Primer on the Sonnet’s Volta as a Moment of Transformation

by C.T. Salazar

     Over the holidays I walked some of the fields I was raised with. I had forgotten the feeling that comes with crossing from the field into the woodline. How the world changes all at once, just like that. A volta isn’t just a turn, but a transformation. In the woods even the temperature was different. Suddenly safety felt precarious. Where in the vast open I was the tallest thing, now the world was above me and all sides were singing down instead of just under me. I didn’t know this change was coming, and I didn’t know until I was already in that change how I would experience it. In the field or in the woods–I was on either side of a volta.

What a sonnet does best (I think) is offer us a moment of transformation; that at any place in the poem we are navigating an unlocated present, either about to experience this change or having just met the consequences of it.

Try writing fourteen lines in any tense. Rather than measuring your lines in metric feet, for the sake of the draft, try to only measure by associative leap–break when you can feel your image is about to break, or your tone shifts. Let the logic of the thing be self-interested, unapologetic of the way it works. (the heartbeat is like this too.) Wobble. Wonder. What’re you interested in seeing transformed, and how can the music of the line make this world so? Where are the stars in this sonnet? Even if it takes place at noon? How does what you’re able to hear depend on how empty your head is? I stand in my own way all the time, and I’m never able to shake the feeling that what I should focus on is stuck in my periphery, trying to get my attention.

The sonnet somehow focuses and widens our periphery. If you’re able to draft the fourteen lines, don’t sweat if they seem unruly or unmanageable right now. There’s this terrific quote from C.F. Johnson (in 1904!):

Sonnet beauty depends on symmetry and asymmetry both, for the parts are unequal in length and different in form and melody. In this it resembles things of organic beauty as opposed to things of geometric beauty. It involves the principle of
balanced yet dissimilar masses, of formality and freedom, like a tree which has developed under the rigorous law of its growth and yet is shaped by the chance of wind and sunshine into something individual.

In the formal dress of the sonnet we as poets are still able to break into the utterly miraculous. Through the constraint of the form, we’re making an argument and a music that are entangled in a relationship wholly unique to the sonnet itself. As Dan Beachy-Quick says “to experiment in one is to ask a question about the other.”

C.T. Salazar is a Latinx poet and librarian from Mississippi. He’s the author of Headless John the Baptist Hitchhiking (Acre Books) and three previous chapbooks, most recently American Cavewall Sonnets (Bull City Press, 2021). He’s the 2020 recipient of the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award in poetry. His poems have most recently appeared in West Branch, Cincinnati Review, Gulf Coast, Denver Quarterly, Southeast Review, The Hopkins Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Pleiades, and elsewhere.

14-Line Little Song: A Sonnet Workshop: Eavan Boland says the sonnet suits our world and is capable of the essential lyric qualities of being musical, brief, and memorable. Terrance Hayes says the sonnet is part music box, part meat grinder. As both a means to participate in a communal tradition and a way to defi ne one’s own individual voice, the little song (as it means) is a form of wonder and tangible music. In this class, we’ll see how poets today are tending to the expectations that make a sonnet what it is, and the ways they depart from the expected into the miraculous. We’ll also write toward our own sonnet approaches, drawing inspiration from classic and contemporary poets.  Thursday, December 19, 6:00 – 8:00 pm, virtual via Zoom. Register Here.