Spirals, Centers, and Dark Stars: Leslie Ullman and the Poetic Turn

21 09 2013


It’s been my great pleasure over the past few days to read more deeply into recent criticism by Leslie Ullman.  Attracted to her essay “A Spiral Walk through the Golden Mean: A Foray into the Structure of Thought & Invention” in the recent issue of The Writer’s Chronicle (46.2 (Oct/Nov 2013)), I also was moved to read her essay “A ‘Dark Star’ Passes through It.”  While neither of these excellent, insightful and adventurous essays focuses solely on the turn, the turn certainly is a major concern of each.

The central subject of “A Spiral Walk” is the application of the Golden Mean to poetry.  However, a key part of this discussion is an extended meditation on the sonnet’s volta, and especially the Petrarchan turn from octave to sestet, a place that Ullman, citing Phillis Levin’s introduction to The Penguin Book of the Sonnet, refers to as “a Golden Mean-related divide.”  Ullman’s analysis includes a discussion of William Stafford’s sonnet “Time,” a poem that includes some radical turning.

In “A ‘Dark Star’…,” Ullman meditates on the poem’s “center,” that is, “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.”  While a poem’s center does not necessarily have to be its major turn, very often, it seems, it is.  As Ullman notes, though “[t]he center can occur anywhere in the poem…[and] can be a phrase or a stanza,” the center “also may reveal its energy in the gap between stanzas” (a space where many turns take place).  Ullman also states that 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.”  This certainly sounds like a turn, and the link between center and turn is quickly solidified when Ullman notes that the center “nearly always…contains a pivot or surprise that gives the whole poem simultaneous light and darkness, hence considerable range.”

If you’re intrigued by the turn, be sure to read these excellent essays by Leslie Ullman, and then read her poems (such as “Consider Desire”), which themselves are full of pivoting surprises–


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!