Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Extremely Narrow Sonnets

Some poets like to write in traditional forms, some like to write in free verse, some like to do both, and some like to monkey with traditional forms. Some poets like to do all four things, and I am one of them, and I am also a person who likes to use "monkey" as a verb, an idiomatic move I permanently borrowed from my parents' generation.

Sherman Alexie monkeyed with the sonnet-form by writing fourteen rather large prose-poetry paragraphs. Instead of fourteen lines in a metered, rhyming scheme, there are fourteen large chunks of writing, much of which concern American history and American Indians (or Native Americans--although I gather the former term is back in use). I like Alexie's poem, and I like what he does with the sonnet, which in my view he treats as an old-fashioned constricting form--a figurative reservation, if you will, from which Alexie wants to escape. He explodes the form, to good effect, in my opinion.

My present aims are much more modest and, arguably, whimsical. I wanted to write the narrowest sonnet possible. I'd already written a sonnet that rhymed on its left side. That is, I used the Shakespearian-sonnet rhyme-scheme and the usual iambic pentameter, but the rhyming words occurred at the beginning of each line, not at the end, so of course the rhyming-effect is completely different. I just thought it needed to be done--done, but not repeated.

A traditional sonnet is ten syllables wide and fourteen lines high. As my late friend Wendy Bishop noted, it is a 14X10 poem. Wendy was extraordinarily imaginative, but she had a great practical side, too. She also thought of the sonnet as a poem that could fit on a postcard. I think she even had her students literally write sonnets on (onto) postcards.

I supposed, then, that the narrowest possible sonnet would be composed of 14 letters that formed words vertically. Here is an example:

Wafer-Thin Sonnet

I
l
o
v
e
y
o
u,
m
y
d
e
a
r.

I like this because it fulfills the 14-line criterion, and its theme is the same as 57. 5% of all sonnets, based on no research and a blind guess. But you do have to figure that tens of thousands of sonnets have had a thesis-statement similar to "I love you, my dear," don't you?

But then I thought that I'd gone too far (or not far enough) because the rhyming had disappeared. So I decided to write an extremely narrow sonnet that still rhymed, and here it is:

Extremely Narrow Sonnet

How 'bout
If we
Went out
To see
What you
And I
Might do
And why?
Let's set
A date
And let
Our fate
Unfurl--
Or curl.

So I kept the basic rhyme scheme of a Shakespearian or English sonnet: ababcdcdefefgg. And in the interests of narrowness, I used one iambic foot per line. An even narrower sonnet would keep the rhyme scheme but just use one word per line; that would be tough. Take a whack at it, if you like.

The purpose of such foolishness? Partly, it's foolishness for its own sake. And, well, as W.H. Auden said, of his poetic vocation, "I like to play with words." He did not say "I like only to play with words," and his poems demonstrate just how much more he liked to do with poetry. But playing fanciful, whimsical games with form is not a bad thing to do after one has been hitting the serious poetry-writing hard for a while, and I think a playful connection to venerable forms actually complements a conventional connection to them. It's good training--discipline, if you will--to try to write a genuine Shakespearian sonnet--but in a contemporary idiom. It's also good to explode the sonnet, as Alexie did. It's good to "stab" the sonnet, as Shapiro claimed to do. And it's good to monkey with the sonnet. All are ways of living with words, as musicians live with sounds and rhythms, strictures and improvisations, the old and the fresh.

I invite you to attempt to monkey with villanelles, sestinas, and sonnets--ballads, too, perhaps. Venerable, venerated forms can withstand whimsy and deconstruction. Sonnet 18 by the Shakemeister General isn't going anywhere.
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