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.

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5 responses

10 03 2012
Turn, Turn, Turn « Structure & Surprise

[…] Poetry Review 36.2 (Summer/Fall 2011).  ”Raising the Net” is a review-essay that uses Christina Pugh’s ideas about “sonnet thought” to consider the fate of the turn in some contemporary books of sonnets, including The Reality […]

31 05 2012
King of the One-Liners: Bill Matthews and the Volta « Structure & Surprise

[…] more on the volta, click here, and here, and here.  Aw, heck: explore this whole blog–where we aim to give the volta its star turn! […]

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

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

21 12 2012
Raising the Net « Structure & Surprise

[…] a review-essay a few issues back.  ”Raising the Net” is a review-essay that uses Christina Pugh’s ideas about “sonnet thought” to consider the fate of the turn in some contemporary books of sonnets, including The Reality […]

2 06 2014
How Cool Is This?! | Structure & Surprise

[…] some thinking about the importance of the turn, the turn’s literal place in sonnets, the volta and, as Christina Pugh calls it, “sonnet thought,” and how to use the turn to “raise the net” on the sonnet.  Over at Voltage Poetry […]

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