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.

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5 responses

23 06 2009
The Turn on the Air « Structure & Surprise

[…] a previous post, I discussed Edward Hirsch and Eavan Boland’s The Making of a Sonnet: A Norton Anthology, […]

11 07 2011
Christina Pugh’s “On Sonnet Thought” « Structure & Surprise

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

27 08 2011
Add Excitation to Your Recitation: Attend to the Turn « Structure & Surprise

[…] This poem has two major turns: one at the end of line 8, and one at the end of line 13.  (Notice that there is no major turn at the end of line 12, where one might expect one in a Shakespearean sonnet.  For information on the mobile volta, click here.) […]

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

[…]  In making such claims, Fussell joins other commentators on the sonnet, including Phillis Levin, Edward Hirsch and Eavan Boland, and Christina Pugh, who acknowledge the volta’s vital […]

19 05 2015
Looking with Hirshfield’s Ten Windows | Structure & Surprise

[…] connection of the sonnet and the turn (about which, more information can be found here, here, here, and here).  In one essay, Hirshfield points out how the fourth stanza of Seamus Heaney’s […]

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