Turned onto Turns: Comments on Structure

Never in this world did I expect to praise a living writer because of his sonnets but these have been a revelation to me.  For years I have been stating that the sonnet form is impossible to us, but Moore, by destroying the rigidities of the old form and rescuing the form itself intact–an achievement of far-reaching implications–has succeeded in completely altering my opinion.  The sonnet, I see now, is not and has never been a form at all of any fixed sense other than that incident upon a certain turn of mind.  It is the extremely familiar dialogue unit upon which all dramatic writing is founded: a statement, then a rejoinder of a sort, perhaps a direct reply, perhaps a variant of the original–but a comeback of one sort or another–which Dante and his contemporaries had formalized in their day and language.

–William Carlos Williams, from his foreword to Merrill Moore’s Sonnets from New Directions (Norfolk, CT: New Directions, 1938), pp. 5-6.


…though paraphrase may be useful in helping to explain a specific difficulty in the paraphrasing of a poem, it is unfailingly a destructive method of discussion if one permits the illusion that the paraphrase is more than a momentary crutch, or that it is in any sense the poem itself.  No poem “means” anything that a paraphrase is capable of saying.  For…the poem exists in time and it exists in balance and countermotion across a silence.  That timing and that counterthrust are inseparable from the emotional force of the poem, and it is exactly the timing and counterthrust that paraphrase cannot reproduce.  The question to put to the poem is not “What does it mean?” but “How does it mean?”  “What does it mean?” inevitably invites paraphrase and inevitably leads away from the poem.  “How does it mean?” is best asked by absorbing the poetic structure as poetic structure, i.e., as a countermotion across a silence, and thus leads the analysis to the poem itself.

If every poem is constructed on such countermotions across a fulcrum [i.e., turns], and if the handling of the technical elements always changes from one unit of poetic structure to another, the method of analysis here suggested must inevitably lead to a fuller understanding of that poetic structure.  One need only locate the principal fulcrum [i.e., the location of a turn], the lesser fulcrums within the main units of the structure, and then analyze the differences in the handling of the poetic elements within each unit and sub-unit.  To do that much, however, is not to have achieved the poem, but rather to have prepared oneself to achieve it.  Any method of analysis is designed only to assure one that he is giving his human attention to the poem itself rather than to some non-poetic paraphrase of its unenacted “meaning.”  In every good poem there is some final echo of nuance and feeling that lies beyond explanation and analysis.



…a poem must finally be seen as a formal structure in which the countermotions of the units release into the silences they create a force of contained emotional perception beyond the power of statement.  The key terms are: release into silence, contained emotional perception, and statement.  The poetic structure releases its “meaning”; it does not say it.

–John Ciardi, How Does a Poem Mean? (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1959).


I shall have to disregard the musical structure of poetry: metre, stanza-form, rhyme, alliteration, quantity, and so on.  I neglect these without too much regret: criticism has paid them an altogether disproportionate amount of attention….I am going to talk, primarily, about other sorts of structure in lyrical poetry.

A successful poem starts from 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.

We must remember that it is essential relationships, not any entities or external forms or decorations that are really poetic; all the clouds and flowers and Love and Beauty and rhyme and metre and similes and alliteration that ever existed…are not, in themselves, enough to make one little poem.

–Randall Jarrell, “Levels and Opposites: Structure in Poetry,” in Georgia Review 50.4 (Winter 1996): 697-713.


…effective closure will always involve the reader’s expectations regarding the termination of a sequence–even though it will never be simply a matter of fulfilling them.

A hyperdetermined conclusion will have maximal stability and finality; and when these qualities occur in conjunction with unexpected or in some way unstable material…the result will be wit–which, as many have observed, occurs when expectations are simultaneously surprised and fulfilled.

–Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Poetic Closure: A Study of How Poems End (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968).


A characteristic of the Petrarchan sonnet is its convention of the “turn,” which normally occurs at the start of line 9, the beginning of the sestet.  It is perhaps more accurate to say that the turn occurs somewhere in the white space that separates line 8 from line 9, and that line 9 simply reflects or records it.  But wherever we think of it as actually taking place, something very important, something indeed indispensable to the action of the Petrarchan sonnet, happens at the turn: we are presented there with a logical or emotional shift by which the speaker enables himself to take a new or altered or enlarged view of his subject.

The standard way of constructing a Petrarchan sonnet is to project the subject in the first quatrain; to develop or complicate it in the second; then to execute, at the beginning of the sestet, the turn which will open up for solution the problem advanced by the octave, or which will ease the load of idea or emotion borne by the octave, or which will release the pressure accumulated in the octave.  The octave and the sestet conduct actions which are analogous to the actions of inhaling and exhaling, or of contraction and release in the muscular system.  The one builds up the pressure, the other releases it; and the turn is the dramatic and climactic center of the poem, the place where the intellectual or emotional method of release first becomes clear and possible.  From line 9 it is usually plain sailing down to the end of the sestet and the resolution of the experience.  If the two parts of the sonnet, although quantitatively unequal, can be said to resemble the two sides of an equation, then the turn is something like an equals sign: it sets into action the relationship between two things, and triggers a total statement.  We may even suggest that one of the emotional archetypes of the Petrarchan sonnet structure is the pattern of sexual pressure and release.  Surely no sonnet succeeds as a sonnet that does not execute at the turn something analogous to the general kinds of “release” with which the reader’s muscles and nervous system are familiar.

–Paul Fussell, Poetic Meter and Poetic Form, revised edition (New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1979), pp. 115-116.


Theories of literature, systematics of literature, history of literature may exercise the intellect, but aren’t they in fact irrelevant face to face with the poem and its effect, or with the single line, the single twist in the poem?

–Geoffrey Grigson, The Private Art: A Poetry Notebook (London: Allison and Busby, 1982): 29.


Even poems that begin lightly and whimsically may take a disturbing turn not originally envisioned by the poet.  In its most destructive form, the movement is into realizations that are death-haunted or tragically premonitory, or that undercut cherished illusions inseparable from personal self-regard.

Pleasure, play, wit, comedy: it is hard, offhand, to think of these words, or concepts, in relation to deeply serious poetry.  The connection, in fact, may be the most difficult thing about any art for people to grasp (apart from being attuned to the medium itself if its values—color, bodily movement, spatial balancings, currents of tonality, dynamics, and so on—are unfamiliar).  Much of the character of poetry as an art, rather than as a mere statement of ideas or personal expression, depends on this quality of formal play.  This quality militates against sentimentality (the demand for unearned emotional response) and other sorts of false eloquence.  It provides the distancing that allows a poem to build itself as an organic construct in its own right.

Poems have a way of avoiding entrapment by their starting points….One needs to submit to [a poem’s] orchestrated dynamics, almost as if to music, in order to grasp it clearly: the successive colorations and intensities, the sudden shifts, the tonal interactions, the cumulative volatility, and then the stripping down of feeling.

Much of this is true as well of ordinary speech, which shares with poetry the implicit rationale of language itself: the urge to convey the whole feeling, or body of subjective meaning, that is our human matrix of observation and experience.  It is this urge that compels infants to strive for speech so vigorously and that makes us so skeptical of purportedly objective accounts of reality, and even of the existence of realities outside our personal experience.  It is not hard, then, to see that the tonal structures of poetry are vitally central in genuine communication.  They are adventures in catching hold of insights and following them wherever they lead.  With every nuance or abrupt turn, they evoke the complexity and shadings of the streams of elusive felt truth we are forever encountering.

The affective life of a poem is both its whole character and its whole purpose or reason for existing.  The psychological pressure that we find within it is its connection with the rest of life.  That is why the dynamics of its structure, the shifting relationships of feeling and intensity among its successive units, are not “merely” theoretical considerations but something a great deal more vital and relevant than is generally understood.

The lyrical structure of a poem…is the overall strategy of movement—the progression, juxtaposition, and interrelation of all the lyric centers, dynamic shifts, and minor tonal notes that make up the work.  (A tonal note is the emotional or sensuous coloration of a phrase, line, sentence, or other small unit of a larger passage.  Typically, a lyric center derives its depth, richness, and body from a combination of such notes.)  Closely related to the lyrical structure is the poem’s dynamics: in a large sense its rhythm of feeling, where “feeling” connotes all aspects of emotionally and sensuously charged awareness.  More technically, the dynamics of the poem reside in the shifts of feeling and intensity among its separate lyric or affective or tonal units.  These shifts may be gentle modulations, or at the furthest extreme, wrenching turns of emphasis or focus or emotional pitch (torques).  The varied pattern of these shiftings constitutes the overall dynamics of a poem.

–M.L. Rosenthal, The Poet’s Art (New York: W. W. Norton, 1987).








There is an archetypal poem, and its most ancient design is probably the labyrinth.  One suddenly cuts in, leaving the green world for the apparent stasis and darkness of the cave.  The first words of a poem propose and nose forward toward a confrontation with what the writer is only partially aware of, or may not be prepared to address until it emerges, flushed forth by digressions and meanders.  Poetry twists toward the unknown and seeks to realize something beyond the poet’s initial awareness.  What it seeks to know might be described as the unlimited interiority of its initial impetus.

–Clayton Eshleman, Novices: A Study of Poetic Apprenticeship (Los Angeles: Mercer & Aitchison, 1989).


I suspect that ten years from now the real debate among poets and concerned critics will not be about poetic form in the narrow technical sense of metrical versus nonmetrical verse.  That is already a tired argument, and only the uninformed or biased can fail to recognize that genuine poetry can be created in both modes.  How obvious it should be that no technique precludes poetic achievement, just as none automatically assures it (though admittedly some techniques may be more difficult to use at certain moments in history).  Soon, I believe, the central debate will focus on form in the wider, more elusive sense of poetic structure.  How does a poet best shape words, images, and ideas into meaning?  How much compression is needed to transform versified lines–be they metrical or free–into genuine poetry?  The important arguments will not be about technique in isolation but about the fundamental aesthetic assumptions of writing and judging poetry.

At that point the real issues presented by recent American poetry will become clearer: the debasement of poetic language; the prolixity of the lyric; the bankruptcy of the confessional mode; the inability to establish a meaningful aesthetic for new poetic narrative; and the denial of musical texture in the contemporary poem.  The revival of traditional forms will be seen then as only one response to this troubling situation.  There will undoubtedly be others.  Only time will prove which answer is the most persuasive.

–Dana Gioia, “Notes on the New Formalism,” in Can Poetry Matter?: Essays on Poetry and American Culture (Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf, 1992): 29-41.


Birds of different varieties, on different limbs in the boughs of poetics, chirp out their individual melodies unaware of the firm rhetorical trunk supporting them all.

If American poetry is ever to regain any popular acceptance in our milieu of pulp literature, it must reclothe itself in rhetoric.  It is not traditional forms (meter, rhyme, etc.) that will deliver poetry up into the hands of the masses as some now suggest.  A resurgence in the use of traditional forms implies a likely concurrent resurgence in efficacy, and popular appreciation may be earned proportionately with it.

–Don Hoyt, “Positive Capability: After Language Poetry,” in The Redneck Review of Literature 24 (1993): 25-27.


Reading a poem includes knowing and not knowing.  Uncertainty, shock, and surprise, as well as music and knowledge, may be a part of what the reader gets.

–Kenneth Koch, Making Your Own Days: The Pleasures of Reading and Writing Poetry (New York, NY: Touchstone, 1999): 123.


In a poem, one is always given, I would argue, a sense of place that matters–a place on suffered the loss of, a place one longs for–a stage upon which the urgent act of mind of this particular lyric occasion (be it memory, description, meditation, fractured recollection of self, or even further disintegration of self under the pressure of history, for example) “takes place.”

…A break…can constitute trigger occasions, or situations, or kinds of place from which the spirit in language springs forward into the action of poetry.

All such moments–where we are taken by surprise and asked to react–are marked places in consciousness, places where a “turn” is required.

–Jorie Graham, “Something of Moment,” in Ploughshares 27. 4 (Winter 2001-02), 7-9.


The capacity to “express” the ineffable, the inexpressible, the emissary of the nonverbal territories of intuition, deep paradox, conflicting bodily impulses, as well as profoundly present yet nonlanguaged spiritual insights, even certain emotional crisis states–these are the wondrous haul that the nets of “deep image,” “collective emotive image,” haiku image-clusters, musical effects of all kinds (truths only introduced via metrical variation, for example), and the many hinge actions in poetry (turns, leaps, associations, lacunae) bring onto the shore of the made for us.  The astonishments of poetry, for me, reside most vividly in its capacity to make a reader receive utterable and unutterable realities at once.

–Jorie Graham, “At the Border,” in American Women Poets in the 21st Century: Where Lyric Meets Language, edited by Claudia Rankine and Juliana Spahr (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2002): 146-48.


Is there a describable lyricism of swerving?  For those poems for which the swerve, the turn, the sudden change in direction are integral, can we begin to articulate a precise appreciation?  Is there a describable and individualistic lyricism of swerving?

I would argue that a flat mysticism of the particular is a problem.  What’s needed is a twist or turn, a kind of swerve in another direction–as Louis Zukofsky suggests, “thought’s torsion.”

The lyric, to sustain our interest, to have complexity and beauty, and to remain compelling, requires “torsion”–that is, motion, tension, torque, and a twist.

–Hank Lazer, in “Lyricism of the Swerve: The Poetry of Rae Armantrout” (in Lyric & Spirit: Selected Essays 1996-2008 (Richmond, CA: Omnidawn, 2008), pp. 95-126; and American Women Poets in the 21st Century: Where Lyric Meets Language, edited by Claudia Rankine and Juliana Spahr (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan, 2002), pp. 27-51).


Of the many pleasures that poetry offers, one of the keenest for me is the possibility of imaginative travel, a sudden slip down the rabbit hole.  No other form can spirit the reader away to a new conceptual zone so quickly, often in the mere handful of lines that a lyric poem takes to express itself.  Whenever I begin to read a new poem, I feel packed and ready to go, eager to be lifted into new territory….

If we view poetry as an affordable–cheap, really–means of transportation, we can see the development of a poem as a series of phases in the journey, each of which has a distinct function.  The opening of the poem is the point of departure; the interior of the poem is the ground that will be simultaneously invented and covered through a series of navigational maneuvers; and the ending of the poem is the unforeseen destination–international arrivals, if you will….I am hardly alone in saying that the poem can act as an imaginative vehicle, a form of transportation to a place unknown.  But I expect my company would thin out if I admitted that I usually fail to experience the deeper, more widely celebrated rewards of poetry, such as spiritual nourishment and empathetic identification, unless the poem has provided me with some kind of ride….

I do not mean to suggest that poetry is a verbal amusement park (or do I?) but I do hold up as a standard for assessing a poem its ability to carry me to a place that is dramatically different from the place I was when I began to read it.

To view a poem as a trip means taking into account the methods that give a poem vehicular capability.  It means looking into the way a poet manages to become the poem’s first driver and thus first to know its secret destination.

In teaching or reading poetry, a question I habitually ask my students or myself is how does the poem get from its alpha to its omega.  Obviously, the question does not apply to the many poems that exhaust themselves crawling in the general direction of beta….

–Billy Collins, “The Ride of Poetry: Collins on Metaphor and Movement” (in Contemporary American Poetry: Behind the Scenes, edited by Ryan G. Van Cleave (New York: Pearson, 2003), pp. 66-69).


Rhetoric has been a skill in atrophy in contemporary poetry.  Maybe our American cult of individuality, our obsession with identity as a sort of divinely granted personal possession, makes us suspicious of the study of writerly techniques.  Yet rhetorical facility is a sort of index of relative power–the shy, the earnest, the low-to-the-ground can be distinguished from the lofty, the free, the assertive by their relation to rhetorical authority.  There is a quality of boldness and freedom in some poems and poets that others seem never to attain.  The instinct for rhetoric is often a defining factor.

–Tony Hoagland, “Altitudes, a Homemade Taxonomy,” in Real Sofistikashun (Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf, 2006): 1-20.


And what I shall call the dolphin’s turn, a transformative veering from one course to another, a way of being drawn off track to an unexpected destination, this turn is paradigmatic for the transportation system of poetry itself, both in its technical “versing,” and in its thematic and figural changes.

Imagine that we are sailing, or swimming, or watching, or drowning—which we are.  Suddenly (a natural adverb of the dolphin, since sudden derives from underneath, from the same sub as sub-marine, going below or above, sur-facing, by sur-prise, as from hidden depths), a creature emerges.  It breaks the surface between two elements, perhaps as the poem breaks from silence to sound and back, line after line, leaping and turning through what differentiates poetry from prose: its more frequent encounters with wordlessness, its high quota of turns, both of speech and thought, and of actual lineation, its navigating according to its own frequency even as it finds its course, responsively, by echolocation, by soundings.

turning thoughts about in the mind is what poetry does–it’s one of those forms of versing.

–Peter Sacks, “You Only Guide Me by Surprise”: Poetry and the Dolphin’s Turn (Berkeley, CA: The Bancroft Library at The University of California, Berkeley, 2007).


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 vastly different poets, to replicate over and over again the magic of inner argument.

–Eavan Boland, “Discovering the Sonnet” (in The Making of a Sonnet: A Norton Anthology, edited by Eavan Boland and Edward Hirsch (New York: W.W. Norton, 2008): 43-48).


[E]very poem has a ‘center,’ a line or group of lines, which reveal the heart of the poem but should not be confused with theme or content. Rather, they are lines with a particular sort of energy, almost always a heightened energy, and one way to identify them is to imagine that when the writer drafted these particular lines, she could feel the force and trajectory of the finished poem even if many details still needed to be worked out—that the poem from that time forward held mystery and  potential completeness for the writer and would indeed be worth finishing….The center can occur anywhere in the poem…[and] can be a phrase or a stanza, or it may reveal its energy in the gap between stanzas.”

[The center] can be a moment where the poem’s tension is most palpably enacted, where the poem’s time frames or layers interact simultaneously, where the texture of the poem undergoes significant variation, where the poem contradicts itself, or where the poem seems to quicken and gather itself into a passage that acts as a kind of net….And nearly always, the center contains a pivot or surprise that gives the whole poem simultaneous light and darkness, hence considerable range.

–Leslie Ullman, “A ‘Dark Star’ Passes through It.”


The sonnet’s volta, or “turn”…has become an inherent expectation for most short lyric poems.

–Ellan Bryan Voigt, The Art of Syntax: Rhythm of Thought, Rhythm of Song (Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf, 2009).


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


8 responses

2 03 2009
Q & A, Part 2 « Structure & Surprise

[…] a twist.”  (For more on the necessity and even primacy of the turn in lyric poetry, click here.  And if you want to read some more poems (besides so many of those in Structure & Surprise) […]

26 04 2009
Students Don’t Like Poetry? Teach Turns « Structure & Surprise

[…] and Jorie Graham.  (For a glance at the turn’s presence in Armantrout and Graham, click here.  Scroll down to read the quotations from Jorie Graham and Hank Lazer on Rae […]

29 08 2009
Keats, Negative Capability, and the Turn (part 1 of 3) « Structure & Surprise

[…] of humor are not foreign to more serious poetic undertakings.  As noted in this blog’s Turned onto Turns: Comments on Structure, M. L. Rosenthal notes in The Poet’s […]

16 08 2012
Paul Fussell on the “Indispensable” Volta « Structure & Surprise

[…] recently added to this blog’s “Turned onto Turns: Comments on Structure” page the […]

23 09 2013
The Structure and Surprise Blog Turns 100! | Structure & Surprise

[…] addressed the turn–under its various names, including Ciardi’s “fulcrum”, Rosenthal’s “torque,” Lazer’s “swerve,” and Ullman’s “center”–in Turned onto Turns: Comments on Structure and […]

16 01 2014
Turning the Bad Poem into the Great | Structure & Surprise

[…] Over at The French Exit, Eliza Gabbert critiques Danielle Cadena Deulen’s “The Needle, the Thread,” a poem included in the most recent issue of Crazyhorse.  Gabbert’s critique is multifaceted–from noting grammatical problems to registering that the poem “oozes sentimentality”–however, the heart of Gabbert’s critique, it seems to me, is the poem’s lack of a turn.  Gabbert notes that the poem contains a “pretty flat register of emotion: awe all the way through.”  And, as a result, “there’s no real tension.”  What Gabbert would prefer is more drama; she states, ”Give me a big Rilkean ending any day. But in a Rilke poem, you get 13 staid lines about a bust of Apollo before the flushed demand of the ending. There’s a sense of subtlety, a sense of balance.”  Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” of course, is famous for presenting a particularly stunning act of turning, of, in the words of M. L. Rosenthal, poetic “torque.” […]

17 05 2016
On Tony Hoagland’s “Poetic Housing” | Structure & Surprise

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20 07 2022
Lucy Alford’s *Structures* of Poetic Attention | Structure & Surprise

[…] Turned onto Turns: Comments on Structure […]

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