The Joy of Sonnetry

From the Bard on, my love of the perfect poetic form.

Photo by Josh Rocklage on Unsplash

There is something inherently perfect about sonnets.

I fell in love with sonnets early on in my poetic career. I’m not sure if I can trace it back to an individual poem or poet — certainly Shakespeare’s were among the first sonnets I heard — but even before I became familiar with the Bard’s work, there was something about the form that called to me, a budding poet.

Unfortunately, meter eluded me in those early years. Not that that kept me from trying my hand at sonnets, but you could tell that the sound wasn’t there. As many books and articles I read about iambs and various other metrical forms, the idea didn’t click.

Until it did.

I attribute that mostly to Bonnie Cox, my senior English teacher. When other teachers were preparing students for their dreaded Senior Projects, she cracked us over the heads — sometimes, literally, she wished — with these gigantic, old blue books. Half of the year was devoted to poetry, half devoted to short stories, along with some drama mixed in (I made my debut as King Lear in that classroom!).

But sitting in that classroom, for weeks on ends, we actually dug down deep into poetry. And, even though I’d been writing poetry — if poetry you could call it — for four years at that point, my brain exploded.

There’s a quote from The West Wing that really makes this idea come home. I’ll reproduce the text but you, of course, should listen to the masterful Martin Sheen deliver the line.

Words, when spoken out loud for the sake of performance, are music. They
have rhythm, and pitch, and timbre, and volume. These are the properties of music, and music has the ability to find us and move us, and lift us up in ways that literal meanings can’t. Do you see?

Thanks to Mrs. Cox, I could really hone in on the music of the words for the first time. That’s what poetry’s all about! Falling in love with the sound of the words and, through some black magic, making those sounds echo the thoughts and the words that they’re describing.

And, even more importantly, I learned to match up the sounds with poetic terminology. Iambic hexameter! — it sounds like a Harry Potter spell, but it’s actually much cooler.

You can be a poet without all of that — without the textbook understanding of poetry and poetic meter, if you have the ear for it. But it’s possible, with time, to develop your own ear. And, with that, it’s possible to tap in to the magic of the sonnet.

You can talk about the different forms of sonnets, and all of them are good — the Elizabethan (or Shakespearean) sonnet, the Italian sonnet, the Terza Rima sonnet, the Cyhydedd Fer sonnet. They’re all different dressings of the same form: Fourteen lines, some number of iambic feet, and a volta — a twist, a change — somewhere between the middle and the end.

You can play around with the rhymes and the shapes, but, at the end, you should have a 14-line punch to the poetic kidneys. (Don’t ask me to find those in an A&P textbook). It’s the perfect blend of rigor and freedom, at least in my book.

It’s also, for my money, the perfect length for a short poem. Not so long and involved that it gets carried away with itself, but not so short and ephemeral that it can’t condense into a coherent and satisfying series of images and thoughts. It’s a good length for social media, for example.

I know that it’s in vogue to shit on classical poetry forms. The modern thinking is that we’ve transcended arbitrary limitations and we can write whatever we want. That’s not entirely wrong.

I enjoy the form because it’s nice to have a form that’s restrictive, but not obscenely so — I’m looking at you, sestina. One that’s not limited to specific subjects or a painfully tiny number of words.

Haiku is an art that I admire — just not one I can practice with any level of decency. At least as of the time of this writing.

But sonnets manage to give me a guide line, a limit that I can aim for. I have to be clever with my thoughts. I have to be thoughtful enough that I can make the rhyming pairs work. It’s the right amount of rigor to freedom.

If you’re a poet, I encourage you to join me on my sonnet challenge, or one like it. Every day this year, I’m making myself write a sonnet. It’s ambitious — at least, for me — and difficult as hell to think about what I’m going to write each day. But I’ve managed to keep pushing myself.

And, at the end of the year, I might take another slight step closer to the Bard, in terms of proficiency.

Wow, how’s that for hubris? But, what do we have to lose?