Investigating Poetry's Well-Made Surprises

Graduation Year


Publication Date

Spring 2023


At the request of the author, this paper is not available for download. Bona fide researchers may consult it by visiting the University Archives in Tate Archives & Special Collections; contact archives@iwu.edu for details.


This paper explores how a certain kind of surprise⁠—the “well-made” surprise⁠—is created in poems. My approach to the close analysis of three poems is based in cognitive poetics and was inspired by the work of Vera Tobin in her book Elements of Surprise (Harvard, 2018). In this book, Tobin explores a phenomenon she calls the well-made surprise in novels and films. A well-made surprise is one that surprises but that also offers “a flash reinterpretation of events” and instills in the reader a “feeling that the evidence for this interpretation was there all along⁠” (2). This type of surprise feels–amazingly–both shocking and deeply right. While the quality of well-made surprise has been discussed, and prized, by poets and critics such as James Longenbach, Matthew Zapruder, and Michael Theune, so far there has been no work into how well-made surprise works in poetry. In this paper, I apply Tobin’s, as well as other scholars’, cognitive approaches to understanding how the well-made surprise is created in novels and films to understanding how it can be created in poems. Ultimately, I show how a cognitive approach to understanding an as yet under-defined phenomenon in poetry can be productive both for readers looking to assess how their own cognition allows them to be surprised and for writers looking to create this type of surprise.


English Language and Literature

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