In the case of longer poems, movement control through image becomes a much more involved task. John Ashbery assumes this task in his long poem, “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” which reflects on Parmigianino’s painting of the same name. While the impetus for Ashbery’s poem is ekphrastic, and he returns often to this originating source, he eschews the traditional impulse to control the movement through narrative or language. Most longer poems rely on either narrative (as in epic poems), or rhythm/rhyme constructions (as in ballads) to control their movement. Ashbery, in contrast, uses image to control the movement of his poem. Because this method is non-linear and a-logical, teasing out the movement of the poem can become difficult, as has already been shown.
Poetry moves. Successful poems contain a movement of some sort from one point to another, and this movement can be regulated by any number of devices to create a “logic” for the poem. Whether this logic offers clarity or obscurity is dependent on the poet, but the poet makes this decision. One of the most clarifying devices for movement is that based on the narrative structure, and it is also one of the oldest. The narrative traces its roots back to the oral tradition, in which a people’s history was translated from generation to generation by vocal memorization, often set to a language’s natural qualities. From “The Epic of Gilgamesh” through “The Odyssey,” “Beowulf,” and into contemporary poetics, the narrative structure has served to tell stories. Moving from A to B to C, a narrative structure often controls the movement of a poem in a logical and straightforward manner. Even in narratives in which the progression cannot necessarily be called logical, as in Mark Strand’s “The King” or Mary Ruefle’s “Full Moon,” the poet uses narrative to create an internal logic. Another common device for controlling the movement from beginning to end of a poem can be seen in the language the poet applies. In utilizing techniques such as rhythm, rhyme, syntax, and line breaks, the poet can control movement even without the imposition of a narrative structure. William Carlos William’s “This is Just to Say” presents a good example of this type of “logic,” or movement, with little imposition of narrative. ee cummings’ poem “loneliness” also exhibits this kind of control, primarily utilizing manipulation of syntax and semantics to effect movement in the poem through extreme deconstruction of the language. Poems which offer neither a primarily narrative structure nor a language-based structure can still present a movement from one point to another.
A common quality of the readings, excluding the commentaries on Ashbery, is the sort-of stream of consciousness style. I write “sort-of” because these essays and poem are considered, detailed, and meditative. However, the quality of movement within them is intuitive and more felt than structured. The intuitive movement is especially visible in the stanza breaks in Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” a movement from the painting to balloon (a shape similar to the convex mirror – but also to the dream in qualities of popping) to tomorrow to dreaming to the dream. Continue reading