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!





Middle Management: “Take Me to the Bridge!”

16 09 2018

If you’ve had an inkling that the turn plays an important role in contemporary music, check out Scott Timberg’s “Middle management” (LA Times, 9/12/2004), and you’ll be convinced. “Middle management” is a succinct exploration of the bridge (sometimes called the “middle-eight) as “a key songwriting structure,” and Timberg goes so far as to note the relation between the bridge and the sonnet’s “volta, or ‘turn.'” Bridges do much of the same kind of work as the turn; they:

  • often create tonal shifts (including more “rueful” and more “assertive,” or “harrowing” or “nostalgic”);
  • create “counterpoint”–including even, in the words of music critic Ira Robbins, “a 90-degree turn in the middle of the song”;
  • play “devil’s advocate”; and
  • allow the song “to go somewhere else.”

While just as every poem does not have or need a turn, not every song has or needs a bridge. But many do make use of the bridge, and for many singer-songwriters and music critics the bridge is a key part of a song:

  • “I sort of regard the bridge in a magical way. It separates the men from the boys. It’s a mark of hanging in there, finishing the job, making sure it’s a real song.” —Aimee Mann
  • “The art of the bridge is that it’s an exciting place to go, and the unexpected can result.” —Richard Thompson
  • “It’s the hardest part of the song to write…and a place for really good songwriters to show off.” –Benjamin Nugent, author of Elliot Smith and the Big Nothing

At the end of “Middle management,” Timberg offers ten examples of songs with great bridges. Check them out! Then be sure to check out some poems with great turns here and here. Happy reading! Happy listening!





Air Traffic’s Turns

17 07 2018

air-traffic-smaller

I am a poet. Poetry and civic duty share a porous border in my mind….Poetry is useless to me in all but one way. Reading it makes me a nicer person.

Reading poetry has improved my ability to intuit, and thereby negotiate more effectively, the needs and desires of others. I’m no mind reader, but poetry puts me in tune with the unarticulated registers of language… Especially in diversity-poor environments, poetry is the best supplement to help getting out of one’s own head.

Poetry teaches me this because in order to “get” a poem, you need to find its fulcrum, a tipping point that is rarely obvious. Most poems have a moment when something shifts. It may be midway through or at the end. This is the moment of transformation–we call it a volta, or “turn.” The turn could be a plot twist or a change in tone. You can identify the turn by comprehending first the poem’s overall patterns and prevailing logic. There might be many patterns in a single poem, and some or all of them might get broken or disrupted over its course, but the volta is special in that it marks the moment when the poem breaks its deepest and most characteristic habit. There is rarely a single turn that everyone can agree on, and who cares if everyone agrees. Reading is a solitary exercise, a union of one. The detective work of looking for the volta is what gets us into the poem, makes us rewrite the poem in our own voice and consciousness.

Some poetry lovers claim that poems don’t have to have a turn. This is usually what people say in defense of shitty poems. Of course there has to be a transformative moment, a moment in which we experience not just the characters or speaker in the poem, but the poet herself in crisis. The turn doesn’t have to bring the reader to any grand epiphany or catharsis, but if–whether I’m writing the poem or reading it–I walk away from the poem without feeling like I’ve just survived a vicarious encounter with some unqualified measure of intensity that I could not have created on my own, if I feel like the placid surface of my consciousness has suffered not so much as a ripple, then I’d say that poem owed me an apology for having wasted my time. If there is not turn, no transformative moment, then the poem is a journal entry, at best a laundry list of reflections and anecdotes, or what I think of as a “litany of relapses”–the barren passage of time unthwarted, moving predictably toward a predictable end. “The moment of change is the only poem,” says Adrienne Rich.

There is no feeling in monotony. We have to establish something before and something after.

–Gregory Pardlo, Air Traffic: A Memoir of Ambition and Manhood in America





The Political Turn

26 06 2018

Jessica_Morey-Collins

“[P]oems that function on a turn require a kind of internal pluralism…”

Jessica Morey-Collins’s “(Don’t) Stop Hitting Yourself: Poetic Turns and Perspective-Taking” is a brief but bright (and, today, necessary) reflection on the political possibilities of the poetic turn. Check it out!

And then check out some of Morey-Collins’s own poetry, with their openness and challenge–

 





Richards’s Reversals

25 06 2018

Today I stumbled upon a fine little essay I feel compelled to share: I. A. Richards’s “Reversals in Poetry,” collected in his Poetries: Their Media and Ends, edited by Trevor Eaton (The Hague: Mouton, 1974): 59-70.

In this brief essay, Richards examines a number of ballads and ballad-like poems. (He notes that “[t]he title of the original talk [of which his essay is a transcription] was Ballads” (65).) However, as his essay’s title indicates, Richards was intrigued by the structural reversals that he found in a number of the poems he was examining, and so he decided to focus on that. The structure Richards investigates is one “which often seems fundamental in poetic composition and really important: the way verses can be ABOUT a many-stepped hierarchy of situations simultaneously: up, up, up or, if you like, down, down, down, deeper deeper (63).”

“Down, down, down, deeper deeper” is right. Richards offers a number of poems that seem to be headed on way, but then, oddly, surprisingly, turn to either keep going in a downward (negative) direction or else, shockingly, simply turn negative. Here’s the first poem, a lullaby sung to former Atlantic Monthly editor Ellery Sedgwick by his mother:

White was the sheet
That spread for her lover,
White was the sheet;
And embroidered the cover.

But whiter the sheet
And the canopy grander
When he lay down to sleep
Where the hill-foxes wander. (59)

As Richards asks, and answers: “It has a powerful plot–hasn’t it? The pull and tension are pretty strong between the expectations generated by the opening…and the grimness of the last five words…” (60). He calls this turn a “violent grim reversal” and “an extreme reversal–sprung upon us as suddenly and unpreparedly as possible” (60).

About Sir Walter Scott’s “Proud Maisie,”  Richards notes, “Here are the same grim surprises: the same sudden reversals and the same polarities of Love and Death” (61). Then Richards offers this terrifying little gem, a motto from the beginning of a chapter from chapter ten of Scott’s A Legend of Montrose:

Dark on their journey frowned the gloomy day.
Wild were the hills, and doubtful grew the way.
More dark, more gloomy and more doubtful showed
The mansion which received them from the road. (62)

Glorious! Terrifying! Terribly ironic! Ah! This is how so many great horror movies have begun…! While I’m very glad my bookshelf wanderings led me to this today, I wish a bit that I’d discovered this in autumn, closer to Halloween. Ah, well: we are a few days past the solstice’s turn, so, even though it’s not yet fully registered, the days are getting shorter–down, down, down, deeper deeper…

Richards closes with two additional ballads. I’ll close with them, as well. I hope you enjoy the strange, dark gifts of these grimly surprising plots–!

“The Unquiet Grave” [The version Richards uses differs slightly from this one, but you’ll get the gist…]

“Faithless Nelly Gray”





“the purr is a roar”: Michael McClure’s Turns

22 06 2018

McClure_Michael600

If you love haiku and the turns very near their cores, be sure to check out Michael McClure’s lovely and lively “Haiku Edge.” “Haiku Edge” is a poem of 58 linked haiku, and–chock-full of emblems, ironies, and negative dialectics–it’s also a masterclass in turns.

In the preface to Rain Mirror, the book in which “Haiku Edge” appears, McClure discusses his doing away with the overly-simplistic 5-7-5 haiku form, making special note of the primacy of the haiku’s bipartite structure:

Beat poet and the retired Buddhist abbot, Zenshin Ryufu Philip Whalen, explained to me, in the 1950s, how a haiku should be written in English. He showed me the ellipsis, the mirroring or the reflection of the two parts of the poem’s action.

Refresh your perception! Reshape the contours of your consciousness! Surprise yourself!