The sonnet is largely a field of expectation. If one were to make a heat map of where the dynamic action of sonnets takes place, we all know where the white heat would be: at the volta—that is, in the Petrarchan tradition, at the turn from octave to sestet, or else, in the Shakespearean, at the turn into the final couplet. Numerous recent conversations about the sonnet that understand the volta to be crucial to the sonnet’s identity—including Phillis Levin’s introduction to The Penguin Book of the Sonnet, the editorial remarks of Edward Hirsch and Eavan Boland in their The Making of a Sonnet, and essays by Christina Pugh and Monica Youn—reinforce such expectation. However, virtually since the first little song was sung, poets have been experimenting with the placement of the volta, toying with expectation to create new, special effects. To cite just two canonical examples: in Philip Sidney’s “What, have I thus betrayed my liberty?” (from Astrophil and Stella), the late major turn in the middle of line 12 enacts a desperate, and ultimately failed, repression; in “Prayer,” George Herbert reserves the turn until that sonnet’s final two words to create a quieting miracle. As my presentation (and, potentially, contribution to the critical anthology) will show, such voltaic experimentation continues in the work of a diverse array of recent and contemporary American poets, including Gwendolyn Brooks (in “rites for cousin vit”), Ron Padgett (in “Nothing in That Drawer”), Bernadette Mayers (in “[Sonnet] You jerk you didn’t call me up”), and Terrance Hayes’s update on Wanda Coleman’s “American sonnet.” I will demonstrate that, while sonnets always ask readers to expect the unexpected, readers need to be alert to the shifting location of the volta as such shifts not only amplify surprise but also contribute greatly to a sonnet’s signification by underscoring or undercutting—enacting or effacing—meaning.
Michael Theune is Robert Harrington Professor of English and Writing Program Director at Illinois Wesleyan University. He has published three books, including Structure & Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns (2008). With Kim Addonizio, he co-curated Voltage Poetry, a website devoted to the discussion of poems with great turns.