Before I launch into my final post of the week, I’d like to reiterate my sincere thanks to Stacey and David for inviting me to guest-blog. It’s not often that I’m given the chance to externalize the sorts of thoughts I’ve catalogued over the course of this last week, and I’m truly grateful for the opportunity to do so. I’d also like to thank those of you who were kind enough to accompany me as I strode into oncoming (web) traffic blathering on like a late-play Lear. I’ve enjoyed my time here immensely. Since this is my last post, I’d like to concentrate on one of the many things that makes poetry “the greatest god damn thing that ever was in the whole universe,” to quote James Dickey.
In “The Figure a Poem Makes,” one of his several short, delectable essays, Robert Frost makes an appealing declaration: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” True or not, this passage underlines what I regard as one of the chief pleasures of the poetry-reading experience: the soft exhilaration of surprise. If a poem does not surprise me in some way upon my initial reading, I’m unlikely to read it a second time, and I’m rarely glad to have encountered it in the first place. After all, even unforgivably bad poems can be redeemed to some extent by bounding into unanticipated realms of bad taste—at least one never saw that coming. Poems that do contain the seemingly unforeseeable, however, are significantly more likely to command my attention for at least a second reading (if for no other reason than to determine the means through which those moments are reached). Often, they command much more.
Ironically enough, it seems to me that poems achieve surprise largely by conforming to expectation—initially. Poetry, of course, is an essentially discontinuous medium (at least when lineated), and its musical and ideational information is disclosed over time. These two features define the frame around which the canvas of our interaction and understanding are formed; we seek to identify the ways in which each poem negotiates its necessary relationships with these essential elements (discontinuity and chronology), and the discoveries we make inform and partly constitute the bases of our expectations. We invariably find that one or more systems of organization tick in the core of every poem, and our brains inevitably compute these systems as they seek out identifiable patterns. If we find that the work in front of us consists of fourteen lines, for example, we anticipate that it will behave as a sonnet (bringing, as we do, the history of our reading with us); if the poem is one that progresses by way of “free” association, we largely discard our search for overt narrativity—as much as is possible, at any rate. Even the expectation that no pattern will emerge is expectation, and “no pattern” is a pattern nevertheless.
Of course, surprise can’t occur where expectation hasn’t hardened, because a surprise is by definition that which is unexpected, i.e., un-ex-spectare, that for which we are not ‘looking out.’ But once our expectations have been concretized and our search parties deployed, we are wonderfully vulnerable to its thrill. We may even be lulled by our recognition that the laws we’ve discerned are being adhered to, when—surprise!—something throws the supple reclining chair forward and we are suddenly upright. How did she do it? What did he do? I won’t belabor a taxonomy, but it seems to me that surprises, as with most things poetry-related, are of two primary but by no means mutually exclusive varieties: the conceptual or rhetorical (e.g., the volta; the pun; instances of fresh figurative language; information delay; in medeas res; semantic extension; changes in scope or focus) and the formal (e.g., caesura, line, and stanza breaks; metrical deviations; unexpected rhyme pairings; lapses into and out of rhyme; aberrant repetitions).
There are no perfect words to describe the vital essence of the surprise aesthetic attack (at least, none that I can find in short order), but is an unmistakable part of the inimitable “poetry experience.” And it is one reason that I return to poetry again and again: good new poems always come with the intoxicants of a first kiss.