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?

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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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