Discussion Guide


Dizzying highs in the September issue of Poetry.

The September issue of Poetry includes an essay on poetics by Tony Hoagland, who considers two kinds of poetic meaning. Hoagland, a poet and professor at the University of Houston, distinguishes between poems that familiarize and those that confuse, “the gong of recognition versus the bong of disorientation.” His piece focuses on the latter sort, the “poetry of derangement.” Hoagland suggests that vertigo (which he defines as “a sensation of whirling and loss of balance, associated with looking down from a great height . . . dizziness”) “is the preeminent topic of contemporary poetry” and “may be the dominant stylistic inclination as well.”

Hoagland points to various techniques of imitating and inducing vertigo: non sequitur, fragmentation, disassociation, truncation. (For further reading on this general topic, see his 2006 Poetry essay “Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment” and Stephen Burt’s 1998 Boston Review exposition on Elliptical poetry.) Do you agree with him that vertigo helps define contemporary poetry? If so, does it play other roles than the ones Hoagland discusses? Further, why would a poet employ such a tactic in the first place?

The essay prompted us to consider what the latest issue of Poetry can illustrate about various kinds of poetic vertigo. “Verse” and “vertigo” share a common etymology; both are spin-offs of the Latin word for “turn.” Perhaps poems are intrinsically vertiginous. They involve, after all, sudden downward motions from one line to the next: the literary equivalent of hopping down stairs without knowing quite where one will land—without knowing, that is, whether the next line will support or collapse the previous line’s meaning.

Matthew Zapruder’s “Erstwhile Harbinger Auspices” captures the particular vertigo of line-leaping. With each line break, we skip to the next stair and lose our footing:

I have
no master but always wonder,
what is making my master sad?
Maybe I do not know him.

The top line claims possession (“I have”) that the next voids (“no master”). The third casually challenges that cancellation: the speaker wonders what’s getting his nonexistent master down. And the fourth suggests that the speaker may not know the master, which makes no sense if the master doesn’t exist. Or perhaps the line means the master does exist, but the speaker isn’t sure because he hasn’t met him yet. Or perhaps the master, real or no, is sad because the speaker doesn’t know him. As for what the speaker means by “master,” it’s anyone’s guess.

Not exactly choppy, not exactly fragmented—and thus not vertiginous according to Hoagland’s definition—these lines are nonetheless slippery, requiring us to mind their gaps. Do you find their mystery beautiful, evocative, thought-provoking? Or annoying? What relationship do you see between Zapruder’s elusiveness and that of Lewis Warsh, Ben Lerner, Rusty Morrison, James Tate, and Lyn Hejinian—the poets Hoagland discusses, whom we might call the Verticists (not to be confused with the Vorticists)?

Maria Hummel’s poem “Station” evokes vertigo according to its medical definition—appropriately, since the poem describes caring for a sick friend. Technically, vertigo means feeling the room spin while you stay still (as though, for once, the world revolves around you). The title of Hummel’s poem indicates stasis, and the poem takes the form of a whirl, a cycle of repeated words, phrases, and actions. It begins and ends with the same simple, plaintive line (“Days you are sick, we get dressed slow”). Hats are found and lost and found again. The speaker observes, “They cannot fix you. They try and try.” Traveling, they pass through “a dark tunnel. Then a dark tunnel.” Hummel is speaking not only about train rides through the night: more basically, “Station” derives its vertigo from the cycle of trying and failing to heal.

Wislawa Szymborska’s “Identification” induces another kind of vertigo, robbing us of our bearings by ripping words from their established significations (a theme Michael Robbins explores in this issue’s review of Robert Hass). Szymborska—long a student of tragedy and its psychological effects—crafts a character ridden by denial after her husband dies in a plane crash. To disbelieve the facts, the speaker must reject the meanings of stories, names, and words. She says: “The story is he was on the passenger list. So what, he might have changed his mind.” As for the ring recovered from her husband’s body, it bears their names, but so what? “They’re only the most ordinary names.” And then: “He really was supposed to get back Thursday. / But we’ve got so many Thursdays left this year.” Here the speaker seems to confuse the particular with the serial, last Thursday from all the Thursdays that follow: she misunderstands, or reinvents, the meaning of “Thursday.” The disorientation reaches its vertex, so to speak, in the poem’s final lines: “I’ll put the Thursday on, wash the tea, / since our names are completely ordinary—” The poem ends with a dash, a disconcerting blankness—rather like the absence that undoes the speaker—to follow the nonsense into which her talk has descended. Poems may never be so disorienting as when their own words shift in meaning.

In his essay, Hoagland offers restrained judgment of the poets under discussion. He notes that “the use of disrupted poetic forms results in a style but resists shape. Thus the individual poems very often lack individual dramatic identity. . . . In turn, such poems are difficult to remember. How this affects their value as art is hard to say.”

Do you agree with Hoagland that such poems are difficult to remember? Is memorableness a test of artistry? (We tend to think so, but why?) And do the poems we’ve looked at—poems that concern themselves with vertigo through various means—stick in your mind longer than the ones in Hoagland’s essay?

Speaking of memory, does vertigo seem to you to be a recent theme and style, or can you think of earlier vertiginous poems? Let’s conclude with one of our favorites from the Poetry Foundation archives, H.D.’s “Oread”:

Whirl up, sea—
whirl your pointed pines,
splash your great pines
on our rocks,
hurl your green over us,
cover us with your pools of fir.

Originally Published: September 1st, 2010
Appeared in Poetry Magazine This Appears In