Reading Poetry, and Finding the Volta

22 07 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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.


Elaine Scarry on Poetry’s “Deliberative Push”

15 07 2019

In her essay “Poetry, Injury, and the Ethics of Reading” (collected in The Humanities and Public Life, ed. Peter Brooks, with Hilary Jewett (New York: Fordham UP, 2014): 41 – 54)), Elaine Scarry seeks to discover “[w]hat is the ethical power of literature?” She additionally inquires, “Can it diminish acts of injuring, and if it can, what aspects of literature deserve the credit?” Scarry largely sidesteps the first question in order to make space to address the second; she states, “If we assume…that literature in fact helped to diminish acts of injuring…what attributes of literature can explain this? Three come immediately to mind: its invitation to empathy, its reliance on deliberative thought, and its beauty.”

Here, I wish to share Scarry’s thinking on the deliberative thought to be found in literature, or, as Scarry states, focusing her subject, “the deliberative push embedded in poetry.” I do this because it is most relevant to the concern of this blog: the poetic turn. Poetry’s deliberative push sounds a great deal to me like the dialectical organization that Randall Jarrell recognized in so many poems. (Jarrell’s discussion of the dialectical nature of so much poetry can be found in his essay “Levels and Opposites: Structure in Poetry,” and it is quoted here. [Scroll down.]) Those interested in considering Jarrell’s ideas about poetry’s largely dialectical nature will want to know about Scarry’s ideas about the deliberative push, and vice versa.

Here’s Scarry (with some of my own noted emphasis) on the historical contours of poetry’s deliberative push:

The connection of poetic composition to deliberation–to the “pro” and “con” of debate–is in the very first description we have of the Muses singing, the one Homer gives at the close of the first book of the Iliad. Thomas Hobbes, who was acutely interested in deliberation, wrote in his 1676 translation, beginning with the feasting of the gods, “And all the day from morning unto night / Ambrosia they eat, and nectar drink. / Apollo played and alternately / The Muses to him sung.” The alternating voices of the Muses are audible in Alexander Pope’s later translation, as in John Ogilby’s earlier one. Ogilby’s annotation to the lines states: “The Muses sung in course answering one the other…Anthem-wise; [the Greek Homer uses] being such Orations as were made pro or con upon the same argument.” He then invokes Virgil’s Eclogue, “The Muses always loved alternate Verse,” and Hesiod’s Theogony, “Muses begin, and Muses end the Song.” The argumentative structure enacted by Homer’s Muses is registered in every English translation, with the exception of George Chapman’s. Samuel Butler writes, “The Muses lifted up their sweet voices, calling and answering to one another”; in Richard Lattimore’s edition, we read of the “antiphonal sweet sound of the Muses singing”; and Robert Fagles has the “Muses singing / voice to voice in chorus.”

The Iliad is an epic ignited by the dispute between Achilles and Agamemnon, and we are more likely to associate dispute with epic poetry or with plays, as in the drama contests of fifth-century Greece. But many other genres of poetry have the debate structure built into them, as we can see by the word “anthem”–derived from “antiphons” or “verse response”–which surface in the translations. That an anthem, or hymn of praise, holds disputing voice within it reminds us that there is nothing anti lyric about this deliberative structure (my emphasis).

Many styles of poetry bring us face to face with acts of deliberation. The eclogue is a dialogue poem about the act of choosing, as in Virgil’s Third and Seventh Eclogues when a judge is asked to choose between the arguments of two shepherds. The word “eclogue” is derived from eklegein, meaning ” to choose.” Another example is the tenzone, in which two poets argue “in alternating couplets,” as Urban Holmes describes in Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. The ten zone eventually took on other forms, such as the partiman or jeuparti, in which one “poet proposes two hypothetical situations.” One of the positions is then defended by that poet and the other by a second poet, each speaking in three stanzas. In his translation of Dante’s Vita Nuova, Mark Musa explains, “The Italian troubadours invented the sonnet form [of the tenzone], still a mode of debate in which the problem is set forth in a proposta inviting a riposta (using the same rhymes) from another poet.

While in the tenzone two distinct sonnets are placed in dispute, an oppositional mental act is also interior to the sonnet itself, particularly the Petrarchan sonnet form with its division into an octave and a sestet. While the volta, or “turn of thought,” is most emphatic in the Petrarchan form, it is also recognizable in Spenserian and Shakespearean sonnets (my emphasis).

Holmes directs attention not only to the poetic forms just enumerated but to others that entail a contest structure, such as the lauda, which calls for “responsive participation” and hence for dialogue, as well as the pastourelle, in which an aristocrat or knight attempts to seduce a shepherdess and is often outwitted by her of by her fellow shepherd.

The inseparability of poetic and disputational thinking is registered in the titles of many Middle English poems: “Parlement of Foules,” “Parliament of Devils,” “Parliament of the Three Ages,” “Dialogue between Poet and Bird,” “The Cuckow and the Nightingale,” “The Thrush and the Nightingale,” “The Owl and the Nightingale,” “The Clerk and the Nightingale,” “The Floure and the Leafe,” “Dispute between the Violet and the Rose,” “The Holly and the Ivy,” “The Debate of the Carpenter’s Tools,” “Wynnere and Wastoure,” “Ressoning betuix Aige and Yowth,” “Ressoning Betuix Deth and Man,” “Death and Liffe,” and, last but not least, “A Disputacion betwyx the Body and Wormes.”

Medieval debate poems occur in many languages, starting with the eighth-century Carolingian poem “Conflictus Veris et Hiemis.” John Edwin Wells, an early twentieth-century scholar of Middle English, notes that versions of the “Debate between Body and Soul,” which first occurs in English between 1150 and 1175, “are extant in Latin, Greek, French, Provencal, German, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, Danish, and English.”

There are also parallels in the Eastern tradition. Titles in Sumerian, Akkadien, Assyrian, and Babylonian poems often resemble those above. “Summer contra Winter,” “Bird contra Fish,” “Tree contra Reed,” “Silver contra Leather,” “Copper vs. Leather,” “Ewe vs. Wheat,” “Herdsman vs. Farmer,” and “Hoe vs. Plough.” Describing ancient Near Eastern dispute poems as “tools and toys at the same time,” Herman Vanstiphout argues that a serious lesson is at the center of these poems: “All coins have two sides.” Much later English counterparts share this lesson. Thomas L. Reed shows that although many Anglo-Saxon and Middle English poems feature a “right” position to which the wrong thinker can be converted, in many others the disputants are equals, and no final decision is made.

Reed demonstrates that in addition to all of the explicitly titled dispute poems, many of the major English works are debates: Beowulf with its “sparring” and formal flytings; Piers Plowman with its wayward and “enigmatic” path; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with its disputations between green and gold, winter and summer, Christianity and chivalry, youth and age, sinner and mercy, discourtesy and treachery. The Canterbury Tales also features a “debate on marriage” extending across the tales of the merchant, the Clerk, the Wife of Bath, and the Franklin; the “flytings” between the Reeve, Miller, Summoner, and Friar,; and the overall “narrative competition” among the taletellers to be judged by Harry Bailly.


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. 

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


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