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How Poems Work: Excerpt from “On the Sonnet”

There’s no more-pop­u­lar poetic form than the son­net[i]. I’m not going to lay claim to any sta­tis­ti­cal insight here; I haven’t leafed through all of my antholo­gies or the last five years of every Cana­dian poetry jour­nal or run a search of Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Poetry On-Line[ii]. I haven’t ded­i­cated many musty hours to count­ing rather than read­ing poems. I’m will­ing to bet, though, that no one can read­ily dis­pute the fact that more poets attempt son­nets, cre­ate vari­ants of son­nets, pub­lish son­nets, anthol­o­gize son­nets, dive head­long into sequences of son­nets, or come to have their rep­u­ta­tion rest on son­nets than any other set form in the Eng­lish lan­guage. This used to intrigue me, then it began to puz­zle me, and now it annoys me so much that the right stim­u­lus sends me into a rage. Frankly, I am done with son­nets. That almost-instant recog­ni­tion that yes, this is yet another self-con­grat­u­lat­ingly cor­rect son­net makes me wince. I grow increas­ingly nar­colep­tic with every re-imag­in­ing of the son­net that I see, and my jaw aches after every book or review laud­ing yet another poet for their fine achieve­ments in the son­net. These last are the worst. They pros­e­ly­tize; they lead to ever-more son­nets. Well, fuck that. And for that mat­ter, fuck the son­net.

Look, this is not a crank’s knee-jerk reac­tion. I’ve done my time with son­nets, so I know what there is to like about them and how hard they can be to resist (so are chicken wings, but they rarely appear on fine din­ing menus). I still love Donne’s son­nets, Hopkins’s, and Geof­frey Hill’s “An Apol­ogy For the Revival of Chris­t­ian Archi­tec­ture in Eng­land” when­ever I can for­get that they’re son­nets long enough to re-read them. You could say that, like a reformed smoker, the mil­i­tancy of my response is in inverse pro­por­tion to the strength of my old son­net habit. Like your par­ents, I’m telling you to learn from my mis­takes. Unlike your par­ents, I’ll give you an expla­na­tion for my pater­nal­ism other than “because I said so.” My com­plaint can be divided into the fol­low­ing four parts: the son­net has no inher­ent advan­tage over other forms that would explain its pop­u­lar­ity; its pre-emi­nence depends on habit­ual col­lu­sion rather than merit; we con­fuse its ped­a­gog­i­cal value with its purely aes­thetic value; and in com­bi­na­tion, we’ve made the son­net a glass ceil­ing for inno­va­tion with the tools of tra­di­tional poet­ics. If that isn’t grounds for a pro­fane response, sue me.

Let me be pre­cise in this and call the son­net a “Tra­di­tional Poem of Set Length.”[iii] Seems like an odd place to put the empha­sis, but in prac­tice, it really is the idea that the son­net is a 14-line endeav­our that dis­tin­guishes it from many other fully-defined forms. Stan­zaic forms like the ode or terza rima, or stichic forms like blank verse or allit­er­a­tive verse, can con­tinue indef­i­nitely in the sonnet’s rhythm and approx­i­ma­tions of its rhymes. Iambic pen­tame­ter is the base rhythm of every­thing from five act plays to extended essays in heroic cou­plets to two line max­ims. The rhyme scheme of the son­net octave con­sists of two qua­trains in most vari­a­tions, with either the same or dif­fer­ent rhymes between the two (abba abba or abab cdcd, for exam­ple). It’s a stanza form that lends itself to any num­ber of rep­e­ti­tions and it crops up ubiq­ui­tously. The ses­tet is also a well-defined, six-line stanza pat­tern that can be strung together ad infini­tum. Com­bin­ing four (or eight) and six line stan­zas is irreg­u­lar but not unique. The sonnet’s basic rhetor­i­cal pat­terns (point/counterpoint/solution, or situation/complication/resolution etc.) aren’t pro­pri­etary; blank verse and heroic cou­plets argue just as well, and the ode offers an even stronger dialec­ti­cal struc­ture with its stro­phe, anti­stro­phe, and epode. What does that leave in terms of basic com­po­nents other than the num­ber of lines? And if the num­ber 14 is the key to the son­net then … so what?

Read the full essay in Arc 65. To sub­scribe or order sam­ple issues please click HERE.

1 I’m not count­ing free form, which is an entirely dif­fer­ent ani­mal. Haiku is cer­tainly pop­u­lar, and in some poetry com­mu­ni­ties it would eas­ily out­strip the son­net in terms of the num­ber of poems pro­duced, but that level of pop­u­lar­ity seems restricted to cer­tain “ghet­toes” that spe­cial­ize in the form and other Japan­ese imports. It’s also rare to see haiku in lit­er­ary jour­nals except when the jour­nal spe­cial­izes. For all its charms, haiku doesn’t have the same rep­u­ta­tion as the sonnet—likely because it’s a much more recent import into Eng­lish and, as I dis­cuss here, it doesn’t have the back­ing of a long-stand­ing tra­di­tion pop­u­lated by Eng­lish poetry’s “Old Mas­ters.”


3 As Miller Williams does in Pat­terns of Poetry: An Ency­clo­pe­dia of Forms (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Uni­ver­sity Press, 1986).

Read the full essay in Arc 65

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