The Refusal to Turn

30 07 2011

Writing about the volta, the turn, in sonnets, Phillis Levin, in the introduction to The Penguin Book of the Sonnet, states, “Though the poet will sometimes seem to ignore the volta, its absence can take on meaning, as well…”

This can be true, as well, for poems other than sonnets.  Sometimes, the lack of a significant turn is a vital part of a poem.  In Thomas Hardy’s “The Shadow on the Stone,” a variation on the “turn-to-another structure,” the refusal to turn lies at the heart of the poem: the speaker in Hardy’s poem will not make the mistake that Orpheus did, and turn to the beloved.  It’s a great poem–check it out.

The Poetic Turn: The Seat of the Soul of the Sonnet

24 07 2011

In her introduction to The Penguin Book of the Sonnet: 500 Years of a Classic Tradition in English, Phillis Levin discusses eloquently the power of the volta, or the turn, in the sonnet.  Levin states:

“…the arrangement of lines into patterns of sound serves a function we could call architectural, for these various acoustical partitions accentuate the element that gives the sonnet its unique force and character: the volta, the ‘turn’ that introduces into the poem a possibility for transformation, like a moment of grace.

“The volta, the sonnet’s turn, promotes innovative approaches because whatever has occurred thus far, a poet is compelled, by inhabiting the form, to make a sudden leap at a particular point, to move into another part of the terrain.  Reading sonnets, one constantly confronts the infinite variety of moves a poet can make to negotiate a ‘turn.’  Though 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.  We could say that for the sonnet, the volta is the seat of its soul.  And the reader’s experience of this turn (like a key change) reconfigures the experience of all the lines that both precede and follow it.  The volta foregrounds the paradigm, making us particularly conscious of the rhyme scheme; likewise, the poet’s anticipation guides every move he or she will make.  The moment a pebble is dropped into a pond, evidence of that action resonates outward, and at the same time continues to draw the eye back to the point from which all succeeding motions ensue.”

Along with three other experts on the sonnet–Heather Dubrow, Paul Muldoon, and Susan Wolfson–Levin discusses the above idea, and many other ideas about the sonnet, in a panel called “The Art of the Sonnet.”  A video of the panel discussion can be found here:

And it seems as though video poet Tapas de Luna had some fun with this panel, taking her own turn with the presentation, having some riotous fun…  Enjoy!

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.

The Turn in (a) Review

6 07 2011


Matthew Guenette has a terrific short review of Julie Hanson’s Unbeknownst in the latest issue of IO: A Journal of New American Poetry.  Check it out here.

What’s cool about the review is its focus on poetic structure and surprise.  Guenette opens his review by stating, “You don’t have to read far into Unbeknownst, Julie Hanson’s Iowa Prize winning book, to find a thrilling turn.”  And, further on, he notes, “The best poems organize themselves around major shifts that generate surprise.”

Hanson’s poems seem well worth checking out.  Here are a couple to get you started:

“Use the Book”

“Remedial Weeding”

“They are Widening the Road”

The Poem in Countermotion

4 07 2011

Over the past few weeks, I’ve written some posts on the situation of the turn in some recent poetry textbooks–including Jeremy Tambling’s RE: Verse–Turning towards Poetry and Helen Vendler’s Poems, Poets, Poetry: An Introduction and Anthology.  Overall, I’ve found that while these textbooks have–to their great benefit, in my opinion–strong interest in the turn, that interest either–in the case of Tambling–is not sustained or–in the case of Vendler–is not dealt with systematically enough to be as useful and revelatory as it could be.  Put another way: though these books should be praised for at least putting forward and at times actively teaching about (something like) the turn, they are somewhat problematic in that they do not discuss the turn as fully as did John Ciardi over fifty years ago in his textbook How Does a Poem Mean?

The importance of the turn is clear in Ciardi’s book.  Though Ciardi discusses the turn in the last chapter of How Does a Poem Mean?, “The Poem in Countermotion,” this chapter is the ultimate chapter, the chapter which Ciardi in his introduction calls “the important one.”  Additionally, Ciardi states, “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.”

Ciardi also registers the significance of the turn in “The Poem in Countermotion,” equating the poem’s turn, its shifting from motion to countermotion, to what, essentially, a poem is.  Ciardi states, “Such countermotion is inseperable from “what  the poem is” and “what the poem means”; it is in fact “how the poem means.”  In briefest form, a poem is one part against another across a silence.  To understand this characteristic of the poem is to understand the theory of poetic form.  To be able to respond to it in a poem is to understand the practice of poetry.”

For Ciardi, the turn is so much at the center of what a poem is and how a poem means that it is the turn that the (potentially problematic) paraphrase of a poem mainly destroys:

“…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.”

The turn, which Ciardi calls the “fulcrum,” also is, as one might expect, central to the reading–which entails interpretation and performance–of poems.  According to Ciardi, to read a poem correctly, one must identify the various turns in the poem and register the poem’s shifts.  Ciardi states,

“One simple rule seems to apply to the play of all such countermotions: whenever in the course of a poem the poet changes either his tone or his attidude, some change will occur in the handling of the technical elements.  That change in the technical  handling of the poem may be slight or it may be marked, but some change must occur.  Conversely, any change in the handling of the technical elements in the course of the poem will indicate that a change has taken place in the poet’s tone or attitude.”

Ciardi additionally states,

“If every poem is constructed on such countermotions across a fulcrum [i.e., a turn], 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.”

“The Poem in Countermotion” is filled with excellent, careful discussions of poems, discussions aided by the fact that Ciardi makes clear where the turns/fulcrums of each poem are located by marking them with a “<“.  Ciardi even goes so far as to discuss poems that do not “make their countermotions immediately apparent.”  He refers to such poems as “truncated poems,” citing Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz” as a prime example of a kind of poem in which “the fulcrum occurs after the last line.”  He also cites Yvor Winters’s “Before Disaster” as what should be a truncated poem that (problematically) exceeds what should be its final fulcrum by six lines.  This is masterful, insightful criticism.

Which begs the question: why wasn’t Ciardi’s idea of the poem in countermotion, along with its fulcrum, picked up on by subsequent textbooks?

I can only speculate on some answers.

First, Ciardi’s terminology is somewhat problematic.  Having had no deep roots in poetic terminology, and not at all explicitly connected to the turn and/or the volta, the term “fulcrum” perhaps can seem, at best, disconnected to discussions about poetry and, at worst, so idiosyncratic as to seem irrelevant.

Second, Ciardi does not suggest that there are certain ways in which poems’ fulcrums behave.  According to Ciardi, the fulcrum is a vital part–perhaps the heart–of the poem, but he seems to imply that the fulcrum is always some singular event.  However, this is not the case–while one certainly wants fulcrums/turns to be powerful and singular, there are patterns to turns (for some, click here), to the construction of fulcrums, and these patterns can be analyzed and discussed, and so taught, replicated, and used, deployed.

Third, and finally: there may be (in general, though certainly not in Ciardi’s writing) some obfuscation about the fulcrum / turn not because the fulcrum / turn is unimportant but precisely because it is so important.  Could it be that there is some anxiety about clearly naming the turn as a central part of what makes a poem a poem, some fear that by naming this vital feature of poems we might somehow explain away the magic of poems?  Perhaps…  Again, for now, just a speculation…

What is beyond speculation, though, is the fact that John Ciardi’s “The Poem in Countermotion” is one of the great essays on the poetic turn.  Anyone interested in the turn should acquaint her/himself with its excellent ideas.