A Divagation Prompted by the Poets Forum Panel of November 8, 2008

This article originally appeared in issue 36 of American Poet, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets. To subscribe to American Poet, become a member online.

(From left to right) Maureen N. McLane, Ron Padgett, Robert Pinsky, Kay Ryan, and Susan Stewart. Photo by Brian Palmer

"A sonnet is a moment's monument," Dante Gabriel Rossetti announced.1 In our own moment, Bernadette Mayer has invoked the sonnet as a form both "public and notorious" but also a form for innovative thinking.2 The sonnet, particularly in its Petrarchan form with the famous "turn" of its sestet, is only the most conspicuous example of the formal and cognitive turns a poem may enact. This past November, four Chancellors of the Academy of American Poets – Ron Padgett, Robert Pinsky, Kay Ryan, and Susan Stewart – addressed themselves to the matter of "Twisting and Turning" in poetry. It was a lively and thought-provoking occasion – lasting just a bit longer than Rossetti's "one dead deathless hour." The panelists' own work offers numerous examples of diverse poetic turns: for example, Stewart's re-imagining of the turning plough of Virgil's Georgics (in her 2003 book, Columbarium) and the turns children take in games like Red Rover (title of her most recent book); Ryan's torquing of the apparently common phrase and the negative spaces of our thoughts into the most strikingly arresting lyrics; Pinsky's turning of the figured wheel of poetry, his ringing of changes on the music of the republic; Padgett's witty itineraries through the mind's pivots, pirouettes, and benedictions.

"Turn" is cognate with tour, and the panel offered an implicit itinerary through many kinds of poetic turn. Susan Stewart reminded us of the primary creaturely turning of humans and other species toward light (one might think of William Blake's devastatingly weary "Sunflower"). Kay Ryan mentioned Emily Dickinson's bending of hymn meter into her own explosive, jagged prosody. Stewart further invoked William Wordsworth's sonnet "Surprised by Joy," when he turns to share a sudden transport with his little daughter Catharine, only to remember that she is dead:

Surprised by joy – impatient as the Wind
I turned to share the transport – Oh! with whom
But Thee, deep buried in the silent tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?

Here we have the spontaneous yet grievously frustrated turn to the dead – the turn to those who cannot return.

Robert Pinsky evoked another kind of return, the refrain in the traditionary ballad "The Cruel Mother," a version of which he read:

There was a lady dwelt in York:
Fal the dal the di do,
She fell in love with her father's clerk,
Down by the green wood side.

She laid her hand against a stone,
Fal the dal the di do,
And there she made most bitter moan,
Down by the green wood side.

She took a knife both long and sharp,
Fal the dal the di do,
And stabb'd her babes unto the heart,
Down by the green wood side . . .

Down by the green wood side : the refrain of "The Cruel Mother" marks out, each time it's repeated, just how transformed is that green wood, even as the green wood returns, in apparently the same utterance. The place of lovemeetings becomes the place of birth becomes the place of childmurder and stands ultimately revealed as that mythical, liminal place of experience and judgment that outlasts, even as it provides the ground for, individual human tragedies.

One could, of course, explore poetic turns at multiple levels: morphemic, lexical, phrasal, tropological, conceptual, structural, generic, transmedial. We might consider how poetry turns away from or turns toward, say, prose, or song; how poets turn away from and toward their various inheritances; how bilingual or multilingual poets turn their poems through various linguistic and semantic and cultural grids. From a certain vantage, of course, there is nothing that is not a turn in poetry: the very word verse comes from versus, "turn" in Latin. (Let us defer for another essay the question of whether poetry=verse: obviously it doesn't! Or rather, let's concede that the equation of poetry and verse has been vexed in English-language poetries for some two hundred years [see Wordsworth, even before Baudelaire]. Nevertheless.) Even a poem of apparently militant fixity turns out to be a festival of turns – to wit, the ingenious po-faced anti-sonnet of Ron Padgett, "Nothing in That Drawer":

Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.

If one can "build in sonnets pretty rooms," as John Donne wrote, a poet can also build in a sonnet a pretty homemade structure of ludic, Steinian negations: in that drawer, I got plenty of nothing. (In this drawer, however, I might have something.) On another level, the immediate occasion of its writing, this poem emerged (as Padgett noted during our panel) as an amused critique of – twist on – Ted Berrigan's own venture into deconstructed sonneteering, his famously influential "cut-ups," which Padgett was both satirizing and honoring.

The idiot-savant brilliance of "Nothing in that Drawer" reminds us that repetition is itself, paradoxically, a change: one can never step into that same refrain twice, Heraclitus might have said, if he had been thinking of balladry or jazz or the blues instead of rivers. Each time a line recurs, it recurs with a difference, and part of that difference is the measure and shaping of time itself.

Poetry thus has a peculiarly intimate relation with the turns, twists, and punctuating of time. Here we might invoke Richard Howard's aphorism: verse reverses, prose proceeds.3 This nicely glosses the movement of conventionally lineated poetry, the eye and mind given pause and shot from the right back to the left margin as the line reverses itself toward its next movement onward. As Tom Leonard writes, in his witty "100 Differences Between Poetry and Prose," "poetry stops before the end of the margin."4 And if it doesn't, we might find ourselves in an enjambment, the line itself ending but not the phrase or clause or sentence, the syntax hurtling us both forward (in terms of semantics) and back (in terms of the whiplash of the line break). As Liam Rector observed in "Repetition," his essay in American Poetry Review (May/June 2002): " Most verse (especially well-made free verse), given the tension between the line and the sentence, has about it a centrifugal force of push and pull that mythically enacts the gravity of an eternal return."

For an example of the complex, grave turns a poem can enact, from life toward the dead, consider Frank Bidart's "The Yoke."

don't worry          I know you're dead
but tonight

turn your face again
toward me

when I hear your voice there is now
no direction in which to turn

I sleep and wake and sleep and wake and sleep and wake and
but tonight

turn your face again
toward me

see          upon my shoulders is the yoke
that is not a yoke

don't worry          I know you're dead
but tonight

turn your face again

A plea for turning to one who cannot return, this poem explores the pathos of apostrophe, that fundamental lyric trope of invocation and address: as in Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind" – "O Wild West Wind!" Here in "The Yoke," an absent presence is conjured, the dead both immediately reassured (don't worry) yet passionately solicited.

This extraordinary plea is both a soothing and a summoning of the dead, as if apostrophe itself might be an imposition on the dead: "don't worry          I know you're dead." A profound lyrico-mythic reckoning underpins this poem, as well as a passionate tact. As in most of Bidart's work, the relentless complex intensities of syntax track the logic of mind and heart: the compulsive iteration of mere pattern – "I sleep and wake and sleep and wake and sleep and wake and" – is stunningly broken into by the plea of the now, of this night: "but tonight / turn your face again."

This poem highlights an apparently simple aspect of turning, which turns out to have enormous somatic, relational, and existential implications: a turn implies a change of directionality and thus presumes directionality itself. Robert Creeley writes in "The Window," "Position is where you / put it." We might say that a turn is where you point it: "turn your face again / toward me." Grief is measured precisely by the sudden loss of direction: the voice that formerly came from the loved and cherished body, the body and voice to which one wished always to turn, is now a voice toward which, when one hears it in the mind's chamber, "there is now / no direction in which to turn." "The Yoke" is a meditation not least on prepositions: turn your face again toward me. It is also a meditation on repetition, the supplication reiterated: turn your face again, the plea itself renewed within the poem. And one can't help but sense in Bidart's title the trace of a longer history of yoked creatures in poetry: the going back and forth of verse was itself analogized in antiquity to the movement of oxen back and forth as they plowed furrows. It is part of the intense inscriptional character of Bidart's lyric that we feel this supplication as grooved in the mind, etched on the body and on the earth, not written in water.

For a final and quite different example of a poem preoccupied with turns, consider the erotically insistent turns and returns of Bernadette Mayer's "First turn to me . . ."

First turn to me after a shower,
you come inside me sideways as always

in the morning you ask me to be on top of you,
then we take a nap, we're late for school

you arrive at night inspired and drunk,
there is no reason for our clothes

we take a bath and lie down facing each other,
then later we turn over, finally you come

The hypnotic, incantatory couplets track a potentially endless series of couplings, of sexual (re)turns, positions, and occasions; also tracked here are the erotics of poetic turns:

we lie together one night, exhausted couplets
and don't make love. does this mean we've had enough?

As Blake wrote, "Enough! Or Too Much!" Yet the "exhausted couplets" revive and the poet resumes:

watching t.v. we wonder if each other wants to
interrupt the plot; later I beg you to read to me

like the Chinese we count 81 thrusts
then 9 more out loud till we both come

I come three times before you do
and then it seems you're mad and never will

it's only fair for a woman to come more
think of all the times they didn't care

In a kind of New York School Kama Sutra, verse here re-verses and returns the lovers to a longer history of heterosexual couplings, the counting of thrusts, orgasms, and couplings turning into a deeper erotic accounting of what it is and has been to come together (or not) and to care or not care. Turning through the many ways of caring and coupling, Mayer offers a demotic tour de force. One turns to share the transport, and if one is lucky, someone's there.