ABCs of Poetry: V is for Volta

Posted by on Jun 1, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on ABCs of Poetry: V is for Volta

The volta.

You might be thinking, oh you mean the turn? That spot in a Petrarchan/Italian sonnet between the octet and the sestet, or in a Shakespearean sonnet between the third quatrain and the final couplet, where things change? Things like rhyme scheme, stanzaic structure, and argumentative agenda? And in other poems, regardless of whether they’re rhymed and metrical or in another received form, or even free verse (which is still formally astute or at least ought to be), you mean that location where the cinematic, rhetorical, imagistic, and/or some other poetic pattern is suddenly and significantly disrupted?

And I’d say, yes, but. I’d say, sure, the turn, yes, but I’d rather say the volta, and not just because I like the woozy hit of pretention it gives me. Because yes the turn is great, something about the volta seems to crystalize more of the function and aims of poetry than the turn does.

Why? For one, whenever I say the word volta (which comes from the Italian and means, surprisingly, ‘to turn’) I also hear the ghosts of other words strafing and swirling around it.

One is the lavolta, a dance popular in the 16th and 17th centuries, which involved quick steps and leaps, and very intimate (almost erotic) contact between dance partners in order to achieve these leaps. The dance was considered lewd, immoral, and even grounds for police intervention. Critics were scandalized and dancers shocked, in part because other dances of the day, like the pavane, were more like line dancing—less about propinquity than group rhythm, more about conformity than contact.

Another is vaulting (derived from the French voltige), a competition sport in which riders perform acrobatic tricks on a horse who is tethered to a central hub around which it trots or canters, depending on the rider’s level of skill or foolhardiness.

And another is vault, which in turn calls up its several different forms in the world of the actual: vault as in the type of ceiling characterized by high arches where air circulates and the eye is drawn upwards, and vault as in a room (like bank vault) in which goods are stored for later use, and, finally, vault as in the action of jumping, as in pole vault, as in to leap over.

But so what? This is all at best rather tangentially affiliated with the essential action the volta describes and performs, the yoking together of noticeably different expressions of a particular poetic pattern, isn’t it? Wouldn’t it be more helpful to talk about the way that the volta acts as a hinge between, say, a description of boiled prawns and the rosy flush of sunset? Between, say, a stately if mundane description of a bus ride and a passenger’s sudden hurling of a racial slur? Or how it bridges the disparity between maligning one’s lover before affirming one’s undying admiration for them?

Perhaps. But the volta, like poetry, is more than just its function. When we turn the lamp of our attention on the meanings which the volta draws to its periphery like people who thought they heard their name called, we can see in the half-light bizarre and exciting resemblances that explain some of the more understated features inside the volta, which its particular function has compacted and smoothed over time.

So, we might wonder how the volta is like an essential component of a dance the mainstream disapproves of for its action, intimacy, and iconoclasm. Or how it relates to the marriage of steady hoofbeat rhythms (akin to meter and breath, maybe) over which perilous and exciting contortions occur. Or how it is like one brick in an airy internal space masquerading as open. Or how in silhouette, it looks like a leap from one shore to another.

You might interpret the volta (and poetry, which it metonymizes) through the lens of these etymological resemblances differently. Maybe instead of a disapproved-of dance you’d say an erotic and motile commingling of oppositions. Maybe instead of someone doing flips on horseback you’d say poetry’s an ornate and circular performance that endangers its performer while frivolously titillating its audience.

Sure. That’s your interpretive prerogative. But when you do this, whatever your conclusion, you’re still performing one of the most critical actions of poetry: the leap, from one thing onto another. The connecting of unlike elements to show how they are, however tendentiously or absurdly, alike, so we can see the world is made with as many (if not more!) resemblances as it is with divisions (I’m thinking of John Donne and his famous flea in particular here, but great examples outnumber constellations).

The volta also calls to its side the volt, the unit of electromotive force it takes to move one ampere of current past one ohm of resistance. In other words, a unit of electricity. A unit which takes its name not from the same radix as volta as one might expect (the *wel- of Proto-Indo-European, which means ‘to turn or revolve’), but from Alessandro Volta, the Italian physicist who invented the battery, that ubiquitous, sold-separately, small cylindrical container which is full of dormant turns and jolts and shocks that are ready at a moment’s notice to be, by some outside apparatus, activated and transformed into motion. Say, a leaning in. Maybe a clapping. Some laughter. A jeer. Whatever hope as an action might look like.

Conor Bracken is a poet, translator, and teacher. His poems and translations appear or are forthcoming in places like the Colorado Review, The New Yorker, Ploughshares, Poetry Northwest, and Waxwing. He is the author of Henry Kissinger, Mon Amour (Bull City Press, 2017), selected by Diane Seuss as the winner of the fifth annual Frost Place Chapbook Competition, and translator of Mohammed Khair-Eddine’s Scorpionic Sun (CSU Poetry Center, September 2019). An assistant poetry editor at Four Way Review, he teaches English at the University of Findlay.