)

And this particular poem, and the haunting metaphor at its core, terrifies me:

How sad,
to think I will end
as only
a pale green mist
drifting the far fields. (28)


I’ve written elsewhere (including here, here, here, and here) of Jane Hirshfield’s important engagements with the turn. In “On Japanese Poetry and the Process of Translation,” an afterword in The Ink Dark Moon, Hirshfield reveals that the turn was an important consideration for her as she translated. Analyzing the ways that one of the poems employs “some of the means by which Japanese poetry attains remarkable depth within a brief utterance,” Hirshfield notes the emblematic / metaphoric element at the core of so many of these poems, stating, “There is the all-pervasive device of intertwining human and natural worlds, in which the natural illuminates the human to keenly felt effect” (166). And Hirshfield goes on to explicitly identify the turn as one of the tools  for making great verse: “There is the two-phase rhetoric, in which occurs the movement of human heart and mind that is essential to any good poem” (166-167).

The front matter of The Ink Dark Moon includes a list of poetry by Hirshfield, and, published in 1990, it contains only two books: Alaya and Of Gravity & Angels. It, thus, is likely the case that Hirshfield’s work with The Ink Dark Moon was an important step on her own journey to understand and craft compelling turns. It certainly feels this way.

Fans of the turn, of Japanese poetry, of Hirshfield, and/or of poetry that, as the book’s introduction states, “illuminate[s]” our lives will find much to admire and investigate in The Ink Dark Moon. Do check it out!

Lauren Schlesinger’s “Turning In & Away”

9 05 2018


So, this is pretty cool: as part of her degree requirements to earn an MFA at the University of Washington, Lauren Schlesinger wrote a thesis titled Turning In & Away: A Discussion on the Turn from Description to Revelation within Emblem Poems.”

Here’s the thesis’s abstract:

Turning In & Away explores how poets can use the notion of a turn to generate a sense of uncertainty and surprise within emblem poems. Using poems by Gjertrud Schnackenberg, Elizabeth Bishop, and Emily Dickinson, this critical thesis interrogates how the turn between description and meditation can be used to destabilize how a poem is read. Furthermore, this study examines how these turns can be endorsed by other elements of craft besides their placement within and orientation to the dominating structure of a poem’s argument. This essay concludes with a final discussion about how the turn proves to be crucial for establishing the sense of intimacy or sense of distance between the speaker and the object of inquisition. (2)

The poems Schlesinger focuses on are Schnackenberg’s “Advent Calendar,”Bishop’s “Cirque d’Hiver,” and Dickinson’s “There’s a certain Slant of light”–wonderful emblem poems, all.

Schlesinger’s approach is to use the thinking on the emblem poem found in Structure & Surprise as an initial entry into the poem, but then to move beyond this kind of introductory treatment of the structure in order to examine the more nuanced, complex dynamics of the emblem’s turn. As Schlesinger states,

[W]hile explicating poems by Gjertrud Schnackberg, Elizabeth Bishop, and Emily Dickinson, I will investigate how the making and unfolding of an emblem poem is also an investigation into how the poet navigates the relationship between the eye and the mind—such that the mind does not always follow the eye, but always the interplay and dance between them is essential to the emblem poem. (4)

What follows, then, is a close reading of each of the poems. Each reading is attentive, perceptive, and revealing. Anyone interested in the emblem structure will find these readings highly engaging.

Of particular interest, though, is the fact that MFA candidate Schlesinger is clearly intrigued by the emblem poem as a working poet. Schlesinger states,

[I]t is evident that—for me— as I proceed to write emblem poems in the future, I must reconsider how I, too, can modulate the orientation of the speaker to the object—to delay, to fuse, to wrench, or to annihilate the speaker’s consciousness between and from the source that arouses such a meditation. Pace and placement of this turn determine the momentum of surprise. (32)


I can’t wait to read Schlesinger’s work! I’ll post what I can of it when I can.

In the meantime, if you’re hungry for more great thinking about turns, check out the contributions made to the Voltage Poetry website by the faculty on Schlesinger’s thesis committee: “Turn, Counterturn and Stand: Music and Meaning in Wallace Stevens’ ‘Autumn Refrain,'” by Pimone Triplett; and “False Turns in Alan Dugan’s ‘Last Statement for a Last Oracle,'” by Andrew Feld.


8 05 2018

Check out “Turning,” another lovely poem highlighting the turn from poet Daniel Smart.

Be sure to check out all of Dan’s structures and surprises on his poem-a-day (!) site: Rhythm Is the Instrument.

“blow thou will”: Two Critics Re-structure “Western Wind”

12 07 2017

In a previous post, I wrote about an odd essay by James Longenbach called “Lyric Knowledge.” Here is the paragraph from that post in which I summarize the main thrust and tactic of Longenbach’s essay:

Here is the key idea of “Lyric Knowledge,” which is subtitled “Ideas of order in poetry”: poems offer a different kind of readerly experience when read out of the order in which they are written. That is–to be clear (yes, you did just read correctly what I wrote): again and again in this essay, Longenbach takes poems, restructures them–sometimes putting the final few lines first; sometimes reversing the whole text (with a few, necessary syntactical adjustments) so that what was the final line goes first; what was the penultimate line goes second; what was the third-to-last line goes third; etc–and then claims amazement at the fact that the two texts create different experiences for readers.

I note that Longenbach employs this method with four poems or parts of poems, including “Western Wind,” which he turns from this:

Western wind, when will you blow?
The small rain down can rain.
Christ, if my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again.

to this:

Christ, if my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again.
Western wind, when will you blow?
The small rain down can rain.

I argue, as well, that Longenbach really is concerned with the poem’s structural turning. In fact, he describes the action that takes place in the middle of this “Western Wind” as a “turn.”

It turns out, though, that Longenbach was not the first critic to employ “Western Wind” in this way: in The Poet and the Poem Judson Jerome did something very similar over 40 years ago.

The poem comes up in a discussion in which Jerome is differentiating “two basic elements of poetry, the thing and the thought” (272). After quoting the brief, anonymous lyric, Jerome asks, “What are the reasons for its endurance?” (272) After dismissing the poem’s basic, perhaps universal emotionality as a reason, Jerome also dismisses many of the poem’s formal qualities: its alliteration, rhyme, rhythm (272). According to Jerome, “All this discussion relates to the way in which the poem delicately incorporates its experience, that element I have called thing. But it still does not account for the impact of the poem, and we should look on to thought” (272).

Jerome makes clear that “thought” is not “a moral,” nor is it “some philosophical observation on the nature of love, or its relation to changing weather,” and nor is it “meteorological information” (272). Instead, “thought” is “the shape of the experience of this poem,” a shape which Jerome had previously described as “a large equilateral triangle, upside-down, its base on top and fulcrum on the bottom” (273). Jerome clarifies:

It begins with widespread arms and lifted face, appealing to the elements–as broadly universal and impersonal as possible. The second line narrows the experience from wind to rain, from vague to specific. But we are still talking about the weather. The next ejaculation is not to a force of nature but to a specific God, a man’s god, and the sentence form has changed from a question to an interjection, a subjunctive, imagining a particular resolution; we go from love to my armis [arms] to bed in steady steps of increasing concreteness. (273)

Jerome continues:

It is that shape, that bearing down on the particular, which seems to me comparable to a scientific formula. It is the shape of an experience which you can imitate physically by flinging your arms out, your head back, then, symmetrically, smoothly, sweeping your arms in, as in an embrace, pulling your head forward, until you are all tucked in. That same shape might contain any variety of particular experiences. (373)

Jerome then suggests, “We might turn the poem inside out” and does so, rewriting it thus:

Wer I in my bed again,
My love in my arms entwined,
The smalle raine down might raine,
And blow, blow, Westron wind! (273)

By seeing the poem reshaped, we can see better how strong its original shape made it. Jerome states, “It seems a bit weak by comparison…” (273). However, Jerome also notes, “[B]ut that shape, too, the movement from the personal, intimate, particular, to the wide sweep of the page and general, might well serve as a formula for a poem, the shape of a different kind of experience” (273). Just not the experience which serves as a foundation for “Western Wind.”

Jerome notes, “Both the concrete and abstract, specific and general, must always be present in the poem. I have been discussing so far the poem’s need for shape—a beginning, a procedure, a resolution—with some general applicability to experience” (273). He reminds his readers that a poem’s thought / shape still requires its thingness “diction, imagery, sounds, tone,” but that if all of this can be put together one can see “the difference between the simple greatness of ‘Westron winde’ and the commonplace” (274).

I’m incredibly intrigued that two poet-critics from different generations can come to such similar conclusions using such similar tactics. They’re not identical. Longenbach’s less radical method of rearrangement focuses more on the turn, I think. But they are very similar, and, of course, they use the same example. Perhaps now, we can add two more reasons for the endurance of “Western Wind”: it’s short enough that it’s relatively easy for critics to fully refashion to demonstrate their theories, and yet, within this small size the power of poetic structure / the turn / lyric knowledge / shape–whatever exactly one wants to call it–is contained, and, again and again, released.


‘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.

John Keats and the Dolphin’s Turn

8 09 2016

Previously on this blog, I’d reflected upon (and praised!) Peter Sack’s notion of the “dolphin’s turn.” As I noted in that post:

According to Sacks, the dolphin’s turn is “a transformative veering from one course to another, a way of being drawn off track to an unexpected destination…”  (Sacks adds: “[T]his turn is paradigmatic for the transportation system of poetry itself, both in its technical “versing,” and in its thematic and figural changes.”)  The dolphin is associated with such turning, of course, because it is a creature that itself is always transgressing boundaries, leaping and diving.

In large part, Sacks’s lecture (which you can listen to here) is an analysis of the dolphin’s turn as it occurs in a variety of poetic works, from the “Homeric Hymn to Pythian Apollo” to poems by Mandelstam, Celan, Bishop, and others.

One poem Sacks did not mention, but which I think deserves mention, is John Keats’s verse epistle to his brother George, and I make my case for my view over at the Keats Letters Project. (You can link directly to it here.)

While you should read Sacks, and perhaps my extension of his thinking, Keats’s verse epistle is required reading for those who love poetic turns. Dive in!

Structure as Pattern of Turning in James G. Hepburn’s Poetic Design: Handbook and Anthology

5 06 2016

When in Poetic Design: Handbook and Anthology, James G. Hepburn uses the word “structure” he means many things: “structure” comprises, among other things, stanzas, syntax, rhyme scheme, and line. However, for Hepburn, “structure” means, primarily, the pattern of a poem’s turning–the thing is, he is not explicit about this, though he should have been.

Right away in chapter 8, “Structure,” it seems as though structure might mean something  like the turn. Hepburn opens the chapter stating, “The structure of a poem is like the structure of a house: it is what underlies, supports, and frames the words, the alliteration, the metaphors, the rhymes. It is the integrated pattern and movement of all the parts” (109).

However, from this focused definition of structure, structure quickly comes to mean a great many things. In the next paragraph, structure means stanzas. Discussing Robert Frost’s “Dust of Snow,” Hepburn states, “The most obvious aspect of structure is the division of the poem into two stanzas” (109). He also notes that syntax is a part of this structure: “But look at the poem again, and observe that the poet has crossed the structure  with another structure: the two stanzas are part of a single sentence” (109-10). Further on, Hepburn adds an additional element to structure: “One aspect of the structure of the poem that has been unmentioned–and there are still others–is the rhyme scheme” (110). And, Hepburn adds, “Of course the individual line is an important structural element in any poem, and a more complete discussion of the two previous poems [“Dust of Snow” and Shakespeare’s sonnet 73] would have dealt with it too” (114).

For all of this range, this diversity, of what structure entails, it is clear that, though he never says it, the heart of structure, as the introduction to the chapter seemed to indicate it could be, is the turn.

The three poems focused on in this chapter feature distinct turns. “Dust of Snow” turns sharply between its two stanzas. Sonnet 73, as one would expect of a Shakespearean sonnet, turns distinctly between the third quatrain and the final couplet. The third poem, William Wordsworth’s “There Was a Boy”, turns profoundly between its two stanzas.

And Hepburn seems to be aware of this: most of his discussions of various structural components entail (though they only imply) the turn, that is, a major shift in the rhetorical and/or dramatic trajectory of a poem. Discussing the two stanzas in “Dust of Snow,” Hepburn notes, “The stanzaic division corresponds with a division between image and idea, or action and reaction: the crow shakes the snow in the first stanza, and the speaker of the poem reflects in the second” (109).

The same thing happens when discussing sonnet 73. Hepburn initially focuses on the rhyme scheme in this poem, noting that this particular sonnet has both a “fourfold structure” (abab-cdcd-efef-gg) and a “twofold structure” (ababcdcdefef–gg) (111). However, Hepburn knows (though he does not say) that the twofold structure pivots on the poem’s turn; he states, “The twofold aspect is supported by the structure of idea in the poem: the first twelve lines say that the speaker of the poem is growing old; the last two lines assert a consequence” (111). In the next paragraph, Hepburn expands on this, and, though he does not say it directly, directs his reader’s attention to the volta:

Now consider another aspect of structure, the development of image and idea. The first four lines present an image of autumn, the next four of a darkening evening, the next four of a dying fire. These three images can be thought of as constituting a single image of a dying fire on an autumn evening, or they can be seen as separate, essentially repeating images. Individually or together, they say: I am growing old. Again, one sees a structure in which the first twelve lines contrast with the last two. The division is further emphasized by the fact that the idea in first twelve lines is presented in sustained images, whereas the ideas in the last two lines is presented more directly. The two parts of the poem look different from each other: in the first twelve lines images are in the foreground, with the idea lying behind them; in the last two lines an idea is in the foreground, served by incidental metaphors. (111)

And the same thing happens with “There Was a Boy.” Of this poem, Hepburn first makes note of its “apparently irregular” structure, commenting on the different sizes of the stanzas (which are so irregular that Hepburn clarifies that each is “more fittingly called a verse paragraph”); on the presence of “several strong caesuras”; and on the facts “that the iambic pentameter rhythm is often broken” and “that there are many run-on lines” (113). Hepburn then turns from this view of the poem to argue for the structural unity of the poem; he states, “He [Wordsworth] does not rely upon a conventional form such as the sonnet, and he does not invent his own neat stanzaic structure; rather, he creates a fluid organic pattern” (113).

Hepburn begins his discussion of this fluid organic pattern by focusing on the poem’s use of line, including the ways that “incongruent grammatical structures” affect it–he notes, for example, that “almost every line in the first verse paragraph is run-on, and almost all the heavy grammatical pauses–ends of clauses and sentences–are placed within the lines rather than at the ends” (114). Hepburn observes that this technique creates “a steady forward movement” that feels “natural rather than sculpted” (114). Hepburn then contrasts the use of these structural elements to their use in the second verse paragraph, which feels “less unified than the first, and lacks something of its forward movement,” thus coming to seem “a diminishing afterthought” (114).

But, of course, this difference in the deployment of structural elements serves to help the poem enact the feelings and moods on either side of the poem’s major turn from lively celebration of wondrous, mystical life to fragmented mourning. As he considers the significance of this (unnamed) turn, Hepburn thinks about how it seems the second verse paragraph could be removed from the poem without too much loss (whereas “Dust of Snow” would be destroyed by the loss of its second stanza), but that in fact this is not the case; Hepburn states, “Yet nothing is more certain than that in its own way Wordsworth’s second verse paragraph is as important structurally as Frost’s” (114). To make his case, Hepburn notes the parallels between the boy’s and the man’s silent listening, and how, only with the second verse paragraph “does the reader himself [sic] stand mute, looking at boy and man in nature, listening to the meaning of life” (114-15).

Hepburn also makes a point that I think is not quite totally correct and that demonstrates a negative consequence of his inattention to the turn; he states,

As a further means of clarifying the structural importance of the second verse paragraph, contrast it now with the quatrains of Shakespeare’s poem. Any one of the quatrains (any one of the images contained by them) could be removed without vitally damaging the structure of the poem or the poem itself: something important would be lost, the clear and sedate narrowing of images and implication, but the poem could sustain the loss, and remain much the same as before. In Wordsworth’s poem the second image of the listening person reverberates against the first, enhances its meaning, gives the poem a direction into deeper meaning. (115)

I disagree with Hepburn’s comparing the second verse paragraph with a sonnet’s quatrain. The second verse paragraph, which comes after the turn, should instead be compared to Shakespeare’s couplet (or, had a different sonnet been used, Petrarch’s sestet). The result is the same: Hepburn still believes that the second verse paragraph cannot be removed. And this is good. However, this paragraph of Hepburn’s would have made much more sense had Hepburn written, “As a further means of clarifying the structural importance of the second verse paragraph, compare it now to the couplet of Shakespeare’s poem. Just as the couplet cannot be removed from that sonnet without irreparably damaging the meaning and significance of the poem, so can the second verse paragraph not be removed from ‘There Was a Boy.'”

The fact that Hepburn does not do this is the sign and seal of the fact that he does not pay adequate attention to the turn in his chapter on structure. He is generally aware of the turn, and his whole chapter on structure pivots on it, but he is not explicit about it, and so some infelicities and confusions arise where there need not be any. The bigger confusion that this partial inattention to the turn creates occurs at the outset of his chapter on structure. Hepburn states that structure is “like the structure of a house: it is what underlies, supports, and frames the words, the alliteration, the metaphors, the rhymes.” So, structure underlies, supports, and frames rhyme, but also rhyme is a structural “aspect” (110). This confusion could have been cleared up had Hepburn differentiated, as did Randall Jarrell in “Levels and Opposites: Structure in Poetry,” between “musical structure” and “other sorts of structure in lyrical poetry.”

In the introduction to How Does a Poem Mean?, the only introduction to poetry textbook that contains a chapter on the turn (though this book refers to it as the “fulcrum”), John Ciardi refers to the book’s final chapter on the turn as “the important one.”  Ciardi clarifies, “The present volume sets out simply to isolate some of the characteristics of poetry and to develop criteria by which parts of the poetic structure may be experienced in a more comprehensive way.  The final chapter suggests a method whereby all the criteria developed in the preceding chapters may be applied to the comprehension of the total poem.”

I think Hepburn agrees. He examines a number of structural characteristics of poems, but the turn is the key aspect of the poem these other characteristics orbit and contribute to. And this is excellent! (In fact, about Wordsworth’s poem Hepburn notes correctly that “[i]t has been impossible to describe the structure without clarifying the meaning, and it would be equally impossible to state the meaning without discussing the structure” (115).) I only wish that Hepburn had been more consistently explicit in articulating the centrality of the turn to his conception of poetic structure. In this way, his treatment of structure would have been more accurate and likely would not have included the small but still unnecessary missteps that it does.

The Turns of Tony Hoagland’s “Medicine”

21 05 2016

Anthony Wilson analyzes the twists and turns of Tony Hoagland’s poem “Medicine” here. Check it out!