using the emblemic turn to “zoom out”

I got a little ahead of myself and began posting comments before I had written my post, which means I might repeat myself–so bear with me.

I do not see the emblem turn as a strict shift toward the marvelousness of “God’s Hand.” Michael Theune says that the tradition has roots in not only theology but art and science and philosophy (Structure & Surprise 27). I think it is important to remember that Jorie Graham’s poem did not have any religiousness about it; she was fascinated with how the habits of this school of minnows reflect all life. “This is freedom,” she says, and it is an organic freedom. My best understanding of emblem structure is that it begins with description and suddenly realizes that it can be applied to something larger, more encompassing. There is a zooming out that takes place when the depictions suddenly have universal meanings.

That is what emblem turns achieve (in my opinion). The poem becomes more than the image, it becomes a realization of where else the image is reflected in life. There are basic rules to reality, and emblem turns literally surprise us with those rules. The turn is significant because it signals that the poem is about more than the initial image.

I said before that I find myself writing emblem poems, and I usually turn the poem with a provoking question. Here is my “Museum of” exercise…

“The Museum of Defect”

formica hallway gray as dishwater, with a child whose lips split in grimace-smile, the stitchless orphan now tied to a beast. blindness. her guide dog is glossed with cataracts, they wait at the bus stop—how automatic each step? four to the left, ninety-five straight ahead, listen for the playground across the way. the siamese men were semi-celebrity, see them conjoined, buffered by a wall of wives and children. these eggs, they began to split and what, halfway through changed their minds? and the savant, his integers with their colors textures sounds, how is a mind bereft of sense? is the world a numbered mosaic with coordinating palette? at the foot of the spectrum a woman huddles over a woollybear, cooing, face rouged with cookie. when maturity arrives—predetermined? does your god take a picture with his kodak optical zoom lens and snap her life into place? in the giftshop you buy postcards, send them without text, it is a beggar’s sign: your end is nigh, smote by thy own face.


The turn I identify as particularly emblemic is, “does your god take a picture with his kodak optical zoom lens and snap her life into place?” Prior to this line, the voice is still looking at the exhibits, relating them to the audience, but at that line, she steps away from the immediate to look at the hierarchy of life. Her turn to the hierarchy of life could, by a less cynical voice, be considered identical to the “Marvelousness of Life” turn I described in one of my comments, identical to the turn to universal meaning.

I am fascinated by this turn because I do believe in basic rules of reality, and I think they are so inherent that they surprise us, at times, when we see them reflected in the ordinary. I believe that this emblem turn is undeniably relevant to our sphere.

I welcome your thoughts.


2 Responses to “using the emblemic turn to “zoom out””

  1. stephroush Says:

    I am really glad you commented on the tradition of the emblem in various fields (arts and philosophy) and not just religion (God’s hand). I also believe that the emblem turn “is undeniably relevant to our sphere.” When Michael Theune describes the two-part structure he suggests that its applications are limitless as our material is any object of earth. Also, the religious element is undeniable, but the idea of a design or ordered has become more varied. The idea that “a universe can be both observed and “read,” its meaning deciphered” is a philosophical tradition and is also a foundation for literary theory (Structure and Surprise, 27). Also, I think the idea of “zooming out” is useful in that an expansion occurs to insight and universals. Theune’s inclusion of Auden and Dickinson’s reversed or varied emblem forms was helpful in opening up this limitless form even further. On page 36 of Structure and Surprise there are a number of sentences that discuss variation and limitlessness. Theune depicts a diverse interpretation of emblem that might aid against some of its objects. The possibilities do not produce a negative reaction for me. I feel I cannot be bored when: “There is no limit to what emblem poems can communicate. They can, for example, argue with each other, deliver timeless truths, suggest historical contingency. Their meditations, which take the shape of prophecy, lament, question, or proclamation, are as vibrant and diverse as their descriptions” (Structure and Surprise, 36). Thanks Erin for opening that line of discussion.

  2. karlakelsey Says:

    Wonderful work, both of you…I think that viewed in this way the emblem structure can act as catalyst for expanding and deepening Imagist-based work. The heavy influence of the Imagists still prevalent today, along with the workshop emphasis on “show don’t tell,” often leaves poems with a constitution of voice + surface, leaving the reader to build any thought or application. The emblem structure can show a writer where one might pry into the image-based poem, curving the poem into layers of thought and consideration.

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