Friday, August 07, 2009

Poetry/ Not Poetry & The Turn

I think I must be missing something. Certainly I must be, as I have to admit, as much as I’m consumed with thoughts about poetry and what I find there (or don’t), one thing I’ve never been much interested in is how and why poetry differs from prose. I just kind of truck on my merry way, oblivious. Or not really oblivious, but more lacking some macro gene, I guess.

But questions surrounding Poetry/Not Poetry ARE often very interesting to me, as when Archambeau was writing about Romanticism recently, which I linked to here.

Now, he’s still think about Poetry/Not Poetry, and linking to some interesting things from Michael Theune (who I’m looking forward to meeting in about a month, so I’m doubly interested):


And who is the partisan of the volta, you wonder? Well, if I had to limit myself to a 150 mile radius of my study, I'd say the most powerful partisan of the volta would have to be Mike Theune. From his secret rebel outpost in Bloomington, Illinois Mike argues persuasively for the centrality of the volta to poetry. He's written a good book on the topic, and he totally schooled me on turns in Jorie Graham's poetry a while back.

Now he's picked up on my old
Poetry/Not Poetry post and offered his own riffs on the meaning of the volta to poetry.


So I followed Archambeau's links to Thuene’s site and looked around, finding several wonderful things to fill my morning, especially the list of quotes here, which includes, among many others, these very nice bits:


In a poem, one is always given, I would argue, a sense of place that matters–a place on suffered the loss of, a place one longs for–a stage upon which the urgent act of mind of this particular lyric occasion (be it memory, description, meditation, fractured recollection of self, or even further disintegration of self under the pressure of history, for example) “takes place.”

…A break…can constitute trigger occasions, or situations, or kinds of place from which the spirit in language springs forward into the action of poetry.

All such moments–where we are taken by surprise and asked to react–are marked places in consciousness, places where a “turn” is required.

–Jorie Graham, “Something of Moment,” in Ploughshares 27. 4 (Winter 2001-02), 7-9.


The capacity to “express” the ineffable, the inexpressible, the emissary of the nonverbal territories of intuition, deep paradox, conflicting bodily impulses, as well as profoundly present yet nonlanguaged spiritual insights, even certain emotional crisis states–these are the wondrous haul that the nets of “deep image,” “collective emotive image,” haiku image-clusters, musical effects of all kinds (truths only introduced via metrical variation, for example), and the many hinge actions in poetry (turns, leaps, associations, lacunae) bring onto the shore of the made for us. The astonishments of poetry, for me, reside most vividly in its capacity to make a reader receive utterable and unutterable realities at once.

–Jorie Graham, “At the Border,” in American Women Poets in the 21st Century: Where Lyric Meets Language, edited by Claudia Rankine and Juliana Spahr (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2002): 146-48.


Is there a describable lyricism of swerving? For those poems for which the swerve, the turn, the sudden change in direction are integral, can we begin to articulate a precise appreciation? Is there a describable and individualistic lyricism of swerving?

I would argue that a flat mysticism of the particular is a problem. What’s needed is a twist or turn, a kind of swerve in another direction–as Louis Zukofsky suggests, “thought’s torsion.”

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.

–Hank Lazer, in “Lyricism of the Swerve: The Poetry of Rae Armantrout” (in Lyric & Spirit: Selected Essays 1996-2008 (Richmond, CA: Omnidawn, 2008), pp. 95-126; and American Women Poets in the 21st Century: Where Lyric Meets Language, edited by Claudia Rankine and Juliana Spahr (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan, 2002), pp. 27-51).


Nice things from Archambeau and Thuene, et al. And now to close up this bit on turning and swerving and structure, here’s something from Martha Ronk that I like (I've posted it here before). It’s from her introduction to her work from Lyric Postmodernisms, edited by Reginald Shepherd, that I hightly recommend:

In his book In Quest of the Ordinary, Stanley Cavell states, “The everyday is what we cannot but aspire to, since it appears to us as lost to us.” I have tried to create poems that read in a seemingly temperate and straight-forward manner, but that unsettle the reader by intense, shifting, or confused focus, by a swerve toward the unexpected even if highly recognizable. The “quotidian” seems somehow a possible counter to skepticism, a check on self-involvement and a refusal to admit that there is anything other to confront than oneself. Such poetry has the potential to map and blur the ground between self and world, past and present, local and abstract. It can reach for the uncanny, can approximate something both ordinary and utterly odd, in an alternation and oscillation that maintains both. This luminal space may appear, for example, in the area between two images such that the eye/mind moving from one distinct image to another finds itself in a transitional space that undoes, unhinges, opens, slips. I am perforce drawn to the visual. In Lee Friedlander’s book, Black/White/Objects, there are two juxtaposed photographs, one of a man of wood (a crucifix) and one of a man of air (a balloon manikin in a Macy’s parade). As one’s eyes cross back and forth from the image on the left to the image on the right, one’s mind flutters, not only seeing the two as one, not only overlapping them, but also not being able to do this. The operation fails and in this splendid moment of failure, tied by slender thread to success and the released spark of juxtaposition, I would hope to locate my work. . . . .

The restless question, “why,” stands for me at the center of poetics: questioning why things are as they are, why standardized versions dominate: insisting, suspending, moving into fluidity and failure. . . . .

My work exists in the interrogative mood, whether or not a question mark appears at the end of a line.


At 8/07/2009 1:38 PM, Blogger Michael Theune said...

Hi, John,

So glad you stopped by, and rummaged through, the Structure and Surprise blog, and even more glad that you found items of interest. I hope you'll stop by as often as you like.

I very much look forward to meeting you in about a month--I like your blog very much, and Wayne's spoken highly of you...

All best,

At 8/07/2009 2:31 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

It’s a wonderful resource. I’m just irritated with myself that I didn’t find it sooner. Now that I have, however, I’ll be making much use of it.

Onwards to the volta… !

At 8/10/2009 12:17 PM, Blogger Joseph Hutchison said...

So every poet is "The Volta Boatman"? (A flashback to my childhood school choir days...)

At 8/10/2009 8:00 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

What more can I say?
From the bottom of my heart I need you
You're a part of my day . . .

Glenn Miller, I think, lived for a time about 20 miles from where I live.



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