Humans in general could benefit from perspective taking, but Americans in particular could use a hefty dose. Our breadth and diversity slims the likelihood of any singular, epitomal American experience, and as such, the ability to compromise with one another, using a basis of mutual understanding to inform our actions, underpins American peace and progress. This mutual understanding requires a consistent personal labor of listening and imagining, imagining what it must be like to experience something from a different point of view.
Every so often (and so, so often!) our lack of imagination couples with reporting bias and social-media echo-chambering to create vast chasms between polemic ideologies—the right and left express virulent disdain for one another, each side convinced the other operates from a more dangerous and myopic ideology. On a grand scale—with notable exceptions, think du Bois’s double consciousness—we have failed to adequately imagine the experiences of those who differ from us. On a small scale, we might practice this imagination via the poetic turn.
A turn being, of course, a sea change within a poem. Poetry at large operates on internal tension—the texture of a poem arising from its own frictive ideas. While many talented writers have spun monochromatic moments into stunning poems, tautness and balance between opposition provides a reliable and captivating engine for poetry. This sort of poetry necessitates not only the coexistence but the intentional relation of polemic ideas. Poets—and hopefully readers—must hold multiple realities in tandem in their heads. Whether these ideas operate in concert or opposition, poems that function on a turn require a kind of internal pluralism.
The sonnet is defined by its turn. The discrete argument required by a sonnet—a form written with an axis not unlike the breath—must—even while affirming life, acknowledge death. The two most common sonnets are categorized by how centrally the hinge is placed. The sigh of the Petrarchan, the slap of the Shakespearean. The placement of a turn earlier or later in a poem might reveal the writer’s allegiances, or subvert them—the reversal might be dramatic, the outcome might sprawl. Hill or valley, the angle has its apex, its depression. Reader and writer are required to consider the ways in which an argument implies its opposite. By turning, a poem shifts its own perspective—a helpful callisthenic toward more effective perspective taking.
That’s because perspective taking also requires the ability to turn—at least in thought—against oneself. So folding a fourteen-line moment over itself can serve as a kind of practice—a thought, a change. Change being such a granted constant that it’s almost embarrassing to write… but then, in approaching monoliths like right and wrong, we’re rarely encouraged to search for fluidity or nuance—Truth is a rigid construct, except when it’s not, which is always. But then, if inconsistency is a constant, ought it, on occasion, to be constant?
How the crease asserts itself textures the entire argument of the poem—the hard fold of a “but,” and the post-turn palimpsest it creates—that is, after the poem folds over itself, many readers may need to revisit preceding lines in lieu of. “So” might throw the poem forward. “While,” and “though,” might work like a cartoon that takes a few tension-building steps back before launching into a sprint. “While,” and “though,” might also be the backward glance as an empowered self strides—necessarily—away from a failed love. Of course, a poem could forego its conjunctions all together, letting the reader gather the surge or drought or steadying of the poem from its nouns and verbs. However they’re built, turns help those who participate in poetry to imagine alternatives, to wonder at other experiences.
Ultimately, the sad fact is that even if we imagine our very hardest, we can’t quite know what it’s like to live as another person. The best we can do is to read widely, to read especially writers who represent identities other than our own, writers who have experiences we can hardly imagine. We can seek out turns and see how it feels to let a few realities exist in us at once. We can create turns of our own. I understand a turn as a way of striking oneself to create a spark. If we keep at it, maybe we’ll make light.