Turns of the sonnet

In any sonnet, the turn is that point in the poem where theme or conflict is addressed and resolved. As such, the turn must be foreboded by lines preceding it. Foreboding means that the ideas or images before the turn prepare the reader for the ending . . . without exhausting theme or revealing punch line — a tall order.

To execute this phase of the sonnet, you need to reflect again on epiphany and peak experience (as explained in chapter one). Like all poems, sonnets deal with these moments of truth. The octave or quatrains introduce an idea or emotion, signaling the reader that a turn of events is forthcoming in the sestet or couplet. Then, the realization of truth is expressed in the turn.

In a Petrarchan sonnet, the poet tries to develop content philosophically so the beauty of an idea in the octave is felt or envisioned in the sestet. Epiphany dawns on the poet. The Shakespearean turn makes a leap in logic. We progress slowly via each quatrain, laying the groundwork leading to epiphany, and suddenly have one in the couplet. In the Spenserian form, the quatrains usually develop a concept, situation or theme much like the octave of an Italian form; finally, the couplet satisfies us with resolution (or statement of epiphany).

To show how epiphany operates in each type of sonnet, let's analyze ones that began this chapter: "Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day?" by Shakespeare, "How Do I Love Thee?" by Elizabeth Barrett Browning and "My Love Is Like to Ice" by Spenser.

In his sonnet, Shakespeare compares his love to a summer's day in each quatrain. The first one claims that the lover is more consistent than the weather; the second continues to find fault with nature, indicating all beauty must end; and the third makes a bold statement that cannot possibly be true — his love will outlast summer, keep her beauty and transcend death — leading to the epiphany: "So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,/So long lives this, and this gives life to thee."

In her Italian sonnet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning describes the depth, breadth and height of her love in the octave. In the sestet, she discusses how she can accomplish such love, remembering her passion, grief and lost saints, indicating that her spirit has been renewed and leading slowly to the epiphany: "and, if God choose,/I shall but love thee better after death."

In each quatrain of his sonnet, Spenser simply expounds on the paradox of unrequited love — his fire cannot melt her ice — and, seemingly, scratches his head in mock confusion. Then he comes up with a logical conclusion: "Such is the power of love in gentle mind,/That it can alter all the course of kind."

All three sonnets feature turns that occur in the perfect place, at the beginning of the ninth line in the Italian and the thirteenth lines in the Shakespearean and Spenserian. This indicates that each sonnet was carefully thought out before the poet composed it. Likewise, you should resist the impulse to sit down and type when the muse strikes, and spend a few moments contemplating the turn of your sonnet. Ask yourself how you felt when you first realized a certain truth and how you plan to spring that truth on your readers: slowly as in the Italian model, swiftly as in the Shakespearean, or logically as in the Spenserian. To accomplish this, I find it helpful to sketch out what I intend to reveal in each section of a sonnet. This way, I can envision the piece before I compose it and prepare adequately for the turn.

Here's an example of such an outline from my notebook and the sonnet that ensued:

Three quatrains explaining how my father hated roses and how my mother loved them.

Quatrain One: develop image of mother's arch of roses above Virgin Mary statue in her garden

Quatrain Two: relate how my father clipped the roses Quatrain Three: image of red petals on the lawn Turn: father's coffin covered with roses, just reward HIS LAST ROSES

The only roses my father liked were looped

Around a horse's head in the winner's circle.

My mother's garden bloomed with roses, roped

In an arch above a madonna won by raffle

At a parish bazaar. I watched him take shears

To the bushes one Sunday she lingered at mass;

Clipped every bud. He even used pliers

To get at ones tangled in thorns, till at last

The lawn bled with petals fallen from limbs

To madonna with Christ-child cradled at her bosom.

When mother strolled in the yard, still humming hymns,

And saw his handiwork, the pool of blossoms,

She sighed and turned away, just as she did

Today when we closed his rose-covered lid.

The final product above deviates somewhat from my notebook entry, as it should. No outline, however clever, ought to control the muse when it wants to take a better route. Nonetheless, the outline helped me compose a sonnet whose quatrains progress nicely via lyric and narrative moments to the forboded turn.

Let's summarize the process to compose a sonnet:

1. Know the rhyme scheme and structure of the basic forms (Shakespearean, Italian, Spenserian).

2. Become familiar with the broad categories of sonnets (love, nature, meditative, elegiac, celebratory).

3. Align your topic with the sonnet form that best conveys your epiphany via the turn (slowly as in the Italian, swiftly as in the Shakespearean or logically as in the Spenserian).

4. Think through the turn by outlining what you hope to accomplish in each segment of your sonnet (as I did in my journal entry for "His Last Roses").

Once you know the process, you can perfect, vary or experiment with the basic form. Toward this end, I have assembled a mini anthology of contemporary sonnets to illustrate these concepts:

• Structure and Voice in an Italian Sonnet Variation. Art Homer — poet, creative writing teacher and poetry editor — varies the sonnet form to capture the essence of an overheard conversation. In "At the Heartland Cafe," note how the structure of his variation (the octave uses four rhymes instead of two) augments diction: the perspectives of two women playing off each other in the octave and sestet.

• Structure and Epiphany in an Italian/Spenserian Variation. In T.R. Hummer's "A Crazy Girl Brings the Rural Carrier a Dime," note how the poet combines elements of the Italian (octave/sestet) and Spenserian (rhyme/turn) to convey his italicized epiphany.

• Use of Line in an Italian/Shakespearean Variation. In David Baker's "Driving Past the Nuclear Plant," note how the poet begins lyrically and shifts to the narrative mode, using midline stanzas to serve as transitions. Observe as well how he combines the Italian structure (octave/sestet) with the Shakespearean rhyme scheme to unravel his truth in the turn.

• Voice, Rhyme, Meter and Structure. In Diane Ackerman's "How Like a Virus Entering a Cell," note the scientific diction that creates a unique metaphor for love» the surprising rhymes and turn that echo elements of the Spenserian, and the lines that deviate from the the traditional pentameter, augmenting the final epiphany.

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