Reading Poetry, and Finding the Volta

22 07 2022

Over the years, I’ve been paying attention to the place of the turn in poetry pedagogy, investigating handbooks and textbooks to see how they attend to the turn, or not. Is the turn mentioned? Is it featured? Is the volta at least mentioned as a key part of the dynamics of the sonnet? Some of what I’ve discovered from this work can be found here, and here, and here.

I’ve also been interested in thinking about the place of the volta in discussions of the sonnet. Some of my thinking on this topic can be found here and here.

My most recent bit of exploration into Tom Furniss and Michael Bath’s Reading Poetry: An Introduction has turned up something very interesting: poetry pedagogy that explicitly recognizes the significance of the volta in sonnets. Though substantive, it’s still something of a brief recognition, a shining moment, with some sparkly follow-up. No matter what, though: it’s all worth considering.

“Part Three” of Reading Poetry, “Texts in Contexts/Contexts in Texts,” is about how information from outside of a poem informs a reading of that poem, including “Genre,” the explicit topic of chapter 11, and the chapter immediately preceding the chapter on “The Sonnet.” The chapter on the sonnet opens with a section titled “The Sonnet as a Fixed Form,” and in it the authors make clear that the sonnet was explicitly selected by them to continue the “discussion of genre…because [the sonnet] is in many ways a representative form as well as a distinctive genre” (280–I’m citing the first edition, from 1996). The authors liken the sonnet to a limerick, noting that the sonnet “is another example of a fixed or ‘closed’ form because its defining characteristics are largely formal” (280). Knowing about the sonnet’s form is crucial: “Arguably, it is possible to make sense of many poems without consciously identifying their genres, but to read a sonnet without recognizing that it is a sonnet is likely to frustrate any competent understanding” (280). 

The section “The Sonnet as a Fixed Form” then glances at Shakespeare’s sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”), noting its rhyme scheme while also observing that “It is not difficult to show how this structure of three quatrains and a final couplet corresponds to particular developments in the argument of the sonnet,” including how, at the beginning of the third quatrain, “the speaker turns” (281). This interest in the turn only builds. The authors go on to state,

As this brief analysis shows, the overall argument of the poem has a logical structure that corresponds to the divisions of the verse form into three four-line sections and a final couplet. Each quatrain contains a stage of that argument, or a unit of sense that is syntactically complete by the end of the quatrain. Shakespeare’s argument depends on a contrast between the tenor and vehicle of his proposed metaphor, a contrast which turns on the word “But” at the beginning of line 9. That turn in the argument occurs at the place which had become the most important of the structural divisions in the sonnet form as it had evolved in Italy and elsewhere in the two hundred years or more before 1609 [the date of the first printing of Shakespeare’s sonnets]. (281)

The authors then define the sonnet: “A sonnet is a short poem in iambic pentameters, fourteen lines long, which can often be divided into two parts know as the ‘octave’, the first eight lines, and the ‘sestet’, the last six” (281). They differentiate the English and Italian sonnets, noting how “the Italian form appears to insist more strongly than the Shakespearian on a division between octave and sestet, which is why Italian readers coined the term ‘volta’ (‘turn’) to refer to this shift which the introduction of new rhyme sounds appears to signal after line eight” (281-2). They add: “In the Shakespearian sonnet each quatrain introduces new rhyme sounds, and the major formal break appears to be the shift from the three alternately rhymed quatrains to the final rhymed couplet, which is why some textbooks define the ‘turn’ in an English sonnet as occurring after line twelve” (282).

What’s beautiful about all of this, of course, is the focus on the turn, a focus that only increases in the next section, “Finding the Volta: Form and Meaning.” This section begins, “If things were this simple, we could end this chapter here. Needless to say, they are not” (282). The authors note that the volta is more than “just a matter of a shift in the rhyme pattern,” recognizing the shift between octave and sestet “corresponds to a turn in the syntax or grammar, a change in the argument or subject matter” (282). They refer back to the turn in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, then note that “Such a turn is very common in sonnets of all types,” and observe that the terminology used for Italian sonnets also can and should be used as well for English sonnets as “it can refer not just to sonnets’ rhyme scheme, but also to the conventionalized structure of their arguments” (282).

The authors then turn to discuss Shakespeare’s sonnets 130 (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”) and 29 (“When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes”). As I’ve already discussed in a previous post the incredibly interesting discussion of the strange volta in Sonnet 130, I’ll leap to their discussion of Sonnet 29, where the authors’ commentary is perhaps a bit less idiosyncratic but at least as effusive about the power of the turn. For them, the sestet “overturns” the octave at the location of the volta, the poem’s “major shift”–and they add, as well, that “Certainly, the final couplet also stands apart in some ways by presenting a final resolution of the argument, identifying–for the first time–the ‘love’ which explains and motivates the turn, justifies the compliment, and finally reveals that this sonnet is some kind of love poem” (284).

Though Furniss and Bath note that other readings of this sonnet are possible–including one focused less on love and more on the patronage behind the sonnet (284-5)–they reemphasize that their point holds about the “clear way” the poem’s “formal and argumentative structures” relate  (285). They make clear, as well, that Sonnet 29 “is by no means exceptional, for that accommodation of meaning to form–or form to meaning–is crucial to the sonnet as a genre” (285). They continue: “Learning how to recognize and analyze this interplay of form and meaning is the fundamental skill required of any competent reader of sonnets. As with any genre convention, it is a matter of programming your expectations as a reader…” (285). 

However, after this, Furniss and Bath really do settle again into focusing for the most part on form rather than the structural volta. After a brief examination of the topic of “Identifying a Speaker,” Furniss and Bath then move in a section called “Donne’s ‘Holy Sonnets’: A Hybrid Form?” to a close consideration of one of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets, “At the round earth’s imagin’d corners, blow.” Of course, the authors note that “This sonnet turns very decisively on the ‘But’ of line 9” (286). How could they not?! This is one of the most shocking voltas in the sonnet tradition! However, after noting how “the volta at the octave-sestet division stages a dramatic swing in the mood and tone of the poem,” the authors themselves turn to discuss form, making the case that this sonnet’s structure “combines elements of the ‘English’ and the ‘Italian’ sonnet”: “The structure…appears to consist of an Italian octave followed by an English sestet, and the turn in the syntax or argument at the beginning of line 9 coincides with the way the third quatrain breaks away from the tight, infolded rhymes of the octave” (286; 287). Though they have moved back to discussing form, the authors still do the good work of reminding readers that “This hybrid form of sonnet suggests that the rules of this genre were never as rigid as some modern textbooks, with their clear distinction between the ‘Petrarchan’ and ‘Shakespearian’ forms, would have us believe. Indeed, sixteenth- and seventeenth-century writers did not distinguish between the two types of sonnet, or use our names for them….Whether they staged a turn in the syntax or argument of the sonnet at the beginning of line 9 was an option that always remained open to them, whatever the rhyme pattern used” (287). Also, at least it seems, no matter what, that a sonnet needs a turn.

In the next section, “Expectation and Variation,” Furniss and Bath continue this focus mainly on formal elements. In this section, the authors make the case that “The sonnet is a more protean form (always changing its shape) than our normative description allows” mainly by pointing to other forms, including the Spenserian sonnet and even the 18-line sonnets in Thomas Watson’s Hekatompathia (287-8). Consideration of the variations with, say, the placement of the volta, does not enter in the discussions of this section. And this remains largely the case for the rest of the chapter, which moves on to give an overview of the progress of the sonnet. The remaining sections include: “A History of the Genre: Petrarchan Conventions”; “Constructing Voices: An Example from Sir Philip Sidney”; “The English Sonnet Tradition: John Milton”; “The Second Coming of the English Sonnet”; “Finding a Voice: Wordsworth and Milton”; “Romantic Sonnets: John Keats”; and “The Modern Sonnet.”

However, it also is the case that the authors’ keen attention to the volta never fully goes away. How could it? Not only have Furniss and Bath revealed their great interest in the volta, many of the sonnets discussed in the remainder of the chapter have some thrilling turns in them–they cry out to be commented on! These sonnets include Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella 1 (“Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show”); Milton’s “When I consider how my light is spent”; Charlotte Smith’s “Sonnet: Composed during a Walk on the Downs, in November 1787”; and Gwendolyn Brooks’s “the rites for Cousin Vit.” Additionally, Furniss and Bath really have strong interest in the volta. So, they make note of Sidney’s inventiveness with the placement of his ultimate volta (291-2). They also perform an almost Dantean analysis of the structural shifts in Milton’s sonnet, noting that “A useful kind of exercise with this and sonnets like it might be to break down the sense units in order to see how they correspond with or override the conventional divisions of the verse structure” (293). However, they go further to investigate the strange placement of the volta in Milton’s sonnet–“at a strong caesura in the middle of line 8”–and then speculate about a reason for that placement, stating, “One reason for this premature appearance of the volta, we might suggest, is that this is a sonnet about patience and frustration. The volta is perhaps anticipated because it is acting out the very manner in which ‘Patience’ (8) intervenes to ‘prevent / That murmur’. ‘Patience’ is the sestet’s answer to the octave’s question, and patience here is impatient” (295).

I love this reading! It really jibes with my work on “Strange Voltas.” In fact, I wish I’d encountered Reading Poetry prior to writing that brief essay. Furniss and Bath would have provided me with some fine material for that work, including this excellent summation of the powerfully (mis-)placed volta: “Whether or not a sonnet’s rhyme scheme corresponds with, or runs counter to, that semantic shift is always likely to be of interest, for the point about sonnets is that their conventional verse pattern traditionally relates to the organization of meaning in ways which are more direct than is the case with almost any other poetic genre” (282).

I’m happy to report, though, that I also think I could have brought something to Furniss and Bath’s reading of Brooks’s sonnet. Furniss and Bath are right, I think, to see the Brooks’s volta as occurring early in her sonnet–they suggest it occurs “in line 5, where the speaker imagines the corpse’s liberation from confinement in the coffin” (301)–and I think they’re pretty much right about that. However, the authors still feel compelled to recognize something happening between the octave and the sestet, so they speculate, asking, “Would it be true to say that there is more approval or celebration of [Cousin Vit’s] vitality in the octave, but more criticism and disapproval implied in the sestet?” (301-2). Perhaps, but there’s no need to fish for something there. As I argue in “Strange Voltas,” what’s beautiful about this sonnet is the way that Cousin Vit is so vital she not only breaks out of caskets and through death, but she also breaks the sonnet structure.

But that is a quibble. Furniss and Bath do great work, in my estimation, with honoring and thinking about the volta significance to the sonnet. 

Next step: an introduction to poetry–besides John Ciardi’s How Does a Poem Mean?, from 1959 (!)–that is as interested and invested in the turn for all of the poems under discussion–not just the sonnets!


21 07 2022

“Surprises and turns make reading and teaching poetry worthwhile; they are the reasons for our oft-unheeded appeals to treat poems as more than clever packages for delivering a theme or deep meaning.”

–Zachary Tavlin, from his review of Lucy Alford’s Forms of Poetic Attention in Comparative Literature (2021) 73 (4): 506–508. (This quote is from p. 507.)

I recently wrote about turns and surprise in Lucy Alford’s Forms of Poetic Attention (here). Interested to find out if other critics saw what I did, I did some searching, and found this. Some confirmation, it seems– And always just good to hear another person who cares deeply for poetry speak up on behalf of the surprising turn…!

Lucy Alford’s *Structures* of Poetic Attention

20 07 2022

Though titled Forms of Poetic Attention, Lucy Alford’s book really should be called *Structures* of Poetic Attention–Alford is far more interested in structural turning than she is in form as it is typically conceived of. This is incredibly interesting: it’s further confirmation that the structure/form distinction exists, and that it’s generally not recognized as such even when the turn is ubiquitous in a theorist’s thinking, as it is in Alford’s. Here, I’ll demonstrate Alford’s thoroughgoing interest in the turn, and I’ll discuss some of the ways that failing to more fully theorize the structural turn matters.

Forms of Poetic Attention is primarily interested in investigating the phenomenon of attention in poetry, how poems convey and embody different types of attention. Here’s a brief description of the book’s main endeavors from its publisher’s webpage:

A poem is often read as a set of formal, technical, and conventional devices that generate meaning or affect. However, Lucy Alford suggests that poetic language might be better understood as an instrument for tuning and refining the attention. Identifying a crucial link between poetic form and the forming of attention, Alford offers a new terminology for how poetic attention works and how attention becomes a subject and object of poetry.

Part of the book’s “new terminology” is the terminology related to attention. Alford, for example, attends to two different kinds of attention. On the one hand, there’s “the dynamics of transitive attention, or modes of attention that take an object,” which involves “five dynamic coordinates,” or “the ‘moving parts’” of this kind of attention: intentionality, interest, selectivity, spatiotemporal remove, and apprehension” (5). This kind of attention is covered in the book’s first part, called “Attending to Objects,” with chapters focused on “Contemplation: Attention’s Reach”; “Desire: Attention’s Hunger”; “Recollection: Attending to the Departed Object”; and “Imagination: Attention’s Poiesis.” On the other hand, there’s “intransitive attention, exploring modes of attention that are objectless,” the coordinates of which include “intentionality, scope, the presence of absence of an indirect object, temporal inflection, and the effect on the subject-space of poetic attention (its expansion, contraction, or kenosis)” (6). This kind of attention is covered in the book’s second part, called “Objectless Awareness,” with chapters on “Vigilance: States of Suspension”; “Resignation: Relinquishing the Object”; “Idleness: Doldrums and Gardens of Time”; and “Boredom: End-Stopped Attention.”

However, new considerations and their resulting new terminology abound. One area where this kind of happens is with form. In the “Introduction”’s section on “Form,” Alford notes that she uses “form” in its somewhat conventional ways, but also in a new way; she states, “It is true that poetic language is densely formed. But what is formed by and in poetic language is an event of attention generated in the acts of both reading and writing” (3-4). Alford clarifies: “I suggest that a poem might be better understood not simply as a gathering of composed formal features, but as an instrument for tuning and composing attention” (4).

However, the poem, when understood by Alford as such an instrument, is generally much less a formal entity and much more structural one. This is hinted at in this discussion of form, which includes an endnote reference to Robert Hass’s A Little Book on Form, in which Alford notes that Hass offers a number of definitions of form before settling on “‘The way a poem embodies the energy of the gesture of its making,’” the definition Alford understands to be the one “that comes closest to what [she is] suggesting in [her] book” (279). However, as I’ve written about here, Hass really is deeply interested in the turn and form as structure, specifically. And, it turns out, Alford shares this interest.

This deep interest is revealed right away in the opening pages of Forms of Poetic Attention, in which Alford recounts her engagement with James Wright’s “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio,” acknowledging that what really draws her attention is the poem’s turn; she writes,

The poem turns on the word “therefore,” and the necessarily long mental space that precedes it, which it creates in turn. Semantically, the poem enacts a series of removes, lifting off from the immediate context of the high school stadium to the mental recollections or reflections on other spaces: bars at workday’s end, steel mill work lines, then the step back to the collectivity of “all the proud fathers” and “their women.” “Dying for love” draws to a full stop. Rhythmically, nothing can follow the absolute downbeat of “love.” At “Therefore,” the poem gathers itself into a hairpin turn of pure force, a kind of blast of wind smiting from above and beyond. (2)

Wow! Although I’m not sure I exactly follow Alford’s tracking of the attention in Wright’s poem, including the way it seems to move backwards through the poem, what is obvious here is Alford’s attention to and interest in the poem’s turn. 

And there’s more. After a paragraph in which she describes contemporary culture’s general inattention to poetry, Alford writes,

At a gut level, I know that the kind of operation Wright’s “therefore” performs in my mind is experientially different from the kinds of attention valued at this particular cultural moment. This difference, and all the differences contained within it, are the subject of this book. Thinking about “therefore” and its reshaping of the space-time (textual and readerly) that surrounds it entails and inspires a consideration of how other poems activate and manipulate shifts in the field of spatiotemporal perception we call attention….This book is an exploration of the multitude of forms “poetic forms” assumes… (3)

As one reads Forms of Poetic Attention, it becomes clear that that “multitude of forms” includes–and perhaps even features–structures: significant turns abound, and in fact, as we’ll see, turns, and even the related concept of “liftoff,” will be repeatedly pointed to by Alford as significant features of poems.

Indeed, turns and liftoff will be attended to not only as crucial parts of poems but as elements of attention itself; attention itself seems to be largely composed of turns:

[I]n poetry as in prayer and meditation, the act of contemplation turns out to be far from simple, and no small attentional feat….Sometimes attention’s reach is an intrusion, an act that changes what it tries to contemplate. Other times, the subject of contemplation is changes, acted upon, and altered by the object even in the act of consuming it. And often the object resists consumption altogether, evading the observer’s drive to grasp, to metaphorize, to metabolize, to apprehend. The reach and granularity of our attention determine our ability to grasp or perceive the object, and yet the mind interferes at every turn, analyzing, moving into abstraction and away from direct perception, muddying attention’s lens with distractions, ambitions, and ideas. Often the object of the poem’s contemplation turns out to be other than its initial semantic object of focus, either through metaphorical liftoff or by turning attention back onto the poem itself. Perhaps because of the intrinsic limitedness of contemplation (its tendency to diversion as well as  its dependence on our limited, variable, and environmentally swayed perceptual capacities), contemplative poems must grapple with thwarted apprehension as much as plentitude–the reach of attention does not always grasp. And, when it does, a further challenge lies in keeping this grasping from doing violence (through usage or fixation) to its object, thus shifting the relation out of (spatial or aesthetic) contemplation and toward instrumentalization. (74-5)

While brought up in the context of “Attending to Objects,” in the chapter on “Contemplation,” this idea is largely repeated in the discussion of “Objectless Awareness,” in the chapter on “Resignation,” where Alford states,

The sociohistorical conditions of reading and writing in the postmodern era are characterized by a provisionality, a contingency, and a lowering of expectations that can be reread as a phenomenon of attentional resignation, a choiceless shift from one attentional mode, or from one perception of salience, to another. Frederic Jameson reads the shift between modern and postmodern modalities as not merely a shift in stylistic choices or literary fashions, but a necessary environmental response to social conditions overwhelmed by spectacle, repetition, and arbitrarily, externally determined valuations and devaluations. This response is reflected in the role of the poet… (195)

It seems as though, for Alford, attention in its many forms is essentially made up of turns and shifts. This fact comes into increasingly clear focus when one considers some of the poems Alford examines, but even more importantly, what she attends to in her own engagements with the poems.

Many of the poems Alford discusses, especially in the first part of her book, are famous for their turning. Alford tracks the shifts in attention in poems such as

Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish”–which concludes with “epiphanic closure” (69);

William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18–“As the poem moves forward, this dynamic of involvement and layered address is heightened by repeated layering of phrases separated by semicolons, so that each new rhetorical turn is contained within the one before….In the couplet…we arrive at a kind of kernel of the poem’s attention: the ‘thee’ of the poem gives way to another beloved, the ‘this’ that is the poem itself, and the poem seems to hold itself forward as an object of attention, the object that has been forming over the course of the poem from the living beloved to the textual beloved, from the textual beloved to the life-giving text” (85);

Psalm 137–which moves from “grief” to “imperative” to “indictment” to “curse” (105-6);

William Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey”–in which “[t]he imaginative attention at play…places us between recollection, direct contemplation, and a projected future act of recollection” (138);

Sappho’s Fragment 31–which ends with a strong suggestion of a big turn, as commented on by Anne Carson: “Carson’s reading is hemmed in by the breaking off of the poem itself, where the papyrus’s incompleteness necessitates a reading of the poem’s own potential development: ‘Unfortunately we don’t reach the end, the poem breaks off. But we do see Sappho begin to turn toward it, toward this unreachable end. We see her senses empty themselves, we see her Being thrown outside its own center where it stands observing her as if she were grass or dead’….Reading the potential turn of the poem’s lost conclusion, Carson asks, ‘Why does she consent?’ only to reframe the question according to the condition of the Sapphic subject: ‘What is it that love dares the self to do?…Love dares the self to leave itself behind, to enter into poverty’” (162); and

Catullus 51–which is “a rewriting of Sappho (Fragment 31)” that contains a massive final turn: “when Catullus breaks off his inhabitation of Sappho’s lovelorn daydreaming, the poem becomes a warning against idleness’s mental quicksands” (216).

But even with poems that may not be as well-known by readers, Alford’s readings focus greatly on tracking turns. Alford’s reading of Derek Mahon’s “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford” registers how “[t]he task of attention…moves from discovery to meditation to a revelation of a deeper kind, a revelation that brings with it a burden of perdurance and a responsibility to open doors, shed light, cast the ray of attention into forgotten histories” (33). Alford reads Wallace Stevens’s “Study of Two Pears” as “something of a manifesto in itself, a summary of what is wrong with the aesthetic appropriation of things for symbolic purposes,” and, as such, it is largely “an enumeration of wrong turns”; however, “[w]ith the fifth stanza, something miraculous happens: an active verb, some movement that belongs to the pears themselves: ‘The yellow glistens’….The pears have passed from passive, inert ‘forms,’ a series of disembodied negotiations, into active and changing presence that ‘flowers’ in multiple dimensions” (61; 65). 

Especially with difficult, longer poems, tracking turns seems to be a key strategy for Alford to use to grapple with the work and the shifting attention embodied within it. For example, Alford reads Paul Celan’s “Engfürung” as having multiple shifts, but one key one: “At its nadir, in stifled silence and the height of obscurity, the poem turns. A kind of genesis unfolds, tentatively and slowly: ‘Speak, speak. / Was, was.’ Wrought at the final hour, ‘an der letzten Membran,’ a hard-won speech comes into being” (111). Attending to “Friedrich Hölderlin’s long poem ‘Wie wenn am Feiertage…’ (‘As on a Holiday…’),” Alford notices that “At the level of ‘plot,’ very little happens in the course of the long poem”; however, she adds, “Yet, at the formal and figurative levels, the poem composes a dynamic terrain of suspense, expectation, and waiting, punctuated and brought to climax by dramatic turns, composed primarily through a highly crafted syntax of extended hypotaxis punctuated by sudden reversals and emphatic declarations” (170-1). And, indeed, the reading that follows observes features such as “the sudden shift into active and emphatic now” at stanza three (172), and “[t]he declarative suddenness of ‘Jezt aber Tags!’” that “is also the shift into presence, the sudden turn of direction, that throws the preceding vigil into contrast, making it sensible” (173). Ultimately, according to Alford, “Through the repetition of this cycle of attenuated vigilant contemplation followed by abrupt turns in the present of deixis and declaration, Hölderlin crafts a flow of intransitive attention whose semantic content pales in importance beside the continual modulation of temporal and contemplative intensities” (174). 

Hölderlin’s turning becomes even more extreme in his poem “Brod und Wein,” about which Alford states,

We find a sustained example of this cycle of modulatory turns [like that of “Wie wenn am Feiertage…”] in the long poem “Brod und Wein,” in which the shift between the vigilant present and the emphatic present takes place not through an explicit repositioning of temporal cues, and not through the contrast between syntactical futurity (hypotaxis, colon, and conditional) and immediacy (declaration and exclamation), but rather through a series of hairpin turns that take as their hinge the uniquely Hölderlinian aber (“but”) found in “Jezt aber Tags!” (174)

Alford then tracks many of the shifts marked by “aber/but,” noticing that 

These turns in contemplation, subtler than the emphatic daybreak of now, hold the reader in tension, each turn disallowing philosophical or narrative onward march, modulating the present with the dialecticism of autocritical hesitancy. Temporally and attentionally, what is produced in these modulations is a zaudernden Weile, a wavering moment–a present continually represencing in question and rerouting. (177)

Alford figures that “In nine stanzas we find no less than sixteen abers, each signaling a hairpin turn into a different present,” along with a host of smaller turns: “scatterings of emphasis and intensity in Hölderlin’s interrogatory clusters, pilings of question after question…” (179). In short, Hölderlin “accentuates the effect of poetic vigilance by repeatedly interrupting it with a poetics of epiphanic immediacy” (181).

Alford then attends to Stéphane Mallarmé’s Un Coup de dés, which offers an example of poetic vigilance “without…revelatory relief–without the hairpin turns into immediate presence offered by Hölderlin’s uses of aber and jezt” (181). Still, Mallarmé’s poem turns: according to Alford, “We can see numerous patterns of alternating oppositions throughout the poem: ABAB–thesis and antithesis in recurrence, a relation of alternation without synthesis or conciliation” (182). And after providing a reading of the poem that largely tracks its dialectical–or perhaps negatively dialectical–structure, Alford states that, unlike Hölderlin’s poems, “The poem remains in the mode of vigilant potential, without the vigilance leading to a culminating or interruptive event. The deliberateness with which the poem’s form resists synthetic resolution exhibits a greater restraint than would a more traditionally resolving closure” (189). Ultimately, and succinctly, “The work of poetic attention in Mallarmé becomes an ongoing labor of guarding both the something (being) and the nothing (potentiality) against the anything (arbitrary)” (190).

Alford leapt away from Hölderlin with her discussion of Mallarmé, but she returns with her discussion of the poetry of Charles Wright: “In Hölderlin, the attentional pivot was the word aber, marking a shift, a turn, into a different present and giving relief and contour to the suspended state of vigilance. In Wright, the equivalent pivot is still, indicating the point at which resignation becomes meditation and marking the difference between Wright’s resigned metaphysics and despair” (209). Alford clarifies that Wright’s still signals “both a semantic turn of perseverance in the sense of ‘nevertheless’ and a call to stillness” (209). Either way, or both ways at once, it’s a turn: “Often the ‘still’ comes as a reversal or a rethinking of everything that has come before, creating a shift in direction, rerouting thought and calling it back from whichever closure it has been trending toward” (209-10).

I could–perhaps you, my patient, persistent reader, already get this–go on and on. I could dive into Alford’s attention to how “suddenly, the poem turns” in Rilke’s “Die Rosenschale” (139). Or I could delve into how Alford’s take on Rimbaud’s Les Illuminations understands it to be “by turns apocalyptic and messianic,” occupying “a temporality shaped by this convergence of leaning toward a nostalgic past, repulsion from the present moment, and grasping for a possible future that might offer an escape from things as they are” (202). Or I could dwell on how Alford sees Joan Retallack as making “of idleness an interventionist procedural methodology, mixing a variety of formal constraints with intuitive play to perform and produce ‘swerves’ in poetic experience” (231). I could offer examples of self-reflexive turning in a number of the poems cited, including Thom Gunn’s “Wind in the Streets”–the penultimate line of which begins, “But I turn…” (250)–and Wallace Stevens’s “Angels Surrounded by Paysans”–which ends with the lines “an apparition appareled in // Apparels of such lightest look that a turn / Of my shoulder and quickly, too quickly, I am gone?” (278), and which happens to be the final words of the main part of the book: the next page begins the “Notes.”

For someone who is fascinated by turns in poetry, Forms of Poetic Attention is a treasure trove. It’s wonderful to read a contemporary commentary on poetry that is so enamored of the turn–enamored because it understands how useful seeing turns can be for deeply and fully engaging poems. In a way, reading along with Alford feels a bit like reading with Dante as he reviews some of his poem’s great structural shifts in the prose of his La Vita Nuova. It’s terrific, as well, along the way, to be introduced to new material that might be related to turning, such as Joan Retallack’s poetics of the swerve. (My copy of The Poethical Wager is wending its way to me right now!) And I’ve been a fan of Charles Wright’s poetry for a long time–his notion of sottonarrativa, or sub-narrative, was the inspiration behind the chapter on “Substructure” in Structure and Surprise. However, I don’t think his stillness registered for me–this insight will send me back to Wright’s work. In short, Alford’s book has given me much, as I think it will for anyone interested in turns.

And yet, for all its insight into and all the new material and work focused on turning that it points to, Forms of Poetic Attention is confounding in that it’s not clear that it actually knows how important the turn is to its endeavor. Turns are not mentioned at all, so far as I can tell, in any of the book’s official publicity material–such as the publisher’s webpage for the book. In fact, that page states that Alford “theorizes the process of attention-making–its objects, its coordinates, its variables–while introducing a broad set of interpretive tools into the field of literary studies.” However, its main interpretive tool is the time-honored one that Dante emphasized: track the turn. “Turn,” however, does not even appear as an item in the book’s index. And nor does “shift.” And nor does the important word “liftoff”–more on this in a moment.

This lack of acknowledgement of the centrality of the turn to Alford’s project does not only affect my sense of the project’s own self-awareness, but it also makes me think about what is missing from this book. It’s surprising that Alford’s chapter on “Contemplation” does not once refer to Louis Martz’s The Poetry of Meditation, and nor does it ever even glancing refer to some of poetry’s extensive traditions of contemplation, including the emblem tradition. M. H. Abrams is mentioned once, briefly and in passing, but his “Structure and Style in the Greater Romantic Lyric” receives no mention, even though it is a great investigation into the structural turning of the descriptive-meditative poem, of which Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” is a prime example. Even if Alford’s reading of “Tintern Abbey” differs from Abrams’s it likely at least should have been in conversation with the previous reading. The end result of these omissions is that, at times, it seems like Alford is reinventing the wheel, or at least its turning, when she in fact is not, and need not have.

The problem is so bad that Alford seems to miss one of her own inventions: liftoff. This word gets used repeatedly in Forms of Poetic Attention–it has appeared a few times in some of the previously cited quotations from the book. I will point out as many of the uses as I can detect–again, an entry for “liftoff” in the index would be helpful for this, but I’ll do the best I can, and then I’ll try to analyze the uses to see what Alford means by this term. Here are the uses:

  • “Often the object of the poem’s contemplation turns out to be other than its initial semantic object of focus, either through metaphorical liftoff or by turning attention back on to the poem itself” (75).
  • In Audre Lorde’s “Sowing”, Alford notes that “the movement of desire opens an absence in a present full of the matter of life–daily repetitive work and the lull of an afternoon offer a space in which the mind lifts off from the present occupation into fantasy,” adding that “In this liftoff, desire’s lack wells an absence in the everyday, which is filled by a conjuring act of imagination” (88). In what might be a clarifying comment, Alford states that “The poem turns on the word ‘lack,’ which falls midline, almost buried in a flow of thought” (89).
  • “Sowing” “shares an attentional form with an earlier lesbian love poem,” Amy Lowell’s “The Blue Scarf” (90), and Lowell’s poem also has liftoff: “In Lowell’s poem, the dream is sparked by an object–an abandoned scarf left on a chair, whose touch and lingering scent ignite an attentional liftoff from present sense into erotic fantasy” (90). The poem contains at least one other turn, “[t]he rupture upon ‘waking’ from fantasy” (91)–but it does not seem to be an example of liftoff.
  • When reflecting on the poetry of imagination, Alford notes, “The crafting of attention in the poem, and the periods of intentional, focused concentration required to enter and engage, can be seen as the long trudge through pathless darkness, the hours of wait, the cold and unpromising terrain. No promises offered, only potentiality, only glimpsed moments, moments of resonance and rhythm that suggest a ‘something there’ behind the opaque bramble of lines….This lack of guarantee in the emergence or liftoff of imaginative attention is part of what animates and rarefies experiences of vision when they come” (147). Alford adds, in what is likely a connected idea, that “the ‘grace’ of a poem’s imaginative happenings is never guaranteed” (147).
  • On the next page, Alford states, “[P]oetic imagination enables more than simple mental representation…: it makes possible a coming to life that develops beyond the sphere of the words on the page. The few words present in a single line serve as potential triggers for something larger than what they represent–a leap or liftoff, an event that takes on life, layers, dimensionality, and movement. It is not surprising that the lexicon of imagination is tied to ‘flights’” (148).
  • Concluding her main discussion of Hölderlin by focusing on some specific lines, Alford states, “The suddenness of the potential poetic event, possible only in the stillness of vigil and sacred, contemplative, wakeful night, is one of grasping, active seizing, and making-present: a sudden shift from highly endogenous intransitive attention to radically exogenous transitive apprehension: revelation. In stark contrast to both the meditative stillness and the contemplative inquiry of the preceding stanzas, this passage breaks in with an almost violent, ecstatic urgency of near liftoff–” (180).
  • About Charles Bukowski’s “the old big time”, Alford observes, “At no point does the poem lift off into metaphor or symbolism or go out of its way to add complexity, layered significances, hidden references, or any of the other formal elements one might expect from a literary work. In other words, the poem seems to enact that motto it describes [‘Don’t try’] by refusing to try, having given up or rejected the notion of ‘working’ at poetry” (244).

So, what is liftoff? It seems that it is a significant, often sudden turn within a poem, one that transubstantiates the poem into an event that takes on life, layers, dimensionality, and movement; often the liftoff’s leap or flight transforms the poem’s material into the status of metaphor or symbol in a maneuver that has the power of revelation–and as it never is guaranteed, when it happens it feels like grace. Liftoff seems to have little or nothing to do with coming down or out of the privileged state of revelatory grace, little or nothing to do with ironic self-reflexivity.

This is a cool idea. I wish, though, that Alford would have theorized it more herself–in this way, Alford perhaps could have added something to the names given to turns, including Ciardi’s fulcrum, Rosenthal’s torque, Lazer’s swerve, Hirshfield’s window-moment, and many others. I also wish that Alford would have been more aware of her interest in turns, and perhaps tried to link up liftoff to some of the structures to which it very clearly is connected, including the midcourse turn, the emblem structure, the metaphor-to-meaning structure, the epiphanic structure. That is, there are traditions that should have been considered by Alford, not simply particular poems.

Alford notes that for her methodology she draws “on literary, philosophical, and psychological research on attention and poetic experience to develop [her] own concepts and terminology,” and as a result, her “reflections on the poems themselves are thus deeply subjective, rooted in firsthand acts of attention” (10). She adds: “This approach locates me in a limited position, bound by my own blind spots and conditioned lenses, which I have kept in mind throughout my theorization of poetic attention” (10). 

Still, it remains a mystery why the turn, and the related liftoff, which are so central to Alford’s project, so generally un-, or at least under-, recognized, under-theorized, so little attended to. This phenomenon obviously requires further investigation.

Ecology and the Poetic Turn

18 07 2022

Well, this was a lovely discovery today: I happened to come across a video of an online service for a Unitarian Universalist congregation, and the theme for service was “Ecology and the Poetic Turn.”

Multiple participants take part in the service, but it’s pulpit guest Freesia McKee whose contributions focus on the topic. In her opening remarks, McKee discusses ecopoetry and the volta, noting that voltas are those points at which “the poem cuts deeper.” She also notes how the volta’s sharp turns can “foster insight for the creator and the experiencer alike.” Additionally, McKee notes that voltas aren’t just the stuff of poetry: they also occur in real life–and she recounts some of the many voltas she experienced on walks while living in Indiana, sharp turns between, as she puts it, alienation and belonging.

In the second part of her contribution to the service, McKee reads some of her own work–poems and a micro-essay.

If you have a few minutes, I hope you’ll check this out–it’s some lovely, smart, insightful, moving stuff–

And, if you’re interested in exploring further some of the links between ecopoetry and the poetic turn, you might check out the posts on this site that present Nicholas Royle on veering and Peter Sachs on “the dolphin’s turn.”

The Strange Volta in “My Mistress’s Eyes”

17 07 2022

So, I’m having a blast reading Reading Poetry: An Introduction, by Tom Furniss and Michael Bath. It’s just a darn solid introduction to poetry, AND it really foregrounds the volta. I plan to write about this book’s treatment of the volta more in another post, but for now, I’ll just note that its chapter on the sonnet begins with a section called “The Sonnet as Fixed Form” and then the next section turns to highlighting the volta–the second section is called “Finding the Volta: Form and Meaning,” and it begins, “If things were this simple, we could end this chapter here. Needless to say, they are not” (282–I’m citing the first edition, from 1996). And, so, yet again, there’s another example of the structure/form distinction, with structural turning coming out on top!

I’m going to forgo this discussion, though–again, for now–for another one, one focused on the turning of one sonnet: Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”). This is the first sonnet discussed in the “Finding the Volta” section, and it turns out that Furniss and Bath have what I consider to be a fairly unique take on sonnet’s turning, and I want to think a little about it here, sharing some ideas of my own that I think are distinctive, as well–at least, I don’t recall this being talked about in regard to this particular sonnet.

So, Furniss and Bath define the sonnet as “a short poem in iambic pentameters, fourteen lines long, which can often be divided into two parts known as the ‘octave’, the first eight lines, and the ‘sestet’, the last six” (281). And this definition is important: even though one might be used to hearing about how the Italian/Petrarchan sonnet turns after the octave while the English/Shakespearean sonnet turns after line twelve, heading into the final couplet, for Furniss and Bath, the place to look for a sonnet’s major turn really is after the octave, whether the sonnet one is reading is Italian or English.

This leads to a fascinating reading of Sonnet 130. Here’s what Furniss and Bath have to say about the poem:

Our statement that the volta is “delayed” in this sonnet certainly begs the question of how one chooses to apply the Italian term to the English sonnet. The volta is “delayed” only if the reader expects it to come at the end of line eight. If the expected place for a volta in such English sonnets is the end of line twelve, then clearly this sonnet meets those expectations. It is probably important at this point to recall what we said in [a previous chapter] about genre conventions being a matter of reader’s expectations. One advantage of thinking that the volta is delayed in this Shakespearian sonnet, however, results from the fact that this sonnet’s rhetorical strategy depends so heavily on keeping the reader guessing. This is a sonnet that plays games with conventional expectations about the subject matter for sonnets. Love sonnets normally praise the mistress, but this one does so through what we might call negative comparison….The longer Shakespeare can keep up this game before turning the whole poem round into a conventional–if paradoxical–compliment the better. For that reason it probably makes it more effective if the reader expects some kind of about-turn after line eight, only to find it delayed to line thirteen (which begins with the turning phrase “and yet”). (283)

Essentially, Furniss and Bath understand the volta in Sonnet 130 to be similar to the “strange voltas” I discuss here. I’d never really thought of this before–I was just another reader who expected the turn right before the final couplet. And because of this understanding, and the expectation aligned with it, I’d never given Sonnet 130’s turning a second thought. However, prompted by the thinking of Furniss and Bath, I now see something in the sonnet’s non-turning that I’d not seen before.

According to Furniss and Bath, we should expect a turn at line 9, but we don’t get it. They state that “it probably makes it more effective if the reader expects some kind of about-turn after line eight.” The initial “it” in that sentence refers to the expectation of a turn at the end of the octave. However, I want to argue that I think it’s more than just the expectation of genre that makes us think this in the case of Sonnet 130: the poem itself contributes to this expectation, as well.

The beginning of line 9 in Sonnet 130 gets so close to a turn. Line 9 contains the poem’s first declaration of love: “I love to hear her speak.” This is so nearly approaches a turn–as in: those earlier lines acknowledged some of the problems with my mistress, but now here comes the turn that will clarify what I love. That is, one could easily imagine this line going on to fully enact the turn, saying something like “I love to hear her speak, though…” and then going on to describe the mistress’s way with words, her wit, which of course, would reveal her true charm, her deep loveliness.

Additionally, it’s not at all coincidental that the love is articulated as being aligned with the mistress’s speaking. The speaking itself is significant, as well. Poems, of course, are privileged moments of speaking, or perhaps voicing. However, it also is the case that poems often also aim to arrive at privileged speech. So very many poems end with acts of saying. Consider Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella 1 (“Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show”) and 71 (“Who will in fairest book of nature know”), and George Herbert’s “Redemption” and “The Collar,” and so many others–so many that it’s relatively easy to imagine that Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 really is playing with this structural feature at the beginning of its ninth line, where certainly at least the strong possibility of a turn is evoked…only to be denied by the actual turn of the line, “yet well I know,” which reins in the hinted-at turning and brings the sonnet back into its pattern of denying the mistress’s attractions, and thus–for those expecting bigger turns at line 9–delaying the poem’s major turn.

In short, though they don’t indicate it directly, Furniss and Bath have helped me see and appreciate the playful tease that takes place in Sonnet 130’s ninth line, in which a turn is tantalizingly held out–only to be taken back. And seeing this ends up helping me to more fully agree with Furniss and Bath: the reader of Sonnet 130 really is kept guessing; a game really is taking place; expectations really are being toyed with. I like this more lively interpretation of this sonnet–especially how it offers me new insight into a poem I thought I’d already known very well.

Again, I acknowledge that what I think are some new thoughts may already have been thought about by scholars who have explored Sonnet 130. I need to do some research to see if others have already had this idea. They may have. Lots of very smart people have looked very closely at this sonnet. However, on the other hand, the dynamics of turning do tend to be neglected–even I missed this one, and I love turns! So, we shall see– If you have any leads about interpretations of this sonnet that I should read, let me know in the comments. Then check out Reading Poetry–a really fine introduction to the art of closely engaging verse!