Structure as Pattern of Turning in James G. Hepburn’s Poetic Design: Handbook and Anthology

5 06 2016

When in Poetic Design: Handbook and Anthology, James G. Hepburn uses the word “structure” he means many things: “structure” comprises, among other things, stanzas, syntax, rhyme scheme, and line. However, for Hepburn, “structure” means, primarily, the pattern of a poem’s turning–the thing is, he is not explicit about this, though he should have been.

Right away in chapter 8, “Structure,” it seems as though structure might mean something  like the turn. Hepburn opens the chapter stating, “The structure of a poem is like the structure of a house: it is what underlies, supports, and frames the words, the alliteration, the metaphors, the rhymes. It is the integrated pattern and movement of all the parts” (109).

However, from this focused definition of structure, structure quickly comes to mean a great many things. In the next paragraph, structure means stanzas. Discussing Robert Frost’s “Dust of Snow,” Hepburn states, “The most obvious aspect of structure is the division of the poem into two stanzas” (109). He also notes that syntax is a part of this structure: “But look at the poem again, and observe that the poet has crossed the structure  with another structure: the two stanzas are part of a single sentence” (109-10). Further on, Hepburn adds an additional element to structure: “One aspect of the structure of the poem that has been unmentioned–and there are still others–is the rhyme scheme” (110). And, Hepburn adds, “Of course the individual line is an important structural element in any poem, and a more complete discussion of the two previous poems [“Dust of Snow” and Shakespeare’s sonnet 73] would have dealt with it too” (114).

For all of this range, this diversity, of what structure entails, it is clear that, though he never says it, the heart of structure, as the introduction to the chapter seemed to indicate it could be, is the turn.

The three poems focused on in this chapter feature distinct turns. “Dust of Snow” turns sharply between its two stanzas. Sonnet 73, as one would expect of a Shakespearean sonnet, turns distinctly between the third quatrain and the final couplet. The third poem, William Wordsworth’s “There Was a Boy”, turns profoundly between its two stanzas.

And Hepburn seems to be aware of this: most of his discussions of various structural components entail (though they only imply) the turn, that is, a major shift in the rhetorical and/or dramatic trajectory of a poem. Discussing the two stanzas in “Dust of Snow,” Hepburn notes, “The stanzaic division corresponds with a division between image and idea, or action and reaction: the crow shakes the snow in the first stanza, and the speaker of the poem reflects in the second” (109).

The same thing happens when discussing sonnet 73. Hepburn initially focuses on the rhyme scheme in this poem, noting that this particular sonnet has both a “fourfold structure” (abab-cdcd-efef-gg) and a “twofold structure” (ababcdcdefef–gg) (111). However, Hepburn knows (though he does not say) that the twofold structure pivots on the poem’s turn; he states, “The twofold aspect is supported by the structure of idea in the poem: the first twelve lines say that the speaker of the poem is growing old; the last two lines assert a consequence” (111). In the next paragraph, Hepburn expands on this, and, though he does not say it directly, directs his reader’s attention to the volta:

Now consider another aspect of structure, the development of image and idea. The first four lines present an image of autumn, the next four of a darkening evening, the next four of a dying fire. These three images can be thought of as constituting a single image of a dying fire on an autumn evening, or they can be seen as separate, essentially repeating images. Individually or together, they say: I am growing old. Again, one sees a structure in which the first twelve lines contrast with the last two. The division is further emphasized by the fact that the idea in first twelve lines is presented in sustained images, whereas the ideas in the last two lines is presented more directly. The two parts of the poem look different from each other: in the first twelve lines images are in the foreground, with the idea lying behind them; in the last two lines an idea is in the foreground, served by incidental metaphors. (111)

And the same thing happens with “There Was a Boy.” Of this poem, Hepburn first makes note of its “apparently irregular” structure, commenting on the different sizes of the stanzas (which are so irregular that Hepburn clarifies that each is “more fittingly called a verse paragraph”); on the presence of “several strong caesuras”; and on the facts “that the iambic pentameter rhythm is often broken” and “that there are many run-on lines” (113). Hepburn then turns from this view of the poem to argue for the structural unity of the poem; he states, “He [Wordsworth] does not rely upon a conventional form such as the sonnet, and he does not invent his own neat stanzaic structure; rather, he creates a fluid organic pattern” (113).

Hepburn begins his discussion of this fluid organic pattern by focusing on the poem’s use of line, including the ways that “incongruent grammatical structures” affect it–he notes, for example, that “almost every line in the first verse paragraph is run-on, and almost all the heavy grammatical pauses–ends of clauses and sentences–are placed within the lines rather than at the ends” (114). Hepburn observes that this technique creates “a steady forward movement” that feels “natural rather than sculpted” (114). Hepburn then contrasts the use of these structural elements to their use in the second verse paragraph, which feels “less unified than the first, and lacks something of its forward movement,” thus coming to seem “a diminishing afterthought” (114).

But, of course, this difference in the deployment of structural elements serves to help the poem enact the feelings and moods on either side of the poem’s major turn from lively celebration of wondrous, mystical life to fragmented mourning. As he considers the significance of this (unnamed) turn, Hepburn thinks about how it seems the second verse paragraph could be removed from the poem without too much loss (whereas “Dust of Snow” would be destroyed by the loss of its second stanza), but that in fact this is not the case; Hepburn states, “Yet nothing is more certain than that in its own way Wordsworth’s second verse paragraph is as important structurally as Frost’s” (114). To make his case, Hepburn notes the parallels between the boy’s and the man’s silent listening, and how, only with the second verse paragraph “does the reader himself [sic] stand mute, looking at boy and man in nature, listening to the meaning of life” (114-15).

Hepburn also makes a point that I think is not quite totally correct and that demonstrates a negative consequence of his inattention to the turn; he states,

As a further means of clarifying the structural importance of the second verse paragraph, contrast it now with the quatrains of Shakespeare’s poem. Any one of the quatrains (any one of the images contained by them) could be removed without vitally damaging the structure of the poem or the poem itself: something important would be lost, the clear and sedate narrowing of images and implication, but the poem could sustain the loss, and remain much the same as before. In Wordsworth’s poem the second image of the listening person reverberates against the first, enhances its meaning, gives the poem a direction into deeper meaning. (115)

I disagree with Hepburn’s comparing the second verse paragraph with a sonnet’s quatrain. The second verse paragraph, which comes after the turn, should instead be compared to Shakespeare’s couplet (or, had a different sonnet been used, Petrarch’s sestet). The result is the same: Hepburn still believes that the second verse paragraph cannot be removed. And this is good. However, this paragraph of Hepburn’s would have made much more sense had Hepburn written, “As a further means of clarifying the structural importance of the second verse paragraph, compare it now to the couplet of Shakespeare’s poem. Just as the couplet cannot be removed from that sonnet without irreparably damaging the meaning and significance of the poem, so can the second verse paragraph not be removed from ‘There Was a Boy.'”

The fact that Hepburn does not do this is the sign and seal of the fact that he does not pay adequate attention to the turn in his chapter on structure. He is generally aware of the turn, and his whole chapter on structure pivots on it, but he is not explicit about it, and so some infelicities and confusions arise where there need not be any. The bigger confusion that this partial inattention to the turn creates occurs at the outset of his chapter on structure. Hepburn states that structure is “like the structure of a house: it is what underlies, supports, and frames the words, the alliteration, the metaphors, the rhymes.” So, structure underlies, supports, and frames rhyme, but also rhyme is a structural “aspect” (110). This confusion could have been cleared up had Hepburn differentiated, as did Randall Jarrell in “Levels and Opposites: Structure in Poetry,” between “musical structure” and “other sorts of structure in lyrical poetry.”

In the introduction to How Does a Poem Mean?, the only introduction to poetry textbook that contains a chapter on the turn (though this book refers to it as the “fulcrum”), John Ciardi refers to the book’s final chapter on the turn as “the important one.”  Ciardi clarifies, “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.”

I think Hepburn agrees. He examines a number of structural characteristics of poems, but the turn is the key aspect of the poem these other characteristics orbit and contribute to. And this is excellent! (In fact, about Wordsworth’s poem Hepburn notes correctly that “[i]t has been impossible to describe the structure without clarifying the meaning, and it would be equally impossible to state the meaning without discussing the structure” (115).) I only wish that Hepburn had been more consistently explicit in articulating the centrality of the turn to his conception of poetic structure. In this way, his treatment of structure would have been more accurate and likely would not have included the small but still unnecessary missteps that it does.

High Voltage Poetry: On the Poetic Turn

13 05 2016

As part of the programming for the inauguration of Illinois Wesleyan University’s nineteenth president, Eric Jensen, on Friday, April 1, some colleagues and I participated in a series of lightning talks highlighting some of the artistic and scholarly projects taking place at IWU. Along with poet Dan Smart (among other things, the author of the great poetry blog “Rhythm Is the Instrument”) and student respondents Kristina Dehlin and Jake Morris, I was a part of the presentation “High Voltage Poetry: On the Poetic Turn.” Check it out for a succinct introduction to the turn, for Dan’s terrific reflections on ways in which the turn has informed his own work, and for Kristina’s and Jake’s very smart reflections and questions–


The High Voltage Poetry Team: Dan Smart, Jake Morris, Kristina Dehlin, and Mike Theune


Wordsworth, Theorizing the Volta

2 06 2015

January 26th.–I wish I could here write down all that Wordsworth has said about the Sonnet lately, or record here the fine fourteen lines of Milton’s ” Paradise Lost,” which he says are a perfect sonnet without rhyme, and essentially one in unity of thought. Wordsworth does not approve of uniformly closing the second quatrain with a full stop, and of giving a turn to the thought in the terzines. This is the Italian mode; Milton lets the thought run over. He has used both forms indifferently. I prefer the Italian form. Wordsworth does not approve of closing the sonnet with a couplet, and he holds it to be absolutely a vice to have a sharp turning at the end with an epigrammatic point. He does not, therefore, quite approve of the termination of Cowper’s ” Sonnet to Romney,”–

” Nor couldst thou sorrow see

While I was Hayley’s guest and sat to thee.”

–Henry Crabb Robinson, Diary, Reminiscences, and Correspondence of Henry Crabb Robinson (223).

How Cool Is This?!

2 06 2014


Molly Peacock will teach a master class called “The Art of the Turn: Techniques for Change in Sonnets and Villanelles”…I love it!  This increased emphasis on the turn in poetry is very heartening.  (N.B.: I’m not claiming any responsibility for it–I’m just glad to see it taking place…!)

So, if you’re interested in the turn, get to West Chester University in two days.  There, you can discuss the turn with Molly Peacock, and hopefully with a number of other conference participants who have done work on/with the turn.  (Critical/scholarly work, that is…it’s hard to imagine any strong poet who has not worked with the turn in their poetry…)  For example, craft workshop leader Annie Finch and poetry consultants Ned Balbo and Jehanne Dubrow all are contributors to Voltage Poetry.  (Read Annie’s reflection here; Ned’s here; and Jehanne’s here.)  Additionally, poetry consultant Kate Light has written a sonnet, “And Then There Is That Incredible Moment,” that I take to be one of the great poetic statements of the turn’s power to surprise.

If you can’t make it to the conference, explore this site and the Voltage Poetry site.  Here, there’s evidence of how the turn can be used productively to help students make significant new work: Scott Wiggerman discusses a workshop that he led on the turn (and offers some great examples of student work), and I discuss a lesson using the metaphor-to-meaning structure (and offer some excellent student writing that came from it) here.  Additionally, there’s plenty of reflection on the place of the turn in the sonnet, including some thinking about the importance of the turnthe turn’s literal place in sonnetsthe 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 there are a host of reflections on the thrilling turns in sonnets, but there also is a terrific reflection, called “Two Villanelle Voltas,” by Beth Gylys, on the turns in Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” and Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.”

Turn, turn, turn!

The First Dimension

14 01 2014

joshua corey

Joshua Corey identifies the six dimensions of a poem–the first dimension?  “VOLTA.  The turn, the break….  The clinamen, the swerve.”  Check it out here.

Josh himself is a master swerver.  I make this claim in a review-essay that includes a review of his terrific book of sonnets, Severance Songs–be sure to check out this book when you get a chance.

Paul Fussell on the “Indispensable” Volta

16 08 2012

I recently added to this blog’s “Turned onto Turns: Comments on Structure” page the following:

A characteristic of the Petrarchan sonnet is its convention of the “turn,” which normally occurs at the start of line 9, the beginning of the sestet.  It is perhaps more accurate to say that the turn occurs somewhere in the white space that separates line 8 from line 9, and that line 9 simply reflects or records it.  But wherever we think of it as actually taking place, something very important, something indeed indispensable to the action of the Petrarchan sonnet, happens at the turn: we are presented there with a logical or emotional shift by which the speaker enables himself to take a new or altered or enlarged view of his subject.

The standard way of constructing a Petrarchan sonnet is to project the subject in the first quatrain; to develop or complicate it in the second; then to execute, at the beginning of the sestet, the turn which will open up for solution the problem advanced by the octave, or which will ease the load of idea or emotion borne by the octave, or which will release the pressure accumulated in the octave.  The octave and the sestet conduct actions which are analogous to the actions of inhaling and exhaling, or of contraction and release in the muscular system.  The one builds up the pressure, the other releases it; and the turn is the dramatic and climactic center of the poem, the place where the intellectual or emotional method of release first becomes clear and possible.  From line 9 it is usually plain sailing down to the end of the sestet and the resolution of the experience.  If the two parts of the sonnet, although quantitatively unequal, can be said to resemble the two sides of an equation, then the turn is something like an equals sign: it sets into action the relationship between two things, and triggers a total statement.  We may even suggest that one of the emotional archetypes of the Petrarchan sonnet structure is the pattern of sexual pressure and release.  Surely no sonnet succeeds as a sonnet that does not execute at the turn something analogous to the general kinds of “release” with which the reader’s muscles and nervous system are familiar.

–Paul Fussell, Poetic Meter and Poetic Form, revised edition (New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1979), pp. 115-116.

I love, of course, that Fussell notes that there is “something indeed indispensable” about the volta in the Petrarchan sonnet, that “[s]urely no sonnet succeeds as a sonnet that does not execute at the turn something analogous to the general kinds of ‘release’ with which the reader’s muscles and nervous system are familiar.  In making such claims, Fussell joins other commentators on the sonnet, including Phillis LevinEdward Hirsch and Eavan Boland, and Christina Pugh, who acknowledge the volta’s vital significance.

However, besides its clarity about the value of volta, what I also like about Fussell’s take on the volta is its inability to name exactly what a volta is like, or what exactly it does.  In the space of two paragraphs, Fussell states that a volta is like breathing, an equal sign, and sex–three things that are not much like each other…  Wonderful!  What I like about this multiplicity of analogies is that it correctly identifies the fact that different voltas can, and do, perform very different kinds of duties…  Great stuff!

And, of course, this does not apply only to sonnets–it also applies to many other kinds of poems.  As Ellen Bryant Voigt points out: “The sonnet’s volta, or ‘turn’…has become an inherent expectation for most short lyric poems.”

Turn, Turn, Turn

10 03 2012

The turn stars in three of my recent print publications.  Here they are…

“Raising the Net” appears in Spoon River 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 Street Book of Sonnets (a glorious mixed bag), Iteration Nets (in terms of turns: there are none), Nick Demske (interesting, and problematic), and Severance Songs (pretty great).

I state in “Raising the Net” that “I revise Robert Frost’s idea that writing free verse is like ‘playing tennis with the net down.’  Writing formal sonnets, it turns out, is not too difficult; it’s the writing of sonnets without great turns that’s akin to a netless game.  In contrast, crafting sonnets with an eye toward their turns as well as a critical approach that can account for them not only raises the net but also raises the bar on what we expect from sonnets.”

The Shadow of Sirius: A Critical Conversation” appears in Until Everything Is Continuous Again: American Poets on the Recent Work of W. S. Merwin, edited by Jonathan Weinert and Kevin Prufer (Seattle, WA: WordFarm, 2012).  “The Shadow of Sirius: A Critical Conversation” is an essay I co-authored with poet-critic Mark Halliday in which Mark and I debate the merit of Merwin’s latest book of poems–Mark: generally against; me, strongly for.

As I prepared to write my portion of the essay, it became clear to me that Merwin was a great poet of the surprising turn.  Though, of course, I make my case for this claim more fully in the published essay, a preview of my argument can be found here.

“Other Arrangements: The Vital Turn in Poetry Writing Pedagogy” appears in Beyond the Workshop.  “Other Arrangements” is, in large part, a friendly amendment to Tom C. Hunley’s excellent Teaching Poetry Writing: A Five-Canon Approach.  In his book, Hunley argues 1) that we need to get beyond the workshop as a core pedagogical method for teaching poetry writing, and 2) that one way to do this is to orient teaching toward the five canons of rhetoric: invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery.

I contribute to Hunley’s argument by arguing that strong consideration of the turn should be a key part of the discussion of the second canon, arrangement.  I wrote a little on this here, though, again, the published essay is much more complete.

It feels good to get more thought about the vital turn out into the world.  My thanks to my insightful and generous editors–Kirstin Hotelling Zona, Jonathan Weinert, Kevin Prufer, and Paul Perry–for allowing me the opportunity share my ideas, and for helping to make my writing and thinking on behalf of these ideas as strong as possible.