Well I’m making my final choices in the SIWA sonnet competition. It’s been quite interesting. Encouraging in some ways, discouraging in others.
My worry when I first sat down with the packet of entries was that I would be confronted with entry after entry in stilted, forced rhyme. Or bad pastiches of Keats, or Donne. But actually there were only a couple of poems that did that sort of thing, and none which were bad all the way through. (A bit of a Curate’s egg, but in the modern sense.)
On the other hand, I had hoped for enough really good poems to give me difficulty choosing a single poem as winner … I have to pick one winner, one runner-up, and two commended poems, and the winner announced itself on the first read through. (A really good poem.) My main difficulty is preventing myself from trying to guess who wrote it.
From a purely selfish point of view, it was great to have the excuse to go do heaps of reading around the subject of modern sonnets. It was also a good excuse to go buy myself some new books for Christmas, and I took full advantage!
I’ve just posted my micro-review of The Reality Street Book of Sonnets, edited by Jeff Hilson. (Summary: quite a disappointment, for a variety of reasons.) But my genius husband got me a new sonnet anthology that was much more to my liking: The Making of a Sonnet, edited by Edward Hirsch and Eavan Boland. It’s structured in a very similar way to The Making of a Poem, which I mentioned in my first SIWA post. (Not surprising – same publisher, and one of the same editors.) Each chapter begins with a short essay on some aspect of the sonnet, followed by a generous selection of examples. Sonnets about sonnets, the sonnet in various eras, in different lengths, in different countries … lovely stuff. It ends with “Ten Questions for a Sonnet Workshop”, and some points for arguing about, long into the night …
And then, as those of you who are regulars will know, American Formalist poet, Annie Finch, very kindly sent me the sonnet chapter from her forthcoming book, A Poet’s Ear: A Handbook of Meter and Form. (Thank you! Fascinating reading. Can’t wait for it to come out.) (And no, I’m not on commission.) As well as a good discussion of the various manifestations of the form, she offers suggestions for sonnet writing exercises, and a set of questions designed to make you think about your own set of “sonnet rules”. Her own “personal minimum criteria” for sonnethood:
the poem keeps some kind of consistent meter, though not necessarily iambic pentameter; the poem’s length and proportions, like the sonnet’s, feel similar to the palm of my hand; the poem has some kind of meaning-dynamic between different parts, analogous to the volta; and every line in the poem has at least one rhyming partner, to keep the vital propulsive force of the form.
Definitely food for thought.
My own thoughts are pretty similar, although I put less emphasis on consistent meter or rhyme (of necessity: New Zealand is still waiting for the Neo-Formalist revolution). The sense of it being an argument, some form of reasoning or persuasion with a point of re-appraisal (whether you revoke or re-affirm your original thesis) – that’s the crux of it for me. Without that, it’s just a fourteen line poem. I go back to the sonnet’s origins – written by a poet-lawyer, a member of the court of Frederick II of Sicily in the early-to-mid 1200’s. Created by people who spoke (and wrote) persuasively for a living. There’s nothing sexier than an intelligent mind, focussed on seduction!
So, what are your minimum criteria for a sonnet?