Volta and Revolt: Exploring Moments of Change in Poetry

Caitlin Doyle

This exercise is geared toward introductory poetry courses and it has been designed to last for a full class session. It can be shortened or lengthened depending on the duration of the session. For example, instructors can repeat the activities in steps 2, 4, and 5, working with additional poems of their choosing, in order to fill a longer class period, or else they can cut down on the number of activities to suit a shorter period.

Volta and Revolt centers on in-class activities rather than writing prompts or assignments for students to complete outside of class. However, an instructor can easily use the material covered in this exercise as the basis for any number of prompts or assignments that invite students to engage with “turns” and “moments of change” in poetry. In brief, students will compare two versions of the same poem, the original by a famous poet and a version altered by the instructor before class.

This exercise has been formulated to address a common pattern among beginning writers: they often start out producing poems that inadvertently strike a single note from beginning to end, employing vivid descriptive language but failing to develop in meaningful ways. The goal of the exercise is to help students understand that the most compelling poems contain shifts, turns, and moments of change, leading the reader in unexpected directions as the language unfolds. To this end, we commence with a consideration of the volta in the sonnet form. It is useful to emphasize toward the beginning of the exercise that the words volta” and revolt share an etymological connection to the Italian word rivoltare, which means “to turn or overthrow,” and then to raise the following question for students: How and why might a poem turn from—or perhaps even revolt against—its own initial premise? As a key part of the exercise, we look closely at the two following quotes:

“Like a piece of ice on a hot stove, a poem must ride on its own melting.” —Robert Frost

“The moment of change is the only poem.” —Adrienne Rich

The Robert Frost quote provides a useful way to think about a poem as a state of matter that undergoes a transformation from start to finish, an ever-shifting entity that arrives at a place different from its point of departure. Adrienne Rich’s assertion spurs us to consider moments of change in poetry on both a micro and macro level. Her statement suggests that turns in poems comprise the art form’s most essential source of power, while also implying that, in the absence of such turns, a piece of writing may fail to rightfully earn the designation of poetry. In a larger sense, Rich’s words point to the possibility that instances of change in our actual lives beyond the page might be a driving force behind our need to put pen to paper. Throughout Volta and Revolt, these two quotes can be seen as a set of anchoring ideas that contextualize the students’ exploration of how turns function in poetry.

The purpose of this exercise is to help students recognize that the strongest poems progress, shift, and evolve in significant ways from beginning to end, rather than simply presenting readers with vivid descriptions that possess no consequential movement. Another core goal of the exercise, related to Rich’s quote in particular, is to connect students with the idea that actual moments of change in their own lives might provide rich subject matter when they sit down to write.  As the semester unfolds, whether you’re having a class discussion about published texts or leading a workshop session, you might find it helpful to use this exercise as a continual reference point, reminding students to bring the following question to every piece of poetry they encounter: What are some meaningful moments of change that take place in this poem?

Step-by-Step Instructions

  1. Before you begin this activity, try not to clue students in to the fact that one version of the poem has been composed by a well-known poet and the other has been altered for the exercise. This will help them avoid playing a guessing game centered on figuring out which version is the “right” one.
  2. Start the session by introducing students briefly to the role of the volta in the sonnet form. Discuss the fact that the words volta and revolt share an etymological connection to the Italian word rivoltare, which means “to turn” or “to overthrow.” For this part of the exercise, the goal isn’t to offer an extensive lesson about the sonnet tradition but rather to provide students with a basic framework for an examination of how turns operate in poetry.
  3. Invite students to look at two versions of a poem titled “The Bat.” One is Theodore Roethke’s original piece, and the other is an altered version that stays at the level of description without possessing any significant turns. Place the poems on the same page, and remove the names of the authors so that students don’t bring preconceived notions or biases to either version.
  4. Give students time to read the work to themselves and make notes in the margins.
  5. Engage in a discussion about how the versions feel different from one another. Most students find their way toward articulating that the original Roethke version strikes them as more powerful because it contains a notable shift that deepens and complicates the poem’s overall impact.
  6. At the end of this activity   and the accompanying class discussion, you may be tempted to reveal that one of the versions was written by a well-known author and tell your students the poet’s name, while also letting them know that the other version was altered for the exercise. I recommend holding off on doing so until they’ve completed the second comparative poem activity; you might have greater overall success with the “Volta and Revolt” exercise if you simply acknowledge what the students have said about the two versions and moving to the next poems.
  7. Now introduce the quotes by Robert Frost and Adrienne Rich and engage in a class discussion about them. Encourage students to refer back to Roethke’s “The Bat” as they explore the implications of those assertions.
  8. Repeat the same process with two versions of the sonnet “Sightseers” by Stephen Scaer. This time the students’ conversation will likely be slightly more sophisticated than their earlier discussions, since they’re able to draw from the insights they gleaned earlier in the exercise.
  9. Since the poem is a sonnet, consider embarking on a more in-depth lesson about the formal attributes and history of sonnets.
  10. Inform students about the strategy that you’ve employed in both steps: presenting an original poem by a well-known author alongside a version of the poem that has been slightly altered for the exercise. Tell them which version in both steps is the original poem, and let them know the authors’ names. Students tend to have a lot of fun with this revelation, and they enjoy finding out whether or not they were able to accurately discern the stronger poem (the original version) in both steps.
  11. Now invite the students to consider the sonnet “Discovery” by Rhina Espaillat. This time, the students work with only the original version of the poem, and they’re given the author’s name from the start.
  12. Ask them to read the poem quietly to themselves and makes notes in the margins about instances in the piece where they feel something shift (narratively, tonally, emotionally, rhythmically, or otherwise). The first two poems contained a single significant turn, so the purpose of this activity is to expand on that foundation and explore the notion that poems, including sonnets, often contain several moments of change.
  13. After the students spend time absorbing “Discovery” on their own, progress into a class discussion about their impressions of the piece. Explore   the parts of “Discovery” where they sense shifts happening, and advance into a conversation about how paradoxes and/or unlikely juxtapositions in a writer’s language (for example, the phrase “loudly still” in line eleven of “Discovery”) can comprise another kind of “turn” within a poem.
  14. Conclude the class by tying together some of the main discoveries that the students have articulated throughout the session and returning again to the quotes by Frost and Rich.
    1. Ask students   to reiterate the types of turns that they’ve observed in the poems you discussed.
    2. Invite them to recap any especially salient insights they’ve gleaned about the distinction between poems that possess no movement and those that arrive somewhere different from their original points of departure.
    3. Ask students to consider if the quotes by Frost and Rich have taken on any new implications in their minds.
    4. Ask the students to offer thoughts about how these concepts might benefit them in their own writing.

Notes

  • To incorporate group work into this exercise, try the following: After the students have spent time quietly reading the poem versions to themselves and making notes in the margins, break the students into small groups to talk about their impressions of the different versions before you open up the topic to a class-wide conversation. You may also direct students to talk about the quotes by Frost and Rich in small groups before proceeding to an exchange of ideas that involves the entire class. I’ve found that group work leads to class discussions that are more energetic, insightful, and nuanced.
  • Not all students will conclude that the original versions of the poems are stronger than the altered versions. Try not to “correct” these students or push them toward favoring the original versions. Instead, maintain a neutral stance. Ask provocative questions, giving students on both sides a chance to argue their opinions, but maintain a learning experience in which students arrive at key discoveries on their own.
  • Though I use “The Bat” by Roethke  , “Sightseers” by Scaer, and “Discovery” by Espaillat for these exercises, the same class activity could be replicated with any number of poems, depending on the instructor’s preference. Choose a poem that none of the students in the class are likely to recognize (one that hasn’t appeared often in anthologies, for example).

Example of the Exercise

The Bat

(based on “The Bat” by Theodore Roethke)

By day the bat is cousin to the mouse.

He likes the attic of an aging house.

His fingers make a hat above his head.

His pulse-beat is so slow we think him dead.

He loops in crazy figures half the night

among the trees that face the corner light.

Then when    the morning comes he rests again

and dreams of all the places that he’s been

before he wakes to open wide his wings

and flies toward what another evening brings.

Biography

Caitlin Doyle is pursuing a PhD in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Cincinnati, where she holds an Elliston Fellowship in Poetry and serves as an associate editor at The Cincinnati Review. Doyle’s poems, essays, and reviews have appeared in numerous publications, including The AtlanticThe GuardianThe Yale ReviewThe Threepenny ReviewBoston ReviewThe Black Warrior Review, and Best New Poets. Her work has also been featured through the PBS NewsHour Poetry Series and Poetry Daily. She has received awards and fellowships through the James Merrill House, the Yaddo Colony, the MacDowell Colony, the Frost Farm, the P.E.O. Scholar Foundation, and others.

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