Don’t pick on the sonnet

When he read Chris Jenning’s essay “On the Sonnet” in Arc 65, a desperate plea that we move on from our obsession with that old 14-liner, Shane Neilson put the magazine down and started typing. His defense of the sonnet, in which he calls on Wordsworth for back-up, follows.

The sonnet has thrived since 1235 for good reason

by Shane Neilson

re: ‘On the Sonnet,’ by Chris Jennings, Arc 65. (Read excerpt here. Order copy of issue here.)

Luckily, the sonnet will outlast Chris Jennings’ profanity. Indeed, it has outlasted the scepticism of better critics. Wordsworth, whom Jennings mentions in his screed, had this to say to the sonnet haters out there:

Scorn not the Sonnet; Critic, you have frowned

Scorn not the Sonnet; Critic, you have frowned,

Mindless of its just honours; with this key

Shakespeare unlocked his heart; the melody

Of this small lute gave ease to Petrarch’s wound;

A thousand times this pipe did Tasso sound;

With it Camoens soothed an exile’s grief;

The Sonnet glittered a gay myrtle leaf

Amid the cypress with which Dante crowned

His visionary brow: a glow-worm lamp,

It cheered mild Spenser, called from Faeryland

To struggle through dark ways; and, when a damp

Fell round the path of Milton, in his hand

The Thing became a trumpet; whence he blew

Soul-animating strains—alas, too few!

The sonnet has been in existence since about 1235. Jennings’ doesn’t appreciate this fact. Surely, considering its longevity, something must be good about the sonnet. I’d also say there’s something good about the word “fuck,” which Jennings uses repeatedly, for it, too, to have survived as long as it has. But really this is just one part of my complaint about the essay “On the Sonnet,” which appeared in Arc 65.

The second part relates to Jennings’ suggestion that sonnetry is a habit akin to smoking. One could have as easily said that sonnetry is a habit like running, or quick arithmetic. In fact poetry itself is a habit-: writing it, and reading it. I don’t see how this distinguishes the sonnet from any other kind of form.

Thirdly, to pick on the sonnet because it is short is akin to picking on the epic because it is long. Or moaning that the sun is terribly yellow. The sonnet is, traditionally, a poem of 14 set lines, which Jennings seems to understand: he makes a great deal of this fact in his essay. He is right that the sonnet cannot monopolize brevity. All good short poems do. And the sonnet is a short poem. But to say that the sonnet is like other short poems by means of its brevity is to say that the sonnet is like other poems because it is a poem. Perhaps Jennings would be the kind of measurer who hates the metre stick.

Fourthly, there’s the ridiculous claim that the reputations of masters like Donne and Shakespeare would have survived the deletion of their sonnets from posterity. This is like saying that halving what is unmatchable, transcendent, and incalculably great would be a service to literature. It may be true that those masters would have written equally great material in some other faddish form if they hadn’t slummed with the sonnet, but it’s just as likely that the sonnet, for some reason, made them the poets that they are. And it’s hard not to read their sonnets and approach that kind of belief. Frye, a bona fide believer, had this to say about Shakespeare’s sonnets: “The true father or shaping spirit of the poems is the form of the poem itself, and this form is a manifestation of the universal spirit of poetry.”

Fifthly, to deride the sonnet because it is easily anthologizable is to again complain about brevity, a point, I suggest, that need not have been made, in the interests of brevity itself. Yes, sonnets are short poems. And short poems are more easily included in anthologies because it’s easier to give tastes than whole helpings. Maybe Jennings can find a better way to anthologize, some new method in which long poems can be included without consideration for space constraints and still arrive at a reasonably sized brick, replete with the brevity of the not-sonnet. I urge him to do so.

Ultimately, I object to Jennings using the sonnet’s spirit against itself. “Surely we can appreciate the irony that the form whose best feature is that it encourages a poet to think through the challenges of form, rhetoric, and syntax has become the easy alternative to thinking though new ways to meet the challenges of form, rhetoric, and syntax.” Hold on a minute: there is nothing easy about thinking through such challenges. I am the first to admit that a bad sonnet is a bad sonnet. But a sonnet that meets the challenges Jennings describes is a good poem. Jennings fatally admits his bias at the beginning of his screed: “I grow increasingly narcoleptic with every re-imagining of the sonnet that I see . . .” In other words, the sonnet is set up so that it cannot win.

Thankfully, the sonnet has already won. It won in 1235. It was a little victory for the little song.

Shane Neilson is a poet and doctor in Guelph, Ont. He is a frequent contributor to Arc.

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