May 9th, 2017

A sonnet in praise of sonnets

[NOTE: This is a repeat of a previous post.]

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 vestige 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 unfamiliar with what it’s like to try to write a sonnet (and I’d guess that might be most of you), 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 and moving in a slightly different direction for the next six, including a 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):


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.

10 Responses to “A sonnet in praise of sonnets”

  1. arfldgr Says:

    Can i have Sonnets about sonnets for 600?

    A Sonnet by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
    On the Sonnet by John Keats
    Nuns Fret Not at Their Convent’s Narrow Room by William Wordsworth
    Scorn Not the Sonnet by William Wordsworth
    A Sonnet upon Sonnets by Robert Burns
    Imitated from the Spanish of Lopez de Vega by Thomas Edwards
    Powers of the Sonnet by Ebenezer Elliott
    Sonnet-writing by Frederick William Faber
    The Sonnet by Richard Watson Gilder
    To a Rejected Sonnet by William Ewart Gladstone
    To Mr. Henry Cary, on the Publication of His Sonnets by Anna Seward
    In the Welsh Manner by Edward Williams
    The Sonnet by John Dovaston
    What the Sonnet Is by Eugene Lee-Hamilton
    An Enigma by Edgar Allan Poe
    “Sonnets are full of love…” by Christina Rossetti
    The Sonnet (III) by John Addington Symonds
    The Sonnet’s Voice by Theodore Watts-Dunton
    “A witless gallant, a young wench that wooed” by Michael Drayton
    Anniversary by William Mason
    That the True Structure of the Sonnet Should Be Observ’d by Authors of Genius Who Thus Entitle Their Poems by Capel Lofft
    In Reply to the XXXII Sonnet (above) by Henry Kirke White
    Sonnet by Edwin Arlington Robinson
    Fascination by Kay Nanling Michaelson
    The Sonnet by Edward Burrough Brownlow

    Thank you…
    but i often like Haiku

    I kill an ant
    and realize my three children
    have been watching.
    – Kato Shuson

    As I began to love myself I found that anguish and emotional suffering are only warning signs that I was living against my own truth. Today, I know, this is “AUTHENTICITY”.

    As I began to love myself I understood how much it can offend somebody if I try to force my desires on this person, even though I knew the time was not right and the person was not ready for it, and even though this person was me. Today I call it “RESPECT”.

    As I began to love myself I stopped craving for a different life, and I could see that everything that surrounded me was inviting me to grow. Today I call it “MATURITY”.

    As I began to love myself I understood that at any circumstance, I am in the right place at the right time, and everything happens at the exactly right moment. So I could be calm. Today I call it “SELF-CONFIDENCE”.

    As I began to love myself I quit stealing my own time, and I stopped designing huge projects for the future. Today, I only do what brings me joy and happiness, things I love to do and that make my heart cheer, and I do them in my own way and in my own rhythm. Today I call it “SIMPLICITY”.

    As I began to love myself I freed myself of anything that is no good for my health – food, people, things, situations, and everything that drew me down and away from myself. At first I called this attitude a healthy egoism. Today I know it is “LOVE OF ONESELF”.

    As I began to love myself I quit trying to always be right, and ever since I was wrong less of the time. Today I discovered that is “MODESTY”.

    As I began to love myself I refused to go on living in the past and worrying about the future. Now, I only live for the moment, where everything is happening. Today I live each day, day by day, and I call it “FULFILLMENT”.

    As I began to love myself I recognized that my mind can disturb me and it can make me sick. But as I connected it to my heart, my mind became a valuable ally. Today I call this connection “WISDOM OF THE HEART”.

    We no longer need to fear arguments, confrontations or any kind of problems with ourselves or others. Even stars collide, and out of their crashing new worlds are born. Today I know “THAT IS LIFE”!

    Charlie Chaplin, written on his 70th birthday (April 16, 1959)

    Go figure… i know so much stuff..
    and its even more ephemeral than we are
    and we are but dust
    dust and candles in the wind
    in a pointless universe
    which will come undone
    -artfldgr “on the fly who has no wall…”


  2. neo-neocon Says:


  3. neo-neocon Says:

    Testing to see whether comments are functioning properly.

  4. parker Says:

    testing all is well, artfldgr posted a too long comment, that was poignant. Meanwhile, Comey is yesterdavs papers. Next, Koskinen.

  5. Daniel in Brookline Says:

    Sonnets are great.

    My wife and I courted with poetry — starting with limericks and haiku, then onwards to double dactyls and triolets, then to sonnets, and even a sestina or two. We liked the sonnets, and made a tradition of writing each other sonnets every year for our anniversary. Every year we read each other’s sonnet, then carefully put them in an album… and read all that went before. We’ve been married twelve years; soon we’ll need a new album.

    Anne Fadiman wrote a lovely essay about sonnets; it’s in her collection “Ex Libris”, which I highly recommend.

  6. AesopFan Says:

    Whenever I find myself reading “open verse” I wonder why anyone bothered printing some often very mundane paragraphs of prose just because they had extra carriage returns in them.

    Me, I like feet and rhymes.

    One of the most complex forms is the Welsh cynghannedd, among other weighty forms:

    “Imagine that the most popular show on your NPR radio station was a poetry competition, with local teams fighting to win a national trophy. Each poet’s given a subject and a meter, then invited to leave for twenty minutes to compose his or her offering. In the interval, the judge entertains the packed hall with anecdotes about poetry and examples of the participants’ past work from memory. The emphasis is on enjoyment and the laughter is often raucous. This is a description of the most-listened-to show now on Radio Cymru, the BBC’s Welsh-language radio service. The meters in which the poets are expected to compete make a villanelle look like free verse. …
    To writers who are familiar with the free verse tradition only, this degree of metrical complexity must appear bewildering. In order to qualify as a licensed bard in the fourteenth century, an apprentice had to show mastery of twenty-four such forms and undertake a nine-year qualification — quite a lengthy MFA. Once licensed, the bard traveled around the courts of the nobility and asked for patronage. Ordinary people wrote poems and songs as well, but the ability to handle the twenty-four meters with ease marked you out as educated and, therefore, one of the elite.”

    This particular ancient form was analyzed and extolled in the book “Singing in Chains” by Merewid Hopwood
    “The word cynghanedd means ‘harmony’ and it is the music of Welsh poetry throughout the ages that Mererid Hopwood celebrates in this accessible handbook. In it she explores the intricacy and beauty of the art, inviting the reader (or rather listener) to marvel at its clarity and complexity. Her explanation of the rules and conventions, followed by simple exercises, will also allow beginners to try their hand at this ancient yet thoroughly contemporary craft.”–BOOK JACKET.

  7. AesopFan Says:

    Tangentially, I recently read Carrie Fisher’s “Princess Diarist” memoir, which includes a lot of her poems written in her Star Wars era. She was really quite good.
    They aren’t sonnets, of course.

    A poet that I really like and don’t hear much about these days is Robert Graves. He’s much better known for his prose, of course; he made it a condition of his contracts that a publisher who wanted his “popular works” had to also bring out a poetry volume.

  8. J.J. Says:

    I learn so much here. In a life spent dealing with airplanes, weather, and climbing mountains there was a lot I missed before I retired and discovered the internet.

    There may have been some poetry in me but very little ever came out. I do enjoy reading it and marvel that anyone can actually string such words together.

  9. bof Says:

    Sonnet and Limerick, by Morris Bishop

    The sonnet with her Mona Lisa smile
    Broods on the world with other-worldly stare.
    Priestess of melancholy, darkly fair,
    Serene above our fury, guilt, and guile,
    She, in her deeps, has learned to reconcile
    Life’s contradictions. Really, I declare,
    I’d gladly trust a sonnet anywhere,
    That pure, seraphic sedentary. While

    The limerick’s furtive and mean;
    You must keep her in close quarantine,
    Or she sneaks to the slums,
    And promptly becomes
    Disorderly, drunk, and obscene.

  10. Heresiarch Says:

    Have you tried clerihews? Seems to me they would work well with the politics discussed here.

    I try to avoid picking nits, but it seems to me that neither prescribed nor vestige work well with the iambic foot as you’ve used them here.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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