Image link from SNL YouTube clip
One of the classic moments from the 2016 Saturday Night Live election episodes was when Kate McKinnon, playing Hillary Clinton, changed the subject of a debate question mid-answer and then announced “and that is how ya pivot.” The pivot, rolling from one subject to the other, is a standard tool for politicians, but it’s also a useful tool for poets (and presumably other writers). Poets and politicians both aim to connect with their audiences, so drawing from their pool of tactics can be a useful practice.
Where a pivot in politics is mostly an evasion tactic, in poetry it’s more often used to reveal the true heart of the matter. It lets the writer sneak one subject into a conversation about another subject, and by the time the reader gets there, it’s too late, you’re snagged.
It’s also a useful writing prompt you can give yourself. Write something, anything, from one position or point of view, then turn it upside down. You could also call this the flip-flop, another method of persuasion used commonly by politicians and not covered in Aristotle’s Rhetoric.
A classic pivot can be found in Jame’s Wright’s “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm.” There, the writer spends 99 percent of the poem describing a pastoral scene complete with butterflies, cows and horse droppings, all pondered from the comfort of a hammock. As readers, we’re lulled by the rural placidity of the scene. We’re not threatened, challenged or even gently poked. And then the final line lands like a tornado, “I have wasted my life.” Pivot.
The pivot is a control technique, a kind of manipulation. It’s like the last scene in The Sixth Sense where we suddenly find out that Bruce Willis is a ghost. Everything that happened before that now takes on new meaning.
In the Wright poem, the subject pivots from pastoral beauty, to existential angst. It’s a feint, and effective because you didn’t see it coming.
Another similar use of the pivot comes in Ada Limon’s “Bellow.” The poem begins as a call to complacency, as if the speaker is telling herself to stand down, don’t take action. She says, midway through the poem “tell them that you didn’t come here / to make a fuss, or break or growl,” but then ends with “then get down in the dark and do it.” Like Wright’s pivot, she escorts us out into the woods, then drops our hand and runs off into the dark, leaving us looking around wondering what happened.
Pivots don’t have to be that severe though to be effective. In politics the pivot distracts the constituents, tells them what they want to hear, rather than what they need to hear. In poetry the pivot is more of a distraction for the writer—it allows the writer to begin, perhaps, with a more digestible subject and then turn to the real subject once the reader and writer have found a comfortable meeting place. The portion of the poem that comes before the pivot is often a metaphor, which is its own kind of distraction, a way of saying without saying. I can find no better example than Claudia Emerson’s poem “Metaphor” which describes an episode when a mysterious presence is sensed in the speaker’s bedroom. The presence turns out to be a bat, which can be read as a stand in for the subjects’ marriage. The speaker implores her husband to kill it, and the poem concludes “I wanted / you to do it—until you did.” After that final line, the poem’s second level lurches into the light—aided in part by the poem’s title, of course.
Saeed Jones uses the pivot in a similar way in “Apologia,” a poem that begins, mysteriously with what seems like a theological inquiry, but pivots in the middle to the personal, and then ends with “I didn’t mean He / as in God; I meant the man I traded you for.” The pivot reveals the metaphor, but also allows the writer to enter the subject from the side door, which makes for a more unexpected entrance.
Pivots often have a declaration quality to them. They act like announcements to the world that, hey, here’s how I really feel, which is kind of the opposite of how it works in politics, but poets aren’t politicians, even if they—as Percy Bysshe Shelley claims— “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”
Poetry craft essays editor Grant Clauser is the author of two poetry books, Necessary Myths (Broadkill River Press 2013) and The Trouble with Rivers(Foothills Publishing 2012). In 2010 he was named the Montgomery County Poet Laureate by Robert Bly. In 2014 he was a guest poet at the Sharjah International Book Fair in the United Arab Emirates. Poems have appeared in The American Poetry Review, The Cortland Review, Gargoyle, The Literary Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Southern Poetry Review and others. He also writes about electronics, teaches poetry at random places and chases trout with a stick. His blog is www.uniambic.com. Email queries to firstname.lastname@example.org.