Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

"Structure and Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns" by Michael Theune (ed) (Teachers and Writers Collaborative, 2007)

The editor makes a distinction between form (sonnet, etc) and structure (see below). Each structure is explained, some sample poems analysed, some risks considered, then some supplemental poems provided (requiring 6 pages of acknowledgements). The structures are -

  • Ironic - A statement followed by undermining
  • Emblem - A description of an object followed by a meditation - "the name refers to a genre of Renaissance that combines a ... visual image ... emblema and a poem explaining the meaning of the image. Collected in emblemata, or emblem books ... At the center of the emblem tradition is the philosophical and theological concept of an ordered universe, a universe that can be both observed and "read"" (p.27)
  • Concession - which begins by admitting something that seems counter to the final position, perhaps to demonstrate an understanding of the opposition's perspective ("I, too, dislike it")
  • Retrospective-Prospective - a memory, then a revision, reinterpretation, or action based on the past. The turn might be introduced by "But now"
  • Elegy - "more of a mode of thinking, or a complex set of conventions, than a single structure" (p.83). It can try to make the subject immortal, surrender to the sadness, or conclude that there's been enough grieving.
  • Dialectic - a 3-part structure, though Adorno's negative dialectics denies a final synthesis
  • Descriptive-Meditative - another 3-parter. Like Emblem, except that the object is re-examined in a new light.
  • The mid-course turn - a catch-all
  • Substructure - a slight, disguised or obscure structure. One example is "Or, " by Thomas Sayers Ellis which I liked, though I thought some of the discussion was beyond the scope of this book.

In the next section, 14 poets present and comment upon a poem of theirs which demonstrates an aspect of structure. Their comments on structure were relevant. Their other comments were sometimes interesting, sometimes evasive

  • "I often use the three-line stanza as an extension of the haiku form (minus the seventeen-syllable regulation, which I think works in Japanese but doesn't really work in English). By using the principle of haiku, I can compress each stanza into three elements: idea - counterpoint - revelation, or image - juxtaposition - surprise" - Eric Gamalinda (p.195)
  • Peter Gizzi's poem begins - "We know time is a wave.// You can see it in gneiss, migmatic/ or otherwise, everything crumbles.// Don't despair". Actually we don't know that time is a wave. True, some gneiss has a wave shape in it, but that only makes the wave (like many other things) a consequence of time. As far as I can tell, gneiss, migmatic or otherwise is not especially crumbly, so "everything crumbles" sounds contrived. The comma after "otherwise" looks as if it should be something else.
  • Timothy Liu's poem "My Last Night on Nova Scotia" begins "was spent onboard the Lady Janet I - // a wreck tied up on the end/ of a long wharf where no other// tourists (to be seen) wanted// to venture". The stanza pattern (alternately one line and two line) continues without explanation or any purpose. It's prose, so why pretend otherwise?
  • Jeffrey McDaniel says that in his poem a relationship become long-distance at this point - "But then duty wrapped its phone cord// around my ankle and yanked me across the continent./ And now there are three thousand miles between the u// and s in esophagus.". But that's not just an obscure passage, it's misleading.
  • Rachel Zucker plays with fire when discussing the structure of her poem - "What seemed at first a rogue bit of language is suddenly manifested as the essence of the poem ... Anxiety arises, however, when the reader suspects that perhaps she has been duped ... Worse still, the reader suspects that the poet's attention to the world was manipulative .. Would any grand statement tacked on to the end of a careful description sound profound, meaningful, true?" (p.222)

The final section, "Inspiration, Guides, Exercises" looks useful, though it says "In terms of its usefulness for the composition of poems, structure's particular strength is in revision; it generally is not a very helpful pre-writing method" (p.227). 2 interesting suggestions are -

  • "Add an ironic ending to one of your own poems. Now revise the rest of the poem towards that "discovered" end" (p.228)
  • "Write an ironic elegy for a fictional character ... Or, write an elegy for an abstraction that you believe is disappearing" (p.231)

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