Monday, October 27, 2008

Deconstructing the Sonnet-Form

In a poetry-writing class recently, we read and discussed several traditional sonnets, some modified sonnets, and one sonnet by Sherman Alexie that deliberately shreds the form entirely. Alexie writes 14 paragraphs of varying lengths. Why he still calls the poem a sonnet and why he shreds the traditional form are both made compellingly evident by the poem itself. It's a very effective poem.
We then decided to develop our own list of improvised sonnet-forms, and we had quite a good time doing it. We may even have come up with variations you'll want to try. Here are some of the variations:

1. A traditional Italian sonnet, which tends to "break" after 8 lines. Our version, however, would be a "dialogue" sonnet, in which the first 8 lines are spoken by one person and the last 6 by another (for example). Thaks to Miriam for this one.

2. "The Baker's Dozen." A sonnet that is about baking or a baker but goes only to 13 lines. I think this was Jean's idea.

3. A free-verse sonnet--the only real restriction being the 14 lines.

4. A blank-verse sonnet--14 lines of unrhymed iambic pentameter. This might have been Meg's idea, but I'm not sure.

5. A "choose your own adventure" sonnet. I have to confess I did not fully understand the guidelines for this one, but basically the idea is that within the poem, you give the reader different options as to what line or lines to read next. This one's above my pay-grade. I think Ryan may have come up with this one.

6. A blues sonnet. Tricky. Two traditional blues stanzas (six lines each), followed by a couplet. One would want to go very easy on attempting to imitate African American dialect as sung (for example) by Leadbelly, Robert Johnson, or Son House. The emphasis here is more on the f0rm than on imitating the vernacular because such imitation can go very badly. I am intrigued, though, by combining the two blues stanzas with a couplet--an interesting formal experiment.

7. I told the students about a "diminishing sonnet" I once wrote (and may have posted here earlier): The rhyme-scheme is more or less traditional, but in the first quatrain, you use iambic pentameter; in the next quatrain, you use iambic tetrameter; in a couplet, you use iambic trimeter; in the following couplet, you use just two iambs; and in the final couplet, you use two syllables per line (could be one word with two syllabes or two words with one syllable each). And yes, the last two "lines" still have to rhyme. The shape of the poem is like that of a somewhat lopsided triangle.

8. Two stanzas in limerick-form (for a total of 10 lines) plus a quatrain (for a grand total of 14 lines). The additional twist: it must be a serious "sonnet," not a joke-poem.

9. A "Joycean" or "Faulknerian" stream-of-consciousness sonnet. In traditional sonnet-form--or not? It's up to you. Intriguing. I think Cory might have come up with this one.

10. Traditional sonnets that embody the plot and/or convetions of fictional genres. For example: a "mystery" or "detective" sonnet; a "science fiction" sonnet; a "trashy romance" sonnet, also known as a "bodice-ripper," I believe; an autobiographical sonnet; a picaresque sonnet (or Don Quixote in 14 lines) ; a "sex sonnet." This last one was supposed to be in contrast to the traditional "love" sonnet, but I expressed the view that one pitfall to avoid was writing a pornographic sonnet.

11. A sonnet in 7 heroic couplets. Oy! Shakespeare meets Alexander Pope.

12. An "indecision sonnet." I wrote this down, but I confess I can't remember what the rubric was.
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