Christina Pugh’s “On Sonnet Thought”

11 07 2011

I’ve recently read an incredibly interesting essay by Christina Pugh.  The essay, “On Sonnet Thought” (Literary Imagination (12.3 (Nov. 2010): 356-64), presents a number of fascinating ideas about the sonnet, including how what Pugh calls “sonnet thought” can be differentiated from the formal properties of the sonnet, and the central role the volta, or turn, plays in formulating sonnet thought, in making possible sonnet energy, and combustion.

While writing “a book of poems loosely inspired by sonnets,” Pugh “came to identify something [she] called ‘sonnet-thought’ or, alternately, the sonnet ‘mind-set.’”  Pugh means by sonnet-thought “the necessarily economical formal harnessing of expansive, complex (or hypotactic) syntax-as-thought, thus incorporating a capacious amount of often recursive mileage, contrast, and change within the small poetic space of fourteen lines.”

Sonnet thought, Pugh makes clear, is different from sonnet form; Pugh states, “I discovered that ‘sonnet thought,’ or sonnet energy, may be separated from the metrical norms and rhyme schemes that have constituted the traditional sonnet in its various formal mantles….It is the manner of thinking that the sonnet form has enabled or inaugurated, even if the more tactile scaffolding of that form has fallen away.”  And, in fact, the point of “On Sonnet Thought” is “to show how sonnet energy, or combustion, may be harnessed from the traditional formal sonnet and reignited through the modality of economical free verse that utilizes certain aspects of sonnet manner.”

So, if not formal, what is the nature of sonnet thought?

For Pugh it is two things: “the formal sonnet’s predilection for wide-ranging conceptualization—as well as incorporating, and sometimes pluralizing, the sonnet’s traditional volta, or turn.”  Regarding the sonnet’s “predilection for wide-ranging conceptualization,” Pugh states, “In a manner rivaled only by the epigram, the sonnet requires us to think big.  It asks that we expand, even as it contracts the stage on which that expansion must occur.”  She adds, “As a result of this contraction, we can experience both transport and devastation.  Indeed, as a free-verse poet who derives incalculable inspiration from formal poetry, I have long been interested in the sonnet as a peculiarly discrete verbal ordeal…”

However, though the sonnet’s “predilection for wide-ranging conceptualization” is listed first in the list of what constitutes sonnet thought, the volta is the part that gets the most focused attention.  Implicit and explicit reference to the volta occurs numerous times throughout the essay, as when, in the course of her reading of Milton’s “When I consider how my light is spent,” Pugh makes note of the poem’s “swift yet incremental movement from despair to implicit assuagement,” the “emotional transformation” taking place.

And, ultimately, it is the volta that represents sonnet thought, even as the sonnet form keeps changing.  Inquiring into “the nature of the sometimes-elusive volta within the sonnet form in general,” Pugh states:

“What is the precise degree or cant of the turn, and how does it reconfigure the sonnet’s microscopic unfolding?  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.  The volta even thrives on its own variousness.  As Paul Fussell shows, in sonnets by Santayana, Keats, and Wordsworth, the volta is characterized, respectively, as ‘a logical action’ [answering a question posed by the octave]; ‘a moment of sheer metaphoric power’; and, more indexically, ‘something like a literal turn of the body or the head.’  This capacity for rhetorical shape-shifting—perhaps its only indissoluable ‘property’—makes the volta a metonym for the surprising elasticity of sonnet form over the centuries.  One need only name the often eponymous variations across literary history: Petrarch, Shakespearean, Miltonic, Spenserian, or the curtal sonnetry of Hopkins.  Though all of these forms have particular relationships to the modality of ‘sonnet thought,’ such plurality of ‘sonnet-ness’ suggests that the resiliency of the template transcends the strictures of any single rhyme scheme or prescribed placement of volta.”

“On Sonnet Thought” is necessary reading for anyone interested in the turn.  In fact, in many ways, its ideas jibe with the ideas advanced in Structure & Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns and on this blog. 

For example, the idea that there is a structure-form distinction, that poetic structure, the pattern of a poem’s turning, can and should be differentiated from poetic form.

And the idea that turns are incredibly important parts of poems, not only contributing or crafting but truly offering the thought, the energy, the combustion of poems.

Finally, I would even add that some of the issues Pugh raises in her notes, side-comments, and clarifications also are taken up on this blog.  For example, Pugh seems concerned to make clear that volte are often stranger and less predictable than they often are thought to be—when discussing the location of the volta in a sonnet, Pugh (as quoted above) is careful to note that the volta can occur “before the closing couplet in the Shakespearean sonnet, before the sestet in the Petrarchan scheme, or elsewhere in a sonnet…” (emphasis mine).  Additionally, in her third footnote, Pugh takes pains to make clear that there can be more than one volta in a sonnet; she states,

“Plural volte are part of the tradition: see, for example, John Donne’s use of elements from both the Petrarchan and Shakespearean templates for his Holy Sonnets, with multiple volte.  As Donne demonstrates, the sonnet is remarkably suited to reversals and reconfigurations—including changes of mind, distractions, detours, and palinodes.”

The potentially strange, surprising placement of the volta (or volte) in sonnets was a topic I took up here.

It is a pleasure to corroborate / be corroborated by the serious, detailed, new thinking of a poet and critic as good as Christina Pugh.  Do check out her work, and keep an eye out for her free verse, high-voltage sonnets.





Don’t Just “Use the Force” or “Go with the Flow”–You Gotta “Trust the Turn”!

27 07 2010

My essay “Trust the Turn: Focusing the Revision Process in Poetry” has just been published in Poets on Teaching: A Sourcebook, edited by Joshua Marie Wilkinson (U of Iowa P, 2010).

A version of the essay can be found here, but you should get the book–it’s terrific!  (The good John Gallaher agrees, here.)  Tons (99, to be exact) of great (micro-)essays on teaching poetry by some excellent poets and poet-teachers, including a number of those associated with Structure & Surprise, such as Timothy Liu, Peter Gizzi, Rachel Zucker, Prageeta Sharma, D. A. Powell, and Mark Yakich.  (Not to mention a whole bunch of friends, mentors, colleagues, sparring partners, and role models, including Srikanth Reddy, Laura Mullen, Mark Wallace, Catherine Wagner, Brenda Hillman, John Gallaher himself, Johannes Goransson, Arielle Greenberg, Kent Johnson, Matthew Zapruder, Lara Glenum, Sabrina Orah Mark…the list goes on!)

Do note that–if you do get the book and you are interested in turns–there is at least one other essay that reveals interest in turns: Karla Kelsey’s “Teaching Writing through the Sonnet Tradition.”  Kelsey includes the following among her “favorite prompts”:

“Reconsidering the turn: turn as rhetorical moment, as change in speaker, as change in perceptual attention, as change in visual register…”

Hopefully, Structure & Surprise serves as a good starting point for those who want to (re-)consider the turn!





Against “Narrative”

20 07 2009

Not equipped with other helpful paradigms for what it is that poetry does, many readers come to poetry thinking that it, like the other literature with which they’re acquainted, tells stories.  Such thinking, of course, is misleading—it’s not clear such thinking would help anyone really encounter and engage many poems.  Certainly, lots of poems make use of narrative elements, but lots of poems, even poems thought to be generally “accessible,” don’t.  Readers need to be presented with a different paradigm for how poems “work,” for what it is that poems “do.”

I think that the “turn” can be that paradigm.  As I discuss more fully in “The Structure-Form Distinction”: lots of poems turn; turns aren’t always primarily associated with narrative (they also are associated with argumentation, the recording of emotional shifts, etc); and turns are, or easily can be made to seem, familiar, as familiar as storytelling.

In fact, I think the paradigm of the turn is superior to the paradigm of narrative.  Turning is itself central to narrative.  One could be said to know very little about the nature of narrative if one did not know about the nature of narrative turns—from beginnings to conflicts to climaxes to resolutions.  And, again, turning is at work in poems that aren’t primarily narrative.

However, though turning is more vital to poetry than narrative, many conversations about poetry still use the language of narrative—“narrative,” “plot”—to discuss what really are (or could more accurately be described as) turns.  Such misnaming makes it seem that, no matter what is said about narrative and the turn, narrative takes prominence over the turn.  In order to keep at trying to give the turn its proper due, this situation needs to be recognized and addressed.

To be clear: my critique here is meant to be very specific and detailed—in fact, I greatly admire the substance of the three essays to be discussed in this essay—but, hopefully, not minor: I think it would be smart to do away with the discussion of non-narrative “plots” in poetry.  Mention of “plot” will always make readers think of narrative, and thus reinforce the seeming prominence of narrative.  We need to use different terms in order to shift the conversation—and, with “structure” and the “turn,” such different terms are available to us.  Instead of “narrative” and “plot,” I think we should use the term “structure,” and mean by “structure” something very specific: the pattern of a poem’s turning.  (For more on this, again, see “The Structure-Form Distinction.”)  In this way, we can discuss a poem’s rhetorical maneuvers without (potentially) confusing those maneuvers with narrative.

hoagland

In “Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment,” Tony Hoagland corroborates my sense that there’s a tendency to lump together a number of kinds of poetry (many of which are clearly related to poetic traditions that prominently involve turning) under “narrative”; he states, “Under the label of ‘narrative,’ all kinds of poetry currently get lumped together: not just story, but discursion, argument, even descriptive lyrics.  They might better be called the ‘Poetries of Continuity.’”  Interestingly, though Hoagland himself suggests a better name for narrative, he also reveals the power of the “narrative” in discussions of poetry: his essay’s title employs the phrase “Fear of Narrative,” not “Fear of Continuity.”

(A bit off topic, but, I must add: it’s too bad that Hoagland links the poetry he does only to continuity—lots of poems that are not at all “skittery” work by means of an organized discontinuity.  As Randall Jarrell says in “Levels and Opposites: Structure in Poetry”: “A successful poem starts in one position and ends at a very different one, often a contradictory or opposite one; yet there has been no break in the unity of the poem.”  And Hoagland himself seems to recognize this; later in his essay, he states, “Narrated and associative poems are not each other’s aesthetic opposites or sworn enemies.  Obviously these modes don’t necessarily exclude each other.  They overlap, coexist, and often cross-pollinate.”)

dennis

The focus on narrative in poetry is more directly and fully addressed in Carl Dennis’s “The Temporal Lyric.”  Dennis notes, “Although lyrics are more likely to be organized rhetorically, especially those that present arguments, are much more common than those that present psychological narratives, discussion of the lyric has suffered from the fact that the oldest and most influential piece of criticism of poetry in the West, Aristotle’s Poetics, is formulated with specific reference not to lyric poetry but to drama and to epic and so presents temporal plotting as the central element of the poem.”  Dennis then notes a different way to approach lyric poems, one that comes out of speech-act theory:

“Here the poem is regarded as a dramatic event in which a fictive speaker performs a speech act that gives specific embodiment, in a particular context, to one or more of the basic tasks that we ask ordinary language to perform—explaining, questioning, demanding, promising, apologizing, praising, castigating, pleading, and the like.  Each of these acts has its particular plot if we use the term to refer not to a sequence of temporal events but to a sequence of rhetorical moves that carry out the task that the specific function requires.  Such a completed action possesses the wholeness that Aristotle demands of a poem: it possesses a proper beginning, middle, and an end, the order of incidents being such that transposing or removing any one of them will disorder the whole.”

Dennis is trying to replace a narrative orientation to poetry with a rhetorical one, and that rhetorical orientation clearly has much to do with turning: I assume that the “rhetorical moves” that comprise the “plot” of the speech act either are turns, or else clearly imply turns (turns allow the transition from one “plot” point to another).  And, indeed, the poems Dennis investigates in his essay (Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” Donne’s sonnet “At the round earth’s imagined corners, blow,” Dickinson’s “These are the days when Birds come back—,” Frederick Goddard Tuckerman’s sonnet “An upper chamber in a darkened house,” and Bishop’s “The Fish”) all feature very clear and distinct turns, and Dennis in fact refers to the turn at least twice in his examination of these poems.

Again, substantively, I greatly agree with Dennis; however, I think that the use of the word “plot” (which Dennis uses off and on throughout his essay), no matter how it is defined, tends to suggest narrative—precisely what Dennis does not want to suggest.  A more neutral and apt term, I think, for Dennis’s plot of rhetorical moves (and a term Dennis himself occasionally employs), is “structure.”

romantic

The same holds true, for the most part, in regard to Jack Stillinger’s “Reading Keats’s Plots.”

Stillinger’s essay does two things: 1) it argues that we need to spend more time examining the plots of poems in general, and of Keats’s poems, in particular, and 2) it examines the plots of some key poems by Keats (The Eve of St. Agnes, Lamia, “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” The Eve of St. Mark, and “Ode on a Grecian Urn”), helping to reveal how important attention to plot can be.

According to Stillinger, contemporary readers tend to skip over plot: “Readers and critics of poetry, even at this late date in the history of practical criticism, are still primarily concerned with idea, theme, and ‘philosophy,’ seeking in effect to replace the literary work in process (what it is, what it does) with interpretive conversion, paraphrase, or translation (what it means).”  Stillinger intends his essay to counter this trend by re-instilling in readers a sense of plot’s vital nature.

Stillinger’s essay differs from Dennis’s in that Stillinger’s, at times, in fact really discusses and examines specifically narrative plots, and so his use of the term very often is apt.  However, Stillinger also uses “narrative” and “plot” to refer to structural maneuvers it seems a bit of a stretch to label such.  This occurs most clearly in Stillinger’s discussion of “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” the least overtly narrative of the poems discussed.  According to Stillinger, the “narrative” of “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is similar to the narratives found in the “greater Romantic lyric,” or poems, such as Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight” and Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” that employ the descriptive-meditative structure (discussed in detail in an essay by Corey Marks in Structure & Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns).  While there are some plot elements in such poems, and while all aspects of a poem are worthy of consideration, the plot elements in such poems often are minimal (for example, journeys often occur in these poems, but they often are imagined or remembered journeys), and such poems are perhaps more fruitfully considered, as Dennis might argue, as speech acts involving “rhetorical moves.”

This certainly is the case with a form of poem central to Keats’s oeuvre, and which Stillinger does not discuss in his essay: the sonnet.  There isn’t any plot to speak of in, say, Keats’s “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” and yet it does turn (stunningly).  Such primarily rhetorical maneuvering tends to be excluded from Stillinger’s analysis in “Reading Keats’s Plots.”  This exclusion helps Stillinger set up a somewhat overly-simplified dichotomy between a poetry of narrative and a poetry of statement.  Stillinger writes,

“The fact that narrative analysis works more successfully with some poems rather than others is itself a valuable piece of critical information.  It is one way of illustrating the difference between lyrics that are essentially static in character and those that are essentially dynamic.  Poems such as To Autumn and Ode on Melancholy have their minds made up before they begin.  They are statements rather than processes, statements of thoughts already arrived at before the speakers begin speaking.  Poems such as Frost at Midnight, Tintern Abbey, Ode: Intimations of Immortality, and Ode to a Nightingale are more complicated.  They represent the actual processes of thinking and take their shape from the movement of the protagonist’s mind, going now in one direction, now in another.  Lyrics in this latter class are at least implied narratives, and often they are, like Yeats’s or Keats’s excursions, explicit narratives.”

While, generally, I like this way of distinguishing among different kinds of poems (for example, I can see how such a distinction could help me discuss with my students the different kinds of tasks poems undertake), I want to complicate this dichotomy using Keats’s sonnets as a test case.  It’s simply not clear where many of Keats’s sonnets would fall in this dichotomy.  They’re not narrative, and yet many of them clearly attempt to “represent the actual processes of thinking and take their shape from the movement of the protagonist’s mind.”  Perhaps this is “implied narrative,” but it’s not clear why it has to be referred to as such.  I suggest that instead of creating a dichotomy between narrative and statement, we instead create a dichotomy between the poetry of dramatic, dynamic structure (involving significant turns) and the poetry of statement.  This description of the dichotomy incorporates non-narrative turns, the “at least implied narratives” Stillinger mentions, the significant rhetorical maneuvers Dennis’s essay focuses on, and the tactics so many Keats’s poems actually deploy.

*

All of the above may seem a bit like picking nits: it’s all, I again acknowledge, largely an investigation into terminology rather than substance.  And yet terms matter.  The turn has long been a vital part of poetry (T. S. Eliot calls the turn “one of the most important means of poetic effect since Homer”), but it has not been generally recognized as such.  This is a strange situation, one which has many causes—one cause, however, certainly is the fact that we do not have set terms for what we are discussing when we discuss structures and turns.  Thus, often, structure and the turn get subsumed in other terminology.  And because of the use of such varied terminology the many conversations that involve and even focus on poetic structure and the turn often are never seen to be related.  And this, in turn, contributes to the continuing general lack of recognition of the great importance of the turn.

It is my sense that Hoagland, Dennis, and Stillinger would all be for a greater recognition of the turn in poetry—indeed, I think the three essays discussed here in fact are a part of the growing body of literature attempting to draw attention to the significance of the turn in poetry.  My effort here has been to show this link among these essays, even as I try to point out that even in such essays the turn, in some subtle yet significant ways, remains hidden, embedded in a terminology of “narrative” and “plot” that tends to downplay or even deny the larger significance of the poetic turn.





The Turn on the Air

23 06 2009

MakingofaSonnetPbk

In a previous post, I discussed Edward Hirsch and Eavan Boland’s The Making of a Sonnet: A Norton Anthology, both praising it and thinking about the ways in which this anthology both privileged the turn in the sonnet but also noting some of the ways this anthology did not quite give the turn its full due.

What a pleasure it was, then, to listen to “The Making of Sonnets,” a show on WBUR’s “On Point,” with Tom Ashbrook, originally broadcast April 1, 2008, and re-broadcast today, June 22, 2009.  Mainly, it was just a pleasure to get to hear Hirsch and Boland read and discuss numerous great sonnets.  However, it also was a pleasure to get to hear a discussion about a central tradition of English poetry that really and truly foregrounds the turn.

Responding to Ashbrook’s request for “a little definition: what’s a sonnet?,” Hirsch responds by noting that, while sonnets are generally difficult to pin down, they can best be considered “a fourteen-line poem, in main, with a structure that turns.”  The early part of this interview,then, especially, pays a lot of attention to the turn in sonnets.

A terrific interview, for a variety of reasons.  Well worth listening to for all those interested in poetry, even moreso for those interested in sonnets, and perhaps even moreso for those intrigued by the feature of the turn in sonnets.  Needless to say, I highly recommend it.





The Self-Reflexive Turn

22 06 2009

turnsign

I’ve added a new page to the Theory & Criticism portion of this blog.  It’s called “The Self-Reflexive Turn,” and it contains poems that not only have turns in them but draw attention to those turns by, in fact, calling them “turns.”  Here are two of the new page’s poems:

“Sonnet,” by Bernadette Mayer

“In this strange labyrinth, how shall I turn?,” by Lady Mary Wroth

Interesting in themselves, I think, such self-reflexiveness also offers further evidence of the degree to which poets are aware of the importance of the turn in poems.  Check out the new page–and let me know of other poems that employ self-reflexive mention of the turn.





14 Lines, Turned into a Sonnet

20 02 2009

Making of a Sonnet

I recently got Edward Hirsch’s and Eavan Boland’s The Making of a Sonnet: A Norton Anthology.  Mostly, I’m enjoying it very much.  For a turnophile, of course, a book of sonnets typically is a treasure trove.

One of the things I like very much about this anthology is that it really gets the importance of the turn, or the volta, in the sonnet form.  For example, whenever the sonnet is defined, the volta is mentioned.

But, more than this, The Making of a Sonnet actually, at times, suggests that the turn may be just about the most important part of a sonnet.  In Boland’s introductory essay, “Discovering the Sonnet,” she states:

“The original form of the sonnet, the Petrarchan, made a shadow play of eight lines against six.  Of all the form’s claims, this may be the most ingenious.  The octave sets out the problems, the perceptions, the wishes of the poet.  The sestet does something different: it makes a swift, wonderfully compact turn on the hidden meanings of but and yet and wait for a moment.  The sestet answers the octave, but neither politely nor smoothly.  And this simple engine of proposition and rebuttal has allowed the sonnet over centuries, in the hands of very different poets, to replicate over and over again the magic of inner argument.”

And, indeed, in the introduction to a section of the anthology called “The Sonnet Goes to Different Lengths,” a section that features sonnets of lengths other than the standard fourteen lines, the editors, when trying to explain how the poems in this section in fact are sonnets, turn to the turn–the final paragraph of the section’s introduction states:

“The truth is that there have always been meaningful variations on the fourteen-line standard.  Almost every one of these poems defines itself as a sonnet.  It relates an experience, develops a thought, makes a case, an argument.  It takes a turn.  The poets here have gone to great lengths to give the sonnet a different length.  There have been extensions, reductions, departures, rebellions.  The full story of the sonnet ought to include them.”

While I think this focus on the turn in the sonnet is good for a variety of reasons, I wish the editors would have done a little bit more with this emphasis.  Namely, I wish the anthology had included a section of sonnets with thrilling, irregular turns.

For all of its emphasis on turns, the anthology’s discussion of turns tends to imply that turns pretty much take place where one expects them to: after the octave in a Petrarchan sonnet; after the third quatrain in a Shakespearean.  But this is not always the case.  At times (rare, perhaps, but significantly), the major turn in a sonnet comes at some unexpected location in the poem.  Consider:

George Herbert’s “Prayer” (included in the anthology).  The major turn takes place right before the poem’s last two words: “something understood.”

William Wordsworth’s “Surprised by joy…” (included in the anthology).  The major dramatic turn (though there are many turns in this poem) takes place toward the end of the second line when the speaker realizes that his companion (deceased) is no longer with him to share his joy.

Sir Philip Sidney’s “What, have I thus betrayed my liberty?” (not included in the anthology; from Astrophil and Stella).  In this poem, the truly major turn occurs in the middle of line 12.  After convincing himself he can live without Stella, at this point in the poem, Astrophil sees Stella, and falls for her all over again.

These irregular breaks are vital parts of the significance-making of each of these poems.  For Herbert, the late turn is a miracle.  For Wordsworth, the quick turn reveals how quickly the presence of death short-circuits any elation from epiphanies.  For Sidney, the turn in line 12 is disruptive, just as seeing Stella disrupts Astrophil’s plans to leave her.

How cool would it have been to have a section in this anthology called “Strange Voltas,” or something like the Voltage! feature of this blog, to see this anthology itself enact its own significance.

The turn is vital, and it is a wild, not a regular, part of poems.  To their credit, the editors of The Making of a Sonnet recognize this.  I only wish a bit more had been done to act on this knowledge, to let the wild turn, as it tends to do so well, shake things up even more.