Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Monday, October 15, 2007

Fourteen Lines: Sonnet-Addiction

The sonnet-form of poetry has been around for about 800 years. That's a long time, from where I'm sitting, but maybe not from where geology is sitting.

It's a form that should be worn out by now (indeed, most working poets today probably view it as a worn out form), but it's simply too addictive--to poets as well as readers of poetry--to be abandoned. From an American perspective, one might compare it to the blues form or the three-chord country-and-western song. In one sense we feel as if we've heard it all before when we think of these forms, but on closer inspection, the possibilities for variations and innovations within the tight form are endless, and indeed one source of fascination is what the next person will do with the form, given the form's tight guidelines. The tension between tight, conventional form and innovation becomes a source of inspiration and interest. Of course, it's always possible to disobey a form's guidleines significantly, something that happened when the sonnet-form lept, so to speak, from Italy to England.

"Sonnet," so the story goes, springs from a similar word in Italian that means "little song" or "little sound." Apparently it began life as a song-form within larger works, in Sicily, at the court of Frederick, in the 1200s. We associate the form now with the Renaissance Italian poet Petrarch, and his sonnets refined the octave [8 lines]/sestet [6 lines] form. It's easier to rhyme in Italian than in English, so Petrarch was able to use as few as four rhymes over the 14 lines. Thomas Wyatt tried to keep the Petrarchan form going in English but started to vary the rhyme-scheme, and his iambic pentameter was pretty rough. As we know, Shakespeare put the real English stamp on the form, solidifying the three-quatrain/couplet form, which, among other things, allows for more rhymes. Shakespeare's iambic pentameter tends to be more regular than Wyatt's; that's for sure. Shakespeare also deviated from and even made fun of conventions of the sonnet. For example, in Sonnet 18, he asks, "Shall I compare thee [his beloved] to a summer's day?" The rest of the sonnet implicitly answers, "Yes and no," because he does draw comparisons but points out their inadequacy, thereby disrupting the convention of describing someone's beauty in terms of nature (a.g., a woman's complexion = that of a rose). Not to get too cute, but Sonnet 18 is both a sonnet and a meta-sonnet, a sonnet that shows off the poet's awareness of the tradition in which he writes.

Like Dickinson's poetry, sonnets are often met with resistance because they can seem too formal, encoded, and remote--something that belongs to dusty volumes in libraries or only to English teachers. But once you crack the surface, so to speak, they're very satisfying little puzzles to work on, and they often make quick little arguments, often feinting in one direction, going in another direction, and ending with emphasis, surprise, or both. And by the time Countee Cullen writes his famous sonnet, "Yet Do I Marvel" (in the Harlem Renaissance), almost any subject is open to the sonnet; it's no longer a song of love. "Yet Do I Marvel" may well be my most favorite sonnet of all time, with all due respect to the Shake-meister-general.

In one sense, sonnet-writing and sonnet-reading can be described as a figurative addiction, not so different from that to crossword puzzles or soduku. In another sense, sonnet-writing and sonnet-reading are like a big ongoing party you can visit. It's a welcoming tradition. That one is welcome doesn't necessarily mean that the sonnet one tries to write will succeed or that every sonnet one reads will be satisfying. It just means a grand, flexible, evolving tradition continues--a moveable feast.

I usually have students (as poets or readers) write a "sound sonnet," in which individual lines or sentences make sense but in which the sonnet overall need not, and indeed should not, make sense. The idea is to liberate the students from having to mean so that they may focus on the meter and rhyming, the building of three quatrains and a couplet. Ironically, the hardest part of the exercise turns out to be not making sense. In most cases, the "sound sonnets" quickly begin to be about something.

I invite you to write a sound-sonnet, a 10 [syllables; every other syllable stressed] X 14 [lines] poem, as my late friend Wendy Bishop referred to it. Try not to mean!

I participate in the tradition chiefly by reading (and teaching) sonnets, but every so often I attend the party as a writer. In the following sonnet, I decided to have the poem try (at least) to meaning something, I decided to stick with the English or Shakespearian form (three quatrains and a couplet), I decided to adhere, with a few variations, to iambic pentameter, but I also decided to be flexible with the rhyming by using some slant- or half-rhymes.

Making the Soul’s Re-acquaintance

It seems you must give up your long-term lease
On being right and wronged, righteous and hurt.
No doubt there’s someone else who would be pleased
To lord over that haughty piece of Earth.

Move to a cottage of humility,
Cross-breezes, and a pantry full of jars
That hold your faults, preserved for scrutiny.
Live with the wretchedness of who you are.

Chop kindling from the stump of your assumptions,
And ask forgiveness from each simple wall.
It won’t be long before you sense resumption
Of simple gratitude for life and all.

Of course you’ll want to pray again, poor sod.
But keep it basic: pray there is a God.

from The Coast Starlight: Collected Poems 1976-2006, Hans Ostrom.

Here's a wonderful site, by the way, for sonnet enthusiasts, addicts, or casual visitors:
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