Editor Michael Theune is an active poet and critic. He teaches English at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, Illinois.
I’ve recently had the exciting experience of encountering the work of poet Laurie Perry Vaughen via the online publication of her master’s thesis, “Artifacts: Selected Poems.” There’s much to admire in the work: its thoughtfulness, its sinewy use of narrative and sound, its palpable imagery. But (of course!) what especially caught my eye was the poet’s attention to the poetic turn.
Vaughen made use of Structure & Surprise to help create new work and/or to help articulate (often very movingly) what her work is doing. Very early on in her thesis’s introductory essay (the second section of which is called “Turning the Field: Structure and Surprise”), Vaughen clarifies the distinction between form and structure:
We may approach the field of a poem and immediately see patterns of rhyme scheme, repetition and the footprints of feet. However, many–perhaps most–contemporary poems require a different kind of field work, a deeper read, a deeper turning of the field. Any discussion of my work, of free verse poems, demands a look at the overall movement of the poem rather than noting couplets or beats. A formal poem such as a sonnet, pantoum or villanelle will also offer a structure of movement apart from its form, overall or within a line–if they are mature, polished, rich or ripe.
“Poetic structure is, simply, the pattern of a poem’s turning,” states Michael Theune… (2)
(I really like this idea of poems being “rich, or ripe“!)
Vaughen, though, also is aware of the larger significance and resonances of the act of turning:
Turning as the main movement of a poem is readily identified with nature. Maple leaves turn. Seasons turn. A chrysalis turns to a butterfly. A Jerusalem artichoke turns toward the sun. Evening turns to dusk before turning to morning. Man turns toward death, eventually, as a natural process. As the Catholics finally admitted, the horizon merely turns and the earth turns around the sun, not the other way around. The South African Zulu tribe and the Jew in his or her Diaspora turn to the ancestors for consultation. The structure, the turning in the poem, gives the art pulse, a life blood— and hopefully elevates our resting pulse as we write or read or listen. (6)
(Wow! I love that last sentence!)
Transitioning into her introduction’s third section, “Examining Shards: Emblematic Poems,” Vaughen explains her extra-poetic attraction to the emblem structure, noting,
My poems generally emerge from an emblematic structure. Perhaps this is because I was raised to be an observer of the small within the sublime since childhood and continued this with my undergraduate work in archaeology as an anthropology major. (7).
But, to her credit, for Vaughen poetic structure never ends up being an easy answer for some of poetry’s larger questions.
Taking up the issue of increased fragmentation in more recent poetry, Vaughen (in another formulation I greatly admire) states,
There’s no clear answer to…[such] important…concerns about the parts and the whole and the tensions between these. There is a demand on the writer, critic, publisher and reader to explore contemporary poetry with new understandings of how structure, tension as transformation through language can work as synergy (27).
Vaughen then turns to Rilke, who then, in Letters to a Young Poet, “turns the young poet’s attention to nature as the source of synergy” (27). She quotes:
If you will stay close to nature, to its simplicity, to the small things hardly noticeable, those things can unexpectedly become great and immeasurable. No experience was too insignificant – the smallest happening unfolds like destiny. Destiny itself is like a wonderful wide tapestry in which every thread is guided by another thread, and held and carried by a hundred others. (New World Library, 1992 edition: 24)
(Ah! What beautiful weaving Rilke accomplishes even here, even in the rough cloth of prose! It’s no wonder that Vaughen, a maker of so many fine phrases, is drawn to Rilke’s lovely formulation–)
What all of this results in, then, is that while Vaughen still sees structure as a major component of her work, it’s an altered version of structure:
While my poems often hold an emblematic tension or use emblem as a generating pulse that rises to a pattern, the poems are not idea-driven, but language- driven. Lines, enjambment, breaks, stanzas and turns are generated by language, and not a prescribed theme or concrete image. The image serves the language, remember. The emblem I begin with may be a word, a shard of language, which gets associated with another image through sound or syntax rather than symbolic gesture. Though association holds images in tension, sound is also at play. For example, in my poem “Taking Turns,” a secondary turn in the poem’s structure is the language of pedals moving to petals. (36-7)
And, of course, all of this gets enacted in the poetry.
Of particular interest:
- “Taking Turns” (47). A lovely dialectical poem, with a radiant synthesis.
- “Eye of the Needle” (55). A fine fantasia on sewing and the Christian idea of “passing through the eye of a needle.”
- “Birds Audubon Never Painted” (58). A brief poem with a stunning arrival point.
- “Ode to the Faulty Microphone” (80). In fact, a lovely homage to the power of great poetry.
- “Emblematic,” which begins: “Any metaphor you elevate / has its scarred sense of place–” (81).
- “After the Tornado” (118). A fascinating (if unintentional) study in endings. I’d thought the poem was a single-page poem–there, it has a tremendous ending, I think. But the poem continues for a half-page. Initially, I was surprised by this: I wondered if that second page should be cut. But the later part of the poem also contributes great power, including fascinating turns, to the poem.
- “Photograph, 1944” (132-33). An ekphrastic poem that uncovers the image’s seductive, tensive mystery.
- “Sweet like Funeral Cake” (134). A bittersweet elegy.
I encourage readers of this blog to check out Vaughen’s thesis, and to dive into her poetry. Treasures abound!