Archive for June 1st, 2007

After the four line ballad stanza, the sonnet is one of the most enduringly popular verse forms in English. Consisting of fourteen iambic pentameter lines, it is often divided into eight lines that express a situation (the octet) and six concluding lines that comment upon the situation (the sestet). The advantage of a sonnet is that it’s short enough to fit well with the English lyrical tradition, yet long enough to develop a complex thought. By tradition, it has become the standard vehicle for serious subject matter – mostly love, but also such subjects as death. The sonnet represents such a richness of tradition that it’s no wonder that centuries of poets have wrestled with its structure and natural tendencies, and attempted various innovations.

The standard English sonnet is the Shakespearean, named after guess whom, whose efforts in the field could be a textbook of how to play with the standard meter. With a rhyme scheme of ababcdcdefefgg, in the first twelve lines, the Shakespearean sonnet tends to minimize the effect of the rhymes, and to encourage development of a thought in either a single line or in four. By contrast, in the final couplet, the temptation is to sententiousness. The following sonnet is an effort, not entirely successful, to work against those tendencies, or at least control them:

The Trackless Land
All maps agree: This is a trackless land
That lacks you. Here, the needle swings in riot,
Each GIS runs antic. Nothing’s scanned,
And, looking round, the horizons disquiet.
Old cartographers doodled monsters here;
I conjure from my footfalls strange pursuits,
Here lurk the hulked regrets and stalking fears,
And I am lost and long strayed from the route.
Departure was definitive, I know.
You stay away, from cowardice or choices,
I come across your camps, sometimes,
And breezes people sleep with hints and voices.
So why, when doubting binds me like a rope,
Am I perverse, and persevere with hope?

Another popular form is the Spenserian. It is named after Edmund Spenser of The Faerie Queen fame, although Robert Parker once wrote one from the viewpoint of his private detective who shares the same surname. With a standard rhyme scheme of ababbcbccdcdee (with variations on the last six lines), the Spenserian sonnet is often considered more difficult to write than the Shakespearean, even though it often lacks the distinction between the octave and sestet. However, it would more accurate to say that it presents a different set of artistic problems – namely, the difficulty of keeping the couplets from becoming self-contained and creating too much of a singsong. One of the first sonnets I wrote as a teenager was Spenserian, and reflected my growing love of fantasy. I had never read the romance Amadis of Gaul – actually, I still haven’t – but it seemed to fit into the poem:

Dreams of Courtly Love
Beneath the bannered rafters of my hall,
The minstrels and poets have sung to me
Of candle-magic and moon mystery,
Of the Green Sword and the hero of Gaul,
And pre-Adamites who walked ere the Fall
Across the star-strewn sands of Araby —
But none my roving heart and soul agree
May quite approach her power to enthrall.
The ancient ballads at her glance become
High fantasy to rival Oberon,
So should my helm but bear her golden glove,
My every foeman should be overcome,
And, day to day, my battles fought and won,
For Catherine, my elfin lady-love.

No matter what the technical structure of the sonnet, it is hard to escape a sober tone, or to avoid sounding like Shakespeare. Even noted sonneteers like Keats don’t always succeed. As a result, one of the first experiments that most sonneteers try, especially in the last couple of centuries, is to alter the tone of high seriousness. One of the most successful of these experiments is the Canadian poet Roy Daniells, who started one sonnet with:

My enemies were certain I was starving,
It must have given them a fearful shock,
Through the binoculars to see me carving
A roast beef up on the barren rock.

One of my own efforts at a different tone came when I tried to express my reservations about the critical reductionism I found around as a grad student in an English department:

The Rites of Grad School
Come, splay the word and stake it to the page.
No need to fear; we have indulgent priests.
Remember in our light its strength is least –
Seesaw the knife through meat and cartilage.
Who cares how it might cadge, or plead its age?
All of us here have catered to its feasts –
Strike, I say, and when the damned thing is deceased,
Lower it to lie, our blood its hemorrhage.
We will not cross ourselves, nor keep a wake;
Dead’s dead, and needs no eulogy again.
Our undertaking over, in this vein,
This time there’s no inevitable mistake:
No innocent admits the thing again;
There’s nothing, nothing tapping at the pane.

Another area in which sonneteers have often attempted innovation is in length. A few have tried a double sonnet of twenty-eight lines, but these efforts only show just how ideal the basic form is: at fourteen lines, you rarely get more than a line or two of filler, while at twenty-eight, you often get seven or eight. By contrast, the curtal sonnet of 10 ½ lines, invented by Gerald Manley Hopkins, works extremely well, although the half-line at the end often seems abrupt. One of my own efforts at a curtal sonnet was published by Prism International in its Under Thirty issue in 1977:

A Summer Single
Yes, I have walked the way of beaches, stared,
pretending not to stare when blue-smeared eyes
opened deer-wary. When each body’s bared
in lotioned ease, I’ve eyed across breast-rise
and knotted on nylon-bound loins I’ve passed,
blood wilding on the bottlecap-bright sand.
Then every shadow has seemed couple-cast
except my own. From tideline I’ve toed fast
past those sprawled back on grass, hands spread on hands,
and, empty as an echo, found cement,
my unmingled heat unspent.

However, despite all the frequent efforts to innovate, poets continually return to the basic format. Within its 140 syllables, there’s enough challenges to keep even the most accomplished poets busy, no matter what their subject matter.

The Kingly Ones
The kingly ones who send assassins out
Can order innuendo or abuse
As calmly as from a catalogue, or accuse
Anonymous by cell, and never doubt.
A curbing’s committed; they’re not about,
Kneecapping’s done while they sip morning juice.
No animosity is their excuse,
Everything’s convenience and clout.
Just cross them once, and you’re left with a label,
– The law is theirs, you see, to cut and paste –
Complain, and you’re perverted and unstable,
Persist, and you’ll be lonely and disgraced.
To their bland lusts, we’ve lost our innocence,
Our rapes revised for their expedience.

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