Wednesday, November 03, 2004

On Poetic Structure

i posted a long blog this morning on the election and it seems to have disappeared. Oh well i don't think i'm going to re-type it. Here is a version of my essay on structure. Comments appreciated.

This essay attempts to analyze the functional role that structure in plays in poems. By ‘Structure,’ I am not referring to form, but rather the way that the ideas, emotions or sensory perceptions in a poem are ordered. Within certain forms a poem could have one of many different structures. For example a sonnet could have a traditional 8/6 argument structure, or be a list poem, or have some other type of structure devised by the poet. Structure in a poem is analogous to plot in a story, and like plot, structure is overlooked in most MFA teaching programs. This is unfortunate because structure isn’t just stylistic, but plays a very important functional role in a poem. The structure of a poem primarily determines how the tension will be set up and resolved. Many contemporary lyric poems (both free verse and formal) have no coherent internal structure whatsoever and therefore lack any tension. Since tension and resolution is the primary way that poems give pleasure, this results in multitudes of flat, boring poems that are otherwise well-written. I have noticed in my reading that despite the wide range of structures that are possible, the best poems in the English language usually use only a small amount of structures. The point here is not that a poem must have one of these structures to be great, but rather that it must have some internally coherent structure. Put another way, all poems appear not to be created equal, structure seems to be more responsible for good and great poems. These structures are examined below. (These structures are not necessarily mutually exclusive):

∑ Argumentative-These poems work like well-illustrated essays, in that they have a thesis that they explore and offer evidence to support (e.g. George W. Bush is evil, God is very good, I dearly love my sweetheart). In the best poems, the veracity or validity of the thesis at least appears to be in doubt, and the ending of the poem offers some element of surprise. In the worst of them, the thesis is stated declaratively in the first few lines, then simply repeated, and the ending offers nothing new or unexpected. Most love, religious, and political poems are of this type. This is the single easiest type of poem to write and the easiest to write badly. Because of the strength of their convictions the poet often eschews all ‘showing’ for ‘telling’ and is loathe to admitting any doubt or uncertainty about the thesis. If there is nothing at stake in the poem it will lack tension and therefore fail to give pleasure, except to people who already strongly agree with the thesis. This is the traditional structure of sonnets, where the first eight lines set up a question or a point, which the next six lines then address. Time is frozen in these poems
∑ Interrogative-These poems pose a question that they then address. It is not necessary for the poem to answer the question, merely explore it. Often these are simply disguised versions of Argumentative poems, where the Interrogative mode is just a rhetorical pose. Time is frozen in these poems
∑ Narrative-In this structure we follow a character through linear time as the character attempts to completes some stated or implied resolving action,
e.g. Poe’s ‘The Raven’, Longfellow’s ‘The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere’, Walcott’s ‘The Schooner Flight.’ Time is linear in these poems
∑ Epiphanal-Here the speaker relates a series of events or perceptions that led or lead to a moment of epiphany for the speaker. This is one of the most common structures found in contemporary Lyric poems. Although these poems often appear to be narratives they aren’t because the events or perceptions just serve as backstory for the moment of truth. Time in the poem is actually frozen in the moment of realization, which the poem concludes with. The realization can be emotional (I truly love you), conceptual (Poems live forever!), or perceptional (My father is a thief), the best poems often are combinations of the above. Examples include Komunyakaa’s ‘My Fathers Love Letters’, Hayden’s ‘Those Winter Sundays’
∑ Revelatory-These poems function exactly like epiphanal poems, but rather than the speaker relating the epiphany, the poem is set up so the reader experiences it themselves. This is most often accomplished by withholding a key perception, or piece of information until the very end of the poem. Sometimes this leads to an epiphany on the part of the reader, sometimes it just reveals key information that explains the motivations of the poems characters.
∑ Equative/ Contrastive -These poems describe a concept or concrete object (usually in intricate detail), which they then juxtapose against another, for the purpose of comparing or contrasting them. (A=B, oak tree= speaker’s father). Sometimes the contrast is stated, sometimes merely implied. This structure drives most Haiku. Time is frozen in these poems
∑ List-Another extremely common structure, these poems list actions, objects, emotions, perceptions or concepts that the speaker finds related in some way. These poems always borrow their Tension/Resolution strategy from other structures, for example beginning with a question that the list elements then answer. Time is frozen in these poems

The above while perhaps not exhaustive, shows the most commonly successful structures found in lyric poems. Below we will examine some sonnets that utilize some of the structures listed above. We will use sonnets because all of these poems have the same form, but contain different structures. This will help to demonstrate the difference between form and structure. We will utilize paraphrase as a tool to examine the poems structures. We begin with a poem that has an Argumentative structure.

IF WE MUST DIE
BY Claude McKay

If we must die--let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot.
If we must die--oh, let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
Oh, Kinsmen! We must meet the common foe;
Though far outnumbered, let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we'll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

The first line contains the conditional statement ‘If we must die, let it not be like X.’ Notice how even though the poem begins with a declaration, there is some tension here, the question of how exactly ‘We’ should die (not ignobly). The poem uses its first four lines to construct an extended simile that illustrates the unfavorable death. The second quatrain presents the alternative scenario (noble death), it doesn’t illustrate it, opting instead to provide reasons for its superiority (We won’t die in vain, our killers will have more respect for us.) In lines nine through twelve the poem turns, notice how the point here relates to the initial line (let it not be like X, but rather like Y) the speaker explains how the noble death will be achieved, by showing bravery in the face of larger numbers, and a certain death. The poem concludes by illustrating the noble death with an extended simile. The opening and closing similes provide most of the power of the poem, vividly bringing to life its theme, observe closely how the second simile relates to the first; in the second simile, the hogs of the first are replaced by men, who though they find themselves in the exact same situation, respond differently. The key word that ties the two similes together is ‘pack’, since this is the exact word used to describe a group of dogs. This word also is an excellent metaphor (pack of dogs) for a lynch mob, which was the actual danger McKay was addressing. This ties the two parts of the poem together. To understand how tension and resolution work in this poem, let’s look at the opening and closing lines together:

If we must die--let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Like men we'll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

This poem uses the standard 8/6 Argumentative structure to make its point. Next we will look at a variation of the above, a sonnet with an Interrogative structure.

SONNET 18
By William Shakespeare

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed,
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature's changing course untrimmed:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st,
Nor shall death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st,
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

The above sonnet uses the standard 8/6 arrangement, for an interrogative structure, where the question appears in the first line; Shall I compare you (the object of the speaker’s affection, here a young boy) to a summer’s day. The next line states the superiority of the love interest (more lovely, more temperate), and the next six lines demonstrate in detail the deficiencies of summer,

Early summer (May) is too windy;
summer is too short;
summer is sometimes too hot;
summer is often cloudy;
the beauty of everything fades;

At line nine the poem moves from the deficiencies of summer to the superiority of the boy’s beauty;

But your eternal summer won’t fade

Notice how Shakespeare continues the comparison of [summer=youth’s beauty] with his metaphor of ‘thy eternal summer,’ this connects the next six lines to the question in the first line ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ The comparison is not exactly the same, in the first line it was [youth=summer day], now it is [boy’s youth=summer (the whole season)]. The importance of this metaphor that ties the second half of the poem to the question in the first line, cannot be overstated, because it allows the functional role of the interrogative structure to continue. Line ten, now counters the point of line eight by stressing another aspect of the boy’s superiority;

Nor lose possession of the beauty you own

Shakespeare then goes one step further in line ten stating:

Nor will death be able to say it has claimed you
When you continue to exist in everlasting lines of poetry

The poem concludes;

As long as humans exist
So will this poem and this poem gives you (and your beauty) life.

The poem thus begins with a question ‘Shall I compare you to a summer’s day?’ that it addresses immediately with a declaration in line two ‘You are more lovely and more temperate.’ Having answered the question the poem needs somewhere to go, so it continues by demonstrating the point of line two in detail. If this were all the poem had to say it would probably not be that good a poem. But the poem turns by picking up the last point made in the first section ‘the beauty of everything fades’ and shows how even here the youth is different, stating ‘since your beauty inspired this poem, and poems last as long as there is someone to read them, your beauty will last as long as there are humans’. This last point is not hinted at in the first six lines and comes as a surprise, thus even though the poem begins with a question, the ultimate point of the poem is only tangentially related to the question itself. An argument can be made that the poem makes its final point in line twelve, but lines thirteen and fourteen aren’t superfluous because they illustrate the point in greater detail. Let’s examine how the key lines of the poem combine to form its tension and resolution:

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Next, we will examine a poem with a ‘List’ structure.

SONNET 130
by William Shakespeare

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red, than her lips red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound:
I grant I never saw a goddess go,
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet by heaven, I think my love as rare,
As any she belied with false compare.

This poem is composed of a list of the ways in which the speaker’s beloved is different than the other women commonly praised in the clichéd sonnets of those times. The tension in the poem comes from the difference between the ordinary way the speaker describes his beloved and the common hyperbolic clichés used at that time. The list could be taken as a denigration of the woman being described, or could be simply taken as the speaker saying “there is nothing extraordinary about the way my beloved looks”. Note the parallels in the poem’s structure, the first four lines compare one part of the woman in each line, the next eight line takes two lines each for the same comparison. This uses twelve of a sonnet’s fourteen lines saving two for the poem’s resolving statement.

SONNET 130
(with list elements numbered)

1)My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
2)Coral is far more red, than her lips
3)If snow is white, her breasts are dun;
4)If hairs is (golden) wires, black wires grow on her head.
5)I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But there are no such roses in her cheeks;
6)And in some perfumes there is more delight
Than in her breath.
7)I love to hear her speak, yet I know
That music has a far more pleasing sound:
8)I never saw a goddess walk,
When my mistress walks, she treads on the ground:

And yet by heaven, I think my love as rare,
As any woman disguised with false comparisons.

The resolution is provided by the last two lines , which conclude ‘Although I have described her as ordinary, I think my beloved is as precious or valuable (rare) as any other woman described in hyperbolic terms.’ This means that although the structure of poem itself is a list, the Tension/Resolution is Contrastive. The next sonnet combines two different structures, beginning with a question (Interrogative) and answering it with a List.

SONNET 43
By Elizabeth Barrett Browning

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday's
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints,—I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life!—and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

SONNET 43
(Relined according to its internal structure)

How do I love you?
Let me count the ways.

1)I love you to the depth and breadth and height My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
2)I love you to the level of everyday's Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
3)I love you freely, as men strive for Right;
4)I love you purely, as they turn from Praise.
5)I love you with the passion put to use In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
6)I love you with a love I seemed to lose With my lost saints,
7)—I love you with the breath, Smiles, tears, of all my life!
8)—and, if God choose, I shall but love you better after death.

Here the Tension/Resolution strategy is Interrogative and the structure is a list. The next sonnet uses a List structure to make an Argument, and also employs the 8/6 structure.

Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000)

First Fight. Then Fiddle. (1949)
First fight. Then fiddle. Ply the slipping string
With feathery sorcery; muzzle the note
With hurting love; the music that they wrote
Bewitch, bewilder. Qualify to sing
Threadwise. Devise no salt, no hempen thing
For the dear instrument to bear. Devote
The bows to silks and honey. Be remote
A while from malice and from murdering.
But first to arms, to armor. Carry hate
In front of you and harmony behind.
Be deaf to music and to beauty blind.
Win war. Rise bloody, maybe not too late
For having first to civilize a space
Wherein to play your violin with grace.

Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000)
(Relined according to its internal structure)

First Fight. Then Fiddle. (1949)
First fight.
Then fiddle.
1)Ply the slipping string With feathery sorcery;
2)muzzle the note With hurting love;
3)the music that they wrote Bewitch, bewilder.
4)Qualify to sing Threadwise.
5)Devise no salt, no hempen thing For the dear instrument to bear.
6)Devote The bows to silks and honey.
7)Be remote A while from malice and from murdering.

But first to arms, to armor.
1)Carry hate In front of you and harmony behind.
2)Be deaf to music and to beauty blind.
3)Win war.
4)Rise bloody, maybe not too late

For having first to civilize a space
Wherein to play your violin with grace.

Notice how first the poem deals with the details of ‘fiddling,’ then returns to the details of the idea of ‘fighting,’ this allows it to maintain its tension throughout the poem by saving its primary point until the last two lines.
The next poems like many Haiku, use a Contrastive structure:

chapel in the rain —
the lift of white doves
against blackened stones

Emily Romano

There are two possible sets of contrasts here, between the stone (and still) chapel and the moving liquid rain (coming down), and between the still (blackened) stones and the upward moving (white) doves. Is main contrast that drives the poem between the rain coming down and the doves going up, or between the still black stones of the chapel and the moving white doves? Both chapels and doves are associated with the ideas of serenity or peace, which adds another element of analogy to this haiku. Next we will look at a sonnet where the contrast is between [monuments (for princes) and poems (for his beloved)] Note how the poem establishes the contrast in the first line. In the next haiku the contrast is implied, rather than explicitly stated in the poem:
hot afternoon
the squeak of my hands
on my daughter’s coffin
Lenard D. Moore

Here the last line stuns with its emotionally packed surprise ending, of all the things we might expect his hands to be squeaking on/against, a coffin is probably not on the list. So the contrast is in part against what we expect. While it is true that the ‘squeak’ serves as a symbol for the poet’s sorrow, this is only a secondary part of how the poem works. Below is a sonnet that also employs a contrastive strategy:

SONNET 55
by William Shakespeare

Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme;
But you shall shine more bright in these contènts
Than unswept stone, besmeared with sluttish time.
When wasteful war shall statues overturn,
And broils root out the work of masonry,
Nor Mars his sword nor war's quick fire shall burn
The living record of your memory.
But you shall shine more bright in these contènts
Than unswept stone,; your praise shall still find room
Even in the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out to the ending doom.
So, till the judgment that yourself arise,
You live in this, and dwell in lovers' eyes.

The poem contrasts the longevity of poems to that of monuments; monuments get dirty; monuments get destroyed (overturned) in wars; broils (tumult, quarrels) root out the work of the masons. The poem then concludes with its point: since the beloved is memorialized in the poem and poems live forever, the beloved will live forever in the poem. Let’s check the key lines:

Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme;
But you shall shine more bright in these contènts
Than unswept stone,
So, till the judgment that yourself arise,
You live in this, and dwell in lovers' eyes.

The poem gets to the heart of its tension in the first two lines, and that sets up all that follows. If there is any single structural aspect which all great poems have in common it is how they set up their tension in the very beginning of the poem.
Haiku also often use an Equative structure :

funeral day
his old umbrella
won’t open

Allen McGill

Here the comparison is between the old (broken) umbrella and the dead person.
The following sonnet by Shakespeare also uses an Equative structure:

SONNET 73
by William Shakespeare

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see'st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed, whereon it must expire,
Consum'd with that which it was nourish'd by.
This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well, which thou must leave ere long.

Here in each of the three quatrains the poet draws an analogy; between middle-age and late autumn; between middle-age and twilight; and between middle-age and a dying fire. The point of these comparisons is that the speaker is losing his youth. The final couplet makes one of two points; either that the beloved will also lose his youth or that the beloved will soon lose the speaker. Checking the key lines, we find:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well, which thou must leave ere long.

All of the poem’s key ideas are contained in these four lines.

The next poem employs an Epiphanal structure.

POPPED BALLON
By Henry Taylor

For two days, off and on, the little boy
inflated a balloon and let it go,
whooping as it careened with a bronx cheer
to a corner of the room. Where, after a while,
he let it lie for another day or so.
Then found it, tried to blow it up, and stood
dead still when it exploded in his face.

He wept and banged his forehead with his hand
while I told him how balloons get old and tired
from all that getting fat and going thin.
No use explaining; he wanted to have it back.
There are others, I said. No, that one. More tears.
At last he huffed a desperate breath at it;
the air flapped loosely through the ragged end

and made a splattered moan like a ripped kazoo,
a ghastly, joyful noise that set him off
through the house again, amazed at what he'd found.
I cheered him on. How could I keep from thinking
of other things that weaken until they break,
and limp through the world, making their healing groans?
A few more breaths, and two decades are gone.

Now, here is this young man, becoming more
himself with every blessing, every wound.
Like any doting father, I have prayed,
but he already bears his share of scars,
and finds, in answer to my selfish hopes,
fresh uses for what's left of broken toys,
a keener ear for the joy in crippled songs.

At first, the poem appears to be a narrative about a little boy and a balloon, but the incident turns out to serve as backstory for another moment twenty years later when the father is looking at the son. In that moment, the father has an epiphany, which the poem relates in its last four lines. The tension/resolution in this poem is set up by the title ‘Popped Balloon’ and the way that it serves as a symbol of the speaker’s “selfish hopes”, (that he could shield his son from “scars”), that when exploded reveal that no father can keep a child from mistakes or errors and that these incidents are an important part of the learning experience for us all.
The following poem uses a Revelatory structure.

WHAT WORK IS
By Philip Levine

We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is--if you're
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it's someone else's brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, "No,
we're not hiring today," for any
reason he wants. You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
who's not beside you or behind or
ahead because he's home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.
Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.
How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You've never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you're too young or too dumb,
not because you're jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,
just because you don't know what work is.

Once again, the narrative only serves as backstory, to set up the moment of revelation. This poem uses the second person singular as a rhetorical device to make the reader part of the poem. The use of the second person singular changes this from an Epiphanal poem that would have concluded:

I’ve never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because I’m too young or too dumb,
not because I’m jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,
just because I don't know what work is.

In the first person the speaker has an epiphany and relates it to us, but the poem is in second person, which forces us to experience the epiphany as a revelation for ourselves. It is the title of the poem and the lines:

We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is--if you're
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.

That set up the poem’s tension. The tension is between two definitions of the word ‘work’, one work as occupation or employment, the other, work as emotional labor that sustains relationships. The poem misdirects us into feeling comfortable with one definition, then switches in the very last line “just because you don't know what work is.” Part of what makes these poems excellent is that they make important points, but many millions of bad poems that also make important points have been written.
In conclusion it is important to note the way that ideas are ordered in a poem. This is what determines the structure of a poem and how the Tension will be set up and Resolved. A poem that lacks tension will struggle to give pleasure to a reader. Poems with a successful Tension and Resolution strategy that go beyond giving just what we would expect are much more difficult to write than poems without one. Contemporary academic journals are teeming with poems that lack any coherent structure or T/R strategy. This is a greater calamity than one might realize because most of those poems are written in Free-verse and lacking the outer mold of Form and Meter are therefore are much more in need of organizing principles.

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