sheenaghpugh: (Vogon poetry appreciation chair)
[personal profile] sheenaghpugh
Some writers definitely have a formula, even if they aren't aware of it. As Aristophanes pointed out in The Frogs, Euripides opens prologue after prologue with a sentence in which the main verb is delayed by a long subordinate clause, while Aischylos has a habit of leaving a main character onstage for yonks without saying anything.

It's true of poets too, as occurred to me while at a Simon Armitage reading yesterday. I'm not saying they do it all the time, but they do develop habits of composition. For instance, Billy Collins, in whose Ballistics I've been happily immersed, has poem after poem in which he sets out his stall and then, right near the end, introduces a "but" or "however" that changes the poem's direction and partially undermines what has already been said. "But for now I am going to take a walk" (The Poems of Others), "But what truly caught our attention" (Scenes of Hell), "but I am here to remind you" (Adage).

That's a syntactical tic: Armitage's is more a compositional one. A lot of the poems at this reading were constructed on the basis: "this fairly dull thing happened to me, but what if it had gone off at tangent x", whereupon he follows Cpl Jones off into the realms of fantasy. I don't recall this happening so much in his early work, but you could almost predict when the veering-off-into-fantasy is coming now.

(no subject)

Date: 2011-09-04 12:47 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
My impression is (although I haven't checked the numbers) that this Buttery (or "Haply I think on thee"-ism, if I may call it that) is quite common in Shakespeare's sonnets, too. The temptation to perform a 180-degree turn strikes me as a real danger of signing off on a rhyming couplet.

(no subject)

Date: 2011-09-04 01:47 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] paul yandle (from
This is certainly very true of Collins, especially, and there are many, many more examples that follow a similar pattern. The textbook 'Structure & Surprise - Engaging Poetic Turns' edited by Michael Theune, is excellent further-reading for this type of poetic reveal.

The chapter 'The Retrospective-Prospective Structure' by Mark Yakich discusses a similar type of turn, not so much focussed on the 'But', rather on the shift in verb tense - 'Now' or 'Today' - where a poem begins by considering the past, before moving on to how it relates to the narrator's situation in the present, or even the future, changing direction at this 'But now...' moment.

You mention Armitage's 'tangent x', and the journey into the realms of fantasy, and there are elements of that in Collins's work too ('January in Paris'; 'Tension'). Whether or not it's intentional or habitual or even the result of being stuck in a rut, I'm not sure what to call it, but you are certainly right that it's there.

If it is intentional, the other question is whether or not you change a winning formula. There's no doubt that Collins has raised the profile of poetry in the US, particularly amongst non-poetry-readers and students, and that he is one of the (if not 'the') biggest hitters in American poetry today. I wonder if there's a certain expectation/pressure on him now to produce 'similar' poems (safe poems, perhaps) that have clearly brought him so much success in the past.

(no subject)

Date: 2011-09-04 05:13 pm (UTC)
ext_6322: (Psappho)
From: [identity profile]
I'm well aware of my own formulae. But I do sometimes enjoy spotting them in other people's - for instance, I can usually identify Michael Billington's theatre reviews from the opening par without looking at the byline. The gist of them is something on the lines of "So-and-so has written a thought-provoking analysis of family life which has inspired an outstanding performance by Some-Actor. But the play fails to draw the parallel between the family crisis and the state of the nation."

(no subject)

Date: 2011-09-18 05:56 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] (from
Cool conversation here--

The formulae that Collins and Armitage employ certainly are used in the sonnet tradition. Here's what Eavan Boland says in "Discovering the Sonnet," her introductory essay to The Making of a Sonnet:

“The original form of the sonnet, the Petrarchan, made a shadow play of eight lines against six. Of all the form’s claims, this may be the most ingenious. The octave sets out the problems, the perceptions, the wishes of the poet. The sestet does something different: it makes a swift, wonderfully compact turn on the hidden meanings of but and yet and wait for a moment. The sestet answers the octave, but neither politely nor smoothly. And this simple engine of proposition and rebuttal has allowed the sonnet over centuries, in the hands of very different poets, to replicate over and over again the magic of inner argument.”

This, of course, does not mean that every volta or turn is great, but it does suggest that such formulae (or patterns, or structures) are not merely idiosyncratic but rather deeply connected to the history and traditions of poetry.



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