The Structure-Form Distinction


The following essay originally appeared in American Poet, Volume 32, spring 2007, published by the Academy of American Poets.



Poetic Structure and Poetic Form: The Necessary Differentiation


by Michael Theune



I shall have to disregard the musical structure of poetry: metre, stanza-form, rhyme, alliteration, quantity, and so on.  I neglect these without too much regret: criticism has paid them an altogether disproportionate amount of attention….I am going to talk, primarily, about other sorts of structure in lyrical poetry.


—Randall Jarrell, “Levels and Opposites: Structure in Poetry”



Think of some of the greatest lyric poems in the English language.  Consider what they have in common.  Besides the fact that they are written in English, what other traits do they share?


While it is interesting to consider the specifics of your list, it is even more pertinent here to consider what you thought of, what questions you asked yourself, when considering what these poems have in common.


Perhaps you asked yourself about content, and so you discovered that you like a wide variety of topics in your poems: desire, death, hope, nature, relationships, nightingales.  Perhaps you asked yourself about form, and so you discovered that you like a lot of forms—a lot of sonnets, some villanelles, a smattering of sestinas.  But one question you probably didn’t ask yourself was: do these poems turn?  If this question, which likely only arose if you had a number of sonnets on your list, in fact seems strange, then it is imperative to investigate this strangeness for it indicates that the turn, a significant shift in the poem’s rhetorical progress, which is so vital in poetry, is rarely recognized as such.


In “Levels and Opposites: Structure in Poetry” [Georgia Review 50.4 (1996): 697-713], Randall Jarrell clearly is talking about something like a turn when he reveals what is necessary for a successful poem: “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.”  In “Andrew Marvell [Selected Essays: New Edition (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1950), 251-63],” T.S. Eliot goes so far as to call the surprising turn “one of the most important means of poetic effect since Homer.”  Indeed, it is likely that in your list of greatest lyric poems in English one of the most common aspects shared by the poems is their inclusion of a turn.  And yet, for some reason, this vital part of poetry does not immediately enter our consciousness when we think about poems in general.  In terms of the sheer amount of turning in poems, the amount of thinking about turning in poetry is disproportionately small.  Clearly, we need to investigate the interrelated issues of the importance of the turn, the reasons the turn isn’t a more significant part of our sense of what poems are and do, and what we can do to correct this oversight.


One of the main reasons we don’t acknowledge the ubiquitous turn as fully as we should is the simple fact that we don’t have a more encompassing, generally accepted term for it.  This is no small matter.  Terms are important; they are the markers of and signposts for our attentiveness.  The term form encourages attention to aspects of the poem including meter, rhythm, and rhyme; content asks us to consider more carefully what a poem is about; syntax turns our attention to the role of sentence structure in a poem’s meaning-making pattern.  The term turn is inadequate; because of the turn’s strong associations with the sonnet, turn indicates one part of a poem’s, or rather just a sonnet’s, formal concerns—turn is just one more item on par with the facts that the sonnet is fourteen lines long, written in iambic pentameter, in possession of a particular rhyme scheme, and so on.  Thus, we need a larger, more encompassing term to mark the presence of the turn in poetry.


The most appropriate term available is structure, the term most often used by the few commentators—among them: Randall Jarrell, Ellen Bryant Voigt, and Stephen Dobyns [in “Writing the Reader’s Life,” from Best Words, Best Order: Essays on Poetry (New York: St. Martin’s, 1996), 35-52]—who have attempted to significantly differentiate between structure and form.  However, the term structure also entails many difficulties.  It is somewhat confusing, because generally often is considered synonymous with form.  For example, if in a handbook of poetry there is a chapter called “Structures of Poetry,” that chapter will very likely be about forms: villanelles, sestinas, ghazals, pantoums, blank verse.


Additionally, save for the facts that they believe structure is something other than form and that structure refers in some way to a poem’s organization, previous commentators on nonformal structure do not agree precisely on what structure is.  Especially concerned that structure not be equated with only “the skeletons of poems,” Jarrell states, “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,” noting that while some animals wear their skeletons “on their outside,” “some manage…to have no skeleton at all,” and concluding, “So poems.”  In an essay that draws upon Jarrell’s work [“The Flexible Lyric,” in The Flexible Lyric (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1999), 114-171], though Ellen Bryant Voigt refers to structure very largely as “the purposeful order in which materials are released to the reader,” she clearly favors a deep skeletal view of structure, likening mere “formal conventions” to “exoskeletal structures.”


In part, it is the continuing imprecision of the use of structure that keeps structure from being substantial and significant.  Thus, structure needs a strong definition, and I believe that defining structure clearly and decisively as the pattern of a poem’s turning provides a way to name and reveal an essential characteristic of structure.  That is, I believe Jarrell, Voigt, and Dobyns would agree that the pattern of a poem’s turning is at least one part, if not a key part, of any nonformal definition of structure.  Admittedly, this definition of structure focuses more on the skeletal aspect of structure, and, admittedly, we should be aware of all the significance-making components in a poem, whatever they may be called (indeed, other terms may need to be invented), but structure as a pattern of a poem’s turning is vital not only because it is essential but also because, so defined, it is tremendously useful.


In “The Flexible Lyric,” Voigt suggests that structure has the power to offer a whole new taxonomy for poetry.  Comparing the classification of poems to zoological taxonomy, Voigt states, “…[T]he record of lyric evolution, from words performed on the lyre to written document to expanding adaptations (ballad, sonnet, public and private odes), long ago became a taxonomy of verse forms—formal conventions and exoskeletal structures—which, like those silhouettes of birds in the field guide, no longer seem helpful out in the field, with new species on the wing or in the nest.”  According to Voigt, there are, thankfully, other ways to classify and identify poems, ways that do not discriminate according to outward appearances but rather organize by deeper connections, and such classification will begin to clarify matters in poetry as it clarified matters in science, as when “[i]n the eighteenth century, naturalists commonly used a classification of ‘quadrapeds’ which excluded lizards and salamanders but included bats and walruses, liberties no longer needed once the class was renamed ‘mammal.’”


Although Voigt does not develop such a taxonomy she herself suggests, structure, when it is defined decisively as the pattern of a poem’s turning, offers a new way of classifying poems, regardless of their form.  Whereas form offers categories for poems such as sonnet, villanelle, and ghazal, structure introduces new kinds of poems, or kinds of poems perhaps better known in scholarship than in creative writing, including ironic (poems turning from set-up to punchline), emblem (poems turning from description to meditation), concessional (poems turning from initial concessions to making a positive argument), retrospective-prospective (poems turning from past to present or future), dialectical (poems turning from thesis to antithesis to synthesis), and descriptive-meditative (poems turning from a description of a scene to a meditation that arises from the initial description to a re-description of the scene).


Even if not necessarily superior to but merely other than other classification systems, the power of this new taxonomy is considerable, as are the effects it could have on the teaching of poetry and poetry writing.  The new taxonomy makes us see poems in new ways, making very new connections among seemingly radically varying poems, forms, schools.  There is an ironic poem that is an epigrammatic, two-lined poem by a Language poet Charles Bernstein (“Shaker Show”) and another that is a twenty-line rhyming poem by Robert Frost (“The Most of It”).  There is a concessional poem that is a sonnet (Shakespeare’s “My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun”) and another that is a haiku (Issa’s “The world of dew / Is the world of dew— / And yet, and yet—”); still another is Marianne Moore’s terse “Poetry,” as is Ariana Waynes’s “To the Patriots and Activist Poets,” a much longer free verse slam poem.


But for all of its seeming newness, structure’s great strength really is its familiarity.  Especially for younger students of poetry, where form can seem an especially singular poetic activity—no one speaks or thinks in villanelles—structure’s turning is something people do all the time with and in their language.  Anyone who has ever told a joke is familiar with the ironic structure.  Anyone who has ever confessed anything about their past—privately or to another person—in order to make resolutions about the future already has employed the retrospective-prospective structure.  Structures can be efficiently and effectively pointed out, shown to be relevant and revealing, and put to immediate use in analyzing and creating poems.  Students can appreciate and compose poems as terrific examples of speech acts they use every day.


But it is not just students who need to become familiar with structure.  The professionals need it, as well.  Without a concept like structure, even experienced poets make mistakes in how we represent poems.  Mark Strand’s and Eavan Boland’s anthology, The Making of the Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms (New York: W.W. Norton, 2001), of course focuses forms, but it also includes what might be called poetic modes, the larger traditions of poetry that include elegy and ode.  And so the anthology suggests that it—and, through it, form—provides a comprehensive accounting of important means for making poems.  Nevertheless, even though the emblem poem has long been a significant part of poetry production, and even though two other structures, the ironic and descriptive-meditative, have been discussed in important twentieth-century works on Romanticism—including Anne Mellor’s English Romantic Irony and M.H. Abrams’s “Structure and Style in the Greater Romantic Lyric,” respectively—structure is completely unrepresented as a means for crafting poems.  Of course, many turns appear throughout the anthology, but the effect is that, without being highlighted, the turns seem like insignificant, incident parts of the poems and not, as they really are, truly major component of what it takes to make a poem.


The absence of structural focus—or even consideration—is perhaps even greater in the realm of poetry-writing pedagogy.  As a result of being at the end of major conflict in the poetry wars, after the battles between camps variously defined as New Formalist/lyric/traditional and Language/experimental/avant-garde, there is now an increased tendency to teach poetry as a mixture of form and experimentation, with form serving as a procedure for generating text.  Such procedures constitute the basis for, for example, “Principles for Formal Experimentation,” the final section of An Exaltation of Forms: Contemporary Poets Celebrate the Diversity of Their Art (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002), a recent book on poetic forms edited by Annie Finch and Kathrine Varnes.  “Principles for Formal Experimentation” includes discussions of Billy Collins’s hoax-form, the paradelle, Oulipian methods, and Charles Bernstein’s take on form, “Nude Formalism: A Sampler.”  While such methods can be very useful for encouraging production and invention, when considered after some attention has been paid to structure, it is clear that these methods are limited insofar as they completely exclude concern with structure and, thus, result in carelessly structured work.  Only by incorporating attention to poetic structure in such exercises can these exercises be transformed into a deeper art.


Certainly, knowing about structure makes new demands on poets and poems, requiring that poems be organized to maneuver significantly; however, structure also offers a tremendously useful tool for recognizing or even imagining a draft’s structural potential—it is relatively easy, for example, to imagine stalled drafts inspired by a familiarity with structural traditions.  In this regard, however, structure should not be confused with logic.  As Jarrell notes, “Poetry constantly uses logic for the details of structures…constantly haunts about the shape of logic….But for poetry logic is merely one method of organization, one among many others….”  Poetic turns also can be narrative or dramatic, subtle or radical.  A turn might signal a shift from premise to conclusion, but it also might mark the transition from set-up to punch line, or from one emotional state to another.  Rather than thinking about structure in terms of logic, it is far more accurate to think of a poem’s structural potential as the poem’s further potential to surprise, and structural tradition should encourage not a slavish adherence to that tradition but structural experimentation, a willingness to try out new manifestations of structural maneuvers.  Structure is more than logic; it organizes and encourages a poem’s leaps and landings, it arrivals at places at once prepared-for yet seemingly unexpected.


It is of course fruitless to try to dictate linguistic developments; language will do what it wants.  However, whether or not the terms and meanings presented here actually will be more generally employed, it at least should be clear that we need a term to designate the importance of the turn in poetry, and that term, despite all its difficulties, should be structure.  Only in this way will we even begin to understand what Randall Jarrell meant when he said—over six decades ago—that “[i]n our time there has been comparatively little work on poetic structure.”  And only in this way will we be encouraged to undertake that still neglected work, to further investigate what surprises a turn to giving more attention to structure in poetry may reveal.

45 responses

26 02 2009
Poetic Structure…Poetic Form…Huh? « Structure & Surprise

[…] Check it out here. […]

8 03 2009
Rhyme and Meter Online: March 8, 2009 « PoemShape

[…] The Structure-Form Distinction Perhaps you asked yourself about content, and so you discovered that you like a wide variety of topics in your poems: desire, death, hope, nature, relationships, nightingales.  Perhaps you asked yourself about form, and so you discovered that you like a lot of forms—a lot of sonnets, some villanelles, a smattering of sestinas.  But one question you probably didn’t ask yourself was: do these poems turn?  If this question, which likely only arose if you had a number of sonnets on your list, in fact seems strange, then it is imperative to investigate this strangeness for it indicates that the turn, a significant shift in the poem’s rhetorical progress, which is so vital in poetry, is rarely recognized as such. […]

30 03 2009
Maureen N. McLane’s “Twisting and Turning” « Structure & Surprise

[…] I discuss in my own American Poet essay, it is the kind and degree of lack of specificity when it comes to defining and discussing turns […]

13 04 2009
Bob Grumman

Michael, I find your writing on the turn quite interesting BUT have disagreements with some of it. That may be due to my being new to your slant, and not having investigated very much of it. I’m too impatient to wait until I feel I’m on top of your view not to make an exploratory comment or two, though. Here’s the first:

I have trouble with your severing “structure” from “form.” How can the form of a poem not be structural? It seems to me you are simply distinguishing formal structure from . . . I haven’t a good name for it, but for now, how about, “depictive structure?” The patterning of a poem’s depiction of the story it is telling, if it is a narrative poem; or the scene or subject if lyric; or the idea if it is meditative; and so forth. Not that this isn’t a valuable thing to do. (I must confess that I hadn’t thought about any other kinds of poetic structure than formal structure until reading your thoughts on the subject.)

Moreover, your definition of structure as “the pattern of a poem’s turning” suggests that what happens in a poem before and after its turning is not structural, which seems loopy to me.

Hence, I would focus on the kind of structure a poem has rather than the kind of turn it has. The latter, in fact, would be determined by the former. I don’t think this should cause much change in what you’re asking of poets and engagents of poetry. They would still be keying on the turn at the heart of a poem–except that they would get to it only after determining what kind of structure the poem had. And “structure” would retain its general meaning.

–Bob G.

14 04 2009
Bob Grumman

Additon. I have a better name for what I was calling, “depictive structure.” It is “rhetorical structure.”


15 04 2009
Mike Theune

Hi, Bob,

Thank you very much for your thoughtful comments. I offer a few thoughts in response–

To be clear: I’m not the one who severed structure and form. While there is significant overlap in the use of these terms, they often have been used to signify different things. For instance, lots of intro to poetry textbooks discuss form and structure as separate (or somehow separable) entities. So far, however, form has gotten WAY more attention and play than structure. I think there is at least one clear reason for this: we have names for forms–that is, we have a clear taxonomy for form, and so form seems in some ways more approachable (and teachable) than structure. (I think this is one major reason why, Bob, as you say, you’ve never thought about structure outside of formal structure…)

In part, my focusing on structure (and focusing on structure as the pattern of a poem’s turning) is a pragmatic endeavor, one which allows us to start to see that there are taxonomic possibilities in structure as well as form. This, then, is one way to turn more critical and pedagogical attention toward the turn, that vital but radically under-discussed element of poems. It seems to me that if we don’t do this (or something like this), we simply lose structure–that is, structure goes back to being something people SAY is really important in poems but that no one has any idea about how to speak systematically about. (This is what often takes place in intro to poetry textbooks–structure is paid lip service, but then quickly is passed over…)

About what happens before and after turns, I’d simply say that I think a poem can in fact have many turns in it, and it can have major and minor turns. What goes on before and after (major) turns may be structural (minor turns), but it also could be many other things, including matters of diction, syntax, imagery, etc.

I understand the need for a more global term for all those organizational elements in poems not covered by form and structure, and perhaps your terms are the ones to use, Bob–I’ll have to think more on this. (NB: In many ways, I like “rhetorical structure”–and indeed I think the art of rhetoric very much is behind what I’m trying to do with S&S and this blog…however, I tried to not use the term “rhetoric”…I didn’t want to scare anyone away! As I said, I will think on this more…) However, I wonder: wouldn’t it, alternatively, be just as easy to call all those other organizational elements “organization” and let structure–a term which in almost all of its uses includes turning as one of its central components–be both the signifier of the pattern of a poem’s turning AND a way to underscore the importance of that turning, turning which for so long has been so little systematized and (therefore?) so little discussed?

Again, Bob, thank you for your thoughtful input.


15 04 2009
Bob Grumman

Thanks much for your reply, Mike. It makes sense. One thing I’m not sure you have addressed, though, is simply the use of “structure” as a term. I agree with what you say about what that term means for you, and think that should get more attention. But I dislike “structure” as a term for it because, to me, and many others it would appear, it is just a less-used synonym for “form.” A related problem, for me, is that I can readily see “turn” as an element in a structure, but have trouble (just semantically) with it as a structure. I mentioned what comes before and after the turn, or a turn, in a poem because these are structural elements, too–and seem as logically “structures” in themselves as the turn does. The “pre-turn” sets up the turn, and the “turn-effect” is what it results in (to make up names on the fly). By calling the turn “structure,” you take it away as a name for other things one might think it should apply to.

I’ve been working in this area a long time, going at it from quite a different perspective. It seems to me you are much more interested in the content of a poem than I, I in the mechanics, or poetic devices used. But there’s a lot of overlap. Anyway, I’m tentatively dividing poems into what I’m calling “decks,” choosing a name I don’t think should be confusing the way I feel “structure” is. Thus, I have a formal deck and, now, a rhetorical deck. (Yeah, it’s a nuisance how words get damaged by emotional over-reaction or whatever it is that stabbed “rhetoric.”) What you’re doing has given me a lot of help in suggesting where to take my decks. Thanks for that, and thanks for even getting as involved as you have in something it seems to me very few poetry people care much about–but should!

all best, Bob

16 04 2009
Mike Theune

Hi, Bob,

Thanks very much for this. Some thoughts:

On the one hand: yes, it’s true, I’ve kind of comandeered the term “structure” for this project. However, I would argue that in doing so I’m mostly clarifying and solidifying a distinction that actually exists in a lot of the literature on poetry. Regardless, though, you’re right: one result of this process I’m engaged in (and which I’m continuing in a second book project, one that tries to spell out the implications and show the applications of what paying more attention to the turn in poetry would do to and for the some of the discussions of contemporary poetry) does then mean that “structure,” just as I no longer in my writings allow it to mean “form,” cannot be used to signify all those myriad non-turning means of organization (imagery, sonic effects, syntax, etc) in a poem. (We could call those organizational elements the poem’s “organization.”)

However, on the other hand, this commandering is not merely cavalier; it is meant to be pragmatic, connecting the vital and significant turn to a term in the discussion of poetry (ie, “structure”) that for a long time has gotten lip service as being a vital part of poems but in fact has no real definable referent. Focusing “structure” on the turn limits how we might use the word “structure” but it also empowers “structure” in a new way by giving it substance.

This is my thinking for now, but, as I said, I will continue, and am continuing, to think on it.

Regardless of the use of the term “structure,” I’m heartened, Bob, by the fact that you’ve added the rhetorical “deck.” That’s the kind of recognition I’m trying to get for the turn in poetry–whatever we call it!

I hope you’ll keep checking in, Bob, and keep me posted with further questions and insights.

With thanks,

PS: If you’re interested in checking out more of the blog, Bob, you might be interested in (under “Theory & Criticism”) “Turned onto Turns: Comments on Structure.” Some (though not all) of these comments use “structure” to refer to an aspect of the poem’s orchestration not covered by “form.”

16 04 2009
Bob Grumman

I more and more think our only significant disagreement is over terminology, Mike. I still want some special term for “turn”–or “structure,” as you use it. But I’m a neological nut, always making up terms, few getting getting picked up by anyone, and none getting anything like wide use. My most popular was “otherstream,” if it was actually mine. I haven’t been able to think of a good term for “turn,” but will be on the look-out for one. And will read more of what you have to say about the device, starting with those of your articles you recommend. Maybe they will suggest something.

I will also keep in touch. Right now among my projects is an attempt to do a super-thorough analysis of Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18”–the “summer’s day” one. My analysis will almost surely include a discussion of the turns in it–now. If I ever manage to get any of my thoughts on the sonnet reasonably coherent, I’ll give you a look at them.

all best, Bob

17 04 2009
Mike Theune

I’m going to visit Comprepoetica to see if I can find out more about your “otherstream,” Bob–great term!

I concur: we disagree about terminology–not a huge disagreement (or, should I say: I’m happy it’s not a deal-breaker!) in my book, but something to pay attention to and to take seriously, of course.

And, of course, I’d like to know what your write on Shakespeare’s sonnet 18, Bob!–please do keep me posted.

I’ve recently been looking at sonnet 29 (“When in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes…”). Right now, I’m using it to open the first chapter of my next (fingers crossed) book, linking it via its turn (from dejection to elation) not to other sonnets but to poems with similar (though not identical…) turns/structures, including poems such as Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush” and J. Allyn Rosser’s “North Jersey Farmland, Vile Mood.”

Cheers, Bob,

17 04 2009
Bob Grumman

I hope you don’t find Comprepoetica too insane, Mike. As for “otherstream,” it seems to mean just the opposition of “mainstream,” although I defined it as the opposite of “knownstream”–because some kinds of poetry I consider knownstream, or conventional, like the villanelle, are not mainstream. Probably a silly distinction.

As you will soon find out, I’m fanatically in favor of unconventional poetry, especially visual poetry. I sometimes get carried away to such an extent that I seem to some against traditional poetry, which is 100% not the case.

Later, Bob

17 04 2009
Mike Theune

I like these terms, Bob– I like the “knownstream”/”otherstream” binary, how it puts a bit of a subjective slant on the “mainstream”/”experimental” binary, reminding almost all who use the terms of that binary that what they’re really talking about is what is mainstream/experimental to them, that is, so far as they know it.

Nice stuff over at Comprepoetica. I like the new terms, like “sensricule.” And I’m impressed by the amount of content. I’m fairly new to blogging and only beginning to realize the dedication it takes (thus some of my initial delay in getting back to your comments–and why, I’m sure, to be honest, there are likely to be other delays!)– Your dedication, however, is clear–I hope others will check out your work–

Cheers, Bob!

18 04 2009
Bob Grumman

Thanks for the nice comments, Mike. As for my dedication, I did have quite a bit at first, but over-reached. That’s easy to do. So I’d advise you to try as best you can to keep your blog centered on the turn, at least for now. And be selfish–do what you can for those working in your area and interacting with you, but don’t spread your blog to do the same for everyone doing poetry criticism or involved in poetry in any way. That’s the main thing that klunked my website. It’s still there, but not very active.

Thanks, too, for reminding me of “sensricule.” I have several “–cule” coinages, the main one in my poetics being “lyricule,” which represents the lyrical core, or sometimes a lyrical core, of a poem.

Don’t worry about delays. I’m infamous for them.

all best, Bob

20 04 2009
Mike Theune

Thanks for your understanding, and for you very smart advice, Bob (especially about keeping the blog’s focus on the turn…very wise, I think…such focus is a MUST for this blog…).


23 04 2009
Bob Grumman

Back briefly, Mike, to let you know that “aesthruption” and “aesthcorrective” are my latest arts-related coinages–the first for something like your structure for all the arts, the second for its resolution. More when I’ve figured out in Major Detail what I’m talking about.

all best, Bob

24 04 2009
Mike Theune

Those terms sound good, Bob–I’ll hop over to Comprepoetica shortly to check ’em out. From what I’m reading right here, though, these coinages seem to jibe with qualities of turning that I’m very interested in: I especially admire turns that are both fitting (“aesthcorrective”?) and surprising/disruptive (“aesthruptive”?–if the noun may be used as an adjective).


12 06 2009
Learning Structure from Dante « Structure & Surprise

[…] and the other structures of poetry is a distinction that anticipated, prefigured, and inspired the structure-form distinction at the heart of the undertaking that is Structure & […]

4 07 2009
Poetry Magazine & the Turn « Structure & Surprise

[…] 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 […]

20 07 2009
Against “Narrative” « Structure & Surprise

[…] 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 […]

10 08 2009
Tiel Aisha Ansari

Why not call a turn a turn? It seems to me that “structure” is in common usage as a far more general term, and also that all poems have structure but not all poems turn.

17 08 2009
Mike Theune

Hello, Tiel Aisha Ansari,

Thank you for this comment.

I’m pretty cool with calling a turn a turn, and leaving it at that. If we can agree that turns are vital parts of poems that require greater attention than they have so far received in the discussions about poetry, then I’d be pretty happy–I think that would be a helpful/fruitful/informative addition to such discussions.

However, I do want to try to push my argument a bit further… What I don’t like about simply calling turns turns is the fact that then the turn seems like one thing that’s in a poem while something like “form” seems–how shall I say it?–more pervasive and, so, significant, and so something like form keeps getting more attention than the turn, even though the turn may really be at the heart of what a lot of readers look for in poems, and what a lot of poets are after when they write poems.

As I try to communicate in my exchange with Bob Grumman (in the comment stream attached to this post), I am trying with my work on the turn to give some substance to the term “structure,” a term which I am, consciously (and, I hope, conscientiously) commandeering in my work on the turn.

On the one hand, this is to advance the cause of the turn. By connecting the turn to structure, I’m trying to show/argue that the turn is more pervasive, and, so, significant, than just one more element in a poem–turns, for example, can offer a whole new taxonomy for poetry.

However, on the other hand, this is to advance the cause of structure. My sense is that “structure,” so far, has one or more of the following, rather unhelpful, meanings:

Form–sometimes structure and form are thought to be synonymous.

Organization–this, I think, is what you mean by structure being “a far more general term.”

The problem with the first definition, however, is that it repeats what we already know: it gives us forms again. The problem with the second is that, indeed, it is very general–so general that it does not really offer anything to readers and writers of poetry. Structure as organization offers so much that it offers no specific information about what poems are, what they do, how they work.

All of the above can change if we refer to structure as a poem’s pattern of turns. In this way, the turn gets its larger (and, I think, proper) due, and structure is provided a distinct, substantial meaning–a meaning apart from form or organization, and a meaning that often is implied in the use of the term structure.

Now, I do grant that the above is pushing things just a bit. The above may mostly be about terminology rather than substance. We might substantially agree on the value of turns without agreeing on the above points. But I do think that the argument I outline above is there to be made….

(I’m at work on some more detailed thinking about this, looking at and considering the use of the term structure in introduction to poetry textbooks. Perhaps I should write some posts on what I’m discovering…)

Please do let me know, if you want, what you think about the above points. My thinking is all in process, under way. I could use the challenge, prodding, the push to greater precision.


13 09 2010
Drew Byrne

Without content there is no structure…but I wouldn’t know about that.

23 01 2011
I Have Seen the Light « Structure & Surprise

[…] admire this sonnet for how it clearly praises the poetic turn, “that incredible moment, / when you realize what you’re reading…is not what you […]

31 05 2011
Jeremy Tambling’s RE: Verse–Turning towards Poetry « Structure & Surprise

[…] But this is not what Tambling means by the “very winding path” of the poem—virtually all of the poems he cites at length in RE: Verse left-justified.  Tambling, in fact, is interested in helping readers recognize, and recognize the importance of, structural turns in poems.  (For information on the difference between form and structure, click here.) […]

8 06 2011
Helen Vendler: Approaching the Turn « Structure & Surprise

[…] 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.) […]

11 07 2011
Christina Pugh’s “On Sonnet Thought” « Structure & Surprise

[…] example, the idea that there is a structure-form distinction, that poetic structure, the pattern of a poem’s turning, can and should be differentiated from […]

21 04 2012
Surprised by Syntax: Stanley Fish on the Sentence’s Turns « Structure & Surprise

[…] Jarrell makes in “Levels and Opposites: Structure in Poetry,” and that I use to open my essay “Poetic Structure and Poetic Form: A Necessary Differentiation.”)  And, further on, Fish links the kinds of form in which he is interested with “rhetorical […]

7 12 2012
friday roundup: the turn, a deepening, and ‘now that the fields belong to the crows’ | the stanza

[…] turn  Last night at my poetry workshop group, someone brought an article by Michael Theune: Poetic Structure and Poetic Form: The Necessary Differentiation. In this article, the author argues for a more explicit discussion of what we call “the […]

13 12 2012
Mike Theune

I’m so glad that the turn seems to hold some promise for you, that you might be able to use it to encounter poems more fully–that’s great! Read around the blog, and let me know if you have questions. All best–

29 06 2014
Surprise/Moves | Structure & Surprise

[…] creation of a turn and a corresponding surprise.  It seems, then, that Collom himself is making a structure-form distinction and quite clearly values structure over form.  If this is the case, it leads me to wonder if there […]

20 01 2016
The Hidden Turn in X. J. Kennedy’s Introduction to Poetry | Structure & Surprise

[…] The Structure-Form Distinction […]

17 05 2016
On Tony Hoagland’s “Poetic Housing” | Structure & Surprise

[…] The Structure-Form Distinction […]

5 06 2016
27 06 2017
Turning the Field: The Poetry of Laurie Perry Vaughen | Structure & Surprise

[…] The Structure-Form Distinction […]

28 06 2017
REVIEW: Turning the Field: The Poetry of Laurie Perry Vaughen – Laurie Perry Vaughen

[…] Vaughen made use of Structure & Surprise to help create new work and/or to help articulate (often very movingly) what her work is doing. Very early on in her thesis’s introductory essay (the second section of which is called “Turning the Field: Structure and Surprise”), Vaughen clarifies the distinction between form and structure: […]

7 07 2017
“That electric charge”: Melville Cane’s Turns | Structure & Surprise

[…] The Structure-Form Distinction […]

10 07 2017
Robert Hillyer’s Sonnet Thought | Structure & Surprise

[…] The Structure-Form Distinction […]

11 07 2017
Alden’s Structure-Form Distinction | Structure & Surprise

[…] The Structure-Form Distinction […]

19 06 2018
Swivel toward a Stirring | Structure & Surprise

[…] The Structure-Form Distinction […]

8 10 2019
To Get to the Marrow, Turn | Structure & Surprise

[…] The Structure-Form Distinction […]

27 06 2022
17 07 2022
The Strange Volta in “My Mistress’s Eyes” | Structure & Surprise

[…] The Structure-Form Distinction […]

20 07 2022
Lucy Alford’s *Structures* of Poetic Attention | Structure & Surprise

[…] The Structure-Form Distinction […]

17 10 2022

Very nice blog you havve here

27 10 2022
Mike Theune

Thank you very much!

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