A few years ago I wandered into a panel at the Associated Writing Programs conference and discovered Michael Theune and his book Structure & Surprise.  I’ve been recommending it to students ever since.  Structure is one of the first things I talk about when presented with a student poem in workshop; it’s often the hardest thing to locate in a draft, as at the early stages of a piece of writing it’s likely to be confused at best, if present at all. Helping students to find the potential core of their nascent poem, to think more deeply about the conditions they’ve set up and the implications therein, to understand how their poem moves currently and how it might move—these are as important (and on a certain level inseparable from) the language, but seem to me less often addressed.  Talking about structure, and about the turn, is a way to help developing writers examine a draft more objectively and tackle the task of creating a realized poem.  It’s also a way to help them read more skillfully—that is, as practitioners, actively seeking to understand the strategies of other poems.

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A turn is, as our name Voltage Poetry suggests, a measure of energy.   In any good poem there are various kinds of energies at work. Syntax. Rhetoric. Reversals and juxtapositions. Verdurous glooms and viewless wings. Sylvia Plath’s cold planetary light of the mind and Dean Young’s engine inside an elk’s skull on a pole, assembled and requiring only a newt’s heart and one more lightning bolt until it opens its mouth and crushes us with awe or admiration.  The leap from one synapse to another, one thought to a further thought, one level of understanding or questioning to being in the presence of the mystery.

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Whether narrative or lyric, many student poems often seem confined by too-familiar conventions. For example: take a story or a moment in time, throw a few images at it, add an epiphany/insight/realization/disturbing or transcendent final statement, and stick it in the E-Z Bake oven.  For example: begin with some borrowed text—say, The Patriot Act—puree, mix with formaldehyde, then freeze in murky quart bags.  One longs for a pie made of maple syrup, a few expired condiments, a crumpled, wept-on love letter and smashed beer can.

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It’s not trickery we’re after, as poets, though it’s useful to have a few hidden quarters to pluck from children’s ears. Craft isn’t about craft, per se; it’s about releasing the magic, about the moment the pieces of rope tucked into a fist miraculously emerge as a single strand. Or the moment a lit candle, covered by a cloth, bursts into a dove.

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Mike and I invite you to enjoy the magic of the turns presented here by a large and varied number of readers, writers, and critics.  We hope that the essays here will provide a series of jumping-off points for discussion, study, appreciation, and new writing.  In the immortal words of Rod Serling:

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You’re travelling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind; a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination.  That’s the signpost up ahead.

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Welcome to Voltage Poetry.

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Kim Addonizio

November 1, 2012

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The turn—a significant shift in rhetorical and/or dramatic trajectory—is a vital component of great poems.  Of course, the turn is of tremendous importance in the sonnet tradition, a tradition in which turn is called a volta.  Even a cursory consideration of some canonical sonnets quickly reveals a number of thrilling turns: “But ah, Desire still cries…”; “And yet, I think my love as rare…”; “Something understood”; “And for all this, nature is never spent”; “What but design of darkness….”  It is no wonder that, in her introduction to The Penguin Book of Sonnets: 500 Years of a Classic Tradition in English, Phillis Levin states, “We could say that for the sonnet, the volta is the seat of its soul.”

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However, the turn is not only of utmost importance to the sonnet tradition, it is vital for virtually all of poetry.  Even a cursory consideration of some canonical poems quickly reveals a number of thrilling turns: “But as I raved and grew more fierce and wild”; “But at my back I always hear…”; “So We must meet apart—”; “At once a voice arose among…”; “If in some smothering dreams you too could pace / Behind the wagon we flung him in…”; “Heavens, I know the place!”; “and I am sweating a lot by now…”; “I have wasted my life.”  As Ellen Bryant Voigt states in The Art of Syntax, “The sonnet’s volta, or ‘turn’…has become an inherent expectation for most short lyric poems.”

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Poets and critics, of course, have not only used the turn in their poems but also have commented on it in their criticism.  In “Andrew Marvell,” T.S. Eliot goes so far as to call the surprising turn “one of the most important means of poetic effect since Homer.”  In “Levels and Opposites: Structure in Poetry,” one of the great essays on poetic structure—the pattern of a poem’s turning—Randall Jarrell states, “A successful poem starts from one position and ends at a very different one, often a contradictory or opposite one; yet there has been no break in the unity of the poem.”  It is precisely the turn that is the transition that moves the poem from one position to another.  More recently, in “Lyricism of the Swerve: The Poetry of Rae Armantrout,” Hank Lazer notes that “[t]he lyric, to sustain our interest, to have complexity and beauty, and to remain compelling, requires ‘torsion’–that is, motion, tension, torque, and a twist.”

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However, though the turn is vital, and some might even go so far as to say central, to poetry, our attention—that is, the attention of those who produce and otherwise partake of poetry: poets, critics, scholars, teachers, and readers—to turns has tended to be more sporadic than systematic.  That is, though strong claims such as those in the previous paragraph have been made (others can be found here), they tend to crop up rather than to be a part of an ongoing inquiry.  Symptomatic of this lack of system is the fact that there has been no extensive conversation regarding a critical, if very specific, question: where can we find great turns in poetry?

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This is the question Voltage Poetry sets about to address.

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The method is simple: believing that there could be no definitive, objectively right or wrong answers to this question, Kim and I decided that we would ask dozens of poets to select a poem—by another poet—that they think has a great turn—or great turns—in it, and then write a reflection on that poem and its turn(s).  The question where can we find great turns in poetry? would be used to initiate a long-overdue conversation.

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Our contributors were free to select any poem they wanted, and to reflect on their selections in any manner they wished.  Some prompts were offered—contributors were encouraged, though not required, to consider topics such as:

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  • the qualities of a great turn, generally;
  • the way the turn operates in the particular poem, or in the poet’s oeuvre;
  • how this turn compares with other similar turns;
  • the place of the turn in the circumstances of the composition of the poem (for example, was the poem revised numerous times before the turn was discovered or perfected?);
  • whether or not the poem’s turning is comparable to turning in other works of art or any other structured phenomenon.

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The contributions to Voltage Poetry are similar in that they are all critically astute, insightful and informative.  Beyond this, the contributions are diverse in variety of ways.  Stylistically, the reflections range from the profoundly philosophical and theoretical to the deeply and movingly personal.  Their authors represent a variety of traditions and aesthetics in contemporary poetry—among them are New Formalists, Ultra-Talkers, Slam poets, and Ellipticals.  And while the selection of poems focuses—as one might imagine, seeing as the selectors largely are American poets—on contemporary American poets, there is in fact a great range of poets represented: Catullus and Louise Bogan; Bruce Weigl and Theognis; Natasha Tretheway and Cavafy.

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Some of the selections featured in Voltage Poetry—including poems by John Donne, Emily Dickinson, W. B. Yeats, Robert Duncan, Phillip Larkin, Anne Sexton, Lucille Clifton, and Frank Bidart—might further solidify a poet’s already estimable reputation.  However, others have the power to direct new attention to other deserving poets, poets such as Jackie Earley, Joe Bolton, Stephen Jonas, Deborah Parédez, and Shane McCrae.  A few contributions might even get readers to think anew about how certain forms of poetry not often thought of in relation to the turn depend as well on the turn’s dynamo—check out Beth Gylys’s reflection on the turn in the villanelle and, when it appears, Roger Sedarat’s reflection on the turns in a ghazal by Hafez.

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All of the contributions will even encourage readers to consider turns in new ways.  While the vast majority of Voltage Poetry’s reflections focus on the turn as a major shift in a poem’s rhetorical and/or dramatic trajectory, readers will be invited to see that there are many different kinds of turns: some are quick, decisive—they surprise—but others are prepared for, developed—they culminate in fulfillment.  Some reflections even begin to consider phenomena attendant upon the poem’s major turn, developing along the way a new vocabulary with which to describe the turn’s dynamics.  Patty Seyburn suggests that there may be a kind of turn like “The Michigan Left Turn.”  Michelle Boisseau notes here that, like dancers who communicate with a quick glance the dance’s next step, some poems similarly engage in “spotting,” subtly signaling the turn.  Seth Abramson asks readers to consider the role of the “re-turn,” or the “re-volta,” Ed Dorn’s Gunslinger, and in contemporary poetry.  And H. L. Hix invites us to consider twelve questions about the turn, questions that will deepen any reader’s thinking about the turn.

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Voltage Poetry will publish approximately three reflections per week until they run out.  However, it may be a while before this happens.  While now, at the inception of this project, we are working with approximately 80 reflections, the number of selections that might appear on Voltage Poetry is potentially much greater than this, for we are accepting submissions—guidelines may be found here.  So, if the conversation started on Voltage Poetry sparks something in you, and you feel moved to share your ideas, we hope that you will contribute to the conversation.  Feel free, at least, to leave a comment.

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In “Lyricism of the Swerve,” Hank Lazer asks, “Is there a describable lyricism of swerving?  For those poems for which the swerve, the turn, the sudden change in direction are integral, can we begin to articulate a precise appreciation?”  Voltage Poetry strives to undertake this important articulation and appreciation.  Engage, and enjoy!

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Michael Theune

November 1, 2012