The discussions of great turns in Voltage Poetry are intended to deepen our engagement with such turns and the poems that contain and employ them.  However, the poems under discussion also offer excellent models for, and the reflections on them offer insights regarding, how to compose poems.  This page makes explicit some of the creative possibilities implicit in Voltage Poetry’s many discussions.

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Linda Pastan’s “Ethics” begins with an account of wrestling with a philosophical conundrum: would you save a famous painting or an old woman from a fire?  The poem then turns to consider the conundrum from a new perspective—that of an older woman.  Write a poem that moves in just such a way, from general, abstract musing to specific—and perhaps even personal—insight.  The poem could begin by wrestling with a philosophical problem that involves tough choices—there are many to choose from: the overcrowded lifeboat dilemma, the runaway streetcar problem, &c, &c.  (Here is a list of such conundrums.)  However, the poem should then turn to consider the issue from a new vantage point, perhaps one gained through new, enlightening experience.

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Kimberly Johnson reflects on Richard Crashaw’s infamous, transgressive epigram that comments on Luke, chapter 11 here.  (Read more about the epigram form here.)  Practice writing epigrams by writing collaborative, two-line poems.  Such collaborations likely will not result in rhymed couplets, but they often will contain the sharp turns that are a major part of the epigram’s effect.

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“Dulce et Decorum Est” is a poem that reverses the cliché-and-critique structure—at poem’s end, we learn what the point of the nightmarish narration / description of a battle scene is: it’s a critique of the cliché “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” (“Sweet and fitting is it to die for one’s country”).  Find a cliché with which you disagree and then write a poem that offers an argument, or perhaps a counter-picture, against it.  The cliché could go at the beginning or the end of the poem, whichever you feel is most appropriate.  For more on the cliche-and-critique structure, see Michael Theune’s “The Quarrelsome Poem,” in Mentor and Muse: Essays from Poets to Poets, edited by Blas Falconer, Beth Martinelli, and Helena Mesa (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2010).

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Vidya’s “You are fortunate…” offers a wonderfully succinct model for a poem, one that turns from considering the circumstances of others to then deliver the speaker’s own perspective / experience.  (In “You are fortunate…,” the “you” may be other poets who have written love poems that include reference to the features of the beloved, and the “I” is Vidya, perhaps trying to outdo her colleagues, paradoxically, by admitting how and why she cannot do this.)  Try you own poem that turns from the circumstances and/or relationships of others to then consider how your own perspective / experience differs.

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Although seemingly very different poems, Cally Conan-Davies’s “Wompoo Fruit Dove,” Stan Rice’s “The Afterlife,” Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo”Melissa Stein’s “Aquarium”, and Jean Valentine’s “The Rose” work in some very similar ways.  Both begin with a description of an object or scene—a dying dove, a dead husband, a fragment of statuary, a psychically-laden and -alive “aquarium,” a rose—and then, very near the end of the poem, suddenly, as if from nowhere, leap into another realm—“an unexpected imaginal space,” as David Mason says of Conan-Davies’s poem—commenting on much larger topics, such as love and how to live one’s life.  Try to write such a poem.  Don’t worry about what your final gesture will be.  Start with description of something powerful to, or perhaps powerfully intimate for, you.  Then write a command to yourself, one that does not even necessarily need to be connected to the object you’ve described.  Or else write down a question that has plagued you for some time.  See if the command or question feels both strangely connected to the description—does it, as James Pollock notes about Rilke’s description, in some subtle way “prepare the way” for the turn?—and like a radical break from it.  If so, you’ve got a strong draft of a poem.  For more on this kind of poem, see Rachel Zucker’s discussion of the “epiphanic poem” in Structure & Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns (Teachers & Writers, 2007), and click here.

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Compose a villanelle.  Information on the villanelle form can be found here.  As always, simply filling out a form will not make a good poem—the poem needs (among other things) structure, trajectory, thrilling and/or resonant turning.  To assist with this, see Beth Gylys’s “Two Villanelle Voltas,” a reflection on the importance of the turn in villanelles.

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To create another turn in the conversation around and about the questions that H. L. Hix recognizes as being at the core of Bhanu Kapil Rider’s The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers and Jacqueline Jones LaMon’s Last Seen, answer the twelve questions in order—“Who are you and whom do you love?,” “Where did you come from / how did you arrive?,” &c—and then shape those answers into a poem, creating line breaks and stanzas, if appropriate.

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A few of the reflections on Voltage Poetry develop new metaphors for the ways that certain poems turn.  In “The Turn, the Poem, the Canoe,” Craig Santos Perez compares the turns in Anne Perez Hattori’s “Thieves” to the kinds of turns that are taken by Chamorro canoes.  As Perez notes, “[E]ach new stanza reflects the previous stanza while turning in different narrative directions, giving the impression of narrative speed and agility.”  In “Roethke, Ecclesiastes, and the Michigan Left-Turn in Lynda Hull’s ‘Magical Thinking,'” Patty Seyburn compares a turn in Hull’s poem to a Michigan left-hand turn: “First constructed in 1960, the Michigan left (no politics involved) utilizes a U-turn and right turn in lieu of the prospective left turn at the crossroad intersection. By employing the rhetorical version of the Michigan Left-Turn, the writer returns to her old neighborhood and the damaging recall of an abusive relationship, but instead of facing away and taking shelter in a healthier present or future laden with the potential of hard-gained wisdom, the narrator veers in a third direction, away from its point of origin and away from its opposite pole…”  Employing this kind of metaphoric structural thinking, imagine a very specific kind of turn—an about-face, a banking, the way that a chrysalis turns into a butterfly, the manner by which fire and dynamite turn into an explosion, &c, &c—then use that kind of turn—its directionality, its effect(s), and/or its suddenness, or else the stages of its progress—to offer you a structure for a brand new poem.

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In her 31st fragment, Sappho notes that in the presence of the beloved she is subjected to radically different kinds of feelings: at one moment, fire races under her skin; in another, cold sweat holds her.  Powerful love—or emotion of any kind—can be a wild mix of fire and ice.  In “Prone, November,” Louise Matthias crafts a suggestive, subtly erotic poem that uses what commentator Derrick Burleson refers to has “hairpin” turns.  Such turns—or, perhaps, leaps—of course, in part enact the shifting feelings that come with erotic attraction.  Write a love poem like Matthias’s, one that includes an “I” and a “you,” but also that allows itself to leap, to make sharp, distinct turns from short stanza to short stanza in order to demonstrate the ways that love can move us.

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In “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” Wallace Stevens notes that “[t]he poem is the cry of its occasion.”  However, sometimes poems offer both: an occasion and a cry.  That is, the poem offers an occasion, a setting, a description, only to then cry from out of that occasion.  A great example of this kind of poetic structure is Donald Justice’s “On the Death of Friends in Childhood,” which ends with a cry, a plea, a prayer, an invocation, an apostrophe to memory, which, as commentator Patrick Phillips points out, also “is clearly the poet talking to himself, addressing his own memory, …[and], at the same time, an address the reader. Come, all of you, Justice seems to say. Come seek your own lost there in the shadows.”  Write a brief poem that offers an occasion, but then culminates in a cry.

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Henri Cole’s “Necessary and Impossible” defines a new kind of ideal nation, one “born in the quiet part of the mind.”  He does so, largely, by defining all that this nation is not, by, as commentator Nicky Beer puts it, piling up the no’s: it has “no God but nature…no fugue-work of hate.”  Try this with some other large abstraction—perhaps not nation, but religion, hope, love, corporation.  And, at the end, try a turn like Cole’s, one that shifts the poem from large, grand, abstract, philosophical considerations to the more personal and intimate.  In so doing see if you successfully can complete, as Beer says of Cole’s poem, “the extraordinary feat of writing a poem of affirmation through anaphoric negation.”

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A poem that employs the concessional structure turns from making initial concessions to then offer the argument it intends to make.  Some concessional poems can be extreme, using the concessions to reveal a situation in which all seems lost.  John Keats’s letter to Mrs. James Wylie employs the concessional structure in just this extreme way by initially stating that nothing can be done about Mrs. Wylie’s sad situation, and so Keats will not make the effort to try to convince her that “sorrow is joy or joy is sorrow.”  But the letter does not end there; rather, it turns, and offers a vast, stunning, new experience.  Write such a poem, one that is aware of the situation described in the first two line of Wallace Stevens’s “The Well Dressed Man with a Beard”: “After the final no there comes a yes / And on that yes the future world depends…”

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Compose a mirror-image poem like Natasha Trethewey’s “Myth.”  Such a poem probably will feel more successful if the subject of the poem has something to do with patterns of ascent and descent, foregrounding and backgrounding, reversal, mirroring.  In this way, the structure of the poem will help to enact the subject of the poem, and you might create what commentator Susan B. A. Somers-Willett an extraordinary kind of poem, “one that does what it says.”

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Employing Claudia Emerson’s “Migraine: Aura and Aftermath” as a model, write a poem that describes a process—or the effects of a process, or being subjected to a process—by following the steps of that process.  The stages of grief, being subjected to a seizure (and its aftermath), the biological stages of physical attraction (and its aftermath)—each of these, and many, many more processes, might offer the potentially productive outline of a poem.

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Write a “how-to” poem, a poem giving instructions.  Use Sherman Alexie’s “How to Write the Great American Indian Novel” as a model.  While your own poem could be about anything—“How to Stay Single,” “How to Enjoy a Family Vacation,” “How to Mansplain,” etc—you may wish to use some of Alexie’s techniques, including, as commentator Catie Rosemurgy notes, mega-irony, repetition, and accretion.  Like many list poems, Alexie’s also is a list-with-a-twist.  Try to employ a final kicker in your list, something that intensifies the poem, perhaps turning from funny to serious, from flip and silly to resonant, or deeply ironic.

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Using Hafez’s ghazal as a model, write your own ghazal.  The ghazal is a form that features wild, almost constant turning within and between couplets—it is a whirling dervish.  Here is more information on the ghazal form.

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According to the commentary by Marci Rae Johnson, “The first three stanzas of Kevin Prufer’s poem ‘Cartoon Featurette’ describe a scene that the poem’s narrator observes….And then, the beginning of the fourth stanza confirms for us that the narrator has mistaken the cartoon for reality, as he suddenly has a realization: ‘But as my eyes adjusted, / I came to see the truth –/ This was a darkened theatre.'”  Write your own poem using this kind of turn, one that might be considered a turn from dream to waking.  For more information on and examples of such turns, click here.

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List poems—especially those with a significant turn at the end—often employ a section that might be referred to as a “ramp-up.”  In this section—often located approximately 2/3 – 3/4 of the way through the poem—the poem intensifies.  Sometimes, the ramp-up takes the form of increased listing.  For example, take Billy Collins’s “Nostalgia.”  The first three stanzas of this poem each refer to a single decade; however, in the fourth stanza, a ramp-up occurs, and at least five different points of the past are referred to.  This ramp-up assists the poem in making its final and most significant turn into the last two stanzas.  Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die” uses a different kind of ramp-up.  It its third quatrain, the poem breaks from its pattern of beginning each quatrain with an “if / then” statement to give clear commands.  This ramping-up of the poem’s intensity thus makes space for the final gestures of the poem: the philosophical, stoic question—“What though before us lies the open grave?”—and the final, resolved statement of what must be done.  When looking over drafts of your own poems, consider whether or not a ramp-up might be an effective structural device.

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It is often noted that the turn, or volta, in sonnets occurs either between the octave and the sestet, in the case of an Italian sonnet, or else between the third quatrain and the final couplet, in the case of an English sonnet.  While these may be handy general guidelines, they do not describe the reality of the turn’s flexibility.  As discussed more fully here, turns can, with good reason, show up just about anywhere in a sonnet.  For example, the major turn in Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” does not occur until half-way through the final line.  Such a late turn, however, is significant: it enacts the suddenness, the radical nature, of the kind of turn that one’s life must take.  Of course, the turn in Rilke’s poem seems so radical in part because it defies general expectations about how a sonnet will work.  But playing with expectation and creating meaningful surprise is at the core of what poetry is and does.  So, if you have drafts of sonnets you are working on, consider the location of your turn(s) as you revise.  While it may be completely proper to turn after the octave or the third quatrain, it may be more powerful, intriguing, and meaningful—and in line with the practices of some of the sonnet’s greatest practitioners—to turn at a different point in the poem.

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In “Going Elsewhere,” her contribution to The Rag-Picker’s Guide to Poetry, Linda Gregerson discusses one of the central paradoxes of poetry: as she calls it, “moving-forward-by-going-elsewhere.”  Gregerson writes:

Often, when I have drafted, oh, three-quarters of a poem, something more than half in any case, I find myself at a peculiar sort of impasse.  The trajectory has begun to assume some clarity; the poem has begun to turn toward home.  And just-on-the-edge-of-fulfillment is exactly the problem: were the poem at this point simply to complete its own momentum, it would land in sorry predictability or, worse, the default didacticism that comes from ‘topping up’ one’s own emergent understanding.  Time to go elswehere, Linda.  And begin by discarding that last stanza and a half.

Elsewhere can be recalcitrant.  A dozen failed efforts to find it–three dozen–are nothing at all.  It must be the right, the real elsewhere, the one that deepens and corrects what has come before.

Take a draft of a poem that you have and see if its ending is at all as Gregerson describes some of hers: a bit predictable, a bit too explanatory.  If so, apply Gregerson’s method to it: cut off some of the ending and “go elsewhere” with a new turn.  Though, as Gregerson notes, this can be difficult work, it often is the work necessary to make a thrilling turn, and a more successful poem.  (For more on Gregerson’s notion of “moving-forward-by-going-elsewhere,” click here.)

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For additional resources on how to use the turn to encourage new work or else to advance the revision process, see “Inspiration, Guides, Exercises” in Structure & Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns (Teachers & Writers, 2007).  Additionally, explore the possibilities discussed on the Structure & Surprise blog under the heading “Pedagogy.”

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