On James Longenbach’s “Lyric Knowledge”

13 05 2016

At first glance, James Longenbach’s “Lyric Knowledge” is an incredibly odd and, so, perhaps weirdly intriguing, essay. It begins in a seemingly interesting way: it’s opening line states, “The impulse to be lyrical is driven by the need to be no longer constrained by oneself.” Whoa. Okay. It seems, as the whole introductory paragraph–about suffering, love, the familiar, novelty, experience–indicates, we’re entering some strange, new territory. But what follows such an opening turns out to be pretty standard stuff–stuff which, in fact, is only interesting for how obvious it is.

Or so it seems. Here, I want to explore “Lyric Knowledge” and suggest that this convoluted essay really is about some incredibly plain but incredibly potent truths about lyric poetry, truths that have been discussed repeatedly in Structure & Surprise, and in this, it’s accompanying blog. But I’ll then speculate on some reasons why a critic such as Longenbach might work to keep such plain truths mysterious.

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.

For example, Longenbach takes an epigram inscribed, according to Plato’s Phaedrus, on Midas’s tomb, mixes up the lines (1, 2, 3, and 4 become 3, 2, 4, and 1), and then is kind of blown away by the fact that the two poems don’t have the same effect. He states,

In this version we discover in the final line that the poem is spoken by a bronze statue of a girl, eerily similar to any girl who might have received Midas’s amorous attentions; in the original version our experience of the poem is predicated on this knowledge. What does the fact that one can alter significantly the effect of a poem without changing a single word tell us about the power of structure? What did Socrates [earlier quoted as having said of this epigram “that it is of no consequence what order these lines are spoken in”] not want to recognize about that power?

He treats similarly the concluding fourteen lines of Wallace Stevens’s “No Possum, No Sop, No Taters” and “Western Wind.” To focus just on “Western Wind,” Longenbach takes that four-line poem and switches it around so that the final two lines become the first two lines; so that 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.

becomes 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.

While I probably should simply celebrate Longenbach’s work here–after all, it is largely a recognition of the importance of poetic structure (and, as I’ll demonstrate later on, I mean structure as I’ve long meant structure: as the pattern of a poem’s turning)–I can’t quite get over the fact that what is so odd about this work is how much labor is spent to make such a painfully obvious point. Small changes make big differences in great writing–that’s one of the main ways we know it’s great writing. Big changes make really big differences. It is shocking that the bulk of an essay in Poetry is spent re-making such palpable points.

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At least, initially. When we get clear on some key details, this fact turns out to be not so surprising at all.

Here are the key details:

Longenbach really is concerned with poetic structure–that is, he is concerned with the pattern of a poem’s turning, a poem’s rhetorical and/or dramatic trajectory. At different points throughout the essay, Longenbach notes how what he is pointing to are turns. For example, reflecting on the two versions of “Western Wind”–noting about his alternative version that “while the form of the poem is unchanged (alternating tetrameter and trimeter lines, rhymed xaxa), its structure has been radically altered”–Longenbach states, “Here [that is, in his alternative version], we turn from an experience of longing to the weather, an external drama that confirms the emotional turmoil. Something happens in this shift from interiority to exteriority [that is, in both versions], for we feel in both arenas the power of absence, the desire for change, but something more momentous happens in the original structure, in which our expectations are not confirmed but shattered.”

Longenbach isn’t the only critic interested in turns. Of course, I am. But so are the editors are Poetry. (Here is some proof.) So are, frankly, just about all critics and editors. However, most critics and editors do a lackluster–and certainly, overall, an unsystematic–job of acknowledging how much they admire well-executed turns. Longenbach’s essay is guilty of this, as well–it is enthralled by strong turns, but it doesn’t articulate this well.

More specifically, Longenbach is concerned with a particular kind of turn: one that ends up leading to what I have called “fitting surprise.” (This kind of turn is, indeed, special; many critics and commentators have been intrigued by fitting surprise–check out a constantly growing collection of quotations on the topic here.) In “Lyric Knowledge,” Longenbach’s interest in fitting surprise emerges most clearly when he discusses the first section of Wallace Stevens’s “The Auroras of Autumn.” Longenbach notes that in this section, the poem moves from a great deal of paratactic syntax to, in its third-to-last and penultimate sentences, to some key uses of hypotactic syntax–as Longenbach notes, “‘This is his poison: that we should disbelieve / Even that.’ This is the first sentence that thrusts our thinking forward by suggesting that one thing follows from another not merely by chance, association, or accretion but by necessity (‘His poison is that we should disbelieve even in happiness’).” Just as with “Western Wind,” the effect of rearranging the poem serves mainly to highlight how well-constructed the original version is:

It is not surprising that, without altering a single word, this lyric reads as elegantly backward as it reads forward, the form unchanged (iambic pentameter lines arranged in tercets) but the structure radically different: ‘The moving grass, the Indian in his glade, / Black beaded on the rock, the flecked animal / Made us no less sure.’ But deft as this arrangement may be, its structure sacrifices the crucially delayed turn from parataxis to hypotaxis, a turn that makes the figure of the Indian, when it finally appears at the end of the poem, feel simultaneously unprecedented and inevitable. The poem is a dramatization of the thinking mind in the process of discovering that thought itself is the mind’s most indomitable foe. ‘Here are too many mirrors for misery,’ says the final lyric in the sequence, and the work of ‘The Auroras of Autumn’ is to make this simple remark feel authentic, to allow us to exist in the temporal process of discovering it again.

“[U]nprecedented and inevitable.” There is in fact some precedent for Longenbach prizing such poetic effect. In “Composed Wonder,” the final chapter of The Resistance to Poetry he recognizes the power of this effect in Anthony Hecht’s “‘It Out-Herods Herod. Pray You, Avoid It.” Longenbach writes,

And though by the end of the poem we have become quite used to the aural pleasure of these rhymes, something astonishing happens in the final quatrain: the content of its last line…is potentially overpowering.  Nothing in the preceding eight stanzas prepares us for it, and even if the Holocaust seems in retrospect to be everywhere in “‘It Out-Herods Herod. Pray You, Avoid It,'” the poem’s final lines continue to surprise.  When we hear the first half of the final stanza…we are fully prepared for the aural experience of the stanza clicking into place with a rhyme on “childermas.”  We don’t necessarily expect the poem to jump to a new register…, but the expected rhyme makes the leap seem horribly inevitable. (99-100)

And, as I note in my critique of The Resistance to Poetry, “This standard is hinted at elsewhere in the book,” and that elsewhere is particularly interesting: “Longenbach employs the language of structured surprise to express his admiration for one of the oldest poems in the English language, ‘Western Wind.’ About that poem…Longenbach states, ‘The expostulation—Christ!—marks the place where the poem breaks open, releasing an emotion that is both unpredictable and, at least in retrospect, logical.'”

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And so, Longenbach has created another work–this time, an essay–that suggests the deep importance of great, unique turns. Indeed, he even goes back to cover in greater detail a poem, “Western Wind,” that he thinks has fitting surprise, and then, essentially, closes “Lyric Knowledge” with another poem–or section of a poem, the first section of “The Auroras of Autumn”–that he thinks also has fitting surprise. It’s clear that Longenbach admires these kinds of turns. But if he does, why doesn’t he do more with them? Why isn’t he more explicit and articulate about this feature of great poems?

In my critique of The Resistance to Poetry I argue that Longenbach does what he does because he understands that if he were to really prize fitting surprise he would have to do away with other ideas about poetry that he values. I note, for example, how valorizing the poetry of fitting surprise would put to the test other valorizations of poetry Longenbach was trying to promote:

[Fitting surprise] can be used to draw party lines in new ways. Putting all weight and pressure on the poem, it doesn’t make judgments according to poets or schools. Wet disjunction [the kind of disjunction used by a poet such as T. S. Eliot, which Longenbach valorizes] might create structured surprise, but so might dry [the kind of disjunction used by a poet such as Ezra Pound, which Longenbach does not valorize]. Ashbery might have twenty poems that do this, but so might a lesser-known poet—and such a fact should encourage us to get to know those works of that lesser-known poet. In fact, what Longenbach says of Bishop’s expectation that art lead to “perfectly useless concentration,” that it “makes the hard work of art seem simultaneously rare and available to everyone,” can also be said of structured surprise.

It is more difficult to tell what Longenbach is doing with fitting surprise in “Lyric Knowledge.” At one level, Longenbach again generally uses fitting surprise just as many other critics before him have: sporadically, acknowledging its great power, but without an effort to try to spell out, let alone act upon, how valuing fitting surprise might really and interestingly upset longstanding valuations of and distinctions in poetry. At a slightly different level, this odd essay–in which he seems mystified by the fairly obvious fact that (unlike, say, a “paragraph from a blog or a parking ticket”) some poems, reread and reread, keep enchanting us–powered in part by fitting surprise affords Longenbach opportunities to subtly reinscribe some of his old favorite distinctions (parataxis successfully transmuted into hypotaxis corresponds to his valorization of wet disjunction over dry).

At another level, though, Longenbach’s sporadic use of fitting surprise allows him to sidestep a key issue: what makes poems powerful and memorable? Longenbach has set up a kind of either-or, combined with a straw man: either some text (such as a parking ticket) is weak and unmemorable or else it strong and memorable due to fitting surprise. But, of course, there’s a huge amount of middle space Longenbach does not investigate. What about a cheesy favorite song one loves to hear again and again for nostalgic reasons, for the associations the song conjures rather than, say, the structure of the lyrics? What about a note announcing a break-up? Language has power and is memorable–and yet is returned to again and again–for a host of reasons, not necessarily because a text in some way delivers fitting surprise. Longenbach takes a shortcut with his essay, avoiding discussing these other kinds of texts.

But here’s the thing: whenever fitting surprise–be it in the form of a poem or a short story or a joke or a play–is delivered, you do indeed know you’re in the realm of powerful, moving–and it is tempting here to say specifically literary–language(NB: even as I write this, I realize how much more deeply I still have to think about this…) Longenbach uses a shortcut, but it is, to some extent, legitimate: after all, Longenbach is trying to demonstrate the importance of structure in great lyric poetry, and he clearly believes (and I certainly agree) that fitting surprise is a vital part of great lyric poetry. I hope Longenbach might start saying so more clearly and systematically.





From Tania Runyan’s How to Write a Poem

13 05 2016

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

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

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

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

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





High Voltage Poetry: On the Poetic Turn

13 05 2016

As part of the programming for the inauguration of Illinois Wesleyan University’s nineteenth president, Eric Jensen, on Friday, April 1, some colleagues and I participated in a series of lightning talks highlighting some of the artistic and scholarly projects taking place at IWU. Along with poet Dan Smart (among other things, the author of the great poetry blog “Rhythm Is the Instrument”) and student respondents Kristina Dehlin and Jake Morris, I was a part of the presentation “High Voltage Poetry: On the Poetic Turn.” Check it out for a succinct introduction to the turn, for Dan’s terrific reflections on ways in which the turn has informed his own work, and for Kristina’s and Jake’s very smart reflections and questions–

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The High Voltage Poetry Team: Dan Smart, Jake Morris, Kristina Dehlin, and Mike Theune

 





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

20 01 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





Looking with Hirshfield’s Ten Windows

19 05 2015

hirshfieldJane2

In a previous post, I wrote an appreciation of Jane Hirshfield’s “Close Reading: Windows,” an excellent essay on the poetic turn (which Hirshfield describes and labels a poem’s “window-moment”).  Here, I want to rave about her new collection of essays, Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World, a collection which includes a great deal of material that would be of interest not only to anyone interested in the poetic turn–though this will be the focus of my comments here–but also to anyone interested in how poems more broadly and generally work their magic upon us.

Ten Windows presents again “Close Reading: Windows”; however, as the book’s title indicates, Hirshfield’s interest in window-moments / turns is so great that it comes up in many of the book’s other essays.  In “Kingfishers Catching Fire: Looking with Poetry’s Eyes,” Hirshfield remarks, “From the work of Hopkins, and each of the writers presented here, springs a supple turning aliveness, the hawk’s-swoop voracity of the mind when it is both precise and free” (18).  In “Language Wakes Up in the Morning: On Poetry’s Speaking,” Hirshfield notes that “[e]ven in motionless, time-fixed paintings and sculpture, there is the feeling of hinge-turn we find in poems and often name with the terms of music–alterations of rhythm or key that raise the alterations of comprehension or mood” (31).  In “What Is American in Modern American Poetry: A Brief Primer with Poems,” Hirshfield notes that “[g]ood poems require…some reach of being: they move from what’s already known and obvious to what is not.  All poets travel, then, whether in body or only in mind” (211).

Hirshfield also is aware of the deep connection of the sonnet and the turn (about which, more information can be found herehere, here, and here).  In one essay, Hirshfield points out how the fourth stanza of Seamus Heaney’s “Oysters” “makes a turn of the kind made formal in sonnets: an addition that both quickens thought and brings a question needing an answer” (202).  In another, commenting on Gwendolyn Brooks’s “My Dreams, My Works, Must Wait till after Hell,” Hirshfield notes, “Sonnet form, like that of the haiku and villanelle, carries the arc of transformation within the DNA of its structure.  The pivoting volta, or ‘turn,’ after the eighth line, demands a deepened and changed comprehension” (263-4).

More broadly, Hirshfield notes that “[p]oetry’s leaps” is one of the elements of poetry (along with “images, stories, and metaphors”) that “are the oxygen possibility breathes” (271).  Additionally, in a previous post, I pointed out how Hirshfield’s “Poetry and Uncertainty” (in Ten Windows, titled “Uncarryable Remainders: Poetry and Uncertainty”) gathers a number of poems that involve a decisive turn, and I would say that this is true almost throughout Ten Window‘s ten essays: even when not discussing the turn in any specific way, the turn is very present–is consistently re-presented–in Hirshfield’s work.

So, reading Ten Windows will allow anyone interested in poetic structure a close and thoughtful engagement with the poetic turn.  However, Hirshfield is not only concerned with structure; she’s also very interested in surprise.  Her seventh chapter, “Poetry and the Constellation of Surprise,” focuses on the characteristics and effects of poetic surprise.  It’s a fascinating meditation.  Hirshfield’s insights into surprise are startling and profound.  Here are a few:

Regarding the distinction between “poems [that] seem essential” and “others [that], however accomplished and interesting of surface, do not,” Hirshfield states,

Deep surprise is that way the mind signals itself that a thing perceived or though is consequential, that a discovery may be of genuine use.  The experience itself, though, especially in responding to a work of art, may well be felt as some different emotion, the one that follows; surprise, neuroscientists report, lasts half a second at most; and so the reader may notice the powerful upsurge of grief or compassion or wonder a good poem brings, but not the surprise that released it.  Surprise plays a major role in survival’s own sorting–what most surprises will be most strongly acted on, and most strongly learned.  The poems we carry forward, as individuals and as cultures, are those that strike us powerfully enough that they call up the need for their own recall.  (187)

*

About the power of surprise, Hirshfield notes,

How is it that something that lasts half a second can be so essential, not only to art but to our very survival?  Not least is the particular way startlement transforms the one who is startled.  Among other things, surprise magnetizes attention.  An infant hearing an unexpected sound will stop and stare hard–the experience of surprise is itself surprising.  It is also, literally, arresting; in a person strongly startled, the heart rate momentarily plummets.  The whole being pauses, to better grasp what’s there.  Surprise also opens the mind, frees it from preconception.  Surprise does not weigh its object as “good” or “bad”; though that may follow, its question is simply “What is it?,” asked equally of any sudden change.  Startlement, it seems, erases the known for the new.  The facial expression of surprise, according to one researcher, is close to rapture, to the openness of a baby’s first awakeness.  Charles Darwin, in The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, grouped surprise with astonishment, amazement, and wonder.

In poetry, surprise deepens, gathers, and purifies attention in the same way: the mind of preconception is stopped, to allow a more acute taking-in.  (187-88)

Whether by means large or small, noticed or almost imperceptible, poetry’s startlements displace the existing self with a changed one.  (188)

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According to Hirshfield, surprise also is always attended by a lesson about the negation of self:

Surprise carries an inverse relationship to that which harness self and will: it is the emotion of a transition not self-created.  Though infants can visibly surprise themselves by sneezing, there is no self-tickling.  We tend not to laugh at our own jokes, at least when alone.  Yet one of the reasons a poem–or any creative effort–is undertaken is precisely to surprise yourself by what you may find.  Poems appear to come from the self only to those who do not write them.  The maker experiences them as a gift, implausibly won from the collaboration of individual with language, self with unconscious, personal association and concept with the world’s uncontrollable materials, weathers, events.  (189)

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In one section of her chapter on surprise, Hirshfield connects surprise to the comedic, stating,

Lyric epiphany is democratic, equally intimate with Aeschylus and the stand-up comic.

The more surprise in good poetry is looked at, the more poetry’s work seems close to the work of the comic and trickster.  (192-93)

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While all of Hirshfield’s ideas about surprise are insightful, one stands out for me: Hirshfield’s effort to explain how surprising poems, even after being read and/or recited multiple times, retain their ability to startle and awaken.  Hirshfield opens “Poetry and the Constellation of Surprise” by noting:

Art’s brightness is a strangely untarnishing silver.  One of the distinguishing powers of great art is its capacity to unseal its own experience not once, but many times.  A Beethoven quartet many times heard, a painting by Bonnard looked at for decades, does not lose the ability to lift us out of one way of being and knowing and emplace us, altered, into another.  A poem, long memorized can raise in its holder, mid-saying, stunned tears.  Pound described the paradox simply: “Poetry is news that stays news.”  Why this is so, and how it is done, has something to do with the way good art preserves its own capacity to surprise.  (181)

According to Hirshfield, this magical seductive quality exists in large part because art is a ceremony that must be re-engaged for it to have power.  It is a ritual, and “[a] ritual must be passed through with the whole body, not glimpsed through a door” (198).  According to Hirshfield, “Poetic epiphany gives off a kind of protective mist; it exudes an amnesiac against general recall.  The poem must be read or said through fully to be fully known” (184).

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Provocative and profound, Hirshfield’s insights amaze, and work to re-instill in readers a wonder at poems and poetry.  Certainly, Ten Windows will be a revelation to those intrigued by poetic structure and poetic surprise–one fifth of the book concentrates specifically on these concerns, while the other chapters are deeply informed by and infused with them.

However, even though I try to keep the work on this blog focused on the poetic turn and its effects (chief among them being surprise), I do feel called upon to say that, more generally, Hirshfield’s book is a treasure trove for all those interested in poetry, in thinking more deeply about what it is, how it works, how it moves us.  While structure and surprise are, for Hirshfield, vital components of poetry, they are not necessarily at the core of what poems are and do.

At core, according to Hirshfield, poems are vital parts of the liveliness of the world, intimately related to and very much like biological life.  Hirshfield begins her book, noting, “A mysterious quickening inhabits the depths of any good poem–protean, elusive, alive in its own right.  The word ‘creative’ shares its etymology with the word ‘creature,’ and carries a similar sense of breathing aliveness, of an active fine-grained, and multi-cellular making” (3).  In “Poetry and the Constellation of Surprise,” Hirshfield notes, “Cognitive and creative discoveries are made in the same way as much of biological life is: by acts of generative recombination.  Disparate elements are brought together to see if they might make a viable new whole” (185).

And this, in fact, is what Hirshfield has done with Ten Windows: she has used gleanings from the life sciences–often combined with her natural inclination to make stunning metaphors–to think anew about poetry, to raise organicism to a thrilling new pitch.  I conclude with a few quotes from Hirshfield, which I set out as bread crumbs, meager offerings of the full feast that await those who read Ten Windows

In the last instants of a shark’s approach to its prey, it closes its inner eyelids for self-protection, and most of its other senses shut down as well.  Only one remains active: a bioelectrical sensory mechanism in its jaw, a guidance system uniquely made for striking.  The poet in the heat of writing is a bit like that shark, perceiving in ways unique to the moment of imminent connection.  (8)

The sentences of poetry, fiction, drama, attend to their music the way a tree attends to its leaves: motile and many, seemingly discardable, they remain the substance-source by which it lives.  (31)

In the realm of art, knowledge carries with it at all times an inevitable flavor–the individuality of the artist is in the work as the physical hands of the potter are in the clay, no matter how smoothed.  (42)

The elusive–in life, in literature–raises knowledge-lust in us the way a small, quick movement raises the hunting response in a cat.  (107)

Encounter with the unknown seems almost a nutrient in human life, as essential as certain amino acids–without it, the untested self falls into sleep, depression, boredom, and stupor.  (136)

Poetry’s ends are, in truth, peculiar, viewed from the byways of ordinary speech.  But it is this oddness that makes poems so needed–true poems, like true love, undo us, and un-island.  Contrary, sensual, subversive, they elude our customary allegiance to  surface reality, purpose, and will.  A good poem is comprehensive and thirsty.  It pulls toward what is invisible to an overly directed looking, toward what is protean, volatile, unprotected, and several-handed.  Poems rummage the drawers of what does not yet exist but might, in the world, in us.  Their inexhaustibility is the inexhaustibility of existence itself, in which each moment plunges from new to new.  Like a chemical reagent, water passing through limestone, or a curious toddler, a good poem reveals, entering and leaving altered whatever it meets.  (244)

The possibility-hunger in us is both illimitable and illimitably fed.  (274)

In art, we seek something else: possibility opened to a vastly increased range of swing.  (280)

 

 

 





Vonnegut on Story Structure

18 02 2015

Here’s a hilarious video of Kurt Vonnegut reflecting on the “Shapes of Stories”:

As with every aspect of writing, it is possible to not handle structure well–there in fact may be cliched structure.  Worth remembering–perhaps when writing; certainly when revising…





Song Structures

28 07 2014

 

 

A terrific (and wonderfully funny) breakdown of the structures of song genres.  Might need to ask John Atkinson to do this for poems…!

anatomy-of-songs





The Poem in Countermotion

4 07 2011

Over the past few weeks, I’ve written some posts on the situation of the turn in some recent poetry textbooks–including Jeremy Tambling’s RE: Verse–Turning towards Poetry and Helen Vendler’s Poems, Poets, Poetry: An Introduction and Anthology.  Overall, I’ve found that while these textbooks have–to their great benefit, in my opinion–strong interest in the turn, that interest either–in the case of Tambling–is not sustained or–in the case of Vendler–is not dealt with systematically enough to be as useful and revelatory as it could be.  Put another way: though these books should be praised for at least putting forward and at times actively teaching about (something like) the turn, they are somewhat problematic in that they do not discuss the turn as fully as did John Ciardi over fifty years ago in his textbook How Does a Poem Mean?

The importance of the turn is clear in Ciardi’s book.  Though Ciardi discusses the turn in the last chapter of How Does a Poem Mean?, “The Poem in Countermotion,” this chapter is the ultimate chapter, the chapter which Ciardi in his introduction calls “the important one.”  Additionally, Ciardi states, “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.”

Ciardi also registers the significance of the turn in “The Poem in Countermotion,” equating the poem’s turn, its shifting from motion to countermotion, to what, essentially, a poem is.  Ciardi states, “Such countermotion is inseperable from “what  the poem is” and “what the poem means”; it is in fact “how the poem means.”  In briefest form, a poem is one part against another across a silence.  To understand this characteristic of the poem is to understand the theory of poetic form.  To be able to respond to it in a poem is to understand the practice of poetry.”

For Ciardi, the turn is so much at the center of what a poem is and how a poem means that it is the turn that the (potentially problematic) paraphrase of a poem mainly destroys:

“…though paraphrase may be useful in helping to explain a specific difficulty in the paraphrasing of a poem, it is unfailingly a destructive method of discussion if one permits the illusion that the paraphrase is more than a momentary crutch, or that it is in any sense the poem itself.  No poem “means” anything that a paraphrase is capable of saying.  For…the poem exists in time and it exists in balance and countermotion across a silence.  That timing and that counterthrust are inseparable from the emotional force of the poem, and it is exactly the timing and counterthrust that paraphrase cannot reproduce.  The question to put to the poem is not “What does it mean?” but “How does it mean?”  “What does it mean?” inevitably invites paraphrase and inevitably leads away from the poem.  “How does it mean?” is best asked by absorbing the poetic structure as poetic structure, i.e., as a countermotion across a silence, and thus leads the analysis to the poem itself.”

The turn, which Ciardi calls the “fulcrum,” also is, as one might expect, central to the reading–which entails interpretation and performance–of poems.  According to Ciardi, to read a poem correctly, one must identify the various turns in the poem and register the poem’s shifts.  Ciardi states,

“One simple rule seems to apply to the play of all such countermotions: whenever in the course of a poem the poet changes either his tone or his attidude, some change will occur in the handling of the technical elements.  That change in the technical  handling of the poem may be slight or it may be marked, but some change must occur.  Conversely, any change in the handling of the technical elements in the course of the poem will indicate that a change has taken place in the poet’s tone or attitude.”

Ciardi additionally states,

“If every poem is constructed on such countermotions across a fulcrum [i.e., a turn], and if the handling of the technical elements always changes from one unit of poetic structure to another, the method of analysis here suggested must inevitably lead to a fuller understanding of that poetic structure.  One need only locate the principal fulcrum [i.e., the location of a turn], the lesser fulcrums within the main units of the structure, and then analyze the differences in the handling of the poetic elements within each unit and sub-unit.  To do that much, however, is not to have achieved the poem, but rather to have prepared oneself to achieve it.  Any method of analysis is designed only to assure one that he is giving his human attention to the poem itself rather than to some non-poetic paraphrase of its unenacted “meaning.”  In every good poem there is some final echo of nuance and feeling that lies beyond explanation and analysis.”

“The Poem in Countermotion” is filled with excellent, careful discussions of poems, discussions aided by the fact that Ciardi makes clear where the turns/fulcrums of each poem are located by marking them with a “<“.  Ciardi even goes so far as to discuss poems that do not “make their countermotions immediately apparent.”  He refers to such poems as “truncated poems,” citing Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz” as a prime example of a kind of poem in which “the fulcrum occurs after the last line.”  He also cites Yvor Winters’s “Before Disaster” as what should be a truncated poem that (problematically) exceeds what should be its final fulcrum by six lines.  This is masterful, insightful criticism.

Which begs the question: why wasn’t Ciardi’s idea of the poem in countermotion, along with its fulcrum, picked up on by subsequent textbooks?

I can only speculate on some answers.

First, Ciardi’s terminology is somewhat problematic.  Having had no deep roots in poetic terminology, and not at all explicitly connected to the turn and/or the volta, the term “fulcrum” perhaps can seem, at best, disconnected to discussions about poetry and, at worst, so idiosyncratic as to seem irrelevant.

Second, Ciardi does not suggest that there are certain ways in which poems’ fulcrums behave.  According to Ciardi, the fulcrum is a vital part–perhaps the heart–of the poem, but he seems to imply that the fulcrum is always some singular event.  However, this is not the case–while one certainly wants fulcrums/turns to be powerful and singular, there are patterns to turns (for some, click here), to the construction of fulcrums, and these patterns can be analyzed and discussed, and so taught, replicated, and used, deployed.

Third, and finally: there may be (in general, though certainly not in Ciardi’s writing) some obfuscation about the fulcrum / turn not because the fulcrum / turn is unimportant but precisely because it is so important.  Could it be that there is some anxiety about clearly naming the turn as a central part of what makes a poem a poem, some fear that by naming this vital feature of poems we might somehow explain away the magic of poems?  Perhaps…  Again, for now, just a speculation…

What is beyond speculation, though, is the fact that John Ciardi’s “The Poem in Countermotion” is one of the great essays on the poetic turn.  Anyone interested in the turn should acquaint her/himself with its excellent ideas.





Helen Vendler: Approaching the Turn

8 06 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





The Gauntlet

9 04 2011

 

…has been thrown.

An acquaintance of mine recently suggested to me that my fascination with poetic turns results from my having a mistaken picture lodged in my noggin, and that I’m letting myself be too-decisively (mis-)guided by this picture, and that I should be freed from it…

Well, after the police came, and we washed the pepper spray from our eyes, my acquaintance and I decided that we should work to see what’s really what.

My acquaintance asked to be pointed to everything there was to read about structure.  Thus, I recently updated the “Further Reading” page of this blog so that it contains a much more complete listing of work related to the turn.  I told my acquaintance it’d be a lot of reading; he said he was up to the challenge.

I also told my acquaintance this: that he needed to be clear on my claims about the significance of the turn–I don’t want my position to be turned into a straw man.

On the one hand, on one level, I believe simply that turns are significant enough that they should be given much more due than they typically are.  Just as there are chapters on metaphor and alliteration in intro to poetry textbooks so should there be a chapter on turns.  Just as there are chapters on the sonnet and the ghazal in poetry writing handbooks so should there be chapters on kinds of turns.  I have no idea how my acquintance will argue against this portion of my belief, which seems self-evident.  QED.  Moving on…

On the other hand (and this, admittedly, is where my acquaintance can have some more fun), it seems as though I may believe that turns are really important parts of what makes poems worth reading.  I really do want to read poems that feel like they go somewhere, that they do something–and turns are the clearest markers of these activities.  As I look over some of my critical writing, it looks like I believe something like the following: a good poem needs to have an interesting turn in it; a great poem needs to have a turn in it that is both fitting and surprising.  (However, I’m not the only one to think this–as I note in some of my critical writing, this criteria for greatness actually crops up in the writing of a number of critics: Longinus, the theoriticians of wit, James Longenbach, Jorie Graham–not bad company to be in at all.)

This much more speculative position is, of course, open to critique.  There may be great poems without structure, without turns.  I’d think that my acquaintance’s central method of argument would need to include trying to develop a list of great poems that dont’ turn, or have really significant turns.  I’ll be interested to find out what he comes up with.

…And I will certainly keep readers of this blog informed as to the progress of this conversation.