Strange Voltas

2 10 2020

Structurally, the sonnet is largely a field of expectation. At one level, every sonnet is a concrete poem that represents a sonnet. When you look at a block of text, you can gather pretty quickly that it’s a sonnet, or at least a near-sonnet. But that’s not all. At another level, if one were to make a heat map of where the dynamic action of sonnets takes place, we all know where the white heat would be: at the volta. Numerous recent conversations about the sonnet understand the volta as being crucial to the sonnet’s identity and its power. Phillis Levin’s introduction to The Penguin Book of the Sonnet calls the volta “the seat of [the sonnet’s] soul.” Additionally, some recent essays, including Monica Youn’s “Petrarch’s Hangover: An Argument in Five Sonnets” and Adam O’Riordan’s “The Sonnet as a Silver Marrow Spoon,” speak to the volta’s centrality to, and vitality within, the sonnet tradition.

And yet, for all its dynamic power, the volta often is thought to be nestled in the sonnet in some fairly predictable ways: if mapping the energy of a sonnet in the Petrarchan tradition, our heat map would glow at the turn from octave to sestet, or else, when mapping a Shakespearean sonnet, at the turn into the final couplet. However, commentators are slowly but surely coming to realize the fact that—as its large-scale shift from Italian to English position indicates—the location of the volta in fact has long been not something settled but rather another source for poetic experimentation. In “On Sonnet Thought,” Christina Pugh states, “Whether it occurs before the closing couplet in the Shakespearean sonnet, before the sestet in the Petrarchan scheme, or elsewhere in a sonnet, the volta’s often breathtakingly indefinable pivot remains a vital component of the governing structure.”

Here, I wish to consider voltas that occur not at somewhat predictable Petrarchan or Shakespearean points but rather “elsewhere” in sonnets in order to suggest that the volta’s location has long been a site of poetic experimentation and to offer new ways to appreciate some more recent American sonnets. I will demonstrate that, while sonnets always ask readers to expect the unexpected, readers need to be alert to the shifting location of the volta as such shifts not only amplify surprise but also contribute greatly to a sonnet’s signification by underscoring or undercutting—enacting or effacing—meaning.

Here, very quickly, are three established, canonical sonnets that will help us get a sense of the versatility of voltaic location. Consider:

  • The seventy-first sonnet of Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella (“Who will in fairest book of nature know”). Here, Astrophil, the comedically lovelorn speaker of this sonnet sequence, tries to explain how his beloved Stella can be so beautiful that, instead of her hotness bothering anyone (especially Astrophil), her beauty can turn that attraction virtuous. The argument nearly works–the poem gets by all major turning points!–only to be undercut at the last moment by the monosyllabic rumblings of still-unsated Desire. With this genius last line, this sonnet skillfully enacts the return of the repressed.
  • George Herbert’s “Prayer (I).” Herbert’s sonnet mainly is a list, an effort to enumerate the many things that prayer is, to account for its many aspects. It is not precisely clear where it is going–indeed, the poem seems lost in its own inventiveness, a sense underscored by the fact that no big turn has yet occurred–until a mere two words from the end, when suddenly–much as in another Herbert poem, “The Collar”–there’s a quieting miracle, the echo of a prayer’s finally submissive so be it, Amen.
  • William Wordsworth’s “Surprised by joy.” This sonnet contains one of the earliest major turns in a sonnet: after having had a Wordsworthian epiphanic moment–as the poet would put it in another of his poems, his heart leapt up–the speaker turns to share his joy with a loved one (in this case, the poet’s daughter Catherine) only to remember at the second line’s “Oh!” that she is not there, that she has died. After this powerful turn from the physical act of turning, the rest of the poem–the vast majority of it–is largely merely an awful reckoning with the mind’s ability to recuperate from–and even take sublime pleasure after–such loss. In this way, the sonnet enacts its own chastening.

So while, especially for a symposium focused on “Sonnets from the American,” I’d like to be able to say that, in a way similar to Shakespeare’s remixing of Petrarchan form and structure, Americans took the English sonnet and made it our own by experimenting in vastly new ways with the placement of the volta, I can’t. But I can say that, even if not exactly pioneers when it comes to resettling, or perhaps unsettling, the volta, American sonneteers (I’m guessing very much like sonneteers of other nationalities) continue the experiment, toying with where the volta occurs, pushing it around, playing with the sonnet’s pattern of expectation to create new, special effects.

Here are just a few examples:

  • Along with Wordsworth’s “Surprised by joy,” Gwendolyn Brooks’s “the rites for Cousin Vit” contains one of the earliest major voltas in a sonnet: it occurs at the “But,” about half-way through the second line. “the rites for Cousin Vit” is a poem celebrating the life of the deceased Cousin Vit, a figure of vitality, and this sonnet honors Cousin Vit not only by saying that Vit’s liveliness cannot be contained but also by enacting it: Vit is so powerful, she doesn’t only break out of her casket and into the energy of her former life, she also breaks the sonnet structure, forcing the sonnet to turn almost immediately from death to resurrection.
  • Even without its great turn, which comes after line 14, Bernadette Mayer’s “[Sonnet] You jerk you didn’t call me up” has terrific torquing energy. In it, the speaker lambasts her (potentially soon-to-be former) lover for his inattentiveness, complaining that even other imperfect lovers such as Catullus–who may have both odi’ed et amo’ed but at least still amo’ed–at least were drawn into the drama of passion, unlike her sophomoric dude-bro. The speaker uses this argument to try to get the lover to “Wake up!” and then challenges him: either make love to me, she says, or settle in for another night of masturbation–though Cobra Commander is G.I. Joe’s enemy, that final image also can be read as petit morting in hand-to-hand combat with the king of snakes. This sonnet already is sassy and hilarious, but then it gets even better. As in a poem like John Donne’s “The Flea,” there’s drama here around the words. After the sonnet is complete, the speaker waits for an actual choice to be made. Nothing happens. Fed up, then, there’s a final turn: if the dude-bro doesn’t understand passion, perhaps he’ll understand the language of a child’s choose-your-own-adventure story. But of course, there’s likely really no longer a choice–the speaker is through wasting time on who she is, after the silence following the passionate decision offered in the volta, clearly greater than, and, so, over with.
  • In her introduction to The Penguin Book of the Sonnet, Phillis Levin notes that “[t]hough 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.” No poem that I know of typifies this more than Ron Padgett’s “Nothing in That Drawer,” a sonnet that repeats the phrase “Nothing in that drawer” fourteen times. This poem only stays interesting for as long as it does because its nullity intrigues in the sonnet’s field of expectation. Each turn from line to line allows us to hope for something new to break the monotony, and beyond that, we may wish for a structural, voltaic turn at octave’s end or turning into the couplet–or anywhere else, for that matter!–but it doesn’t come. Padgett’s nothingness is thus greatly amplified by being played on the instrument of the sonnet.

Much more work needs to be done to explore the dynamics of structural turning in sonnets. How else do poets use the sonnet’s patterned expectations to deliver their own singular surprises? How do poets orchestrate major and minor voltas in sonnets? Given the sonnet’s brevity, and the tendency to see–wherever they occur–one or two (or maybe three) big turns in any one sonnet, is it possible, as Terrance Hayes suggests in his “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin” which begins “The song must be cultural, confessional, clear” and which reads as a kind of ars poetica for Hayes’s sonnet sequence, for a new kind of sonnet to contain “a clamor / Of voltas”?

When it comes to thinking about the place of the volta in the sonnet, the poets are well in front of the commentators. We need to catch up. But this is fine; it presents opportunities. Here’s one:

In The Making of a Sonnet, editors Edward Hirsch and Eavan Boland include a section called “The Sonnet Goes to Different Lengths” in order to highlight the sonnet’s formal variety. There should, however, also be a selection of sonnets called “Strange Voltas,” which gathers sonnets that experiment with the sonnet’s structural components, with how and where sonnets turn. Hopefully, an increased awareness of this aspect of sonnet construction can lead to even more alert reading and understanding, and perhaps even to further, grander and/or subtler experiments.


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