Listening for even the slightest turn

I’ve been reading sonnets aloud in the mornings. Listening for the ‘turn’ or volta–that moment when what a poet is saying shifts direction–when the sonnet’s argument expands, or contracts. In one way, or another, the poem’s question resolves itself (formally, this resolution–however provisional–is required). Sometimes, of course, the problem a sonnet raises is more interesting than the solution the poem achieves.

I love the sonnet form: it’s muscular, emotive, capacious. And it lends itself to sharp, intelligible abstraction. In skilled hands, sonnets push toward paradox, nuance: a sudden and sharp gestalt, a renovation of a certain pre-existing architecture of thought. I love the pleasure of a good “turn”–the simultaneous clarity and complication, compression and expansion, the inevitable paradox of the sonnet form.

These days, I’m listening for even the slightest turn. Not only in the sonnets I read each morning, when “circumstances” (read: children) allow. I’m also listening to the unconstructed sonnets of my own thought, the rough drafts and whatever it is they’re banging away at, trying to transform into a structured understanding: an octave and a sestet; three quatrains and a couplet; a turn, however slight, regardless of what precedes it, of what might follow.

Perhaps it’s odd, given my current preoccupation with the “turn,” that the sonnet I want to quote here is one that loses me at the volta. A sonnet, by the English poet J.K. Stephen, which appears in 101 Sonnets from Shakespeare to Heaney, edited by Don Paterson. I quote the octave here, but not the sestet. (The sonnet seems to me to bear out its own distinction: two voices. To my ear, the sestet employs the voice of “an old half-witted sheep.” But the octave is brilliant.)

This is the work, isn’t it? To hear the difference. To let the deeper voice direct the work: to let it carry us–and, if it must, the full freight of our “articulate monotony” as well–toward the precise turn we are hoping for, the one we are listening for, perhaps without knowing it.

The slightest turn I will know when I hear it: the one I am awaiting.


from Two voices are there: one is of the deep by J.K. Stephen

Two voices are there: one is of the deep;

It learns the storm-cloud’s thunderous melody,

Now roars, now murmurs with the changing sea,

Now bird-like pipes, now closes soft in sleep:

And one is of an old half-witted sheep

Which bleats articulate monotony,

And indicates that two and one are three,

That grass is green, lakes damp, and mountains steep

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