Turns, Endings, and The Point of High Windows

I’m currently devouring a new book, Structure & Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns. My god, it’s good.

It’s based on an idea that I’ve just started exploring from a properly theoretical point of view, (although I’ve mentioned a variation in an earlier post) – deliberate, formal ways of opening a poem out beyond itself. So far (and I’m only just finished Chapter One, which makes this feel pretty darn special in potentia) it’s really fascinating. He’s looking at (among others) Robert Frost’sThe Most Of It” and Philip Larkin‘s “High Windows“, as examples of Ironic Structuring. (Brief digression: I loathe the beginning of “High Windows”. So much so that I’ve apparently never read it through properly, as the ending of it suddenly feels entirely new and wonderful – literally and metaphorically – although it could just be because I’ve never read it from this technical a viewpoint before, so haven’t ever appreciated what he was doing. But it’s enough of a revelation that, even if I get nothing else from this book, I’ve got my money’s worth.)

The thing that excites me most about this book is the possibilities it opens up. There are a lot of times that you (or possibly “one”) as writer will do something because it feels kinda right. If you’re lucky, it is the right thing to do in that spot. But unless you can work out (to your own satisfaction and understanding) just why option X seems good here, you’re relying on luck to be kind every time. You’re writing blind, and hoping. It’s why I make my Reading for Writing classes start with a close reading – once you become aware of the technical choices being made, it really does deepen your appreciation of poetry in general. Which can’t help but bleed through to your own work. And a book like this, which takes a systematic look at the different ways you can make a poem turn, is exactly what I need right now. Of course, all this would be utterly useless if it wasn’t written interestingly. But so far I’m absolutely loving it. (Which is why this post was started at 3 am, when I finally managed to  put the book down.)

And it’s got me thinking. When I was teaching the Poetic Endings class over summer, there was something along this line that I wanted (but ran out of time) to look at: the Eastern Ending. It’s very much the same idea, that you structure things so that the poem opens outwards, rather than coming to a close with a neat click. It’s what haiku generally try to do, and I really wanted to have a look at that along with the other aspects of ending. So reading this book has just made that particular itch start up all over again. I think I’m going to have to try to do it. Offer the Poetic Endings class again, and have a third session given over to exploring this idea. I think I’d have to make the other two sessions (ends of lines and ends of poems) a prerequisite, just so I could be sure everyone was starting from the same place. So the people who did the Summer class would be ready to go. Hmm.

I’ve just realised something. I need to keep teaching creative writing classes. Earning some dosh by teaching is the only way I can really justify spending this much time reading …

Anyone fancy signing up for “Poetry Class Frankly Based On Whatever the Heck Joanna Happens to be Reading Today” 101?

7 Replies to “Turns, Endings, and The Point of High Windows”

    1. Good to hear! Now I just have to find another dozen or so people who feel the same …

      I don’t think the library have a copy of Structure and Surprise — I don’t think it’s especially well known. But it really is a good book, and if you’re interested in these sorts of formal/technical possibilities, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

    1. Does this mean you’re contemplating a trip south? For me?! (And which possibility was it?!!)

      I think you’d definitely find the book interesting. I’d offer to lend you my copy, but I don’t want to let it out of my possession …

  1. Dear Joanna,

    Thank you so much for your kind words about Structure & Surprise! I’m especially thrilled that you feel that the book opens possibilities up for you–nothing could be better.

    I just want to make sure that you’re aware that there is a blog that accompanies the book: it can be found at http://structureandsurprise.wordpress.com/. The blog offers further reading, additional structures, pedagogical ideas, and theoretical applications of the poetic turn. I hope you might check it out, and I hope that it, too, will open further possibilities.

    All best,
    Mike Theune

    1. (Blushes)
      Jokes aside, I have thoroughly enjoyed “Structure and Surprise”. To the point where I’m now rereading so I can make notes for future reference. And I’ve added the blog to my bookmarks (although I’m fairly erratic at visiting the blogosphere, including my own parts of it …). If you ever do a second volume, let me know!

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