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Recent American Poetry

About Sonnets

Don't forget to read this page of sonnets, which comprise the principle background reading for our discussions of sonnets.

THE SONNET is one of the most highly determined formal structures in western poetry--its meter, line-length, number of lines, and rhyme scheme are all predetermined. This formal structure in turn dictates a rhetorical structure that mirrors its phases. 

In the Italian (or Petrarchan) sonnet, which is the original form, a problem or situation is established in the octave (first 8 lines: rhymed (abbaabba). The poem then "turns" rhetorically, so the sestet (last 6 lines: variously rhymed, most often cdecde or cdcdcd) take a new direction, to resolve the conflict, or complicate the first proposition. The very tight rhyme scheme of the Italian octave lends itself to surety and close connection, the more spread-out rhymes of the sestet lend themselves especially well to that "modern" Renaissance air of mutability, action, and the restless mind. Notice that the tighter form begins the poem, and the somewhat more open form concludes it. The asymmetrical structure (8+6) also contributes to a sense of conclusion or, in some sonnets, to a sense of urgency toward the end.

When the sonnet first came to England (in mid 16th c.) it came with the Italian rhyme scheme, which proved very difficult in English, a rhyme-starved language in comparison to Romance languages. The English (or Shakespearean) sonnet provides an easier rhyme scheme (abab cdcd efef gg) and, therefore, changes the structural possibilities of the content. Instead of a single octave and a sestet, the English scheme divides the poem into three quatrains and a couplet, thus providing 3 possible points in the poem at which to "turn" your argument. Each quatrain can be somewhat autonomous, or the first two can hang together somewhat like the old octave, or the whole 12 lines can address one unified subject, followed by the surprise of the couplet. And, whatever you are doing with content, you have the variety of three quatrains with different rhyme sounds to present to the ear.  Note that the extreme closure of the final couplet contrasts sharply with the closural mood created by the Italian sestet, thus giving us two quite distinct formal moods in the two sonnet schemes.

(The Spenserian sonnet - abab bcbc cdcd ee - is a more difficult English form, because of the interlocking rhyme scheme, and has been correspondingly rare.)

Even with those changes, however, the sonnet is one of the most difficult and complex forms in western poetry. The number of truly excellent sonnets remains small, the challenge perpetual.  The tradition is so strong that its formal echo can be present in many poems which do not conform to its schemes. It is safe to say that if a poem is 14 lines, it's either a sonnet or it's somehow related to the idea of a sonnet. The "idea of a sonnet" includes, besides the formal and rhetorical features mentioned above, the idea of a highly poised lyric developing quickly in a small space.  The form/content connection is very strong in all sonnets, which tend to have an air of statement rather than of exploration. Even when the poet writes of a discovery or new idea, it has been boiled-down, pared down, shaved to the kernel of wisdom and poised expression. Both forms of sonnet have an extreme degree of closure.

Nuances of form in the Italian sonnet include the hidden existence of a third quatrain, imbedded in the lines of the visible quatrains. abba abba is the surface structure, but if you break out the lines you see ab baab ba, and thus reveal a hidden quatrain. (Italian poets are fond of envelope stanzas of all kinds. "Stanza" is "room" in Italian.") The octave is highly unified by it sound, having only two rhyme sounds, hence also in its ideas. The sestet is more open in sound, more varied in content. The "turn" (volta) opens up from one to the other. Ideally we feel a contrast between tightness of octave and looseness of sestet.

The Shakespearean form has a more open rhyme scheme, more turns, a four-fold structure impressed on the ear, and a "stepped progression" toward the closing couplet. These affects are manipulated by a skilled poet, foregrounded or repressed, as desired. The epigrammatic quality of the couplet is a strong closural device, and in some cases can be so strong it bleeds seriousness from the poem. As someone once said, Shakespeare's sonnets can sound as if Shakespeare wrote the first 12 lines, then handed them to an apprentice and said, "Here, kid. You've got two lines to say what this is all about."

William Carlos Williams (a free verse poet) once said that "all sonnets say the same thing."  What does the sonnet form say to you?

What makes a poet (even now) want to write in closed forms?

RICHARD WILBUR: "Limitation makes for power."  Pattern makes you arrange and rearrange, delete and exchange, focus keenest attention--can discover new and unexpected ideas and sounds.  Sound and meter requirements can bring things up by paths that evade the conscious mind.  Forms can be "mighty allies and valuable disturbers of the unconscious."

WILLIAM YEATS: A successful poem will "come shut with a click, like a closing box."

X.J. KENNEDY: The poet of a closed form tries to "lodge words so securely in place that no word can be budged without a worsening."

ROBERT FROST: Re: strict form or deviations: "We love the straight crookedness of a good walking stick."

It is worth remembering that the sonnet, as a form, has endured for eight centuries. It was first written in 13th century Italy--"Sonnet" comes from the Italian for "little song." The pattern of the octave (abbaabba) was established by Dante (in his sonnets to Beatrice) and Petrarch (1304-1374) (in sonnets to Laura). With Dante & Petrarch also originated the artificiality of the tropes and figures conventionally associated with the sonnet (especially Petrarch's similes) and the stylized mask of the tormented lover as speaker of the poem. The first theoretical discussion of the form dates from the early 14th century. 
From Italy, the sonnet spread to Spain, Portugal, France, the Netherlands, Poland, and England, arriving somewhat later in Germany, Scandinavia, and Russia.

A few more sonnets are discussed here, including poems by William Shakespeare, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Maxine Kumin, & Evan Oakley.

Additional poems below, on this page, are by James Wright, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Ranier Maria Rilke, Jordan Kilgour, & Daryl Finnegan.

--James Wright, 20th c. American

She skimmed the yellow water like a moth,
Trailing her feet across the shallow stream;
She saw the berries, paused and sampled them
Where a slight spider cleaned his narrow tooth.
Light in the air, she fluttered up the path,
So delicate to shun the leaves and damp,
Like some young wife, holding a slender lamp
To find her stray child, or the moon, or both.

Even before she reached the empty house,
She beat her wings ever so lightly, rose,
Followed a bee where apples blew like snow;
And then, forgetting what she wanted there,
Too full of blossom and green light to care,
She hurried to the ground, and slipped below.

--Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 19th c.

With stammering lips and insufficient sound
I strive and struggle to deliver right
That music of my nature, day and night
With dream and thought and feeling interwound,
And inly answering all the senses round
With octaves of a mystic depth and height
Which step out grandly to the infinite
From the dark edges of the sensual ground.
This song of soul I struggle to outbear
Through portals of the sense, sublime and whole,
And utter all myself into the air:
But if I did it, --as the thunder-roll
Breaks its own cloud, my flesh would perish there,
Before that dread apocalypse of soul.

[Contrast this sonnet to the Barrett Browning sonnet most frequently anthologized, "How Do I Love Thee." In "The Soul's Expression" it is easier to see why Barrett Browning was such an important model and influence for Emily Dickinson.]

--Ranier Maria Rilke, 20th c. German (translated by Stephen Mitchell)

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit.  And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power.  Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast's fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you.  You must change your life.

[This famous poem is about art and its mysterious impact on us.  Here is another sonnet written in response.]

-- Jordan Kilgour, contemporary American

Though the head decays, the antennae, like spring onions,
wither, the bright lacquer thorax, caught as the sun
squints through the ruffling windowshade, throws
a long shadow on the new, hard tile, and fetched
on a hard gust, skitters across the kitchen floor.
Otherwise, what is the fascination of the crispening
abdomen; why, with your microscope focused
into the dark pocket of its genitals, do you stare
as if the million year old form now subtly alters?
Otherwise, why bite your lip, clap your hand
to your head as if even now a new-bred disobedient hoard
bursts from your cupboards?  Oh, flare up
your beasty embers; button your pajamas
against the wind.  You will adapt, somehow.


-- Daryl Finnegan, contemporary American

Amidst the crowd close-pressed 'neath pulsing lights
Alone she waits, her glass held tight in hands
that shake.  Her dreams kept hidden out of sight,
She laughs too brightly as her thirst commands.

Alone behind the bolted door he hides,
his eyes upon the tourniquet stretched tight
The needle, readied, plunges deep inside
and empties as his dreams, long lost, take flight.

Alone inside the dark, closed rooms they sleep,
from bottles, pills, blades or needles found
beside their bodies.  Reasons buried deep
within the lives now stilled without a sound.

And while we wait, and speculate, they die.
Our shrouded pain's an echo of their cries.

This was Daryl's first attempt at a sonnet and the form led her into several problems not present in her other poems: padded lines (, stiff and inflated diction, and a "pat" felt-idea that culminates in cliches at the end.  The class didn't discuss this one, but I admonished her. I knew she was a good poet and could do much better.  Why should using the sonnet form result in abandoning natural diction, concision, original imagery, clear voice?   

Daryl's response was to write again on not quite the same subject, though it certainly falls in the same "family" of emotions and experiences, if you'll forgive the pun.  The new poem has a definite speaker with a definite angle on this "he" and "she".   Daryl also switched to the Italian sonnet pattern--and loosened it: not all lines are iambic pentameter.  The result is moving and direct, a poem working in and with its form.  (See next page.)

Note how the tight rhyme scheme of the octave (1st 8 lines) suits the "nightly" scene--a tight, tense, recurring, inescapable drama.  Then, when the speaker becomes the subject the line lengths loosen, rhymes fall farther apart (abc, abc) which changes the feel of it.  It becomes both less secure and less locked-in, as if something either dangerous or liberating (or both) could happen.  And yet there is still the web of tension: the rhymes are there, and so is internal rhyme and sound-play--including the very affective internal rhyme in the last line, which allows the poem to end with the punch of a couplet.  Powerful emotions, powerful delivery.

-- Daryl Finnegan

Beyond the bathroom door, my parents dance
their nightly dusk-to-dawn.  "You bitch," Dad roars,
and Mama waits, a careful matador,
knowing that voice, blood thick with arrogance
and lust.  She tenses, eyes stretched wide, in trance,
as he, the bull, she both hates and adores,
whispers, "I need you," and smiles.  She abhors
feigned tenderness, yet waits for his advance.
I close the door gently and lock myself
in.  On the clean countertop, I find her
makeup beside my own and begin
painting: red eyes, gray cheeks, blue mouth.  An elf
twisted, a raging Indian warrior.
If she cannot, I will, find strength to kill him.