In her response to my sonnet immediately below, Eloise mentioned the volta, and her comments led me think about the volta issue. A volta means a “turn”, a “twist”, a “shift”, the point in a poem when something changes. A volta isn’t easy to handle well.
Modern poets have experimented with the sonnet form – unrhymed sonnets, sonnets that don’t use the traditional iambic pentameter, sonnets with quasi-metrical long and short lines, sonnets in couplets, sonnets with 13 lines, 15 lines, and 16 lines etc. But the two main traditional types are Petrarchan and Shakesperian, and these are still the two most common forms employed by poets today.
In a Petrarchan sonnet, where the poem is split into 2 stanzas (the first rhymes ABBAABBA and the second has a variety of rhyme schemes such as CDECDE or CDCDC) the volta traditionally comes on the 9th line. The main difficulty with the Petrarchan sonnet is to find effective rhymes. The volta comes at the point of clear stanzaic division anyway.
In a Shakesperian sonnet (rhymed ABAB CDCD EFEF GG), the situation is more complicated. The volta often comes in the final couplet, which often reverses expectations built up in the rest of the poem. That worked well for Shakespeare. The problem is that for the modern ear, such a reversal, coupled with the pat finality of the closing couplet, can come over as too definite, too easy a solution, at times too moralistic. Poets have tried to get round this by using slant rhyme, by offering a “fuzzy” couplet which deepens the meaning of the poem without offering any solutions, or by dispensing with the volta completely.
Another solution is to change the place of the volta. In my poem, the volta comes halfway through line 9 (quite a common solution, to be honest), but you could also argue that there is another mild volta at the closing couplet.
I’ve seen some interesting variations in modern sonnets. There are upside-down sonnets which have a first stanza of 6 lines and the volta coming at the beginning of the second stanza of 8 lines. I’ve seen voltas coming at lines 7 and 10. I’ve seen the volta coming only on the final line. I’ve seen plenty of sonnets with only one stanza of 14 lines, although usually there is a volta buried there somewhere.
I do like a good volta though, a point where the poem shifts gears and becomes something more than I thought it was going to be. When the volta doesn’t work, it’s often because it appears that the poet has “forced” it and the material of the poem doesn’t support the switch. That’s why it’s so difficult. A volta can be subtle, dramatic or outrageous, but it has to feel right. And unfortunately, there is no checklist of rules to ensure that.