Though the most well-known turn in poetry is probably the turn between the octave and sestet in a sonnet where the argument meets some counter-argument that often hinges on a rhetorical word such as “but,” most poems manifest some sort of turn where the poet challenges what has been thus far presented or discovers a complication or surprise or simply pushes an image or metaphor or detail further and thus changes the course of the poem. In some ways the turn is similar to the issue of conflict in a story. If there isn’t some occurrence that wrinkles the events then of what interest is the story? We go to literature for that unpredictable element that is at once understandable and mysterious. Untoward things happen. As Shakespeare and Donne and many others made plain, we may think one thing but life gives us another.
What has long intrigued me about the turn is when it appears and how it appears. In a poem that is not in a strict form there is no set place for the turn to occur. This gets very subtle when the poet is writing some sort of lyric/narrative where a series of moments, memories, actions and thoughts are woven together. They may all seem to exist on the same plane and, indeed, they may exist on the same plane. No special claims are necessarily being made for one particular aspect. The argument of the poem is emotional and the poem proceeds as a series of gestures which complicate and simplify as the poet sees fit. It’s not like a ballad where the turn is a narrative moment that tilts the action in a definite direction: some fatal treachery or flaw or discovery. One may rightfully ask in such poems—and we are talking here about the vast majority of modern-day poems that exist as improvisational and usually free-verse occasions—whether there is any turn. I think there usually is but it doesn’t announce itself.
A poem in this regard that has interested me ever since I first read it is Joe Bolton’s great poem “Childhood.” I remember reading it first in a journal (perhaps The New Republic) and thinking “how did he do this?” That’s to say: how he did he create such a seamless skein of feeling that begins at an almost unbearable pitch and manages to somehow up the emotional ante without becoming melodramatic?
Here is the poem as it appears in The Last Nostalgia, the book of Bolton’s poems edited by Donald Justice:
In one clear sense, the turn is a classic “but” turn, where some discrimination is brought up only to be rejected in favor of another. Yet the “but” turn usually operates from some defined emotional/narrative matrix in the poem, some movement that countervails the operative argument in the poem as in Shakespeare’s Sonnet #141 where the sestet begins “But my five wits, nor my five senses can / Dissuade one foolish heart from serving thee…”
The discrimination that Bolton offers seems at first glance to be distinctly minor—a child’s finger painting. We have been in the realm of life and death and agony and suddenly we are given the image of that “clumsy rendering.” Bolton, however, is only getting going as the em dash after “fingerpaint” indicates. The fulcrum of the “but” is about to be buttressed, not unlike what Shakespeare does in the sonnet I’ve referenced where he continues: “Who leaves unswayed the likeness of a man, / Thy proud heart’s slave and vassal wretch to be.”
Bolton continues his sentence for four more lines, a half-stanza. He goes deeply into the world of actual time, much as the poem has begun very much in the world of actual time. The poem begins and goes forward in the present tense but then turns into the past—“brought,” “clutched,” “stood” and “ceased.” Thus the turn is a matter of time, also, a turning from the present moment to something in the past that informs that present moment.
The turn is also informed by a shift in poetic strategy. Earlier in the poem Bolton uses simile and metaphor heavily but he doesn’t write “like the color.” He writes “the color.” The turn moves into a world of actuality that has no comparisons, that is terribly unto itself. The weight of the words, accordingly, is powerful. “Frail,” “heavy” and “cold” are simple words that do complex work. A further shift here is from the “color” to that “page,” the actual physical thing the color is on.
In the sense of making discrimination the operative mode to end his poem Bolton initiates the turn a tad before the “but” with “her hair / Not the color…” He sets up the structure here that will carry him to the poem’s end and creates a brief moment of wonder in the reader’s mind. Where is he going here writing about the color of her hair? How does that matter given the intensity of the scene? It’s one of those intuitive moves on Bolton’s part for which there is no accounting and which is why we read and write poems. He senses that the narrative resolution of the poem—whether the father pulls the trigger or not—is not the sum of the poem. The poem, after all, is entitled “Childhood.” A whole world is being figured here.
The last two lines make good on his intuition about hair and color. What is all this to the child? How is the child to deal with any of this hell? What about the child’s world? By staying with the narrative frame he has created of the child standing on the porch he is able to deliver what is, to quote from the poem. The child enjoys his creation that mirrors the child’s feeling for the enormous fact of the sun in the sky, but that is dwarfed by what goes on inside the child’s home. There seems no place for that painting in the world of the twenty-five and blowing “my fucking head off.”
Bolton begins his turn about two-thirds of the way through the poem. That’s close to the classic sonnet model. He uses a “but,” though one can argue the true turn begins a few lines before that. In any case, he uses the turn to modulate an emotional situation that seems beyond modulation. He uses the turn to establish a somewhat different vocabulary and narrative while staying true to the themes he has established earlier in the poem. He uses the turn to signal a change but one that moves into a different register of feeling, from terror and anguish to resignation and futility. Yet there is the matter of the painting. It was made by the child and “admired.” It was like a poem and in that sense represented a turn of being, the way that a poem represents a turn of being. The painting did not have to exist and neither did Bolton’s poem. There is always a bit of miracle scrabbling around. It may be inapposite and irrelevant. It may not be.
Baron Wormser is the author/co-author of twelve full-length books and a poetry chapbook. Wormser has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. His most recent book of poetry is Impenitent Notes (CavanKerry Press, 2011).
Joe Bolton, “Childhood” from The Last Nostalgia: Poems 1982-1990. Copyright © 1999 by Ed Bolton. Used with the permission of the Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of the University of Arkansas Press, www.uapress.com