Poetry Magazine & the Turn

4 07 2009


There has been a great deal of fuss made over the latest issue of Poetry.  The July/August 2009 issue contains a section of poems by poets who are a part of the Flarf and Conceptual Poetry movements, movements which, because of their challenge to the concepts of poetry held by many, tend to cause a stir–especially among those who read Poetry, a magazine generally not given to publishing such work.  (Indeed, Stan Apps’ recent analysis of Poetry‘s latest issue suggests that while the issue (obviously) includes Flarf and Conceptual poetry it also quarantines this, to use Poetry‘s term, “writing,” from the much lengthier collection of what Poetry calls “poems” that opens magazine.)

The debate is intriguing, and worth looking into.  (Some places to start: Kenneth Goldsmith’s introduction to Poetry‘s F-Con Po issue, and Dale Smith’s response.)

I want to take a slightly different tack, though, and argue that this latest issue of Poetry does not only feature F-Con Po: it also features the poetic turn.  Even employing a rather strict definition of what a turn is (here, I’m only counting poems that employ a very clear and significant major turn), I count at least nine poets in the current issue of Poetry who make use of a significant turn in at least one of their poems.  These poets include Tony Hoagland (in “At the Galleria Shopping Mall” and “Personal”), Jane Hirschfield (in “Perishable, It Said”), Charles Simic (in “The Melon”), John Poch (in “The Llano Estacado”), John Hodgen (in “For the man with the erection lasting more than four hours”), Ange Mlinko (in “This is the Latest”), David Bottoms (in “The Stroke”), Robyn Sarah (in “Blowing the Fluff Away”), Jordan Davis (in “Poem for a Sixth Wedding”), and Caroline Bergvall (in “The Not Tale (Funeral)”).  This number (again, the result of very conservative estimations and estimates) means that in the current issue of Poetry there are more “turners” than there are either Flarfists or Conceptual Poets.

To say the above is not to say that all the poems that have significant turns in them are great–this is by no means true.  (I think about three of the turns in the above poems are pretty great; a few are good; a few are so-so; and a few are weak.  The ones I really like are the turns in the poems listed above by Hodgen, Mlinko, and Davis.)

What I personally like, however, I think (and I trust you, not being me, will agree) is much less interesting than some systematic inconsistencies that arise once the prominence of the turn is noted.

For example: why isn’t the current issue of Poetry called “The Turn” issue?  I’m being a bit cheeky here, of course, but noticing both the presence of the turn in the recent Poetry and the absence of any real mention of the turn reveals an inconsistency near the heart of Poetry, the magazine, and poetry, in general.

The presence of the turn in an issue of Poetry is not at all surprising.  Poetry seems to really like turns.  (Important information for those who might have interest in submitting their work to Poetry.)  What’s interesting about this phenomenon is the following:

Though the turn is a real presence in Poetry, it is a largely unacknowledged presence.  Not only has there not been a special section of the magazine devoted to poems with great turns (ahem…), but the Poetry Foundation’s “Poetry Tool”–which allows one to search the Foundation’s extensive poetry archive by various means, including “By Glossary Term”–does not recognize the turn, or particular types of turns, as aspects of poems for which people might want to search.  This is oddly inconsistent: to supply regularly in the magazine an element of poetry which is absent from the Foundation’s other venues and discussions.

What’s happening in terms of turns over at Poetry, of course, happens more generally in poetry.  Though the turn is a vital part of a lot of poetry (T.S. Eliot says that the turn is “one of the most important means of poetic effect since Homer”–a means of poetic effect important even for some Flarf and Conceptual Poetry, it seems), we tend to not talk about it, and focus instead on other matters, often, especially, form.  As I suggest in “The Structure-Form Distinction,” we need to realize the significance of poetic structure (the patterns of turns in poems), and find ways to act on that realization…

What I’m suggesting here is that we at least see the significant role of the turn in the lastest issue of Poetry.  What exactly might be done with such knowledge remains to be seen…

Emblem, with Mange

28 02 2009


Knowing about poetic structures, the patterns of turns in poems, does not only help one better understand (and perhaps appreciate) poems that clearly are written within a particular structural tradition, but it also helps one to engage more deeply poems that reference particular structural traditions.

This is the case, at least, with my reading of Mark Wunderlich’s “Coyote, with Mange,” just out in the latest Poetry.

While I don’t think it’s exactly correct to call “Coyote, with Mange” an emblem poem, I do think that knowing about the emblem tradition helps one to better read the poem.

To recap a few important details from the essay on the emblem structure in Structure & Surprise…  The emblem structure moves from observation to meditation, from perception to reflection, and the emblem structure has its roots in philosophical and theological ideas about a created and an ordered world, a world that can be understood and “read,” and that, when read, can offer glimpses into the Mind of the Maker.  In some more recent emblem poems, however, particularly troubling objects have been observed in order to meditate precisely on the lack of order in the world, or the existence of diabolical order.  As discussed in Structure & Surprise, Robert Frost’s “Design” is the great example of this kind of anti-emblem-poem emblem poem.

In some ways, “Coyote, with Mange” is this kind of poem, as well.  Whereas Frost’s poem observes and meditates on death, in Wunderlich’s poem the speaker is observing a coyote with mange, an ugly and potentially dangerous parasitic infestation of the skin of animals.  (For images, click here.)  The world depicted in Wunderlich’s poem is not ordered but diseased and broken.  No wonder, then, that the god of Wunderlich’s poem’s world is called (virtually right away) “Unreadable One”–there’s nothing to be read or understood from this vision of the sick coyote.

Wunderlich’s poem, however, isn’t so much an emblem poem because it does not turn to try to meditate on what’s been observed–even, as occurs in Frost’s dark poem, to ask questions and to consider that a “design of darkness” may rule the world.  Instead (very interestingly, I think,) this poem turns to a complaint: essentially, “why did I have to see this?”  And the pronouncement of the poem is not the emblem poem’s universal declaration (typical of emblem poems) meant to ring out outside of the poem, but rather a shout that only connects the speaker and the coyote, leaving universals (and larger meanings, and other readers (that is, us)) out.

Ultimately, in large part, Wunderlich’s “Coyote, with Mange” is interesting (or powerfully disturbing) because of what it does not–or is unwilling to–do, and knowing about the emblem structure is what helps one to see this.