In her smart introduction to The Penguin Book of the Sonnet, Phillis Levin describes the famous fourteen-line form as “a chamber of sudden change.” ¹ The fulcrum of that change is the volta, the sonnet’s leap or turn—typically, but not always, between the octet and sestet. But wherever it occurs, as Levin says, the turn is the point at which the reader “reconfigures the experience of all the lines that both precede and follow it.” ²
Levin’s idea of “sudden change” applies equally, I think, to a strong turn in any poem. So does her idea of “chamber.” There’s a way in which the turn in a poem itself is a chamber of sudden change, a place with height and depth and width, a space through which the poem (and the reader) must pass and by means of which its meanings are heightened or transformed.
The turns in some poems seem to me to play on the geometry of the turn as much as on its rhetoric or logic. Since my imagination tends to be visual—I can often “see” the shape of a poem as if it were an image or a structure of some complexity—I’m especially fascinated and gratified by turns that appear to be aware of their own shape.
Fulke Greville’s Sonnet 100 in his Caelica cycle constructs a turn whose height seems to be nothing less than the gulf between the earth and hell: ³
In night when colors all to black are cast,
Distinction lost, or gone down with the light;
The eye a watch to inward senses placed,
Not seeing, yet still having powers of sight,
Gives vain alarums to the inward sense,
Where fear stirred up with witty tyranny,
Confounds all powers, and thorough self-offense,
Doth forge and raise impossibility:
Such as in thick depriving darknesses,
Proper reflections of the error be,
And images of self-confusednesses,
Which hurt imaginations only see;
And from this nothing seen, tells news of devils,
Which but expressions be of inward evils.
The sleepless man in this sonnet finds himself in an extremity of anguish. This is not the anguish of love, Greville having passed from romantic to religious subjects earlier in the sequence. As Thom Gunn points out in the introduction to The Selected Poems of Fulke Greville—in reference to Sonnet 99, but no less relevant here—the man suffers because he is unable to contact God. “Deprivation causes the self to become malignant, and to inherit that torment to which divine grace is an immunization.” 4 Sonnet 100, like several others in the cycle, focuses on the phenomenology of the distressed imagination when deprived of its access to the divine. Psychological curiosity stands is a defining characteristic of Elizabethan poetry, but Greville’s intensive reflection on his own psychological processes strikes me as particularly contemporary.
In a single complex sentence, the cadences and clauses of which dovetail beautifully with the sonnet’s perfectly managed structure, Greville describes how the imagination conceives monsters from the confused impressions that crowd in when deprived both of grace and the use of the senses. These impressions come largely from within, as the eye, wanting the light which makes the external world legible, becomes “a watch to inward senses placed.” The “power of sight,” now in thrall to the unrestrained imagination, conspires with fear and “witty tyranny” to “forge and raise” impossible conceits. (I read “witty tyranny” as both the tyranny of the imagination over one’s wits, and a description of how clever the negative imagination can be.) “Forge and raise,” with their overtones of brimstone and necromancy, give the process a menacing physicality, and prefigure the demonic transformation to come.
Robert Pinsky reads Sonnet 100as “the ultimate Halloween poem of a certain kind—the debunking or psychologizing kind.” 5 I think there’s another way to read the poem, a reading in which the Frankenstein’s monsters of the imagination morph into something terrifyingly real. In the sestet, the night of the poem’s first line contracts and condenses to become the “thick depriving darknesses” in which the sleepless man’s “error” materializes into a grim presence, into the horror of a “nothing seen.” I hear in this “nothing” a version of “the nothing that is” at the end of Wallace Stevens’ “The Snow Man,” but here the apprehension of the void acquires a taint of religious horror. “Self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed” lands one in hell, warns the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The speaker’s error, therefore, is more than a simple glitch in perception: it is a mortal sin.
If the scene of the octet is night on earth and the scene of the sestet is hell, then the turn represents the fall from the one into the other, as headlong and precipitous as the fall of Satan in Book I of Paradise Lost. But where it takes Milton close to three hundred lines to bring Satan to ground, Greville compresses his version of the fall into the space between lines 8 and 9. The turn acquires an appalling dimensionality, rendered all the more terrifying by suggesting, rather than displaying, its shape. Because it isn’t written, the fall is accessible only to the “inward senses,” and so becomes itself a “nothing seen.”
The colon usually placed at the end of Sonnet 100’s octet is one of my favorite colons in all of poetry. I imagine line 8 to be the edge of a cliff toward which the sleepless man in the poem advances, and the colon to be a fence at which he momentarily pauses. But the fence is too low and too frail to fully arrest the man’s momentum, and he falls through the gulf of the line break down into the infernal world. The turn’s geometry thus enacts the poem’s meanings—it does what the poem says.
Shift forward about 400 years and 5,000 miles west to find Brenda Hillman making a different sort of geometry of the turn. Here’s “Street Corner,” which opens her 2005 collection Pieces of Air in the Epic: 6
by Brenda Hillman
In Pieces of Air in the Epic, the confrontation between the epic and the lyric becomes political. The epic tradition, with its roots in The Iliad and The Aeneid, glorifies war, equates honor with aggression and violent self-sacrifice, and justifies the cultural institutions that traffic in both. Hillman locates the contemporary expressions of this tradition in state-sponsored acts of belligerence and the suppression of freedom and dissent everywhere, from the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq to the Patriot Act and the Halliburton and Blackwater scandals. Hillman recognizes that, because it derives in part from epic sources, contemporary poetic practice is itself implicated and compromised. As Hillman asks, “How does one write when the laws that limit power have failed?” 7
If the epic is collective, public, state-sanctioned, masculine, and militaristic, the lyric is individual, intimate, personal, feminine, and humanistic. In Hillman’s vision, the lyric survives in fragments, as “pieces of air” in the solid wall of the epic. These fragments have lasted, like pockets of resistance in a totalitarian regime, precisely because they are fragments—overlooked, hidden in corners. “End of the Cold War, some air had been forgotten and was safe.” 8 Through air—the element that sustains life and allows speech—Hillman aligns the lyric with the subversive, the marginalized, and the possibility of political and cultural transformation. In Hillman’s terms, one aim of poetry is to discover the air trapped in the epic and release it—that is, to bear personal witness to the truth in resistance to official (and therefore propagandistic) renditions of it.
In Pieces of Air in the Epic, the corner figures both as container and as angle. Asthe point at which two vectors join, an angle is a place of meeting, confrontation, and potential reconciliation. It’s the place “where / dread meets ecstasy’s skid-mark”; 9 it’s the shape the mind makes when informed “with two lines of thought.” 10 A street corner is, specifically, a public angle—a site of social activism, where real political and cultural change can begin. Hillman overlays the street corner in “Street Corner,” and the turn that the poem names, with these meanings, making it stand as the figure or characteristic gesture of the entire collection.
Like a Doug Safranek miniature, “Street Corner”—96 total words, in 24 lines of four words each—compresses an enormous amount of content into a very small space. In my reading, the first part of the poem, up to the turn at the end of line 15, gives an account of the dawning of what we recognize as the individual self, along with the origins of the epic tradition, which conditions our sense of the self’s responsibilities and fate. The second part of the poem, from line 16 through the end, criticizes the limitations of the epic tradition, proposes an alternative vision of poetry that has the power to reclaim what the epic has tended to reject, and laments our failure (so far) to follow such a vision.
Hillman’s management of time in “Street Corner” complicates the poem’s structure. Despite its brevity, the poem divides itself into at least four distinct time periods. Period 1 (lines 1 through 7), which lasts “for centuries,” takes place on the street corner (“an angle”) in some ancient city. The “I” here is a relatively undifferentiated awareness (“not as a / self or feature but / exhaled as a knowing”), not bound by the timescale of an individual human lifetime. The “I” seems to be either a form of identity that predates personal individuality, or a collective mind, a polis—“the you born a thousand times.” 11 I take the “brick tradesmen” to be early “technicians of the sacred,” who used “breath bricks” to build the foundational poems of Western culture at the same time that the early architects were using actual bricks to build the ancient cities.
Period 2 (lines 8 through 15) describes a later interval, also of unspecified length. The urban scene of period 1 gives way to a more suburban, domestic scene full of “the peppermint / noise of sparrows” and the “spare dreams of / citizens”—a time of peace and pleasure, and possibly also of complacency.
The convergence of “abstractions and / the real” in line 15 announces the turn. The meandering and oblique sentence of the poem’s first part gives way to a series of brief, declarative sentences. The pronouns change, the verb tenses change, and the rhetorical landscape of the poem shifts from hearing to saying, from exhalation to poetry, from meanings growing and “finding their way” to a “singing / project.”
Period 3 (lines 16 through 24) disrupts the chronology established in the first part of the poem, looping back to an interval between periods 1 and 2 in order to review, revisit, and re-evaluate. Again, although the duration is unspecified, the poem continues to give the sense of profound changes unfolding across ages. I hear overtones of Revelation 11:14 (“The second terror is past, but look, the third terror is coming quickly”) and, in the weird lodge, of Freemasonry. (Deliciously, the turn divides the poem into sections of 15 lines and 9 lines. 15:9 is the golden ratio, used by the builders of King Solomon’s Temple, from which Freemasonry descends.) Besides being spooky and beautiful and compellingly ambiguous, the crossing of the red forest suggests emergence from a dark and blood-colored age, or some sort of fundamental transformation occurring in the human brain, that red forest of neurons inside our heads.
Period 4 is the present moment of the poem. The community of “we,” now securely established, looks back on its long history with self-consciousness and self-criticism. New possibilities were available in periods 2 and 3, but they were not pursued. “We could have said” that human, individual song outlasts its hardening into officially sanctioned forms, built with “breath bricks,” but we did not say it. By implying that there still might be the chance to rescue song from poetry, now that the situation has been recognized, period 4 opens out into a possible future. The end of the story has not yet been determined.
By looping back in time and returning to confront the future, the turn inscribes a sort of pocket or bubble, a geometrical figure within which resides Hillman’s “air”—self-criticism, confrontation with the truth, the willingness to consider previously rejected possibilities. By positioning the poem on a street corner, Hillman makes the recognition and reclamation of air a public and collective act. Rescued from epic oppression by lyric self-confrontation in the public practice of poetry, the air will free us and sustain us; it will give us the power to sing. Culturally speaking, we will turn a corner. In these ways, the geometry of the turn in “Street Corner” enacts the poem’s meanings in a manner very similar to the turn in the Greville sonnet.
When I consider Phillis Levin’s idea of a poem as a “chamber of sudden change,” I imagine another way to read the geometry of Hillman’s turn: as a cloud chamber, in which the first and second parts of the poem, like vectors lying at an angle to one another, collide, scattering meanings and releasing potential energies. Does Hillman’s turn represent a new sort of poetic structure, an atomic structure appropriate to the age of the Large Hadron Collider and the Higgs boson? Perhaps. But certainly Hillman’s poem, and Greville’s, show how meanings can arise from reading the shape of their turns, in addition to their logic and rhetoric.
¹ Levin, Phillis, ed. The Penguin Book of The Sonnet: 500 Years Of A Classic Tradition In English (New York: Penguin, 2001), xxxvii.
² Levin, xxxviii.
³ Greville, Fulke. “Sonnet 100.” http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/19989. Retrieved February 17, 2014.
4 Gunn, Thom, ed. The Selected Poems of Fulke Greville (U of Chicago Press, 2009), 38.
5 Pinsky, Robert. “CAELICA, #100 (In Night, When Colors All to Black),” Slate, January 12, 2000. http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/poem/2000/01/caelica_100_in_night_when_colors_all_to_black.html
. Retrieved December 23, 2013.
6 Hillman, Brenda. Pieces of Air in the Epic (Wesleyan U Press, 2005), 3.
7 Hillman, 28.
8 Hillman, 27.
9 Hillman, 21.
10 Hillman, 28.
11 Hillman, 48.
Jonathan Weinert is the author of Thirteen Small Apostrophes (Back Pages, 2013) and In the Mode of Disappearance (Nightboat, 2008), winner of the Nightboat Poetry Prize and a finalist for the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America. He is co-editor with Kevin Prufer, of Until Everything Is Continuous Again: American Poets on the Recent Work of W. S. Merwin (WordFarm, 2012), a finalist for a 2012 ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Award. A recipient of a 2012 Artist’s Fellowship in poetry from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, Jonathan lives in Stow, Massachusetts, with the poet Amy M. Clark and their son Jonah.