The Self-Reflexive Turn

The turn is highlighted and discussed not only in criticism but also in poems.  Many poems not only incorporate turns but also point to those turns with the word, or derivations of the word, “turn.”  The naming of and pointing to the turn often occurs right at the turn, or else–especially in sonnets, a kind of poem in which one expects turns–before or after the turn, to announce and anticipate the turn, or else to comment on an accomplished turn.

Here is the beginning of a list of poems that include such self-conscious reference to turning–please feel free to suggest others.

“Turn,” by Rae Armantrout

“The Not Tale (Funeral),” by Caroline Bergvall

“The Yoke,” by Frank Bidart

“The Murmuring Grief of the Americas [You are on the ground],” by Daniel Borzutzky

“Home-Thoughts, from the Sea,” by Robert Browning

“And Later…,” by Jen Bryant

“My Mama moved among the days,” by Lucille Clifton

“Sonnet,” by Billy Collins is a completely (self-)referential poem, and so it is no wonder that it contains a self-conscious indication of its turning.

“And Then I Saw,” by Alfred Corn  Notice how the speaker takes his “turn” at poem’s end.

“Current,” by Chip Corwin  Check out that ending: the Earth, turning like a sonnet…!

“Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward,” by John Donne

“Absconscion,” by Ken Edwards (in eight + six).  “(the / Turn)”…enough said.

“Days,” by Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Eros,” by Ralph Waldo Emerson Right where the poem might turn, the poem announces that it will not.

“Afterflakes,” by Robert Frost

“To the Thawing Wind,” by Robert Frost

“The Vantage Point,” by Robert Frost  In a number of poems, including “The Vantage Point,” the turn is a literal turn (toward or away from something).

“In Santa Maria del Popolo,” by Thom Gunn

“A Magnetic Personality,” by Jason Guriel

“The Red Hat,” by Rachel Hadas  The turn occurs right after the stanza break, with the line, “The mornings we turn back to are no more…”

“Turns,” by Tony Harrison

“Cement Truck,” by Tony Hoagland A self-reflexive Metaphor-to-Meaning poem; the turn occurs at “–And I think at this point it would have been a terrible mistake / to turn the truck / into a metaphor or symbol for something else….”

“Carrion Comfort,” by Gerard Manley Hopkins

“90 North,” by Randall Jarrell  The speaker’s inevitable “turn” south from the North Pole is a prelude to the poem’s turn to its stark, necessary, painful moral.

“A Man Meets a Woman in the Street,” by Randall Jarrell

“Go-Go Ode,” by Taylor Johnson

“Song of the Exiles,” by Holly Karapetkova

“To Sleep,” by John Keats  The “[t]urn of the key” seals not only the Soul’s “hushed Casket” but also the poem itself.

“First turn to me…,” by Bernadette Mayer

“Sonnet,” by Bernadette Mayer  Hilarious reference to turning in the final couplet of this extended sonnet!

“The Different Stars,” by W. S. Merwin (in The Carrier of Ladders, collected in The Second Four Books of Poems, pp. 136-7).  A major turn occurs at the lines, “what is it / they say can turn even this into wisdom”.

“To the Dust of the Road,” by W. S. Merwin

“Pity me not becuase the light of day…,” by Edna St. Vincent Millay  The final word of this poem is “turn,” but the turns it refers to occur everywhere in the speaker’s experience, and in the poem itself.

“Because You Asked about the Line between Poetry and Prose,” by Howard Nemerov.  The drizzle turning to snow forecasts the poem’s major turn.

#16, by Alice Notley (in 165 Meeting House Lane (New York: “C” Press, 1971)).  “…It turned surprising…”

“Hawk,” by Mary Oliver (Please note that this is a rough approximation of the poem–the poem is more formally complex than it is here. Still, the self-reflexive turn is accurate.)

“The Art of the Sonnet,” by Ron Padgett (in How to Be Perfect, p. 42).  The turn occurs when the figuring “turns.”

“Solunar Tables,” by Michael Palmer

“The Shoulders of Women,” by Molly Peacock (on p. 17)

“The Second Slaughter,” by Lucia Perillo

“Volta,” by Christina Pugh

“Chiaroscuro,” by Spencer Reece

“Margaret,” by Spencer Reece

“On What Planet,” by Kenneth Rexroth And here is a terrific reading of this terrific turn!

“Face to Face,” by Robin Robertson–a version of a poem by Tomas Transtromer

“Remember,” by Christina Rossetti  “…I half turn to go yet turning stay.”  This statement, made in the poem’s fourth line, anticipates nicely the kind of turn that takes place in this poem between the octave and the sestet: though couched in distinct language (“Yet”), the turn does not really mark any sort of decisive moment in the poem–it is more of the mix of forgetting and remembering (the going and staying, the turning and not-turning) that weave their way through the whole of the poem.

“A Few Surprising Turns,” by Ira Sadoff

Sonnet 1 from “Another Session” (“You opened with the rules….”), by Mary Jo Salter (in Open Shutters (New York: Knopf, 2003))  The major turn in Salter’s poem occurs when the speaker realizes that she had “left a fault / unturned…”

“black magic,” by Sonia Sanchez The poem starts around 1:20. The poem shows the transformative power of magic (such as the magic of sex and love), what it “turns” the speaker into–it then turns to describe the greater power of black magic.

“Married Love,” by Sherod Santos (included in Phyllis Levin’s The Penguin Book of the Sonnet (New York: Penguin, 2001): 306).  The “turning away” the lovers do in this poem is matched by the poem’s own turn.

“The Idea of Order at Key West,” by Wallace Stevens  Here, the turn is doubly self-reflexive: the first turn is the implied turn to speak to another; the second is the pair’s turn to the town: “Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know, / Why, when the singing ended and we turned / Toward the town…”

“Let me be reckless with the word love,” by Jillian Weise (in The Amputee’s Guide to Sex, p. 78).

“Surprised by joy…,” by William Wordsworth, features the action of a literal, unconscious turn, and a painful meditation on the significance of that action.  Although it occurs almost right away in the poem (strange, for a sonnet, where turns tend to occur either after the octave or prior to the final couplet), this self-conscious turn is one of most vital turns in Wordsworth’s sonnet.

In the first line of the first sonnet of A Crown of Sonnets Dedicated to Love, “In this strange labyrinth, how shall I turn?,” Lady Mary Wroth announces the fact that it will be difficult to find a way out of the predicament her situation–and her poem!–have gotten her into.  Thus, one needs to read the poem to figure out if, in fact, there is a way out.

“Landscape with a Hundred Turns,” by Yanyi

8 responses

22 06 2009
The Self-Reflexive Turn « Structure & Surprise

[…] added a new page to the Theory & Criticism portion of this blog.  It’s called “The Self-Reflexive Turn,” and it contains poems that not only have turns in them but draw attention to those turns by, in […]

31 07 2009
What Is Poetry? « Structure & Surprise

[…] freezing drizzle…turned into pieces of snow.”  Nemerov’s poem contains a self-reflexive turn.  And yet, as often is the case with turns, this vital aspect of poetry goes […]

2 02 2011
Halliday on Hoagland « Structure & Surprise

[…] why the (admittedly, very beautiful) mural at Goldman Sachs looks like this).  It’s also a self-reflexive turn, signaling its turn with the words “in […]

13 06 2011
Merwin’s Turn « Structure & Surprise

[…] derivatives of the word, “turn” as he makes this kind of structural maneuver.  Such self-reflexive turning occurs in poems such as “Proteus” (First Four 110-12), “Fog” (First Four 212-13), […]

28 11 2012

I want to read MAried Love by Sherod Santos

28 11 2012
Mike Theune

You should!–it’s a lovely poem. Here it is.

23 09 2013
The Structure and Surprise Blog Turns 100! | Structure & Surprise

[…] “center”–in Turned onto Turns: Comments on Structure and even, in The Self-Reflexive Turn, pointing to poems that use the turn self-consciously, identifying its own turn even as the poem is […]

9 10 2021
Janice Marsh

This was a lovely bloog post

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