A sonnet is a moment's monument (Rossetti)
September 24, 2003 10:49 AM   Subscribe

Sonnet Central Wordsworth once said of the sonnet that he hoped that those "[w]ho have felt the weight of too much liberty,/Should find such brief solace there, as I have found." Sonnet Central offers a copious library of sonnets, mainly in the Anglo-American tradition but with examples from around the world. Those who wish to explore further in the sonnet's paradoxically expansive "scanty plot of ground" (Wordsworth again) may also wish to try Petrarch's Canzoniere (complete set, Italian with English translations); Shakespeare's Sonnets (self-described as "amazing"; the full cycle with glosses and paraphrases, plus illustrations and links to other poems); Golden Age Spanish Sonnets (translations); Christina Rossetti's Monna Innominata: A Sonnet of Sonnets (a reflection on the traditional sonnet sequence); George Meredith's Modern Love (a bleaker revision of the sonnet sequence tradition, featuring sixteen-line "sonnets"); and an excerpt from John Hollander's Powers of Thirteen (do the math and you'll see the experiment--it's an interesting modern sequence).
posted by thomas j wise (24 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Thank you. Lovely.
posted by jokeefe at 11:29 AM on September 24, 2003

Wonderful. The sonnet (means little song) is conventially s14 lines but that is not always the case. Subject matter once was exclusively devoted to love and/or the brevity of life--,am's condition. Milton, though, introduced moral, philosophic and patriotic themes. Today--as ususal--anything goes. But poets seem to enjoy the challenge of pitting their skills in a rather constricted form against the great tradition.
posted by Postroad at 11:46 AM on September 24, 2003

Our filter helps us come to know of things
both near and far and hidden on the net.
In lines and lists and linked in subtle rings,
the posts reveal what few have thought of yet.

But now our filter shows our sorry age:
Bush this, Bush that, and New York Times Dot Com.
This isn't thought, it's only stupid rage
Puerility in place of true aplomb.

The time will come when light will once again
be shed in scads of brilliant front page posts
and dialog that borders on the zen
of mystical and comical ripostes.
And come November, Metafilter Friends,
we'll bid adieu to hollow front page ghosts.
posted by alms at 12:30 PM on September 24, 2003 [2 favorites]

Very impressive. It's a keeper. The boards seem quite good as well. Thanks.
posted by 111 at 12:32 PM on September 24, 2003

excellent work, alms! great post tjw!
posted by sharpener at 1:38 PM on September 24, 2003

Good stuff; I've always had a weakness for the ol' sonnet. One of my favorite modern examples (not to be found at sonnets.org):

'Vagina' Sonnet
Is 'vagina' suitable for use
in a sonnet? I don't suppose so.
A famous poet once told me, 'Vagina's ugly.'
Meaning, of course, the sound of it. In poems.
Meanwhile he inserts his penis frequently
into his verse, calling it, seriously, 'My
Penis'. It is short, I know, and dignified.
I mean of course the sound of it. In poems.
The whole thing is unfortunate, but petty,
like my hangup concerning English Dept memos
headed "Mr/Mrs/Miss" - only a fishbone
In the throat of the revolution -
a waste of brains - to be concerned about
this minor issue of my cunt's good name.
Joan Larkin
posted by languagehat at 1:47 PM on September 24, 2003 [5 favorites]

alms - well done, though you look as though you were getting tired of the rigor by the end (posts/ripostes, zen/friends).

Anyway, thanks for the thread, thomas j wise. I think this is my favorite sonnet.

And languagehat, while I applaud the sentiment, and I reaally tried to like it, that's a hell of a lousy sonnet. What, anything with 14 lines is now a sonnet?

Kids these days...
posted by soyjoy at 2:47 PM on September 24, 2003

My favorite sonnet. Or is this one my favorite?

I don't want to think about what it says about me that my two favorite sonnets are both about being violated by a divine being...
posted by eilatan at 3:40 PM on September 24, 2003

alms, I heart you.
posted by jokeefe at 4:23 PM on September 24, 2003

I liked it very much, languagehat. And I think you have to admit, soyjoy, that seventy years ago when cummings wrote what is now your favorite sonnet, more than one person said "What, anything with 14 lines is now a sonnet?" to *him*. :)
posted by onlyconnect at 5:02 PM on September 24, 2003

excellent-- i'm about to start a set of lessons on the sonnet form; this is perfect.
posted by ronv at 7:09 PM on September 24, 2003

Nice work alms.
posted by seanyboy at 4:02 AM on September 25, 2003

This is my only sonnet book. Don't know if you can get it in the States, but Paterson is a repected editor, and this is a great book.

My all time favourite Sonnet is this one
posted by seanyboy at 4:08 AM on September 25, 2003

onlyconnect, I get the seeming irony, but I don't think that would have been a valid criticism of Cummings' sonnet.

The thing about a sonnet is that it's a specific form, and of course there are legitimate questions as to where the lines that delineate such a form are drawn. But part of the appeal of the sonnet, or the villainelle, or the sestina, is that there is a rigorously defined form to play around with.

"next to of course god america i" violates lesser poetic rules such as having lines run on from one to the next, but it sticks quite closely to the defined attributes of a sonnet: It is almost entirely in iambic pentameter, and its rhyme scheme, while slightly unconventional, is still well within bounds. Larkin's poem has 14 lines but I only find four that can even be read in iambic pentameter. The number of syllables, in fact, varies from line to line, and there is no rhyme scheme whatsoever.

Note that I'm not arguing with the quality of the poem - I think it's an excellent poem. But I believe it's a debatable question whether the name "sonnet" can be applied if the only definition it sticks to is that of the number of lines. Symphonies, by definition, employ multiple instruments. If I play three chords on a guitar and one on a banjo and call that a "symphony," sure, it's my artistic license to do so, but whether the name is literally apt is, I think, an open question.
posted by soyjoy at 9:35 AM on September 25, 2003

soyjoy: I feel your pain and once would have agreed, but I finally gave up trying to limit artistic forms to strict definitions. If a poet wants to call something a sonnet, I'm pretty much willing to go along as long as it has a sonnet "feel" (whatever that means); I've seen "sonnets" with more or less than 14 lines and haven't rejected them out of hand. But if someone tried to call "Candy/ is dandy/ but liquor/ is quicker" a sonnet, I'd show them the door.
posted by languagehat at 11:20 AM on September 25, 2003

I do think poetic forms can change over time as poets reinterpret them, as they changed after cummings. soyjoy, the "lesser poetic rules" that you cite above are even less followed today than they were seventy years ago, and certainly in the intervening years modern poetry has been moving even further away from all formal rhyme and line rhythms. I think the reinterpretations that push the boundaries of the form can often breathe new life into it.*

For example, Mark Strand wrote a prose poem that he called a sestina, because the echoes that the word repetitions created put one in mind of a sestina. That works for me.

I particularly liked the Larkin example above because of the subject matter. Sonnets are traditionally about love and relationships, and rarely reduce things to the physical world, 'cause that's rarely how we think about love when we write pretty poetry about it. :) This one, on its face, starts with the body parts, and shows how they fit into the bigger picture. I thought that was interesting.

But it's just line drawing, I guess, and you're certainly entitled to draw yours wherever you want!

* "Farewell, stale pale skunky pentameters (the only honest English meter, gloop gloop!)" Kenneth Koch, "Fresh Air."
posted by onlyconnect at 12:19 PM on September 25, 2003

"Fresh Air"! God, I love that poem; thank you for bringing it up.
The chairman stood up on the platform, oh he was physically ugly!
He was small-limbed and -boned and thought he was quite
But he was bald with certain hideous black hairs,
And his voice had the sound of water leaving a vaseline bathtub,
And he said, "The subject for this evening's discussion is poetry
On the subject of love between swans."...

Who are the great poets of our time, and what are their names?
Yeats of the baleful influence, Auden of the baleful influence, Eliot
of the baleful influence
(Is Eliot a great poet? no one knows), Hardy Stevens, Williams (is
Hardy of our time?),
Hopkins (is Hopkins of our time?), Rilke (is Rilke of our time?),
Lorca (is Lorca of our time?), who is still of our time?
Mallarmé, Valery, Apollinaire, Eluard, Reverdy, French poets are
still of our time,
Pasternak and Mayakovsky, is Jouve of our time?...

Summer in the trees! "It is time to strangle several bad poets."
Oh, hell, read the whole thing. (Scroll down; slashes "/" are used for italics.)
posted by languagehat at 1:21 PM on September 25, 2003 [2 favorites]

"Is there no one who feels like a pair of pants?"

I caught a reading Koch gave of some new poems last year in DC before he died. They were remarkably good, and made everyone in the room laugh. He also passed out photocopies of an original draft. Seemed like a lovely, spirited man. /hijack
posted by onlyconnect at 2:06 PM on September 25, 2003

*runs to bookshelf*

From Marilyn Hacker's Regent Park Sonnets, #8

Gino's hummed an epithalamion:
one resident fag-hag and paedophile
reformed! You knocked Jack Daniel's back in style.
In two days you would go and fetch your son.
Meanwhile bought rounds. I think groped Nemi's knee.
I almost minded. Under the table, gripped
my legs in yours. "Let's go." My cronies quipped
farewells. (The pub downstairs, less leisurely,
disgorges footsteps and unsteady songs
bracketed by cars.) Late through the long
night, our tongues grappled in a double cave.
Naked swimmers plunged in wave over wave,
hand, mouths, loins, filling and filled, until we gave
ourselves back, tired, seawashed and salty, strong.
posted by jokeefe at 4:25 PM on September 25, 2003 [1 favorite]

Dang, the second to last line should read *hands*, not hand
posted by jokeefe at 4:27 PM on September 25, 2003

Yes, Hacker has done as much as anyone to make the sonnet lively again; I think it was a sonnet sequence of hers that blew away my last traditionalist reservations. Here's an interview in which she discusses a French innovation:
For example, Guy Goffette has an idiosyncratic form that he's worked on and talked about, which is very like a sonnet, as well as a thumbing of his nose at the sonnet. It has 13 lines, 3 quatrains and a last line that stands alone and is very often an Alexandrine. There is a strong use of slant-rhyme. I try to follow that as much as possible—I tend to use iambic pentameter instead of the Alexandrine, which sounds odd in English, which is more abbreviated than French anyway. This is not something I find all that difficult to do, fortunately; in fact, it's a pleasant challenge, and it's an interesting form.
I look forward to reading her Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons. And here are her recent "Migraine Sonnets."

And here, to satisfy the traditionalists, is a nice specimen from Robert Fitzgerald, a gentleman and a scholar and a fine poet in his own right, apart from the Odyssey translation everyone knows him for:
Inaccurately from an old rocking chair
One saw the rivery lands and lifted snows.
Then the Wrights' fabrication and Bleriot's
Annexed the cumulus kingdom of the air.
Helmeted birdmen looped the loop at the Fair
And ranged in later squadrons to impose
On somber towns the tremor of their blows
Or lightning stitches, adding flare on flare.
So much of heaven gained, so much of hell,
Made way for transcendental craft ensuing,
Emissaries not to be disavowed;
But let us pause on thee, sweet Caravel,
Dauphin of jets, in azure halls reviewing
Tall parfaits and pudding of whipped cloud.
posted by languagehat at 7:29 PM on September 25, 2003 [1 favorite]

Thanks LH.
posted by jokeefe at 11:44 PM on September 25, 2003

Whoa, whoa, am I the "traditionalist" you keep referring to, languagehat? That's a little strong. Admittedly, I'm arguing for a more conservative use of language than you (as usual) when it comes to words that describe a specific form. But on the other hand, for words that describe media, my definitions are liberal as can be. I define a 'poem' as words organized by a (self-identified) poet. Art is whatever is produced by an artist. Etc. And even though I love Cummings (himself a traditionalist in many ways), my favorite poet is Sharon Olds, who usually eschews strict forms altogether.

I just think that in cases where words refer to specific tightly-defined forms, there has to be some limit to how far you can stretch within the form before you pop the balloon and you're dealing with something that can't legitimately (as opposed to artistically) be called by that word. You've admitted as much yourself - "But if someone tried to call 'Candy/ is dandy/ but liquor/ is quicker' a sonnet, I'd show them the door." It seems we just draw our lines at different places.

As for Hacker, I'm not clear on whether she's written any "sonnets" in a 13-line format, but if she did, and it was as rigorous as the one jokeefe typed in (thanks!) I'd have no problem calling it a sonnet. It's not like breaking one rule disqualifies a form from its rightful term; it's breaking enough of them to render the term meaningless.

I think a lot of the problem I have with Larkin's is that she's intermingling a formal argument with her political one. Matched against an honest-to-god sonnet, the form of her otherwise excellent poem looks (to me and certainly others) inadequate rather than forcefully provocative; the implied tie between vagina v. penis and Larkin-sonnet v. Real-sonnet thus winds up reinforcing the traditionalist genital dichotomy of the vagina as something that's "lacking" compared to the penis. She might as well have written a "Sonnet" that went "Penis / is meanness / but pussy / is wussy."
posted by soyjoy at 8:57 AM on September 26, 2003

soyjoy: I had no one in particular in mind; I was aware that some sonnet fans preferred the traditional, strict-form sonnet to the wacky new variations (a preference I can completely understand), and I thought I'd share one such that I liked, partly as penance for having totally derailed the thread with a double helping of Kenneth Koch (and by the way, for anyone who doesn't know and is still following this thread, it's pronounced "coke," unlike ex-mayor "cotch"). But I'm glad I inadvertently inspired your long riposte, because I absolutely love your final bit of verse, and I'll bet Ogden would too.
posted by languagehat at 11:37 AM on September 26, 2003

« Older Its only a mollusk. Really.   |   Reprehensible, Inc. Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments