The Poet as Illusionist
by Nathan Harms
Perhaps you've seen the movie, "The Prestige" (Touchstone Pictures 2006). It's the story of two late-19th-century illusionists who vie for supremacy in their field of entertainment, trying to outdo each other with spectacular stage effects. It's an entertaining story with plenty of twists to engage the mind.
(Illusion is not "magic" or "witchcraft." There is a reasonable explanation behind any illusion, not based on the supernatural. That's why it's called "illusion.")
"The Prestige" opens with actor Michael Caine explaining—in a voice-over—the principles behind stage illusions. He says each successful illusion has three separate acts which he calls "the pledge," "the turn" and "the prestige."
The three acts of illusion
In the first act, the pledge, the illusionist shows you something ordinary…a deck of cards, a teaspoon, a handkerchief, etc. "Look," the illusionist says, "This is a perfectly ordinary handkerchief. Nothing special about it."
In the second act, the turn, the illusionist causes something extraordinary and unexpected to happen to the ordinary item he has shown you. For example, he stuffs the handkerchief into his fist, but when he opens his fist the handkerchief has vanished!
In the third act, the prestige, the illusionist shows you "something shocking you've never seen before." Perhaps he asks you to remove your footwear and you find the handkerchief stuffed into the toe of your shoe. You know what you've experienced can't possibly be true. Yet you've seen it with your own eyes. You have been part of this performance. "Do it again," you say, intent on discovering the secret.
Even as the plot of "The Prestige" unfolded, I saw comparisons between the three acts of a stage illusion, and the acts of creating great poems.
Every poet an illusionist?
When I think about great poems I've enjoyed reading, I can see that many of the best started with the pledge, proceeded to the turn and concluded with the prestige.
There are many ways to begin a poem, but good poems offer a connecting point—a handkerchief—that allows the readers to enter the poem without a sense of danger. Handkerchiefs are not strange or frightening. We've seen them many times.
After its beginning, a good poem proceeds to something unexpected. When the illusionist opens his hand and the handkerchief has disappeared, it's unexpected.
Finally, a memorable poem astounds the reader with unexpected insight. "Wow," he says, "How did this hanky get into my shoe?" And the most powerful poems include the reader in the action. "How did this hanky get into my shoe?"
Poets can err at the beginning of a poem by failing to show the reader something he recognizes. The poet might assume that the reader already shares the feelings of the poet, understands the poet's viewpoint, or has had the same experiences as the poet.
So when the reader begins the poem he finds no point of connection. "What's this?" he asks, quite reasonably, "I've never seen anything like this before. I don't know what this poet is talking about." The reader may be attracted by the novelty, but soon loses interest.
One of the ways to finesse the pledge is to choose a title appropriately. Although many poets think of a title as if it was a bow on a package—added at the last minute for decoration—a title can be the very thing that allows the reader to connect to the poem.
Here's an example of a poem that uses the title as the pledge. If you remove the title, "At Prayer," and replace it with a title such as "Poem #1," you'll see that the poem fails to offer a connecting point. When you begin to read, you don't know what's going on. In fact, you can read the entire poem and not have a clue what it's about. That simple title is the pledge.
Here's another example. Although the poet has used "House of God" as the title, she also opens her poem with those words. Her readers know the "House of God" commonly refers to a church—a familiar thing—and readers can connect with where the poem is leading them.
In this poem the poet uses the word "Autumn" in her title and the words, "orange and red" to help the readers connect with a common image, multi-colored autumn leaves swirling in the wind.
The main failing of most of the poems submitted to me at Utmost Christian Writers is a failure to move from the pledge to the turn. The turn is where the poet makes the ordinary thing she has presented do something unexpected or extraordinary. All too often the poet simply continues showing the reader more ordinary things.
Can you imagine an illusionist on stage attempting to capture an audience? He holds out the handkerchief, flutters it briefly, then stuffs it back into his pocket, as he intones, "This is my handkerchief. I keep it in my pocket."
"Well, of course," you might think, "Everyone knows that."
And then the illusionist continues to demonstrate how to button his jacket or tie his shoes. You would not be impressed by a presentation like this.
Yet this is exactly what poets often do—they fail to present the readers with the unexpected. Perhaps our poet writes a Christmas poem about the birth of Christ in Bethlehem. The context of the poem offers a connecting point for readers—the pledge—since they have all heard of this event. But instead of proceeding to the turn, the poet simply continues to recount the Biblical events exactly as everyone already knows them!
If you can remember one thing about the turn, remember this; something extraordinary and unexpected occurs.
Here's an example of the turn, executed beautifully, although very early in the poem. The poet introduces "the afternoon nap" as the pledge, the ordinary thing. But when the angel of the dreams "digs a blue tunnel through the pillow" the reader is compelled to take notice! What sort of nap is this? What sort of angel?
Here's another example of the turn. The title and the first stanza of this poem are about an ordinary thing, a bathing suit. The reader assumes the poem is being addressed to another person, probably the poet's partner or close friend. But look at the first line of the second stanza! The last person we expected is Jesus. The line is completely extraordinary and unexpected. We almost gasp as we read it.
The prestige delivers satisfaction to the readers. It's possible to proceed from the pledge to the turn—presenting the readers with an ordinary thing, and then astounding them with an unexpected turn—yet fail to deliver satisfaction at the end.
Do you remember our illusionist with his disappearing handkerchief? The key to pleasing his audience was not in causing the hanky to disappear, but in bringing it back again! Remember how astounded you were to find the hanky in the toe of your shoe? As successful poets we want our readers to enjoy our poems and, if possible, discover something entirely new.
In my opinion the prestige, or satisfaction, of the poem is the hardest part to achieve. Sometimes this part of the poem will be in your mind even before you begin to write. At other times this shazzam aspect will emerge as you develop the poem. The important thing is that you include it.
Be careful not to be "false" when delivering the prestige. I'm sure all of us are familiar with the story-telling tactic that concludes a tale with, "Then I woke up, and it was all just a dream." This is what I call a "false" ending. It disrespects readers and voids the experience of the poem, no matter how intense it might have been.
The prestige, when executed correctly, has two primary characteristics. First, it develops naturally from what preceded in the poem. Second, it involves the reader, allowing him to be inside the experience of the poem.
After the illusionist caused the hanky to disappear in his fist, imagine if he caused a paper-clip to materialize in your shoe. You would have been surprised, certainly, but you would be wondering about the point of the illusion. The hanky and the paper-clip are unrelated, and the result is nonsensical.
Although it's almost impossible to direct a poet as to how to develop an effective prestige, we might learn a bit more from example.
Let's look at the ending of the last poem we looked at. The words, "I too know all this," are the prestige. The poet, Mary Elizabeth Lauzon, surprised us with the turn in the second stanza when she wrote, "Jesus, you know all this." After that line, we view the swimmer through the eyes of Christ. But the very last line…the prestige…"I too know all this" delivers the satisfaction we seek, and it also allows us to enter the poem ourselves, because the "I" is us too.
Here's another great prestige. The pledge is simple in this poem, a daughter who doesn't want to pray about her earache. The turn is in the fourth stanza when the poet puts the daughter at the feet of the Jesus. It's a "time warp," something unexpected. The prestige is the very last line. It's where we find the hanky in the toe of our own shoe—when the daughter whispers directly into the ear of Jesus!
Pulling the rabbit out of the hat
How do you become a superb illusionist/poet? There's no quick-and-easy handbook, but you can learn a lot by analyzing the poetry of others, identifying the three stages and trying to see how they work. Better yet, look at each poem you write and use this checklist:
1. The Pledge. Does the beginning of my poem present the reader with something ordinary or easy to understand?
2. The Turn. Does my poem lead the reader to an extraordinary or unexpected turn?
3. The Prestige. Does my poem provide the reader with a satisfaction?
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