The Mind Twist: What is It?
In murder mysteries and thrillers, everyone likes a good plot twist. Great poetry provides something even better: The Mind Twist. Many great poems open by echoing ideas that most people already hold, so you think you know what they are going to say. But then, Boom! Suddenly comes the Mind Twist, where the poet offers a completely different, and unexpected, interpretation of the topic. Other poems assault common thinking right at their beginning, by presenting a topic in ways readers have seldom considered, right from line 1. Still other poems play deadpan, repeating platitudes with a straight face while undercutting common or superficial ideas through irony, hyperbole, or understatement.
To understand, close read, and enjoy great poems, learn to expect the Mind Twist, so you won’t be blindsided when unforeseen ideas start flying at you. To find the Mind Twist, look for contrast and tension in the poem. Contrast and tension are the basic tools for creating complexity, interest, and depth of thought in most great literature, and indeed, in great art in general.
Find the Contrast and Tension to “Do the Twist”
Contrast and tension can occur between images and sentiments, between the topic and the untypical words used to discuss it, between what most people would say about a topic and what the poem says, and more. In great art and writing, tension occurs between any ideas or design elements that seem hard to reconcile.
Let’s look at two very different famous poems, one a sonnet by Shakespeare and the other a tiny poem by Emily Dickinson, for two examples of how great poets can do the Twist.
Sonnets Have Built-In Twists
Sonnets are set up precisely to lead to a “turn” in meaning, particularly the Shakespearean form. That makes a sonnet the perfect place to begin looking for The Mind Twist. You may know that sonnets always have 14 lines written in iambic pentameter. That means that each line of a sonnet has 10 syllables alternating between a soft and a hard accent. (We’ll talk more about classic poetic rhyme and meter in a later post.) The Shakespearean version of the sonnet has three “quatrains,” which are 4-line sections that are connected by an “a-b-a-b” rhyme, then at the end, a final “couplet,” two successive lines that rhyme. This couplet is where we often find the “turn.”
The Un-Beautiful Mistress?
“My Mistress’s Eyes,” starts out as a joke mocking typical sonnet writers of the era who over-praised their lady loves in terms of exaggerated and tired clichés. From this sonnet, we can surmise that many sonneteers of Shakespeare’s time followed a model sonneteer, the Italian poet Petrarch, in comparing their mistresses to goddesses. Naturally, no human woman has features that can compare to these descriptions: eyes bright as the sun, cheeks like roses, hair like silk, voices like melodies, and so on.
Shakespeare’s sonnet pokes fun at all this hyperbole by describing his lover as she actually appears. Her eyes are nothing like the sun, her lips aren’t all that red, her hair is more like wire than silk, her breath is decidedly not like perfume, and her voice is not at all musical. This earthy style of description makes a humorous contrast with the typical sonnet that Elizabethan readers had come to expect. This contrast is one “Mind Twist” provided by the poem, but not the only one. As we look deeper into the sonnet, we start to intuit there’s more here than just a joke.
The Meaning Turns: Not Just a Joke–It’s About Real Love
Many of my students have reacted with laughter but also puzzlement to the descriptions in the first part of the sonnet. These folks say the first part of the sonnet makes this woman seem so unattractive, they thought at first that the speaker was going to dump her by the end of the poem. Here we can see how a great poem first appears to affirm what a lot of people think about the topic, if they haven’t yet thought deeply about it. The writer leads them to expect one conclusion (in this case, that someone physically unattractive can’t keep the poet’s love), but then makes a turn in an unexpected direction. The turn ends in enlarging the ideas of readers.
In Sonnet 130, we get the first inkling of the turn from apparent criticism of his lover in lines 9 and 10: “music” may have “a far more pleasing sound,” and yet “I love to hear her speak.” Though she is not exactly a goddess (“My mistress when she walks treads on the ground”), he does like to be around her after all! And now in the final couplet comes the Mind Twist: although his mistress is just an ordinary human with real human qualities, “And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare” as all these other ladies who have been celebrated so falsely by over-enthusiastic sonneteers.
To be thought “just as rare” as a radiant goddess is quite an endorsement, and quite a contrast with what most people would say of a woman whose breath reeks. But of course, Shakespeare is saying that all those other women who are the topics of other sonnets are not really much like goddesses. He is also making a further point: real love is between real people. Even people who are not perfect physical specimens can still be loved, and appear lovely, even if their hair is spiky or they like to eat garlic bread for lunch.
Dickinson’s Daisy: “Apparently with No Surprise”
Sonnet 130 is funny, sweet, and uplifting. Since one of our topics today is CONTRAST, though, let’s go a different direction and look at a poem that might be called its total opposite: “Apparently with no surprise” by Emily Dickinson. Read it here—won’t take you long, since it’s only eight little lines long.
The Calm Before the Twist
This tiny poem seems calm at first. It tells a little story about a happy flower who is innocently playing when, suddenly, the frost beheads it. The flower is not surprised by this sudden death, and neither is anyone else. The frost moves on, the sun “proceeds unmoved” by this accident, and God appears to approve of how things are going in general.
The surface tranquility of this poem’s tone has led many of my students to conclude that it shows Dickinson’s acceptance of death. The death occurs without surprise, “apparently” even to the flower who has died. Nothing in the whole natural scene seems disturbed or alarmed by what has happened, and in the end, God appears to approve of it. Students often say the poem describes death as a simple natural process. Sometimes frost kills flowers—it’s just part of nature.
However, if we ask how Dickinson feels about this situation, we can see that’s not the end of the story. The happy flower and the sun may accept the situation, but does Dickinson? At second look, a whole cascade of contrasts and tensions jump out to lead straight to a major Mind Twist.
Contrasts, Tensions, and the Blond Assassin: Making Us Ponder
Consider, for instance, some unexpectedly brutal word choices that are in high contrast to the seeming overall calm. In the third line, the frost doesn’t just gently pluck the little blossom, it “beheads” it, earning the nickname “blond assassin” in the fifth line. This description of frost as a “blond assassin” always reminds me of the old James Bond villain, Goldfinger, who paints all his victims gold. Frost, however, turns all his victims white by coating them with ice crystals, making them look “blond.”
Nothing is more sinister than a villain who paints his victims to resemble himself. Regardless of how the flower feels (and we don’t really know, since the flower only appears to be unsurprised), Dickinson cannot be expressing approval or acceptance of a narcissistic assassin who beheads his victims, even if he does it accidentally. Indeed, if the death is accidental, nature is all the more frightening, because death can occur with no apparent purpose or personal meaning—it’s just by chance.
Once this Mind Twist occurs, in which we start to view the flower’s death as unfair and sinister rather than peaceful, the other characters start to appear more sinister too. The sun doesn’t care at all, but continues to work its natural machinery “unmoved,” and God even seems to approve of the situation! The poem seems to be asking what kind of a world this is, in which death is such a frequent, casual, and apparently meaningless occurrence. Further, what kind of God approves of it all? The poem leaves the question hanging there, having led readers quite a journey from calm acknowledgment to anger and bewilderment—not such a comfortable place to be, but certainly the starting point for some good, serious pondering about life.
Growing the Mind is Not Always Comfortable–but it’s Great!
Indeed, experiencing a Mind Twist is often uncomfortable, sometimes just because we have to look closely and think hard to perceive it. Also, it’s hard or even painful to conceive that there might be another way to see life or death, friendship or love, than how we have already understood it. It takes a bit of work to think hard and see things from different perspectives, but how good for our minds and souls to do it! That’s true even if at the end of the process, we end by reaffirming our previous ideas. At least we have thought through them and know we have reasons for our perspective. However your process ends, if a poem or other piece of literature superficially echoes what everyone else already believes about a topic, it’s not great literature, and to me, there’s limited point in reading it.
The Place for Not-Great Poems, and for Great Ones
There is a place for not-great poems, of course—to read at graduations, or to put on greeting cards, for instance. You don’t want to send a greeting card that explains what a great mom or dad or graduate or person someone is, then undercut your loving message with a Mind Twist to suggest the truth could be otherwise! That could mess up some important relationships. But if your purpose is to experience that priceless, beautiful shock of your mind growing bigger, and to consider the human condition from more than one perspective, Read Great Literature, and be prepared to encounter the Mind Twists you will certainly find therein.
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Mary Jane is a longtime literature lover who lived in the Cincinnati area for many years, then in central Louisiana for three years (what a treat!), teaching literature classes at universities in both locations. Now back in the Cincinnati area, she pampers her grandchildren, experiments with cooking, and visits art museums as often as possible.