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.

Structure as Pattern of Turning in James G. Hepburn’s Poetic Design: Handbook and Anthology

5 06 2016

When in Poetic Design: Handbook and Anthology, James G. Hepburn uses the word “structure” he means many things: “structure” comprises, among other things, stanzas, syntax, rhyme scheme, and line. However, for Hepburn, “structure” means, primarily, the pattern of a poem’s turning–the thing is, he is not explicit about this, though he should have been.

Right away in chapter 8, “Structure,” it seems as though structure might mean something  like the turn. Hepburn opens the chapter stating, “The structure of a poem is like the structure of a house: it is what underlies, supports, and frames the words, the alliteration, the metaphors, the rhymes. It is the integrated pattern and movement of all the parts” (109).

However, from this focused definition of structure, structure quickly comes to mean a great many things. In the next paragraph, structure means stanzas. Discussing Robert Frost’s “Dust of Snow,” Hepburn states, “The most obvious aspect of structure is the division of the poem into two stanzas” (109). He also notes that syntax is a part of this structure: “But look at the poem again, and observe that the poet has crossed the structure  with another structure: the two stanzas are part of a single sentence” (109-10). Further on, Hepburn adds an additional element to structure: “One aspect of the structure of the poem that has been unmentioned–and there are still others–is the rhyme scheme” (110). And, Hepburn adds, “Of course the individual line is an important structural element in any poem, and a more complete discussion of the two previous poems [“Dust of Snow” and Shakespeare’s sonnet 73] would have dealt with it too” (114).

For all of this range, this diversity, of what structure entails, it is clear that, though he never says it, the heart of structure, as the introduction to the chapter seemed to indicate it could be, is the turn.

The three poems focused on in this chapter feature distinct turns. “Dust of Snow” turns sharply between its two stanzas. Sonnet 73, as one would expect of a Shakespearean sonnet, turns distinctly between the third quatrain and the final couplet. The third poem, William Wordsworth’s “There Was a Boy”, turns profoundly between its two stanzas.

And Hepburn seems to be aware of this: most of his discussions of various structural components entail (though they only imply) the turn, that is, a major shift in the rhetorical and/or dramatic trajectory of a poem. Discussing the two stanzas in “Dust of Snow,” Hepburn notes, “The stanzaic division corresponds with a division between image and idea, or action and reaction: the crow shakes the snow in the first stanza, and the speaker of the poem reflects in the second” (109).

The same thing happens when discussing sonnet 73. Hepburn initially focuses on the rhyme scheme in this poem, noting that this particular sonnet has both a “fourfold structure” (abab-cdcd-efef-gg) and a “twofold structure” (ababcdcdefef–gg) (111). However, Hepburn knows (though he does not say) that the twofold structure pivots on the poem’s turn; he states, “The twofold aspect is supported by the structure of idea in the poem: the first twelve lines say that the speaker of the poem is growing old; the last two lines assert a consequence” (111). In the next paragraph, Hepburn expands on this, and, though he does not say it directly, directs his reader’s attention to the volta:

Now consider another aspect of structure, the development of image and idea. The first four lines present an image of autumn, the next four of a darkening evening, the next four of a dying fire. These three images can be thought of as constituting a single image of a dying fire on an autumn evening, or they can be seen as separate, essentially repeating images. Individually or together, they say: I am growing old. Again, one sees a structure in which the first twelve lines contrast with the last two. The division is further emphasized by the fact that the idea in first twelve lines is presented in sustained images, whereas the ideas in the last two lines is presented more directly. The two parts of the poem look different from each other: in the first twelve lines images are in the foreground, with the idea lying behind them; in the last two lines an idea is in the foreground, served by incidental metaphors. (111)

And the same thing happens with “There Was a Boy.” Of this poem, Hepburn first makes note of its “apparently irregular” structure, commenting on the different sizes of the stanzas (which are so irregular that Hepburn clarifies that each is “more fittingly called a verse paragraph”); on the presence of “several strong caesuras”; and on the facts “that the iambic pentameter rhythm is often broken” and “that there are many run-on lines” (113). Hepburn then turns from this view of the poem to argue for the structural unity of the poem; he states, “He [Wordsworth] does not rely upon a conventional form such as the sonnet, and he does not invent his own neat stanzaic structure; rather, he creates a fluid organic pattern” (113).

Hepburn begins his discussion of this fluid organic pattern by focusing on the poem’s use of line, including the ways that “incongruent grammatical structures” affect it–he notes, for example, that “almost every line in the first verse paragraph is run-on, and almost all the heavy grammatical pauses–ends of clauses and sentences–are placed within the lines rather than at the ends” (114). Hepburn observes that this technique creates “a steady forward movement” that feels “natural rather than sculpted” (114). Hepburn then contrasts the use of these structural elements to their use in the second verse paragraph, which feels “less unified than the first, and lacks something of its forward movement,” thus coming to seem “a diminishing afterthought” (114).

But, of course, this difference in the deployment of structural elements serves to help the poem enact the feelings and moods on either side of the poem’s major turn from lively celebration of wondrous, mystical life to fragmented mourning. As he considers the significance of this (unnamed) turn, Hepburn thinks about how it seems the second verse paragraph could be removed from the poem without too much loss (whereas “Dust of Snow” would be destroyed by the loss of its second stanza), but that in fact this is not the case; Hepburn states, “Yet nothing is more certain than that in its own way Wordsworth’s second verse paragraph is as important structurally as Frost’s” (114). To make his case, Hepburn notes the parallels between the boy’s and the man’s silent listening, and how, only with the second verse paragraph “does the reader himself [sic] stand mute, looking at boy and man in nature, listening to the meaning of life” (114-15).

Hepburn also makes a point that I think is not quite totally correct and that demonstrates a negative consequence of his inattention to the turn; he states,

As a further means of clarifying the structural importance of the second verse paragraph, contrast it now with the quatrains of Shakespeare’s poem. Any one of the quatrains (any one of the images contained by them) could be removed without vitally damaging the structure of the poem or the poem itself: something important would be lost, the clear and sedate narrowing of images and implication, but the poem could sustain the loss, and remain much the same as before. In Wordsworth’s poem the second image of the listening person reverberates against the first, enhances its meaning, gives the poem a direction into deeper meaning. (115)

I disagree with Hepburn’s comparing the second verse paragraph with a sonnet’s quatrain. The second verse paragraph, which comes after the turn, should instead be compared to Shakespeare’s couplet (or, had a different sonnet been used, Petrarch’s sestet). The result is the same: Hepburn still believes that the second verse paragraph cannot be removed. And this is good. However, this paragraph of Hepburn’s would have made much more sense had Hepburn written, “As a further means of clarifying the structural importance of the second verse paragraph, compare it now to the couplet of Shakespeare’s poem. Just as the couplet cannot be removed from that sonnet without irreparably damaging the meaning and significance of the poem, so can the second verse paragraph not be removed from ‘There Was a Boy.'”

The fact that Hepburn does not do this is the sign and seal of the fact that he does not pay adequate attention to the turn in his chapter on structure. He is generally aware of the turn, and his whole chapter on structure pivots on it, but he is not explicit about it, and so some infelicities and confusions arise where there need not be any. The bigger confusion that this partial inattention to the turn creates occurs at the outset of his chapter on structure. Hepburn states that structure is “like the structure of a house: it is what underlies, supports, and frames the words, the alliteration, the metaphors, the rhymes.” So, structure underlies, supports, and frames rhyme, but also rhyme is a structural “aspect” (110). This confusion could have been cleared up had Hepburn differentiated, as did Randall Jarrell in “Levels and Opposites: Structure in Poetry,” between “musical structure” and “other sorts of structure in lyrical poetry.”

In the introduction to How Does a Poem Mean?, the only introduction to poetry textbook that contains a chapter on the turn (though this book refers to it as the “fulcrum”), John Ciardi refers to the book’s final chapter on the turn as “the important one.”  Ciardi clarifies, “The present volume sets out simply to isolate some of the characteristics of poetry and to develop criteria by which parts of the poetic structure may be experienced in a more comprehensive way.  The final chapter suggests a method whereby all the criteria developed in the preceding chapters may be applied to the comprehension of the total poem.”

I think Hepburn agrees. He examines a number of structural characteristics of poems, but the turn is the key aspect of the poem these other characteristics orbit and contribute to. And this is excellent! (In fact, about Wordsworth’s poem Hepburn notes correctly that “[i]t has been impossible to describe the structure without clarifying the meaning, and it would be equally impossible to state the meaning without discussing the structure” (115).) I only wish that Hepburn had been more consistently explicit in articulating the centrality of the turn to his conception of poetic structure. In this way, his treatment of structure would have been more accurate and likely would not have included the small but still unnecessary missteps that it does.

Wordsworth, Theorizing the Volta

2 06 2015

January 26th.–I wish I could here write down all that Wordsworth has said about the Sonnet lately, or record here the fine fourteen lines of Milton’s ” Paradise Lost,” which he says are a perfect sonnet without rhyme, and essentially one in unity of thought. Wordsworth does not approve of uniformly closing the second quatrain with a full stop, and of giving a turn to the thought in the terzines. This is the Italian mode; Milton lets the thought run over. He has used both forms indifferently. I prefer the Italian form. Wordsworth does not approve of closing the sonnet with a couplet, and he holds it to be absolutely a vice to have a sharp turning at the end with an epigrammatic point. He does not, therefore, quite approve of the termination of Cowper’s ” Sonnet to Romney,”–

” Nor couldst thou sorrow see

While I was Hayley’s guest and sat to thee.”

–Henry Crabb Robinson, Diary, Reminiscences, and Correspondence of Henry Crabb Robinson (223).

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.