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.

Turning: Writing into Poetry

21 09 2009


In “Off the Shelf: Finding the Pieces that Turn Writing into Poetry,” a recent essay in The Los Angeles Times, poet Matthew Zapruder looks back over his own development as a poet, and over large swaths of poetic history, to try to answer the question: what is it that makes a poem a poem?

Of central importance to Zapruder’s essay is the fact that poetic form–in an age in which many, many great poems have been written in free verse–does not offer a satisfactory answer to Zapruder’s question.  Zapruder thus looks elsewhere for his answer, and he finds it in the movements and leaps of poetry:

“Poetry at its most basic level is about the movement of the mind. This is why it is translatable, even from a language such as Chinese, which has very little in common with English. What can be translated is the leap from one thought to another: what I call the associative movement particular to poetry. That leap, that movement, is what makes poetry poetry.”

Zapruder’s essay is worth reading for many reasons–it’s personal and engaging.  However, here, I want to focus on why readers of this blog might be interested in reading Zapruder’s essay: it very clearly jibes with the thinking taking place in Structure & Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns, and on this blog.  Zapruder’s ideas about how something essential to poetry might be found in a poem’s non-formal leaps and movements at least is very much like what is argued in “Poetic Structure and Poetic Form: The Necessary Differentiation.”

Concomitantly, those interested in Zapruder’s ideas in “Off the Shelf” might also be interested in exploring a bit this blog (including the post “What Is Poetry?”) to see some of the work that has taken place to make explicit some of the exciting and energizing leaps and turns that are a big part of the heart of the mystery of what poetry is.

Against “Narrative”

20 07 2009

Not equipped with other helpful paradigms for what it is that poetry does, many readers come to poetry thinking that it, like the other literature with which they’re acquainted, tells stories.  Such thinking, of course, is misleading—it’s not clear such thinking would help anyone really encounter and engage many poems.  Certainly, lots of poems make use of narrative elements, but lots of poems, even poems thought to be generally “accessible,” don’t.  Readers need to be presented with a different paradigm for how poems “work,” for what it is that poems “do.”

I think that the “turn” can be that paradigm.  As I discuss more fully in “The Structure-Form Distinction”: lots of poems turn; turns aren’t always primarily associated with narrative (they also are associated with argumentation, the recording of emotional shifts, etc); and turns are, or easily can be made to seem, familiar, as familiar as storytelling.

In fact, I think the paradigm of the turn is superior to the paradigm of narrative.  Turning is itself central to narrative.  One could be said to know very little about the nature of narrative if one did not know about the nature of narrative turns—from beginnings to conflicts to climaxes to resolutions.  And, again, turning is at work in poems that aren’t primarily narrative.

However, though turning is more vital to poetry than narrative, many conversations about poetry still use the language of narrative—“narrative,” “plot”—to discuss what really are (or could more accurately be described as) turns.  Such misnaming makes it seem that, no matter what is said about narrative and the turn, narrative takes prominence over the turn.  In order to keep at trying to give the turn its proper due, this situation needs to be recognized and addressed.

To be clear: my critique here is meant to be very specific and detailed—in fact, I greatly admire the substance of the three essays to be discussed in this essay—but, hopefully, not minor: I think it would be smart to do away with the discussion of non-narrative “plots” in poetry.  Mention of “plot” will always make readers think of narrative, and thus reinforce the seeming prominence of narrative.  We need to use different terms in order to shift the conversation—and, with “structure” and the “turn,” such different terms are available to us.  Instead of “narrative” and “plot,” I think we should use the term “structure,” and mean by “structure” something very specific: the pattern of a poem’s turning.  (For more on this, again, see “The Structure-Form Distinction.”)  In this way, we can discuss a poem’s rhetorical maneuvers without (potentially) confusing those maneuvers with narrative.


In “Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment,” Tony Hoagland corroborates my sense that there’s a tendency to lump together a number of kinds of poetry (many of which are clearly related to poetic traditions that prominently involve turning) under “narrative”; he states, “Under the label of ‘narrative,’ all kinds of poetry currently get lumped together: not just story, but discursion, argument, even descriptive lyrics.  They might better be called the ‘Poetries of Continuity.’”  Interestingly, though Hoagland himself suggests a better name for narrative, he also reveals the power of the “narrative” in discussions of poetry: his essay’s title employs the phrase “Fear of Narrative,” not “Fear of Continuity.”

(A bit off topic, but, I must add: it’s too bad that Hoagland links the poetry he does only to continuity—lots of poems that are not at all “skittery” work by means of an organized discontinuity.  As Randall Jarrell says in “Levels and Opposites: Structure in Poetry”: “A successful poem starts in one position and ends at a very different one, often a contradictory or opposite one; yet there has been no break in the unity of the poem.”  And Hoagland himself seems to recognize this; later in his essay, he states, “Narrated and associative poems are not each other’s aesthetic opposites or sworn enemies.  Obviously these modes don’t necessarily exclude each other.  They overlap, coexist, and often cross-pollinate.”)


The focus on narrative in poetry is more directly and fully addressed in Carl Dennis’s “The Temporal Lyric.”  Dennis notes, “Although lyrics are more likely to be organized rhetorically, especially those that present arguments, are much more common than those that present psychological narratives, discussion of the lyric has suffered from the fact that the oldest and most influential piece of criticism of poetry in the West, Aristotle’s Poetics, is formulated with specific reference not to lyric poetry but to drama and to epic and so presents temporal plotting as the central element of the poem.”  Dennis then notes a different way to approach lyric poems, one that comes out of speech-act theory:

“Here the poem is regarded as a dramatic event in which a fictive speaker performs a speech act that gives specific embodiment, in a particular context, to one or more of the basic tasks that we ask ordinary language to perform—explaining, questioning, demanding, promising, apologizing, praising, castigating, pleading, and the like.  Each of these acts has its particular plot if we use the term to refer not to a sequence of temporal events but to a sequence of rhetorical moves that carry out the task that the specific function requires.  Such a completed action possesses the wholeness that Aristotle demands of a poem: it possesses a proper beginning, middle, and an end, the order of incidents being such that transposing or removing any one of them will disorder the whole.”

Dennis is trying to replace a narrative orientation to poetry with a rhetorical one, and that rhetorical orientation clearly has much to do with turning: I assume that the “rhetorical moves” that comprise the “plot” of the speech act either are turns, or else clearly imply turns (turns allow the transition from one “plot” point to another).  And, indeed, the poems Dennis investigates in his essay (Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” Donne’s sonnet “At the round earth’s imagined corners, blow,” Dickinson’s “These are the days when Birds come back—,” Frederick Goddard Tuckerman’s sonnet “An upper chamber in a darkened house,” and Bishop’s “The Fish”) all feature very clear and distinct turns, and Dennis in fact refers to the turn at least twice in his examination of these poems.

Again, substantively, I greatly agree with Dennis; however, I think that the use of the word “plot” (which Dennis uses off and on throughout his essay), no matter how it is defined, tends to suggest narrative—precisely what Dennis does not want to suggest.  A more neutral and apt term, I think, for Dennis’s plot of rhetorical moves (and a term Dennis himself occasionally employs), is “structure.”


The same holds true, for the most part, in regard to Jack Stillinger’s “Reading Keats’s Plots.”

Stillinger’s essay does two things: 1) it argues that we need to spend more time examining the plots of poems in general, and of Keats’s poems, in particular, and 2) it examines the plots of some key poems by Keats (The Eve of St. Agnes, Lamia, “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” The Eve of St. Mark, and “Ode on a Grecian Urn”), helping to reveal how important attention to plot can be.

According to Stillinger, contemporary readers tend to skip over plot: “Readers and critics of poetry, even at this late date in the history of practical criticism, are still primarily concerned with idea, theme, and ‘philosophy,’ seeking in effect to replace the literary work in process (what it is, what it does) with interpretive conversion, paraphrase, or translation (what it means).”  Stillinger intends his essay to counter this trend by re-instilling in readers a sense of plot’s vital nature.

Stillinger’s essay differs from Dennis’s in that Stillinger’s, at times, in fact really discusses and examines specifically narrative plots, and so his use of the term very often is apt.  However, Stillinger also uses “narrative” and “plot” to refer to structural maneuvers it seems a bit of a stretch to label such.  This occurs most clearly in Stillinger’s discussion of “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” the least overtly narrative of the poems discussed.  According to Stillinger, the “narrative” of “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is similar to the narratives found in the “greater Romantic lyric,” or poems, such as Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight” and Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” that employ the descriptive-meditative structure (discussed in detail in an essay by Corey Marks in Structure & Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns).  While there are some plot elements in such poems, and while all aspects of a poem are worthy of consideration, the plot elements in such poems often are minimal (for example, journeys often occur in these poems, but they often are imagined or remembered journeys), and such poems are perhaps more fruitfully considered, as Dennis might argue, as speech acts involving “rhetorical moves.”

This certainly is the case with a form of poem central to Keats’s oeuvre, and which Stillinger does not discuss in his essay: the sonnet.  There isn’t any plot to speak of in, say, Keats’s “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” and yet it does turn (stunningly).  Such primarily rhetorical maneuvering tends to be excluded from Stillinger’s analysis in “Reading Keats’s Plots.”  This exclusion helps Stillinger set up a somewhat overly-simplified dichotomy between a poetry of narrative and a poetry of statement.  Stillinger writes,

“The fact that narrative analysis works more successfully with some poems rather than others is itself a valuable piece of critical information.  It is one way of illustrating the difference between lyrics that are essentially static in character and those that are essentially dynamic.  Poems such as To Autumn and Ode on Melancholy have their minds made up before they begin.  They are statements rather than processes, statements of thoughts already arrived at before the speakers begin speaking.  Poems such as Frost at Midnight, Tintern Abbey, Ode: Intimations of Immortality, and Ode to a Nightingale are more complicated.  They represent the actual processes of thinking and take their shape from the movement of the protagonist’s mind, going now in one direction, now in another.  Lyrics in this latter class are at least implied narratives, and often they are, like Yeats’s or Keats’s excursions, explicit narratives.”

While, generally, I like this way of distinguishing among different kinds of poems (for example, I can see how such a distinction could help me discuss with my students the different kinds of tasks poems undertake), I want to complicate this dichotomy using Keats’s sonnets as a test case.  It’s simply not clear where many of Keats’s sonnets would fall in this dichotomy.  They’re not narrative, and yet many of them clearly attempt to “represent the actual processes of thinking and take their shape from the movement of the protagonist’s mind.”  Perhaps this is “implied narrative,” but it’s not clear why it has to be referred to as such.  I suggest that instead of creating a dichotomy between narrative and statement, we instead create a dichotomy between the poetry of dramatic, dynamic structure (involving significant turns) and the poetry of statement.  This description of the dichotomy incorporates non-narrative turns, the “at least implied narratives” Stillinger mentions, the significant rhetorical maneuvers Dennis’s essay focuses on, and the tactics so many Keats’s poems actually deploy.


All of the above may seem a bit like picking nits: it’s all, I again acknowledge, largely an investigation into terminology rather than substance.  And yet terms matter.  The turn has long been a vital part of poetry (T. S. Eliot calls the turn “one of the most important means of poetic effect since Homer”), but it has not been generally recognized as such.  This is a strange situation, one which has many causes—one cause, however, certainly is the fact that we do not have set terms for what we are discussing when we discuss structures and turns.  Thus, often, structure and the turn get subsumed in other terminology.  And because of the use of such varied terminology the many conversations that involve and even focus on poetic structure and the turn often are never seen to be related.  And this, in turn, contributes to the continuing general lack of recognition of the great importance of the turn.

It is my sense that Hoagland, Dennis, and Stillinger would all be for a greater recognition of the turn in poetry—indeed, I think the three essays discussed here in fact are a part of the growing body of literature attempting to draw attention to the significance of the turn in poetry.  My effort here has been to show this link among these essays, even as I try to point out that even in such essays the turn, in some subtle yet significant ways, remains hidden, embedded in a terminology of “narrative” and “plot” that tends to downplay or even deny the larger significance of the poetic turn.

The Turn on the Air

23 06 2009


In a previous post, I discussed Edward Hirsch and Eavan Boland’s The Making of a Sonnet: A Norton Anthology, both praising it and thinking about the ways in which this anthology both privileged the turn in the sonnet but also noting some of the ways this anthology did not quite give the turn its full due.

What a pleasure it was, then, to listen to “The Making of Sonnets,” a show on WBUR’s “On Point,” with Tom Ashbrook, originally broadcast April 1, 2008, and re-broadcast today, June 22, 2009.  Mainly, it was just a pleasure to get to hear Hirsch and Boland read and discuss numerous great sonnets.  However, it also was a pleasure to get to hear a discussion about a central tradition of English poetry that really and truly foregrounds the turn.

Responding to Ashbrook’s request for “a little definition: what’s a sonnet?,” Hirsch responds by noting that, while sonnets are generally difficult to pin down, they can best be considered “a fourteen-line poem, in main, with a structure that turns.”  The early part of this interview,then, especially, pays a lot of attention to the turn in sonnets.

A terrific interview, for a variety of reasons.  Well worth listening to for all those interested in poetry, even moreso for those interested in sonnets, and perhaps even moreso for those intrigued by the feature of the turn in sonnets.  Needless to say, I highly recommend it.

Q & A, Part 3

6 03 2009



This post is the third in a series of posts responding to questions posed to me about Structure & Surprise from a group of poets in an advanced poetry writing workshop at Hope College.  (For the previous 2 posts, see Q & A, parts 1 & 2, signposted with the same bright orange anchor that tops this post.)


Today’s question comes from Jon Dean.  Jon asks:


“Is it possible to mix structures?  What does that look like?”


Great questions, Jon!


You bet it’s possible to mix structures.  As Randall Jarrell says in his great lecture “Levels and Opposites: Structure in Poetry,” “There are many different sorts of structure in poetry, many possible ways of organizing a poem; and many of these combined in the organization of a single poem.”  I’d simply add that in the same way that formal innovation can be a big part of the fun of working with form, structural innovation can be a big part of the pleasure of working with structure.


So, what does this look like?


I want to discuss two things here: structural overlap, and mixed structures.


I think, Jon, you’re NOT asking about structural overlap in your question, but I want to touch on it briefly here.  By structural overlap, I’m referring to the simple fact that some structures, well, um, overlap.  For example, you’ll see that I’ve added a structure on this blog called “List-with-a-Twist.”  One of the things I mention about that structure is that it is one way to describe MANY poems, many of which might also be structurally described in other ways.  Take, for example, Yeats’s “The Circus Animals’ Desertion.”  This is categorized in Structure & Surprise as a retrospective-prospective poem, but, like many retrospective-prospective poems it also is a list-with-a-twist.  Here, structures certainly are mixing.


However, I think, Jon, you may have something different in mind when you ask about mixing structures: you’re wondering about grafting parts of different structures onto each other, yes?  This, also, is certainly possible.  Indeed, this is something I try to get at on p. 232 of the “Inspiration, Guides, Exercises” portion of Structure & Surprise, where I suggest: “Write a poem with a hybrid structure: a descriptive-meditative poem that employs an elegiac structure for its meditation; a dialectical poem that ends with an ironic punch line instead of a synthesis; an emblem poem with a long line of concessions attached.”


I think one can see some of this hybrid nature at work in some of the descriptive-meditative poems included in Structure & Surprise.  Take, for example, Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight.”  While generally a three-part descriptive-meditative poem, the poem’s meditation, it’s middle part, itself has two very distinct parts: one offering some details about Coleridge’s childhood, and one envisioning Coleridge’s son’s (hopefully) happy future.  This meditation, therefore, seems to participate in a kind of temporal and psychological structure we’ve come to call retrospective-prospective.  Thus, “Frost at Midnight” might be understood to be a descriptive-meditative poem that employs a retrospective-prospective structure for its meditation.


We shouldn’t be too surprised by this.  Meditations are not themselves static.  Rather, they move, wander, develop, coalesce, break, and in the descriptive-meditative poem they need to do enough of this to provide transport, to carry a reader convincingly from one perspective on the surrounding scene to another perspective on the same scene.


I’d also add, Jon, that there are certain big poems that employ many structures within them.  Take, for example, Whitman’s Song of Myself, in this long poem, many different kinds of structures are used in the poem’s various sections.  Look only at section 6 of that poem and you’ll find something like an emblem poem (much meditation on the meaning of that child’s handful of grass) and an elegy, including a confident consolatory statement that the dead (referenced in the section’s emblem movement) also live on somewhere…


(Note: if you get turned on by Whitman’s Song of Myself, you might want to look at a book called The Modern Poetic Sequence, by M.L. Rosenthal and Sally M. Gall—very smart, and insightful!)


As I mention in Structure & Surprise, structure loves surprise, often aims for it.  Thus, perhaps we should not be too surprised that structure itself not only leads to surprise but also can be shaped, grafted, molded, welded, and wielded in surprising ways.


Thanks again, Jon!


(A few more responses coming up in the next few days…)

Q & A, Part 2

2 03 2009


In this post, I’m continuing the process of answering a series of questions posed to me by members of an advanced poetry workshop at Hope College.  (For Part 1, see below, or in the February 2009 archives–look for the orange anchor.)

For this post, I want to think a bit on the following question posed by Karly Fogelsonger:

“In the Intro [to Structure & Surprise], Theune says, ‘structure’s primary goal is to lead to surprise.’  Could you talk a little bit about what ‘surprise’ means to you, and why it’s so important in a poem?”

Great question, Karly!  One of the things I like so much about this question is that it gets me to investigate my own assumptions–I just kind of figured that surprise is one of the things poems are after…it’s good to be pushed to try to give reasons to my assumptions.

What do I mean by surprise?  I mean by it, largely, what everyone means by it: that vital encounter with the unexpected.  We humans seem to love and crave this.  (Well, not Angela from The Office, who says (I think I’m quoting her correctly) that she doesn’t like surprises because she doesn’t like to be “titillated.”  Of course, Angela has always seemed to me a bit more Vulcan than human.)  And one big job of art is to feed that crave–art, not just poetry.  Surprises, reversals, revelations, punch lines, ironies–these simply are at the heart of so many of the arts.  Tragedy: Oedipus: “I slept with whom?!”  Comedy: you want an example of structure and surprise?–watch Curb Your Enthusiasm…in the best episodes, all the pieces of the plot are organized to lead to a wild, surprising orchestration of occurrences at show’s end.  The surprising twist is a key feature of many pop songs.  It’s also huge in detective fiction.  (I get my fix via Law and Order.)  And in the movies (especially–but not only–thrillers: The Prestige, The Sixth Sense, The Others, etc, etc.)

Though surprise is such a big part of so much art, I think it tends to get downplayed in poetry.  I don’t know why, but we often don’t talk a lot about surprise in poems, but, at least for me, the element of surprise is a huge part of the phenomena of reading and experiencing great poetry.  The poems I love take me to new, often unexpected places.

Now, let me be clear: this doesn’t mean that I expect something to “jump out at me” at the end of every poem.  In fact, a poem can surprise by reducing, by downshifting, its energy.  Very often, what’s important (among the many things important in poems) is that some kind(s) of shift, swerve, or twist (in short, a turn) occur(s).

And I’m not the only one to think so.  As I mention in the intro to Structure & Surprise, Randall Jarrell says that “a successful poem starts from one position and ends at a very different one, often a contradictory or opposite one; yet there has been no break in the unity of the poem.”  And contemporary critic Hank Lazer (in “Lyricism of the Swerve: The Poetry of Rae Armantrout”) states, “The lyric, to sustain our interest, to have complexity and beauty, and to remain compelling, requires ‘torsion’–that is, motion, tension, torque, and a twist.”  (For more on the necessity and even primacy of the turn in lyric poetry, click here.  And if you want to read some more poems (besides so many of those in Structure & Surprise) that have some pretty thrilling turns, click here.)

Poems turn and surprise in a variety of ways, but there is a quality of turn that I admire very much: I love the quality of fitting surprise.  I love surprises that at once fit their occasions, that clearly evolve from the parts of the poem which preceded it, while also doing something unexpected.  Here, I agree with Barbara Herrnstein Smith, who, in Poetic Closure, states, “…effective closure will always involve the reader’s expectations regarding the termination of a sequence–even though it will never be simply a matter of fulfilling them.”  Such fitting and surprising turns are the essence of both wit and the sublime.

While, as I’ve tried to show above, I really do value surprise, I also value surprise as a part of poems for what it allows me to not say.  By saying I value surprise, I do not have to say, for example, that structure must lead specifically to an epiphany, or a logical conclusion, or a punch line, or a decision, etc.  Poems are various and lead to many things.  By saying that poems (often) should surprise, I get to remain open regarding the many kinds of developments, turns, and arrivals poems have.

That’s it for now…  Thanks, again, Karly, for your good question.  Stay tuned, all, for more surprises…

Poetic Structure…Poetic Form…Huh?

26 02 2009


I just put up a new page with what I think might be a helpful essay for anyone trying to sort out the difference between poetic structure and poetic form, or for anyone trying to figure out why we need to make this distinction.

Check it out here.

(Hint: it’s WAY more than tomato/tomahto.)

The essay, “Poetic Structure and Poetic Form: The Necessary Differentiation,” originally appeared in American Poet, Volume 32, spring 2007, published by the Academy of American Poets.