Monday, February 13, 2006

The Volta

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.


Eloise said...

Fascinating. I'm glad I sparked a thought process, if only I could do the same for myself. I think that one of my main reasons for loving sonnets, apart from the virtuosity of the form and the beauty of fitting an entire thought process into 14 lines (in most cases), is the volta. A sonnet without a volta always seems to me to be incomplete, as you said, it never becomes more than what you expected. I think that it really shows the durability of the sonnet form that modern poets have managed to play around with components such as the volta to suit our changing expectations, without ever losing the subtle balance of the form. There is something deeply rewarding about realising that a poem is a sonnet, and that within in that the volta has been managed well, but as you said, a badly done volta will always feel gimmicky and forced. Sometimes I find that even in sonnets that don't ostensibly contain a volta, one sort of emerges in the chain of argument, and its subtlety makes it all the more enjoyable.
I think that given the chance I would spend the rest of my life reading (and writing, when I get good enough) sonnets, at the moment I'm still working my way through Shakespeare's, as well as all sorts of modern ones; you've got to love a form that has lasted 400 years without ever seeming dated.

Rob Mackenzie said...

I might write more about sonnets and voltas in a few days time, once I manage to better formulate the few random thoughts I'm currently having about them.
Sonnets went through a serious dip in popularity for a while and were considered quite out of date.
Why the sonnet has emerged as such a popular form in the last century or so is worth considering.

Eloise said...

Well, the dip as I remember it happened about 300 years ago! It was the Augustans that didn't like them, not enough space I suppose, they were a wordy lot. I suppose now its that sense of the comfort of form in the face of the chaos of 'modern life', what I love is that even e e cummings wrote in sonnets, surprised me so much when I first came across one of his.

Larry said...

I think it is useless to check sonnets for voltas. It will obviously come wherever it seems to fit and there is no premeditation involved. I'd argue that most poems of more than a few lines contain a volta somewhere whether they are sonnets or not - it is simply a feature of fiction (or whatever it is that we instill into a poem) to include shifts of tone.

Rob Mackenzie said...

Eloise – I was thinking that sonnets are popular today mainly because of their length. Fourteen lines has potential as a highly marketable product. They don’t take long to read, but they can hold a lot inside.

Larry - I think it is valid to consider the volta in a sonnet. I don't agree that there is no premeditation involved, nor that it will come where it "seems to fit".

The volta is one of the formal characteristics required by a sonnet, not an option. And its placing is also virtually a formal requirement – L9 in the Petrarchan, sometimes L9 and sometimes L13 in the Shakesperian. Of course, these formal requirements have been modified or ignored in certain individual sonnets, but the placing of the volta in those specific lines has been very much the norm (and it still is the norm, even if the exceptions in modern poetry are more numerous than in the past).

Eloise said...

"highly marketable product"
I think that phrase is a bit dubious at the moment, sonnets may be popular but poetry is still very much in the decline. I agree that the compactness of the form helps its popularity, but to me it is that knowledge of length and structure which makes the sonnet so comforting. Perhaps I am being too influenced by all the WWI poets I have been reading recently, a lot of whom wrote in sonnets. I, of course, cannot speak for the poet, but for the reader there is something about the contrast between the infinite horrors of war, and the rigid compact form of the sonnet, which makes the poem both easier to handle and even more disturbing.
larry, I think it is important to at least 'check' a sonnet for a volta, I wouldn't say that they were as much of a formal requirement today, but the weight of tradition and expectation does make it likely that a poet will include one (on purpose). Also I suppose that at the moment with free verse being predominate, a poet writing a sonnet is likely to have made more of an active choice to use one than perhaps would have happened in Elizabethean times, where (this is where my ignorance will betray me) it was more the fashion than anything else. Therefore, it is likely that the poet has considered the volta as a tool, and even if they have decided not to use it in their sonnet, we should at least try and 'consider' one as well.

Larry said...

[b]A New Poet Independently Invents the Volta[/b]

My genius has proposed the perfect form
to blast the doubters: regular IP,
five iambs a line, set to a rigid norm
of interchanging rhyme: ABAB.

Repeat this for a while. No rush, extend
the subject that was introduced before.
There's comfort in such plodding with no end
or bend in sight (this could become a bore).

I know! Enter the first part's evil twin:
the same lines as before, but only three
a stroph. That's sure to throw some mayhem in.

One hitch: what crackpot reader would agree?
Oh, damn, originality's my curse.
It seemed a good idea. Back to free verse.

Rob Mackenzie said...

I'm not convinced that poetry is less popular than it's been before, although aggressive marketing techniques for other genres may make it seem so.

Well done! Nice one. You might be amused to know that:

five iambs a line, set to a rigid norm
of interchanging rhyme: ABAB.

Repeat this for a while. No rush, extend
the subject that was introduced before.

pretty much describes a poem I'm working on at the moment, except in tetrameter rather than pentameter!

Scotty said...

Interesting article, Rob, as is the sonnet-form banter taking place over at PFFA; who said poetry can't be fun?

I love sonnets. Being an old-fashioned romantic type of guy, the sonnet form lends itself so well to romantic thoughts, although I can imagine that some folks will tire of seeing yet another love sonnet on occasions. It can be difficult to do a sonnet on subjects not involving romance, and having tried myself on a few occasions, I've found that one has to be careful with the choice of subject; it's not that I've been howled down or anything (yet, anyway) but there are some who are quite particular about what works well with the sonnet form and what doesn't.

As for the Volta? Yes, it's difficult to employ with any degree of subtlety; there are times when one can see one coming a mile away. I think I heard it said once that some of the sonnets of old masters were easily distinguishable for their voltas because they usually started with 'but' or 'still' or 'and yet' - just to name a few of the options.

Again, interesting discussion and I look forward to reading more.