Etan Kerr-Finell on “Linda Gregg and the Mid-course Turn”

10 03 2023

I’m always heartened to be reminded that Structure & Surprise is out there in the world, doing its work of introducing readers to the poetic turn and, so, deepening and enlivening their engagements with poems. So I was very pleased when Etan Kerr-Finell reached out to me with a note of appreciation for the insights Structure & Surprise offered. In the course of our exchange, Etan mentioned that he had written an analysis of Linda Gregg’s use of the mid-course turn in her poem “I Thought on His Desire for Three Days” in response to an assignment he was given. Of course, I had to read it. I asked Etan to send it. He did. I read it, and I loved it. I asked Etan if I could publish his work, and he gave me permission. So, I’m happy to offer Etan’s analysis below, an excellent example of the kind of thoughtful work that is possible through attention to a poem’s dynamics of turning.

Etan Kerr-Finell lives in Kingston, New York. He is currently pursuing an MFA through the Bennington Writing Seminars and his writing and other projects can be found at


Linda Gregg and the Mid-course Turn

Linda Gregg’s poem “I Thought on His Desire for Three Days” powerfully utilizes the structure of “the mid-course turn” as presented in an essay by Jerry Harp in Michael Theune’s Structure and Surprise. In his essay, Jerry Harp quotes Carl Dennis who refers to this type of turn as a “mid-course correction.” The kind of shift that Dennis focuses on is radical because it constitutes, as he puts it, “a shift in genre.” This shift is one strong enough to suggest that the poem’s speaker has in the course of the poem changed her or his mind about what kind of poem is underway.” This kind of turn can be so fundamentally destabilizing because it often sets you up to think you know what the poem is about, and just then, along with the author, everything changes. A poem that changes as we read it is exactly what we are shown in this poem by Gregg. In its simplest form, it is a summary of the relationship that Gregg had with a married man and its dissolution. The poem takes place in the context of a larger book about the relationship, Chosen by the Lion. It can be read as a final note to him, her summary of the relationship. She describes the beginning of the relationship and declares with full agency:

I chose this man, consciously, deliberately.
I thought on his desire for three days
and then said yes. In return, it was summer.

In return for her choosing the relationship, her life was summer and “Every single thing was joyous.” In reading this section I was swept up in the feeling of falling in love. Indeed, though the book this poem is situated in is largely about love, loss and heartbreak if read on its own, at first there is almost no indication that you are not reading a poem of a couple falling in love and nothing more. Even the storms and the sounds of Chicago traffic are described as joyous. Time passes by swiftly, seasons pass and take us, for a moment out of time in the way that new experiences allow: “shadows moved over the floor/ as the sun went across the sky.” At the end of the time-passing sequence, there is the turn where she reveals that her lover is married. “ I was a secret/ there because you were married. I am here/ to tell you I did not mind.” The revelation that he was married while they were in a relationship, and that despite that, Gregg had no regrets, was unexpected. 

Harp gives examples of what he calls “borderline cases;” “a poem whose turn comes close to shifting genre without quite fully doing so.” “I Thought on His Desire for Three Days” is a borderline case in some ways as it remains, after the turn, part celebratory elegy for a relationship that is no more and part a love poem. The tone changes substantially when we find out the man is married. We can sense that there is almost a genre change, but Gregg pulls back from that and keeps the poem in (for lack of a better name) the celebratory love poem genre. However, she does this despite the fact of the conditions we now know of her relationship. So while the genre doesn’t change, the fact that it remains a love poem despite the new information of her lover’s marriage is remarkable and feels very much like a turn. The poem comes to a crescendo when she gets a call from his wife:

…I was strong. I know where
I was. I knew what I had achieved. When the wife
called and said I was a whore, I was quiet,
but inside I said, “perhaps.” It has been raining
all night. Summer rain. The liveliness of it keeps
me awake. I am so happy to have lived.

We would expect that after this call, something would change for her, that there would be a blow-up, a change of some kind, that she would realize the harm she had participated in causing.  Gregg seems to know that this is how the reader might respond and she cues us up for the rise and fall of that anticipation. She leaves us instead with a declarative celebration, without any apology. She is quiet on the phone, and quiet with herself. There is no defense of her actions. She makes no moves to justify them in the context of a larger morality. At every step of the poem she has taken full responsibility for herself, “I chose this man, consciously, deliberately.” There is no defense made but instead, she simply states that she needed to do this to exist and is happy to have done so. In short, she is at peace but still the reader may ask, how can she be at peace with this? We are not given too much of an explanation but in another poem in the book, “Asking for Directions” she describes the final moment that she and her lover spend together: “That moment is what I will tell of as proof/ that you loved me permanently.” She does not apologize because she experienced love:

…I was a secret
there because you were married. I am here
to tell you I did not mind. Existence
was more valuable than that.

The line, “Existence was more valuable than that” implies that she feels as though she had to be in this relationship to exist. But we are left with the question, her life is more valuable than what? What is the ‘that’ she is referring to? She is saying that her life (which she is “so happy to have lived”) was more important than being kept a secret. There is also the unspoken implication that her existence was more important than the promise he made in marrying his wife.

In the final lines, Gregg returns to the rain and the weather:

…It has been raining
all night. Summer rain. The liveliness of it keeps
me awake. I am so happy to have lived.

The weather goes on around her, and though there were moments time seemed to slow down, it continues to move forward. She seems to be saying that she did what she thought was best and has no regrets about how she lived.

There are two unexpected turns. The first is that the man she is in a relationship with is married and that she doesn’t regret her relationship with him. But then we are gifted with the second turn. Here, the Dennis description fits and it seems that “in the course of the poem changed her mind about what kind of poem is underway.” It is as if she started the poem as a loving tribute and summary and ended with a fierce, declarative poem. In the version she ended up with, she stands tall in her decisions despite what anybody, the wife of her lover or the reader, might think.

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!

Realizing the Turn in Jonathan Culler’s Theory of the Lyric

27 06 2022

I’ve recently just (finally!) read Jonathan Culler’s Theory of the Lyric. I’m blown away by it. It’s a fantastic book, both ambitious–it sets about redefining lyric poetry–well argued, and exciting. It’s filled with keen insights, teeming with ideas that are relevant to anyone thinking about poetry today. I can’t recommend it highly enough–truly.

That said, the book has at least one major blindspot: though obviously interested in the structural turning of lyric poetry, Culler never fully acknowledges this interest and so does not include turning in his redefinition of lyric poetry, though I believe he really could and should have. 

Here, I want to say a few words about what I think Culler gets so importantly right in his provocative book. But I also want to zero in on and investigate a crucial lacuna: the omission of serious discussion of the turn as one of lyric’s constitutive elements. 

Redefining and Defamiliarizing the Lyric

In Theory of the Lyric, Culler sets about nothing short of a new–a more fine-tuned–description of lyric. To establish a baseline understanding of lyric, Culler cites the work of theorist Eva Müller-Zettelmann, who notes “several ‘tendencies’” that set lyric apart from other genres: “(1) brevity, (2) a reduction in the fictional element, (3) more intense formal structuring, (4) greater aesthetic self-reference, (5) greater linguistic deviance, and (6) greater epistemological subjectivity” (33). Culler works to revise this list, mainly by offering “some more specific and salient parameters of variation” (34). These are: 

  1. That the “enunciative apparatus of lyric” centrally involves the indirect address to readers (34-5);
  2. That the lyric endeavors “to be itself an event rather than the representation of an event” (35);
  3. That the lyric is more “ritualistic” than is typically thought (37); and
  4. That lyrics tend to have “an explicitly hyperbolic quality, which is especially striking because they are brief” (37).

What’s most interesting here is Culler’s effort to make the lyric as odd as it really is. He is defamiliarizing it to make it more real, more present. We can, Culler suggests, see lyric more clearly when we see it in its fuller strangeness. Acknowledging this strangeness–which I’ll describe more fully in a bit–is vital because it is a corrective to the more limited way that Culler believes lyric is often approached–and taught–today.

Culler wants to use his ideas about lyric to challenge the current dominant understanding of lyric, a “variant” of “the romantic theory of lyric”–the “distinguishing feature” of this theory “is the centrality of subjectivity coming into consciousness of itself through experience and reflection”–“which treats the lyric not as mimesis of the experience of the poet but as a representation of the action of a fictional speaker: in this account, the lyric is spoken by a persona, whose situation and motivation one needs to reconstruct” (2). This variant theory “has become the dominant model in the pedagogy of the lyric in the Anglo-American world, if not elsewhere,” and in this system, “[s]tudents are asked, when confronting a poem, to work out who is speaking, in what circumstances, to what end, and to chart the drama of attitudes that the poem captures” (2). One result of this state of affairs is that “the dramatic monologue…has been made the model for lyric” (2).

The reasons for the rise of this model are many, including “the increasing priority of prose fiction in literary education”–an approach under which “[s]tudents are accustomed to the idea that every narrative has a narrator”; the way “the cultural weight of claims (first by modernists and then New Critics) about the impersonality of art objects leads to emphasis on the poem as artifact rather than effusion of the poet”; and its ideological seductiveness, which allows readers “to believe that our subjectivity is free and independent of contexts to which we might belong, and imagining the language of a poem as coming from a fictive, nearly contextless speaker, [which] reflects back to us an image of the subject we imagine ourselves to be” (115-16). 

However, though popular, this understanding comes at a price. It ends up distorting engagements with poetry and diminishing the lyric’s strange magic. As Culler repeatedly makes clear, approaching lyric poems as dramatic monologues is simply inappropriate for many lyrics. It leaves out a crucial tradition: epideictic poetry. Culler works to bring closer to the center of lyric poetry “epideixis–public discourse about meaning and value,” though, he adds, “made distinctive by its ritualistic elements” (350). (More on ritual further on.) He states, “Possibilities for an alternative model that treats lyric as fundamentally nonmimetic, nonfictional, a distinctive linguistic event,can [sic] be drawn from classical conceptions of lyric as encomiastic or epideictic discourse–discourse of praise of blame [sic], articulating values, not a species of fiction” (7). A host of particular lyric poems–such as Shakespeare’s “Th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame,” Dickinson’s “The Heart asks Pleasure–first–,” Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” Philip Larkin’s “This Be the Verse”–just don’t seem to have identifiable speakers and are better thought of as offering, as Culler puts it, “not a voice but a voicing” (31). For Culler, having a way to think about and value such poems will be a boon.

Culler also is wary of the flattening effect that approaching lyrics as dramatic monologues tends to have. He states, “[T]his model deflects attention from what is most singular, most mind-blowing even, in those lyrics, and puts readers on a prosaic, novelizing track: the reader looks for a speaker who can be treated as a character in a novel, whose situation and motives one must reconstruct” (2). This “novelizing account of the lyric…fails to respond to what is most extravagant and most distinctive” about lyric (3). Indeed, this flattening is so powerful that “[c]urrent models falsify the long tradition of lyric and encourage students to think about lyrics in ways that neglect some of the central features of lyric poetry, both present and past” (3). 

For Culler, the central features of lyric are not the, as he–following the work of Roland Greene–more routinely calls them, fictive but rather the ritualistic. The fictive “involves a plot and circumstances that suggest a fictional world”; it “is what we produce when we attempt to imagine a fictional speaker and a situation of utterance, as in the dramatic monologue, but also the past events that are evoked in the act of lyric enunciation and subordinated in various ways to present meaning” (123). Ritual is something else altogether. Citing Greene, Culler states, the ritualistic element is “everything that can be construed as ‘directions for a performance,” all the aspects of a poem, from “‘prosodic elements’” to “‘rhetorical, semantic, and symbolic features’” that make lyric “‘utterance uniquely disposed to be re-uttered,’” offering “‘a performative unity into which readers and auditors may enter at will’” (123).

According to Culler, Greene “maintains that ‘lyric discourse is defined by the dialectical play of ritual and fictional phenomena, or correlative modes of apprehension that are nearly always available in every lyric, though particular specimens, collections, and schools may try to protect one at the expense of the other’” (123). Culler works to draw attention to the ritualistic, and away from the overly attended-to fictive, which “involves a plot and circumstances that suggest a fictional world” (123). Though Culler states, “Lyric, I conclude, involves a tension between ritualistic and fictional elements–between formal elements that provide meaning and structure and serve as instructions for performance and those that work to represent character or event” (7), he also can be more emphatic, calling lyric “a ritualistic form with occasional fictional elements” (336). Elsewhere, Culler states that “we need a model that allows for [the dramatic monologue] by acknowledging the tension in lyric between story and character, on the one hand, and song on the other, but the ultimate dominance of song is distinctive of lyric” (122). Whether the relationship between fictive and ritualistic is that of “dialectical play” or “tension,” it’s clear what part of the binary Culler privileges.

Culler works to present the lyric as much more fundamentally itself an event and not the representation of other events. He investigates many of the ways that poems do this. This includes examining a number of strategies used to make lyric performance present at a variety of levels. Grandly and obviously this occurs through rhythm, to which Culler devotes a chapter (chapter 4, “Rhythm and Repetition”). Much more subtly, Culler examines lyric’s strange use of the English language’s “special nonprogressive present with verbs of action to incorporate events while reducing their fictional, narrative character and increasing their ritualistic feel” (287)–that is, hearing the difference between, say, “I wander through each chartered street” and “I am wandering through…” 

Most significantly, though, Culler links the lyric with the performative. At one level, this means that “lyrics are constructed for iterability” (123). But it also means the close linking of lyric to performative speech acts–which “perform the acts to which they refer” (125), that is, with “language which accomplishes the act to which it refers, as in ‘I hereby call this meeting to order,’” which “transforms the linguistic terrain: literature becomes no longer a marginal and derivative linguistic practice, a set of pseudo-assertions, but can claim a place among creative and world-changing modes of language that bring into being that to which they refer or accomplish that of which they speak” (15). 

Key among lyric’s performatives, among its most fundamental but also extravagant and mind-blowing aspects, is apostrophe. Citing Barbara Johnson, Culler offers “the modern usage of the term”: “‘Apostrophe in the sense in which I will be using it involves the direct address to an absent, dead, or inanimate being by a first-person speaker….’” (213).   For Culler, apostrophe is “inherently performative” (15). As a result, “Address to someone or something gives the poem a character of event, and the less ordinary the addressee, the more the poem seems to become a ritualistic invocation” (188).

To be clear, for Culler, apostrophe is not just one of lyric poetry’s many tactics; rather, he wants it to be understood as a fundamental condition of lyric. For Culler, lyric’s mode of address is “usually indirect” (191). Nearly foundational to lyric is “characteristic indirection,” which Culler refers to as “‘triangulated address’: addressing the audience of readers by addressing or pretending to address someone or something else, a lover, a god, natural forces, or personified abstractions” (8). This may now be a bit less like John Stuart Mills’s notion of “overhearing” the lyric address and more like the poet occasionally “winking at the reader,” but still the core indirection is the same (206). And the reader the poem posits is most typically an anonymous reader so that within poems “[a]ddress to a ‘you’ construable as the reader is rare…and the authoritative Handbook of Literary Rhetoric claims that such address has the effect of an apostrophe since it is an unusual turning away from the anonymity of readership” (192). Culler offers a brief but compelling reading of the changing value of the “you” in Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo”–from “any observer” to the sense that the reader themself is being addressed–in order to help account for that poem’s power (196).

Of course, lyrics also tend to deploy specific apostrophes–addresses to, say, the sun, the moon, the dead, Justice–that are used to various effects, and Culler offers a number of insights into these phenomena, as well. For example, he notes that apostrophes are often thought to be “intensifiers, images of invested passion” (213). While many are so, Culler notes that apostrophe–“a distinct poetic operation, a linguistic artifice” (213)–has a much wider range of usage. For Culler, apostrophe can offer “an intimate restructuring of affective space” (214). It can be used to create a “a displacement of great delicacy” (215). Or else it can be deployed–as in the initial turning from lover to flower in Edmund Waller’s “Song”–as “gracious and witty indirection” (221). Culler states, “[W]ith apostrophic address a range of effects are possible” (217), and among these effects are the “ceremonial-ritualistic”; the “socially adept”; and the “prophetic” (223). Culler even notes that “[t]he figure of apostrophe, which seems above all to seek to establish relations between self and other, can also on occasion be read as an act of radical interiorization and solipsism,” an effect, Culler suggests, that “comes out with special clarity in poems that multiply apostrophes to different figures,” as in Wordsworth’s Intimations Ode, in which the various apostrophes “function as nodes or concretizations of moments of poetic reflection” (225). For Culler, “This internalization is important because it works against narrative and its accompaniments: sequentiality, causality, linear time, teleological meaning” (225). Whatever the specific effect, for Culler, “The key is not passionate intensity, but rather the ritual invocation of elements of the universe, the attempt, even to evoke the possibility of a magical transformation. This is manifestly central to the tradition of song…” (216). The key, in short, is ritualistic engagement with the world. 

Apostrophe is so strange, so extravagant, it is a risk,and sometimes even an embarrassment. Culler states, “Such blatant apostrophes have been central to the lyric tradition and mark the vatic aspect of that tradition: invoking all manner of things, and thus presuming the potential responsiveness of the universe, in what is the acme of poetic presumption. The vatic stance is a potential embarrassment to poets…: they frequently revolt against it, mock it, or retreat from it, while still relying on it at some fundamental level. It is also an embarrassment to critics, who are inclined to ignore it or transform apostrophic address into description” (190). He adds, “Apostrophe is a palpable embarrassment, because it is a figure of all that is most radical, pretentious, and mystificatory in the lyric…” (190)

Still, despite all of this, for Culler, apostrophe is crucial to lyric:

As a figure endemic to poetry that finds little place in other discourses, apostrophe works as a mark of poetic vocation. Asking winds to blow or seasons to stay their coming or mountains to hear one’s cries is a ritual action, whereby voice calls in order to be calling, and seeks to manifest its calling, to establish its identity as poetical voice. A maker of poems constitutes him or herself as poet, by presuming to address various “you”s, weather in love poems or odes, or elegies, or just poetic observations, with address to leaves, or weeds. In an operation that sounds tautological, the vocative of apostrophe is a device which the poetic subject uses to establish with the object a relationship that helps to constitute the subject itself as poetic, even vatic. Apostrophic address works to establish a relation to the poetic tradition (critics who dismissed apostrophe as merely an inherited classical convention admit this much), as if each address to wind, flowers, mountains, gods, beloveds, were a repetition of earlier poetic calls.” (216-17)

And the vocation of the lyric poet is to create the sense of the lyric present:  

The fundamental characteristic of lyric, I am arguing, is not the description and interpretation of a past event but the iterative and iterable performance of an event in the lyric present, in the special “now,” of lyric articulation. The bold wager of poetic apostrophe is that the lyric can displace a time of narrative, of past events reported, and place us in the continuing present of apostrophic address, the “now” in which, for readers, a poetic event can repeatedly occur. (226)

This is thrilling. It is so deeply informing for me, on a variety of fronts. I can already tell that this will affect my teaching in many ways. I can imagine lessons on the ritualistic aspects of poetry for my introduction to poetry course and for my writing poetry course. I admit that in my introduction to poetry course I use Sound and Sense, one of the textbooks Culler singles out for the ways that it foregrounds the dramatic monologue approach to lyric (110). I can fine tune my students’ readings and the kinds of questions we ask about the poems we read. For my student poets, these ideas will undoubtedly further attune them to the traditions of the lyric, make them closer readers, offer them a wider range of maneuvers they might make in their own work. Heck, all of this is so inspiringly provocative, I now want to teach a course on the lyric–! We shall see.

Culler’s work also sheds light on details and aspects of my work with the turn. The turn at the end of Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” (mentioned above) has been the subject of discussion in two venues. In Structure & Surprise, it’s one of the poems with the shocking kind of turn that Rachel Zucker describes in her writing on the epiphanic turn. At the Voltage Poetry site, the dynamics of the poem’s turning are considered by James Pollock (here). Culler’s thinking on the poem contributes additionally to my understanding and appreciation of how that great poem operates. More largely, though, Culler’s thinking is directly applicable to a kind of turn I’ve been thinking about and gathering instances of: the turn-to-another structure. I’ve sensed intuitively how compelling such turning can be; however, I’ve not yet systematically tried to account for its power. Culler provides me with the understanding to see how this works.

As we’ll see, in the next section the fact that Culler attunes me to the turn is not at all coincidental. 

Culler’s Turns

Culler, of course, knows about turns and many of the structures of which they are a part. He also regularly recognizes turning in poems and quite often explicitly appreciates the dynamic of turning. Turns are mentioned by some of the theorists and critics Culler cites. For example, Hegel’s high esteem for Pindar centers on turning: “Pindar…is extravagantly praised (‘attains the summit of perfection’) as one who, while celebrating, on commission, a victor in games, ‘easily turns from the external stimuli given him to profound utterances on the general nature of mortality and religion, and then, along with this theme, on heroes, heroic deeds, the foundations of states, etc….’” (99). After citing the second stanza of Seamus Heaney’s “Death of a Naturalist,” where a dynamic turning of the poem is initiated and in which, in fact, the speaker reports, he “turned,” Culler cites critic Mutlu Konuk Blasing who, among other things, recognizes the significant turning, as well, stating, “‘The birth of a poet is at once a relearning of language, a reliving of what infantile amnesia forgets, and a “turning” away from it again, now into poetic language’” (175-6). 

Culler also partakes in this critical attentiveness to turns. He acknowledges the strong turning toward the end of Baudelaire’s “The Carcass.” In this poem, Culler reports, “a speaker reminds his mistress, going into considerable detail, of a rotting carcass they encountered this morning, and end ends [sic] by telling her, ‘–And yet you will be like this excrement, / This horrible infection, / O star of my eyes, sun of my being, / You, my angel, my passion’” (267). The surprise here is that “[t]his poem…turns out, strangely, not to be a carpe diem poem,” and in fact it “turns out to be, implausibly, a poem about the achievements of poetic form” (268). Culler also characterizes Dickinson’s “The Heart asks Pleasure–first–” as “a poetic reflection on the propensities of the human heart, with a real kicker in the tail” (112).

Perhaps we should not be surprised by this interest in the turn. It largely follows from Culler’s interest in apostrophe. The origins of apostrophe, as the etymology of the word indicates (literally, “to turn away”), is in turning:

Quintillian, speaking of oratory, defines apostrophe as “a diversion of our words to address someone other than the judge”; and though he cautions against it, “since it would certainly seem more natural that we should specifically address ourselves to those whose favor we desire to win,” he allows that occasionally “some striking expression of thought is necessary,…which can be given greater point and vehemence when addressed to some person other than the judge.” In forensic rhetoric, apostrophe is a turning from the actual audience to address someone or something else (the opponent, the fatherland, justice), and the etymology of the term emphasizes the turning rather than the anomalous address… (212). 

Culler argues that apostrophe in lyric is more thoroughgoing than just this kind of turning. That’s understandable, and he makes a good case for why this should be the case. Among other things, he notes (concluding the above quotation) that “but outside the courtroom, apostrophe has long denoted address to someone or something other than the actual audience; it includes address to individuals, but it especially denotes address to what is not an actual listener: abstractions, inanimate objects, or persons absent or dead” (212). 

But it also remains the case that apostrophe and turning are connected. Culler makes note of the specifically apostrophic turning in Sappho’s fragment 16: “Sappho cites the example of Helen, who left everything for the one she loved, but the poem suddenly turns at the end to Anactoria, who is now gone” (308). He states, as well, “The turn to Anactoria at the end is unexpected but links the individual thought and situation to the general theme in a way that comes to be characteristic of lyric” (309). The same with W. B. Yeats’s “Among School Children,” in which, Culler notes, “reiterated contrasts between age and youth from a structure from which the poem suddenly turns in the penultimate stanza with an apostrophe” (228). Commenting on J.D. McClatchy’s “Weeds”, Culler notes that the emergence of a “you”–“That sudden ‘you’”–is “a very effective touch–one we don’t expect” (189). The great effect is that it turns the poem into a successful lyric: “It moves the poem from poetic reflection to invocation, event, and makes it more than a musing on the resilience of some plants: a celebration of their overcoming of adversity, as the address to a ‘you’ brings speaker and plant together in the hope of dissemination” (189). But the emergence of this sudden you is prepared for by the poem’s turn: after talking about weeds in general in the first stanza, the poem turns in its second stanza to convert weed-like persistence into a symbol of “small / Unlooked for joy,” and then becomes a question: “Where did it come from, / With these pale shoots / And drooping lavender bell?” and all of this makes way for the lyricizing apostrophe. 

As with the above poems by Dickinson, Yeats, and McClatchy, so many of the poems cited by Culler contain clear, decisive, often thrilling turns. However, more generally their turns are not commented upon. Significant turns (just to cite some poems not mentioned elsewhere) occur in Sappho’s fragment 31 (“He seems to me equal to the gods that man”) (63); Baudelaire’s “Obsession” (79-80); George Herbert’s “Virtue” (112-13); Keats’s “This Living Hand” (197); “Western Wind” (216); the end of the ninth elegy in Rilke’s Duino Elegies (224); A. R. Ammons’s “Dominion” (230); Wordsworth’s “Daffodils” (324) and “Tintern Abbey” (327-30); Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” (337-8). All of these poems feature turns, as do so many others mentioned by Culler, including, of course, many sonnets, which bring with them their voltas.

The presence of the turn is important here. Theory of the Lyric begins with what Culler refers to as “an inductive approach”–the title of his book’s first chapter–to lyric, examining nine poems Culler believes are exemplary and then he investigates them to begin to make out the elements of lyric–the ritualistic, apostrophic, and minimalist fiction–that emerge inductively from this process. These poems include:

Sappho’s “Ode to Aphrodite”

Horace’s Ode 1.5

The first poem in Petrarch’s Canzoniere

Goethe’s “Heath Rose”

Leopardi’s “The Infinite”

Baudelaire’s “To a Woman Passing By”

Lorca’s “The Moon Comes Out”

Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow”

Ashbery’s “This Room”

Each and every one of these poems contains turning. Though its power may be turned down in the Lorca and Williams, the power is on very high in, at least, the Horace and the Baudelaire. Culler also uses a version of this inductive approach in an attempt to give evidence for his sense that the lyric favors the present tense: scanning The Norton Anthology of Poetry, he finds that “only 123 of 1,266 poems are in the past tense, 21 of which are ballads” (277). An endnote reveals another similar count: “Vendler’s Poems, Poets, Poetry provides an anthology with 194 poems in the present against 43 in past tenses, with another 11 moving from past to present” (379; n. 25). I’ve yet to do my own accounting, but it’s hard to imagine that the ratio of poems with turns to poems without would be at least as compelling as the numbers that sway Culler’s beliefs about lyric. 

I’ll think about this oversight in the section “Lyric Present and the Turn” (below). For now, I turn to a consideration of how Culler is not only interested in turns, but structures, as well.

Very Common Moves: Culler’s Lyric Structures

“Lyric Structures,” the sixth chapter of Theory of the Lyric, begins with these questions: “What different sorts of lyrics should we distinguish? What structures or modes of organization, in addition to rhythm and sound patterning, are particularly important and distinctive?” (244) Culler follows these questions with a brief survey of some idiosyncratic efforts to categorize lyric subgenres–including Alastair Fowler’s in Kinds of Literature; those found in Companion to Poetic Genre, edited by Erik Martiny; and Helen Vendler’s in Poems, Poets, Poetry–and an overview of the “recognized” categories: form–or “verse and stanza structure” (245)–occasion, “a combination of formal qualities and thematic orientation” (245). Ultimately, though, such efforts, in Culler’s view, end up “haphazard” and non-comprehensive (245). 

Still, Culler notes, they “are pedagogically useful, alerting readers to the sorts of things poems may be doing” (245). He notes, as well, that they “capture a salient fact about the lyric tradition,” which is the degree to which lyric poems tend to refer to one another (245). Culler makes clear: “Contributions to the study of lyric often take the form of identifying a particular sort of poem–a tradition not previously recognized but which seems significant once it is identified…” (245). He notes, “Grouping poems as instances of a type both singles out something notable that poets have done and makes salient the variations within this type” (246). He continues, “Such categories are valuable as a way of indicating the sorts of things that lyrics do and identifying different possibilities of lyric structure,” to then ask this question: “What sorts of distinctive lyric structures can we discover?” (246)

And then Culler clarifies that he himself wishes to differentiate between form and structure: “I speak of ‘lyric structures’ both because the term lyric form is best reserved for types defined by formal structure, such as the sonnet, villanelle, or sestina, and because my interest in the possibilities of lyric focuses as much on aspects of lyric and particular strategies and configurations within lyrics as on recognized types of lyric” (246). 

To be clear: by “structure” Culler does not mean specifically the pattern of a poem’s turning, as is meant by the word here, at this site. For Culler, structure remains a bit more loosely, more broadly defined. Though Culler in fact does not define it, it clearly means something like “organized in something other than strictly formal ways.” However, the stricter definition of structure as pattern of a poem’s turning certainly fits into Culler’s conception of structure, and turning in fact is featured in this chapter. 

Very interested in the play of tenses in lyric poems, Culler is keenly attuned to and aware of temporal turning in poetry. Culler notes, “A very common structure is the move from past to present: the past anecdote explicitly pulled into the lyric present at the end, with a present-tense reflection on the significance of the incident recounted or other references to a present of enunciation. This is more widespread as a lyric structure than the lyric narrative completely in the past” (285). Culler cites Wordsworth’s “I wandered lonely as a cloud” as a “classic example,” but also offers his “She dwelt among the untrodden ways” and Shelley’s “Ozymandias” as additional example before recognizing specifically that “[i]n Petrarch’s Canzoniere a quarter of the poems are structured by the contrast between then and now, past and present…” (285). Culler ultimately even claims that “[t]he structure is so common that it seems almost pointless to cite examples,” though, to his credit, he acknowledges that two of the nine poems in his first chapter’s inductive approach–Leopardi’s “The Infinite” and Baudelaire’s “To a Woman Passing By”–do in fact deploy this structure (286). 

Turns are particularly crucial, though, it seems, for Culler in one particular way: turns validate the poems which occur fully in the past tense and which Culler admires. Such poems, of course, are challenges to Culler’s system: they challenge his idea that lyric is primarily keyed to the present. So, even though, in a chapter subsection titled “Framing Past Events” Culler notes that there in fact are few canonical poems in the past tense (277), he takes time to endeavor to show how poems in the past tense still resonate. According to Culler, “Poems that remain in the past throughout often acquire an allegorical character. Readers wonder why we are being told about these past events, and if the poem declines explicitly to draw a present moral or conclusion, the implications may be easy to infer from cultural conventions” (279). Culler then shows how this occurs in a handful of poems; however, it also clearly is the case–it even occurs, at moments, to Culler–that turning is crucial for this. About one of his examples, George Herbert’s “Redemption,” Culler notes that it is “a narrative of past events” (279), but he also understands it to be transformed by its turn: “The sudden, chilling turn at the end powerfully jolts the reader out of the narrative of leases and landlords and into the Christian allegory” (280). Here, the turn redeems the narrative, successfully transfiguring it into a lyric poem. 

Though “a less dramatic example from a more modern era,” Walt Whitman’s “When I heard the Learn’d Astronomer” relies “on reader’s ability to recognize as self-evident a value-charged opposition between book learning and a more direct encounter with nature…” (280), an opposition clearly marked by the poem’s speaker’s decision to rise and glide out of the lecture–which occurs at the main turn of the poem. Dickinson’s “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” is one of the “[m]any” “enigmatical past-tense poems” by the poet that “take on this allegorical character…where the sequential narrative becomes an allegory of an experience otherwise impossible to recount, as the ending makes clear…” (280-1). For Culler, turns have the power to shift a poem into the domain of lyric.

Even beyond what is demonstrated in poems such as those above, Culler notes there are “other strategies for evoking significance while remaining in a narrative in the past” (281). They are subtler, but, though Culler doesn’t recognize it, here again the turn features. Examining Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill,” Culler notes how the poem “offers the rich evocation of a dreamy childhood without giving it a present function,” recognizing that “[t]he past is maintained even in the final stanza, when we might expect an explicit retrospective regret for the lost world” (282). Culler states, “But the claim not to have cared in the past of childhood that the farm would be forever fled and that to be green is to be already dying makes clear the nostalgic cast of this evocative narrative” (282). I appreciate that Culler brings his expectations to his reading, and that his expectations included the anticipation of a turn, and that the subversion of that expectation is significant to him. However, it also is the case that Culler misses a turn to the present at the end of the penultimate stanza: though at all other points in the poem time’s action takes place in the past tense (“Time let me hail and climb”; “Time let me play and be”) in the penultimate stanza it is expressed in the present tense: “And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows / In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs / Before the children green and golden / Follow him out of grace…” Though Culler misses it, the announced turn that then, indeed, fades back into the use of the past tense, contributes to his reading: time allowed for the past songs; it allows for even this one here, the one being sung in the recitation of “Fern Hill.”

My own understanding of another poem Culler discusses–in this case, Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz”–diverges from Culler’s understanding in similar ways: I believe Culler misses a turn in the poem. Culler notes, “In the twentieth century, especially…we find lyrics that remain resolutely in the past, without tying themselves to a function in the present of enunciation,” and he ends up reading “My Papa’s Waltz” through Barbara Herrnstein Smith’s assessment that this is one of the “‘pointless anecdotes’ that suffuse modern poetry,” but also in her recognition that one of the effects of the “‘non-assertive conclusion’ of such lyrics…is in fact to heighten the importance of what is presented…” (282). In short, it seems that for Culler, even this lyric in the past tense is transformed by pure lyric hyperbole. That certainly is part of the power of this short poem, but another part of the power is due to the poem’s subtle turn, initiated at the penultimate line’s “Then” and then completed with “still clinging,” a clear acknowledgement that–in addition to the rest of the poem–this memory has stayed with the speaker.

When considering the “many ways of classifying the structures of lyrics deploying the present tense,” Culler builds off of the work of German theoretician Wolfgang Kayser to determine that “[a]nother major group is what might be called poems of naming or definition, which use the simple present for supposedly atemporal truths…” (286). Here is lyric structure not obviously or necessarily tied to turning. However, it also just is the case that the three poems Culler cites as examples of this kind of epideictic poem–“Th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame”; “Correspondences”; and “‘Hope’ is a thing with feathers–”–all do have some clear turning in them (286). And turning seems to be a part of other structures Culler mentions, as well. About Dickinson’s “The Heart asks Pleasure–first–” he states that ultimately the poem is an “evocation of a present, continuing condition,” and one “cast in a minimal narrative form,” that and yet it is “structured as a narrative, for suspense and surprise” (286-7). Culler also notes that in other poems, such as Hopkins’s “As Kingfishers Catch Fire,” “[s]ometimes there is a framework of reasoning, as if the claim needed to be worked out and justified” (287). And finally: “Another possibility is a meditative structure, foregrounding reflections on one’s own thoughts, which,” Culler adds, “may, of course include references to past experiences” (287).

The chapter focused on “Lyrical Structures” does not contain everything Culler has to say about structure. Elsewhere, citing Paul de Man’s writing about Baudelaire’s “Correspondences,” he notes that “‘[t]he canon of romantic and post-romantic lyric poetry…offers innumerable versions and variations of this inside/outside pattern of exchange that founds the metaphor of lyrical voice as subject’” (80). Culler also is interested in 

poems which, in a very common move, substitute a nontemporal opposition for a temporal one, or substitute a temporality of discourse for a referential discourse. In lyrics of this kind a temporal problem is posed: something once present has been lost or attenuated; this loss can be narrated but the temporal sequence is irreversible, like time itself. Apostrophes displace this irreversible structure by removing it from linear time and locating it in a discursive time. The temporal movement from A to B, restructured by apostrophe, becomes a reversible alternation between A1 and B1: a play of presence and absence governed not by time but by poetic ingenuity or power.

The clearest example of this structure is the elege, which replaces an irreversible temporal disjunction, the movement of life to death, with a reversible alternation between mourning and consolation, evocations of absence and presence. (226-7)

Citing Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” Culler also acknowledges that “[p]oems that boldly apostrophize often end in questions and withdrawals” (235). 

So much of Culler’s discussion about structure–which he seems to think of broadly as other than merely formal organization–is focused specifically on turn-oriented structure. Culler’s thinking about structure certainly is amenable to, and can be supplemented by, it. The inside/outside structure is embodied in the dream-to-waking structure, as well as others, including the descriptive-meditative structure (which moves from outside to inside to outside). Elegiac structure is among the structures covered in Structure & Surprise. Turning to questions and withdrawals jibes with the ironic structure. The turn from past to present–or future–is captured in the retrospective-prospective structure. What exactly is meant by a “meditative structure”? Attention to turns offers multiple options: emblem structure; descriptive-meditative structure; metaphor-to-meaning structure. It’s hard to imagine that Culler also would not recognize as the kinds of lyric structures in which he is so interested so many of the structures in Structure & Surprise, and the additional structures discussed on the Structure & Surprise website.

Culler asks: What different sorts of lyrics should we distinguish? What structures or modes of organization…are particularly important and distinctive? What sorts of distinctive lyric structures can we discover? Culler, it seems, largely discovers structures organized around turns. In fact, when he states that [s]uch categories are valuable as a way of indicating the sorts of things that lyrics do, one of the very clear takeaways is that one of the things that a vast number of lyrics do is turn. 

So why is this aspect of lyric, the turn, not a more major part of Culler’s thinking?

Presenting the Lyrical Turn

It is fairly common, alas, to prize the turn but not know how to do so adequately, allowing one’s attention to the turn to meander, drift, and ultimately fade. As this website has revealed, this is the case with works by Helen Vendler and Robert Hass (discussed here and here), among others. These other thinkers love the turn, as well, but do not attend to the turn to the degree that their own admiration suggests they might, or should. In some instances, this might be due to the fact that the thinker–be they poet-critic, critic, or theorist–does not know what they’ve stumbled upon. In other instances, it may be that the thinker does realize how significant the turn and its structures are, or might be, and then turns away from that, from the immensity of taking on that new approach–often in addition to whatever other points they planned to make with their writing. Additionally, there’s also always the force of habit: so much discussion about poetry has been about form–it’s difficult to see other possibilities.

While, of course, it’s often not possible to discern the reasons or motivations behind missing the turn. And it may not be too important to do so: much more important is to see that it’s happening, recognize it, and reveal it.

Still, the place of the turn in Culler’s Theory of the Lyric is an incredibly strange one. Culler obviously prizes turns, which don’t simply crop up in his conversation but, in the chapter “Lyrical Structures,” actually accumulate into an understanding that is activated and, to an extent, systematized. My admittedly speculative assessment is that–whether or not he recognized his own great interest in turns–admitting the turn into his revision of the lyric would have been too much, too disruptive. Culler’s central effort in Theory of the Lyric is to demonstrate how poets create a ritualistic present in their poems; as he notes, “Fiction is about what happened next; lyric is about what happens now” (226). Culler’s focus is on that now, which is the possession of lyric, specifically. When Culler notes that “for the lyric…criticism must resist the dominance of the fictional, lest the distinctiveness of lyric be lost” (125), one can sense him giving himself instructions to resist giving too much credence to other elements he spots in the lyric, to maintain his focus. One can often see Culler wrestling with this. Culler states, “Nothing needs to happen in an apostrophic poem….In lyric there is characteristically dominance of the apostrophic and ritualistic. Nothing need happen in the poem because the poem is to be itself the happening” (226). But right after saying this, Culler acknowledges that “[t]he tension between the narrative and the apostrophic can be seen as the generative force behind a whole array of lyrics” (226). 

Two points are vital to make here. First, if it was not obvious before, it is obvious after hearing Culler say that “nothing need happen in a poem”: Culler’s is a book for those who consider poetry ex post facto. While, after the fact, it may seem that shifting a poem from the past to the present is a relatively simple affair, or that creating suspense and surprise in a poem is relatively simple, for anyone teaching a young poet how to do these things, such endeavors are in fact quite complex. Managing the fictional elements to craft a poem that offers the kind of structural development Culler and so many others so greatly prize involves the sophisticated negotiation of elements, and so necessitates close consideration.

Second, while excellent in and of itself, Theory of the Lyric has demonstrated the necessity of and opened the way for a fuller accounting of lyric. At its most basic, this fuller account would include the fact that lyrics turn rhetorically and/or dramatically. Due to this, the theory would need to do more than privilege the ritualistic aspects of lyric but rather think hard about the relationship between the ritualistic and the turn. Is it an interplay? A tension? A dialectical relation? Is the turn, in fact, a part of the lyric’s ritual? Does the turn create the narrative, the sequence, the temporality, that allows ritualistic making present to in fact become significant? For Culler, the lyric is, in a way, a moment’s monument, but that moment nearly always involves a turn and in fact often is centered on that action itself. What does this mean for the theory of the lyric? This should be pursued.

Culler himself notes that “[i]f students are not presented with an adequate model of lyric, they will read according to whatever inadequate models they have previously assimilated, whether from explicit accounts or halting surmise” (4). He continues, “We need to provide students and other readers with a better model of the lyric in order to make possible a richer, more perceptive experience of lyrics” (4-5). Culler’s Theory of the Lyric certainly details just such a better model, and it may even point to an even better one.

Jay Deshpande Teaches the Turn

6 05 2021
Poet Jay Deshpande

So, this is super-cool: poet Jay Deshpande will lead a craft lab focused on the poetic turn! This event will take place on Zoom on Sunday, May 23, 4-7 p.m. (Eastern). For a detailed description, including registration link, check out this webpage.

Readers of this blog might be very interested in this event, which seems closely aligned with the approach to the turn contained in Structure & Surprise: it’s interested in structure as “a critical third element” of poetry, in addition to form and content; it understands the sonnet’s volta as a crucial site for studying the turn; addressing the turn as a significant feature of a poem’s meaning making, it will use attention to turns to help participants better read and write poems.

Deshpande should be an excellent guide in this exploration of the turn. A number of his own poems deploy turns quite movingly. Two that are linked to on his website reveal speakers engaged in sensual acts–walking beneath a magnolia tree; slicing a kiwi–who then turn that experience into sensuous thought. Check them out:

“Sonnet written walking under the mess some magnolia made”


And then consider learning more from Jay Deshpande on May 23–!

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.

Kathryn Kerr’s “Ecphratic Ecphrasis”

1 05 2020

Ecphratic Ecphrasis
by Kathryn Kerr

I get impatient listening
to a review of poems
about paintings,
fruit in footed bowls,
unbalanced, unfocused,
luminous, shimmer
on a white table cloth.

But then a poem follows
where a green glass
Rolling Rock beer bottle
gleaming in sunshine
arcs from a car window
into pink poverty grass
in the roadside ditch.

I’m there.


Before U.S. efforts to coordinate the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, I was fortunate to attend a poetry reading by my friend, poet Kathryn Kerr. KK (as many of her good friends call her) read a bunch of terrific poems, including many from her collection Turtles All the Way Down.

However, “Ecphratic Ephrasis”–not in the collection, so signalling some particularly strong, new work–really caught my attention. Perhaps this is because I love ekphrastic poetry–poems that employ the visual arts as their subject matter and/or inspiration. Sure. But there’s no denying, as well, the poem’s strong turn pretty much smack-dab in the middle of the thing: Ekphrastic poems that are otherworldly and effete? nah. But give me a vital representation of the strange, real world, and I’m there!

I love it! Of course, I love the rush, the suddenness, of such turning, but I also can’t help but think about the dynamics of such a maneuver. On the one hand, I love the bold, assertive either-or of this poem, the kind of turning one finds in the poetry of negative dialectics (scroll down to the first asterisk), poetry that offers a thesis and an antithesis, but no unifying synthesis. Stephen Dunn notes (here) that “[d]rift and counterdrift seem central to the way many of my poems behave.” This certainly (and literally centrally!) is the case with KK’s poem.

But I think it’s also possible to consider the turn in “Ecphratic Ecphrasis” to be the type that generates the concessional structure. If this poem, as its title suggests, is an ekphrastic poem about ekphrasis, then it seems to say: “Ekphrasis? Meh. AND YET…!”

Glorious! If you want more, do check out KK’s Turtles All the Way Down–those turtles can turn!

(“Ecphratic Ecphrasis” was printed with the permission of the author.)

To Get to the Marrow, Turn

8 10 2019

For poet Adam O’Riordan, a sonnet stripped down to its most essential form is a sonnet focused on the turn. In “The Sonnet as a Silver Marrow Spoon,” O’Riordan recounts how, as a young sonneteer, he was overwhelmed by the demands of the sonnet form, and so he focused instead on the sonnet’s structure, which swerves around the volta.

It’s a lovely short essay on the power of the turn, one that emphasizes structure over form–an endeavor shared with this blog’s posts and pages. (See especially “The Structure-Form Distinction.”)

After you’ve read O’Riordan’s essay, be sure to read Richard Wilbur’s amazing “This Pleasing Anxious Being,” referred to by O’Riordan. And then be sure to check out some of O’Riordan’s own sonnets, which take some lovely, intricate turns. Two can be found here.


Blas Falconer’s “Ghost Turn”

26 06 2019

The following essay by Blas Falconer was originally published in Diane Lockward’s Poetry Newsletter. I thank Blas and Diane for allowing me to reprint this essay here. If you wish to read more such insightful essays, sign up for the Poetry Newsletter here (scroll down for the link). And, if you think Blas’s thinking about turns is engaging, you should check out his poems! Lots of links here.


As the online resource Voltage Poetry demonstrates, there are countless ways that a poem can turn, but when I was a student, we talked about poetic turns most often and most clearly when we talked about sonnets. In the Petrarchan sonnet, of course, the change in rhyme scheme after the octave usually encourages a turn in perspective. In the Shakespearean sonnet, the change in the rhyme scheme after the third quatrain often encourages a rhetorical shift in the final couplet. 

Bruce Smith’s contemporary sonnet “After St. Vincent Millay” demonstrates a typical Shakespearean turn:

When I saw you again, distant, sparrow-boned
under the elegant clothes you wear in your life without me,
I thought, No, No, let her be the one
this time to look up at an oblivious me.

Let her find the edge of the cliff with her foot,
blindfolded. Let her be the one struck by the lightning
of the other so that the heart is jolted
from the ribs and the rest of the body is nothing

but ash. It’s a sad, familiar story
I wish you were telling me with this shabby excuse:
I never loved you any more than
I hated myself for loving you.

And about that other guy by your side
you left me for. I hope he dies.

Years ago, one of my professors pointed out that the Shakespearean sonnet, in addition to its turn in final couplet, usually has a lesser turn, a “ghost turn,” after the eighth line, too, a nod to the Petrarchan tradition. As an editor and as a teacher, I have noted that one common difference between a good poem and a great poem is that the good poem, regardless of the form, so often mistakes a ghost turn (“It’s a sad familiar story”) with a final turn (“And about that other guy by your side”). To end a poem, free verse or otherwise, on the ghost turn means to end it prematurely. With the ghost turn, the poet senses a shift in the poem and shuts the poem down before it is fully realized, so the poem comes across as facile, less rich, less dynamic, less ambitious than it could be. 

Consider the poems you love, poems that have been celebrated for years to see how often they push beyond the first temptation of closure, the first disruption of a pattern, the first turn. Imagine, for example, if Richard Wilbur’s poem “The Writer” ended with the starling and not the daughter. 

It lifted off from a chair-back,
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.

It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten.  I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.

Imagine if Thomas James’s poem “Mummy of a Lady Named Jemutesonekh” ended with a description of the mummification and not the dead beloved, not the question about the lies that we tell each other.  

Shut in my painted box, I am a precious object.
I wear a wooden mask. These are my eyelids,
Two flakes of bronze, and here is my new mouth,
Chiseled with care, guarding its ruby facets.
I will last forever. I am not impatient—
My skin will wait to greet its old complexions.
I’ll lie here till the world swims back again.

When I come home the garden will be budding,
White petals breaking open, clusters of night flowers,
The far-off music of a tambourine.
A boy will pace among the passionflowers,
His eyes no longer two bruised surfaces.
I’ll know the mouth of my young groom, I’ll touch
His hands. Why do people lie to one another?

Then, read the featured entries in Voltage Poetry to see how brilliantly poets create turns in their poems.  Read Arielle Greenberg’s take on Shane McRae’s “We married in a taxi.” Read Craig Santos Perez’s essay on Anne Perez Hattori’s “Thieves.” Read David Wright’s critique of “When the Neighbors Fight” by Terrance Hayes. Identify the ghost turn. Consider how the poet resisted the easy ending.

Finally, with an open mind, look at your own poems. Do they end with a ghost turn? Have you mistaken an ending for the ending, for closure, when what the poem is really asking for is another beginning, another turn? Test your poems. Push yourself. Turn from description to reflection or from question to answer. Turn with a rhetorical shift. Turn from one story or image or idea to another, from statement to contradiction. Offer your reader a new voice. Push your poems past your comfort and what you already know. To write the great poem, I have come to believe, that’s what it takes. 

Mission: Stunning Poetic Turns

24 06 2019

Well, this is kind of awesome: in the description of the creative writing minor at NYU-Shanghai, the creation of “a stunning poetic turn”–along with “a perfect metaphor…an apt description, or a living character”–is listed among the components that constitute “great writing.” Check it out here!