What Is a Poetry Shift?
Many readers find poetry difficult. However, there are some rules and patterns that all good poems follow, and when readers learn those patterns, the process of reading poetry becomes easier and more enjoyable. One quality most poems possess is the “shift.” Other texts might call it the “turn,” or might even use the Italian word for it, "volta." As a general rule, the shift introduces a change in the speaker’s understanding of what he is narrating, signaling to readers that he has reached an insight.
Read the Poem Carefully and Repeatedly
To find the shift of a poem, you have to be able to identify a clear change in the speaker’s voice.
Look at a short lyric from Robert Frost entitled “Dust of Snow”:
The way a crow Shook down on me The dust of snow From a hemlock tree
Has given my heart A change of mood And saved some part Of a day I had rued.
Read the poem until you can identify the difference in the speaker's voice from the first stanza to the second.
Analyze the First Stanza
When reading poetry, determine the literal meaning first. What is happening? What has happened? In the first stanza, you know the season is winter because of the snow, and you know the man is standing below a hemlock tree.. You also know that snow has fallen down on him, and that a crow is responsible.
Analyze the Second Stanza
The second stanza is much more interesting for the reader. For most people, snow that falls on them from above is not a welcome event. However, for the speaker of this poem, it changes his mood from one of rue, or regret, to one that is more hopeful. The change from rue to hope is the poem’s shift.
Tie it All Together
Now that you’ve read through the entire poem, you can speculate about the nature of the speaker’s shift in tone, or attitude. The key to your interpretation should be the fact that the poem begins on a sad note and ends on a hopeful note. Perhaps the speaker felt disconnected from the world until the crow knocked snow down upon him. Reintegrated back into nature, the speaker can now go about his day without obsessing about the source of his rue. Because it is a brief poem, the interpretive possibilities are not endless, but that does not mean you cannot speculate. If you are able to consistently identify the shift in a poem, you possess an invaluable skill for learning how to read poetry.
Jimmy Rafter is a published academic writer, having written books, journal articles, reviews and newspaper articles for over 20 years. He holds two master's degrees (one in theology) as well as a Doctor of Literature. As an English professor, he has over 10 years of experience teaching students how to write well.