The Poetic Turn: The Seat of the Soul of the Sonnet

24 07 2011

In her introduction to The Penguin Book of the Sonnet: 500 Years of a Classic Tradition in English, Phillis Levin discusses eloquently the power of the volta, or the turn, in the sonnet.  Levin states:

“…the arrangement of lines into patterns of sound serves a function we could call architectural, for these various acoustical partitions accentuate the element that gives the sonnet its unique force and character: the volta, the ‘turn’ that introduces into the poem a possibility for transformation, like a moment of grace.

“The volta, the sonnet’s turn, promotes innovative approaches because whatever has occurred thus far, a poet is compelled, by inhabiting the form, to make a sudden leap at a particular point, to move into another part of the terrain.  Reading sonnets, one constantly confronts the infinite variety of moves a poet can make to negotiate a ‘turn.’  Though a poet will sometimes seem to ignore the volta, its absence can take on meaning, as well–that is, if the poem already feels like a sonnet.  We could say that for the sonnet, the volta is the seat of its soul.  And the reader’s experience of this turn (like a key change) reconfigures the experience of all the lines that both precede and follow it.  The volta foregrounds the paradigm, making us particularly conscious of the rhyme scheme; likewise, the poet’s anticipation guides every move he or she will make.  The moment a pebble is dropped into a pond, evidence of that action resonates outward, and at the same time continues to draw the eye back to the point from which all succeeding motions ensue.”

Along with three other experts on the sonnet–Heather Dubrow, Paul Muldoon, and Susan Wolfson–Levin discusses the above idea, and many other ideas about the sonnet, in a panel called “The Art of the Sonnet.”  A video of the panel discussion can be found here:

And it seems as though video poet Tapas de Luna had some fun with this panel, taking her own turn with the presentation, having some riotous fun…  Enjoy!



8 responses

31 05 2012
King of the One-Liners: Bill Matthews and the Volta « Structure & Surprise

[…] more on the volta, click here, and here, and here.  Aw, heck: explore this whole blog–where we aim to give the volta its […]

16 08 2012
Paul Fussell on the “Indispensable” Volta « Structure & Surprise

[…] are familiar.  In making such claims, Fussell joins other commentators on the sonnet, including Phillis Levin, Edward Hirsch and Eavan Boland, and Christina Pugh, who acknowledge the volta’s vital […]

21 09 2013
Spirals, Centers, and Dark Stars: Leslie Ullman and the Poetic Turn | Structure & Surprise

[…] and especially the Petrarchan turn from octave to sestet, a place that Ullman, citing Phillis Levin’s introduction to The Penguin Book of the Sonnet, refers to as “a Golden Mean-related divide.”  Ullman’s analysis includes a discussion of […]

2 06 2014
How Cool Is This?! | Structure & Surprise

[…] plenty of reflection on the place of the turn in the sonnet, including some thinking about the importance of the turn, the turn’s literal place in sonnets, the volta and, as Christina Pugh calls it, […]

19 05 2015
Looking with Hirshfield’s Ten Windows | Structure & Surprise

[…] of the sonnet and the turn (about which, more information can be found here, here, here, and here).  In one essay, Hirshfield points out how the fourth stanza of Seamus Heaney’s […]

14 06 2017
Some Surprising Lesson Plans | Structure & Surprise

[…] check out more about the power of the sonnet’s volta. Some discussions can be found here, and here, and here. If you’re interested in a lesson plan focused on the powerful potential of the […]

20 06 2017
‘don’t know what to call it’: Robert Hass’s Elision of the Poetic Turn | Structure & Surprise

[…] a main dwelling-place for the turn in poetic forms. (For more on the sonnet and the turn, click here, and here, and here.) Hass understands the importance of the turn, or the volta, for the sonnet. In […]

1 05 2022
Kathryn Fazio


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