Add Excitation to Your Recitation: Attend to the Turn

27 08 2011

W.W. Norton & Company is organizing The Norton Anthology Recitation Contest.  This contest is open to college and high school students worldwide.  Additional information, including rules, can be found here.

Recitation is a demanding–but also very rewarding–art.  At poets.org, John Hollander’s “Committed to Memory” offers some helpful insights into and advice about recitation.

Here, I’d like to offer a simple but also powerful bit of advice to anyone preparing to recite a poem: attend to the poem’s turn.

A turn is a major shift in a poem’s rhetorical and/or dramatic trajectory.   Most poems–certainly most great poems–have turns.  And almost all of the recitation contest’s eight authorized poems have turns in them.  Any skilled recitation needs to communicate the power of the turn.

Writing about the volta–that is, the turn in a sonnet–Phillis Levin states, “[t]he reader’s experience of this turn (like a key change) reconfigures the experience of all the lines that both precede and follow it.”  Thus, when reciting a poem, the performer must know where the turn is–or, turns are–and must be aware of, and communicate, the nature of the turn’s key change: what is the argument and tone of the poem prior to the turn?  how does the argument and tone shift after the turn?

To assist potential performers with this aspect of their recitation, I offer a few notes on the turns in some of the authorized contest poems.  Links to some of the contest’s authorized poems are below.  Each link is followed by a brief discussion of the poem which locates and describes each poem’s major turn(s). 

A few details:

While there certainly are numerous minor–yet still significant–turns in each of the following poems, I will only discuss the major turns, offering what I hope will be a helpful orientation to the poem and introduction to some of the poem’s demands on the performer.

Additionally, I suggest that if you plan to participate in the contest, you should use the versions of these poems found in the Norton anthologies listed on the contest webpage–the Norton judges may be very particular about what edition of a poem is recited.

Sonnet 12 (“When I do count the clock that tells the time”), by William Shakespeare

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.)

The first turn turns from an account of the omnipresence of aging and death to then consider the beauty of the person to whom the sonnet is addressed, which also will be subject to aging and decay.  The turn here goes from serious to even more serious, from general considerations of mortality to the mortality of the sonnet’s addressee.

The second turn turns from an impossible situation–the truth of the addressee’s mortality–to offer some hope: breed (this word requires a lot of emphasis), that is, have children so that you may brave death when it comes to take you away.

“Death be not proud,” by John Donne

The major turn of Donne’s sonnet occurs right before the sonnet starts.  One needs to imagine Donne’s speaker hearing someone (such as the speaker of Shakespeare’s sonnet, above) talk about how all-powerful death is, making claims the speaker recounts in lines 1 and 2: “some have called thee / Mighty and dreadful…”  

A kind of cliche-and-critique poem, Donne’s whole poem is a turn from thinking death is powerful to offer an alternative vision.  And it needs to be read this way, with emphasis on the words that stress the speaker’s alternative viewpoint.  Take, for example, the first two lines–they need to be read with the following rhetorical stresses:

“Death, be not proud, though some have called thee / [“]Mighty[“] and [“]dreadful[“], for thou art not so…”

(One can imagine scare quotes around “Mighty” and “dreadful”…)

So, the major turn occurs before the poem even starts, but there are some vital, minor turns in the poem.  The speaker turns at the end of line 4 from his almost mocking introduction to offer a picture of how peaceful death–which is no worse than rest or sleep–must actually be.  This new, softer kind of mockery of death ends at the end of line 8.  Lines 9-10 become heavy again, a direct attack on death.  And then comes, again, that softer approach to critiquing death in the next line-and-a-half.  The rest of the poem is explanatory, showing the reasons death should not “swell’st,” that is, get all puffed up with pride, and it is (for the poem’s speaker) glory: death is just sleep until the resurrection.

A great question for anyone thinking about reciting this poem is how to perform its final four words, “Death, thou shalt die.”  Certainly, as the end of the poem is making clear a paradox, “thou” must get a good deal of rhetorical stress, as in, “Surprise, Death: YOU are the one who will die.”  But what’s the voice here?  Is it heavy, growling, antagonistic?  Or is it already victorious, and, so, matter-of-fact?  Try it many ways, and see what works for you.

“Here Follows Some Verses upon the Burning of Our House, July 10th, 1666,” Anne Bradstreet

Bradstreet’s poem has three major turns: one in the midst of line 13, another at the end of line 20, and another at the end of line 36.

The first part of this poem is filled with distress and despair, fright and sadness, mixed with pleas for God’s assistance.  One must imagine a long pause at the end of line 12: the speaker has just realized that her whole house has been destoyed by fire.  But, in line 13, a virtual miracle is in the making: the speaker collects herself and realizes that, even in the midst of such (seeming) loss, she is participating in the playing out of the will of God, of the way things should be.  Again, one needs to pay attention to the rhetorical stresses in this section, especially those needed to make clear the speaker’s new realizations: that all that she had thought she had owned actually all along was God’s.

The next major shift occurs at the end of line 20.  There’s a temporal shift–the poem has moved beyond the night of the fire.  And there’s also an emotional shift: the confidence the speaker felt in the Lord’s will slips when she looks sadly upon the ashes of her house and remembers what life had been like in the house. 

But then, in the pit of despair–having acknowledged that it seems to her that “all’s vanity”–the speaker moves again to acceptance, and even to praise.  This final section–perhaps up until the final two lines, which might be read as summation–should largely be read as an ever-growing crescendo; the speaker, after all, is delivering a sermon, sharing a vision.

“How do I love thee,” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

The major turn in this poem occurs in the middle of line 13.

While any performer will have to work out how to modulate the voice while performing this list, it’s clear that there’s some crescendo from the middle of line 12 to the middle of line 13.  This crescendo suddenly stops, and the speaker, in the space between the words “life!” and “and” (one imagines there must be a significant pause here), realizes that death could end her love, and so prays quietly that God (whom she seemed earlier to have given up on) allow her and her beloved to live on after death.

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Enjoy exploring these poems!  And, if you decide to participate: best wishes in the recitation contest!

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