The Prestige in Poetry

Around the time I decided to launch Literature&Literacy on, my friend Simon Brown was promoting his blog Written Word as a venue for publishing and discussing his poems. Because of the conversations about poetry we had had when we both attended Ohio Wesleyan University–or, at least, so I like to think–he asked me to read his work.

One of his poems in particular, “Reflections” caught my attention. The imagery was stirring, the voice intriguing. But I did not understand the poem.  I saw a collage of images without a narrative instead of a cohesive whole.

I discussed the parts of it that I did not understand. He explained what the narrative was supposed to be: I reread the poem and, knowing the narrative, the poem opened up and became intelligible. But the narrative he provided was not present in the poem.

I began to think of how a poem functions, how understanding and surprise are built into a poem.

Are you watching closely?

The Prestige tells a magnificent story of escalating violence and cyclical revenge between two rival magicians as they build their careers. Introducing the film, Cutter, the engineer who helps one magician design his tricks, gives the following voice-over:

Every magic trick consists of three parts, or acts.

The first part is called, “The Pledge.” The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird, or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see that it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But, of course, it probably isn’t.

The second act is called, “The Turn.” The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret–but you won’t find it because, of course, you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled.

But you wouldn’t clap yet because making something disappear isn’t enough. You have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act. The hardest part: the part we call, “The Prestige.”

These three acts are equally present within poetry. You can find examples of this structure in Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot, and Yeats.

Poetry in Three Acts

Many of Shakespeare’s sonnets continue the tradition of the Italian sonneteers, setting the stage in an octave and then finding resolution in the sestet. The octave contains with it “The Pledge” and ends with “The Turn”; the sestet continues “The Turn” and ends with “The Prestige.” But he also explored another structure, which has come to be recognized as the English or even the Shakespearean sonnet: three quatrains that contain “The Pledge” and ends with “The Turn” followed by a heroic couplet that comprises “The Prestige.”

The Shakespearean sonnet is most recognizable as an analog for the magic trick. “The Pledge” takes the most time, the presentation of the objects and in their normal light: the magician introduces his beautiful assistant and the glass tank, and invites audience members to inspect the tank and tie his assistant’s hands and feet; “The Turn” can be quick: the assistant is lowered into the glass tank and the curtain falls over the tank as the magician casts the incantation; and “The Prestige” is equally quick: the curtain falls away and the assistant is safely outside the tank.


The Pledge When my love swears that she is made of truth
I do believe her, though I know she lies,
That she might think me some untutored youth,
Unlearnèd in the world’s false subtleties.
Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young,
Although she knows my days are past the best,
Simply I credit her false-speaking tongue;
On both sides thus is simple truth suppressed.
The Turn But wherefore says she not she is unjust?
And wherefore say not I that I am old?
O, love’s best habit is in seeming trust,
And age in love loves not to have years told.
The Prestige      Therefore I lie with her, and she with me,
     And in our faults by lies we flattered be.
One of my favorite instances of “The Prestige” in poetry comes in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot. In a poem of 131 lines, the first 123 lines are needed to form “The Pledge” while only 2 lines are needed to form “The Turn” and 6 lines — six of the most beautiful in the English language — form “The Prestige.” Prufrock spends the poem in cowardly contemplation of the real world, with occassional allusions to and visions of literary and otherworldly things. You could argue that there are several “Turns” and several “Prestiges” in the poem, and you would be right. But “The Turn” on lines 124 and 125 changes the tone of the poem completely and leads to “The Prestige”:

From “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

The Pledge

I grow old… I grow old…
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers and walk upon the beach.

The Turn I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. (124)

I do not think that they will sing to me. (125)

The Prestige

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

The Promise

To check that my misunderstanding was not due entirely to a weakness in my own reading of the poem, I shared “Reflections” with one of my friends who is not a poet and two of my friends who are. They had the same trouble with the narrative that I did. I shared with them a single suggested change. They said that change brought the poem into clear relief.

When I offered a suggestion to Simon, he listened politely and read the comments I made about “Reflections” but he was not convinced. He told me that he was not sure that he would incorporate the changes I suggested to his poem, which you can find in the Comments of the post in which he published “Reflections”. I hope he will reconsider and add in the line he needs to add “The Prestige” to his poem, to make the narrative explode.

Even if he does not, Simon is a poet of great promise. Even if his magic tricks lack “The Prestige.”

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