I’ve been asked to judge a sonnet competition for the South Island Writer’s Association, which should be fun. But being asked got me thinking about what exactly makes a sonnet. Where are the borders, the limits?
I covered this briefly with my Polytech class (with varying amounts of success). We had a look at sonnets that were very traditional and straightforward like Heaney’s Clearances #3, (which was widely admired), and sonnets that really pushed against the boundaries of the form, like Paul Muldoon’s Quoof (which caused a lot of arguments).(But productive and instructive arguments, I think.)
I love sonnets. I’m a formalist at heart anyway, but there’s something extra that happens in a sonnet. I think it’s the way that it opens up, that it pushes you to develop your thought further. The thesis/antithesis action of the volta. I’m aware that I have a tendency to stop writing too soon, to not explore the poem fully. And despite fourteen lines being shorter than my average length (thirty lines seems to be the default Preston poem), running a nascent poem through the sonnet form does help to push me further. And to get to the meat of the poem sooner – if I use a line eight/nine volta, then I really do have t pare the initial statement down to its essentials. Again, all good discipline.
Being a bibliophile, I have quite a few books that talk about what makes a sonnet. And this competition gives me just the excuse I need to spend some lovely time over the holidays
indulging myself researching diligently. For those of you who like to read along, below are some recommended texts. Feel free to suggest ones I’ve missed!
- Any one of a dozen Poetry Handbooks (The Poet’s Handbook, Judson Jerome; The Poetry Handbook, Mary Oliver; The Poet’s Dictionary, William Packard, etc etc) will give you basic descriptions of the common forms. Good starting points, but not terribly informative beyond that beginning.
- Lewis Turco’s The Book of Forms is easily the most thorough text I’ve come across of the various poetic forms. Big on technical specifications, but not many examples. Great to have on your bookshelf.
- Eavan Boland and Mark Strand’s The Making of a Poem is chock full of examples of all the major forms. As a bonus, each section begins with a short essay on the form from first a historical and then a modern perspective. (Maybe not so useful to me here – a bit more general.)
- Annie Finch’s many books on Formalist poetics (A Formal Feeling Comes, An Exaltation of Forms, After New Formalism) are great reading, but range too widely to be helpful for something as mainstream and specific as a sonnet. (But well worth a look anyway.)
- Don Paterson edited 101 Sonnets: from Shakespeare to Heaney for Faber back in 1999. It’s currently my default sonnet book. His introductory essay makes good reading just on its own, although I got a bit leery of his attempts to equate the sonnet’s asymmetrical structure with the Golden Section. But there’s a good range of poems, and thoughtful commentary about each of them too (a nice bonus!).
- Phillis Levin’s The Penguin Book of the Sonnet (subtitle 500 years of a classic tradition in English) is similar (although larger) in structure and intention to the Paterson anthology. But I have to say it doesn’t do anything much for me (technical term). The introductory essay(s) come across as intelligent but uninterested in engaging the reader. The information is presented, take it or leave it. The Paterson book, on the other hand, is more like a slightly intoxicated friend who grabs you by the arm and sits you down in a nice cosy corner to have one of those wonderful, passionate arguments about something that they love. Levine wants to educate you. Paterson wants to convert you.
As if that wasn’t enough bibliophilia … there’s a new book, which is supposed to be on its way to me as I type: The Reality Street Book of Sonnets, edited by Jeff Hilson. I’m hoping it will arrive in time for me to read and ponder before I have to make my decisions about the SIWA sonnets…
For those of you who have waded through this far, we’ll return to my initial enquiry. What makes a modern sonnet? What does it absolutely have to have or do to qualify?