You know those poems with amazing titles


that suggest anything
could be
about to happen,

anything might lie
hidden behind
the words
about to
leap forth

– the soldiers of syntax
marshalled on parade,
the magicians of
warming up their wands –

but which,
like the contents
of a Fabergé egg
or a politician’s promise
or Don Juan’s trousers

add the point
to disappointment
and come
to nothing?


this is one of them.

We’re two fifths of the way through the Poetic Turns class, and so far people seem to be enjoying themselves. Finding poems to illustrate each of the types of turns is an interesting challenge – I could just use the poems from Structure and Surprise (book and website) – and I do. But it feels like cheating if I don’t also come up with some examples on my own. So once again I find my reading getting sidetracked with thoughts of “ooh! This is a great example of a descriptive-meditative / retrospective-prospective / list-with-a-twist / emblem /etc turn!” There are limits to how many poems I can reasonably throw in front of my class though, so I try to keep a rein on it. The fact that so many of the turns are really variations on each other does complicate things somewhat – do you classify Rilke’s Archaic Torso of Apollo as an emblem turn? Metaphor-to-meaning? How about descriptive-meditative? All of the above? It’s a wonderfully rich way of looking at poems. But when you then try to teach these things to other people it helps if you can come to something approximating a conclusion, even if only for your own peace of mind. (Evil thought: maybe you could teach a whole bunch of different approaches … using the one same poem as the example for all of them? Bwa ha ha ha!)

Next class we will be looking at the ironic turn. I’m a bit ambivalent about this one. Irony is a word that is misused, and I personally get very grumpy with the whole post(-post?)-modern reflexive-irony-in-place-of-an-actual-attempt-to-get-a-grip posture. But … the chapter on the Ironic Turn was the thing that first blew my mind in Structure and Surprise. It even persuaded me to continue reading the whole of Larkin’s “High Windows”, and not just reach into the poem and try to give him a thorough slapping …

Maybe a better way of thinking of it is “the deflationary turn”. That links it quite nicely to the use of irony in jokes and puns, which can actually be quite profound. As some of my students do occasionally read this blog, I won’t go into detail about the poems I plan to use. My own little gesture at the beginning of this post is an exercise in the technique, which I hope goes a step or two beyond the punchline. Buggered though if I know how (other than following Scott Wiggerman‘s example – yet another poet/teacher to whom I salaam in gratitude on a weekly basis) I’m going to create an exercise that will get them all to put it into practice. It’s not just a case of saying Do This, much as I wish it was. I have to try and find the key that sets them all (or most of them) (hell, I’ll settle for ‘some’) off with maximum possible enthusiasm.

Catnip in their morning tea?

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