I write some poetry from time to time,
And gravitate to forms, I must confess.
I crave some meter and a bit of rhyme.
Free verse can be illusory progress.
The sonnet with its prescribed fourteen lines
Presents a special challenge to be met,
A game that Frost, my hero, thus defines:
No point in playing tennis with no net.
Ah, freedom! It’s a lofty modern goal.
And rules? Meant to be broken, don’t you see?
Let’s shed the last vestiges of stiff control
And revel in a life and art that’s free!
But rules are guides, not just constraints or chains.
Throw all out, and mere anarchy remains.
For those of you not familiar with what it’s like to try to write a sonnet (and I’d guess most of you aren’t), please take my word for it when I say that it is really a very demanding form of poetry.
But fun, like a game with rules. If you like to solve double-crostics or crossword puzzles you might have a taste of what I’m talking about.
The form I follow in the above sonnet is the basic Shakespearean or Elizabethan one. Fourteen lines of iambic pentameter (five pairs of stressed/unstressed syllables per line), rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef gg. The convention of this type of sonnet also involves setting up a theme in the first eight lines, moving in a slightly different direction for the next six, including sort of summing-up or even reversal in the final couplet.
That’s a lot of rules, to be sure. That’s why Frost’s likening the writing of formal poetry to a sport such as tennis is apropos: the point is to do it well despite the constraints, and to make of it something beautiful and free. Having no rules would spoil the game.
My sonnet here is not one of the greatest examples of the art, to be sure. I wrote it in about fifteen minutes, if that’s any excuse.
Some of the finest examples are to be found in Shakespeare, as one might expect from someone who gave his name to a popular subset of the form. More recent (although not all that recent) famous sonnet-crafters have been Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Gerard Manley Hopkins (what’s up with all these lengthy poet names, anyway?).
The sonnet is experiencing a small modern revival after a period of being way out of fashion. The New Formalists (the neocons of the poetry world?) have led the movement.
Some of my favorite sonnets are the subtle ones in which you barely notice the form is being used, and yet all the rules have been followed. Here’s an example from Archibald Macleish (first published in 1928):
THE END OF THE WORLD
Quite unexpectedly, as Vasserot
The armless ambidextrian was lighting
A match between his great and second toe,
And Ralph the lion was engaged in biting
The neck of Madame Sossman while the drum
Pointed, and Teeny was about to cough
In waltz-time swinging Jocko by the thumb
Quite unexpectedly the top blew off:
And there, there overhead, there, there hung over
Those thousands of white faces, those dazed eyes,
There in the starless dark, the poise, the hover,
There with vast wings across the cancelled skies,
There in the sudden blackness the black pall
Of nothing, nothing, nothing—nothing at all.