Poetry

The Sonnet: An Introduction

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When studying poetry, it is essential to get to know the form of the sonnet, one of the most popular and well-known kinds of poetry structures. In class, we read Sonnet 29 by William Shakespeare, about a man who is desperate about his life. He has no hope anymore, no friends, no scope. But, when he thinks about his beloved, his world uplifts, and he feels blessed and lucky. It is a simple poem, made by three quatrains (stanzas of four line) and a couplet at the end. The third quatrain starts with yet, as a contrast with the previous quatrains about his terrible life. That yet represents the volta or turn, the moment when the direction of the sonnet changes completely. Being very traditional, this sonnet has a very strict scheme of rhyme and exactly 10 syllables for every line. The rhyme scheme is in fact ABAB, but the last two lines (the couplet) are rhymed (brings /kings). In her article about learning the sonnet, Rachel Richardson draws an interesting history of this form and discusses the requirements to write a traditional sonnet.

The sonnet is indeed an enduring form. It comes from the Italian word sonetto, which means little song, and it was invented by Giacomo Lentini in thirteenth century. It was used in the Italian court and Francesco Petrarca was its most famous early pratictioner. The Petrarchan sonnet is different from the Shakespearan one. This form was used during the Elizabethan period, where it assumed the form that is most famous in UK and US: 14 lines of rhymed iambic pentameter. Even if the strict rhyme scheme and metrical regularity contribute to the musicality of the sonnets, they were also thought as the first poetic form to be read silently and not performed. Paul Oppenheimer said that the sonnet was “the first lyric of self-consciousness, or of the self in conflict”. The sonnet can be devided in two parts, as in Sonnet 29: the proposition and resolution, where the volta, the turn, represent the distinction between them. In the first section of the poem, the speaker presents a problem or question, which is resolved at the very end of the poem thanks to a new perspective. The requirements of the sonnet are: 14 lines, iambic pentameter, and an ABBA ABBA CDECDE or ABBA ABBA CDCDCD for the Petrarchan sonnet, or a ABAB CDCD EFEF GG for the Shakespearean. A Rachel Richardson says, in the Petrarchan, the sections are broken up into an octave (first eight lines) and a sestet (final six slines). In the Shakespearan, there are three quatrains and then a couplet, as we have seen. Both types have a volta, a transition to the final section.

The sonnet is often compared to a box, as they also look very dense and square on page and they have such strict requirement. Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon refers to teaching prison inmates about poetry as “teach the sonnet’s a cell” and then, “now try to escape”. Working within such a strict form, they trascend this escale, and the voice bends the form to its own will instead of just blindly following the rules and demands. In Sonnet 29, the rhyme scheme and syllable structure is very traditional. The volta is given by the word yet, put in bold in the sheet. That yet represents a contradiction. Yet, still, even so, neverthless. It is the moment of realisation. The character is miserable and uses a very archaic language, old fashion. The poem tracks his emotional journey. This was also interpreted by the singer Rufus Wainwright, who sang it in a beautiful and mournful song. The tone uplifts at the end, when the speaker comes to a resolution. Ron asked us if our stories have this kind of turns. He also asked us if we break rules or if we do stay true to the demands of the genres and forms. As with the turns, I guess I always try to put some sorts of epiphany in my stories. I also think that, when you are learning the craft of writing, you should learn the rules and practice them as much as you can before you can allow yourself to break them. I consider myself as a student, so I try to stay true to the rules of the genres (at least, in fiction). With poetry, well, I am not able to say it yet. I have started writing poetry just a few weeks ago, it is kind of hard to say it now. Ron told us that poetry is tribute and treason. Tribute to rules, and treason to those rules.

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One of the most popular aims of the sonnets is to write in praise of someone or something beloved. The famous My Mistress’ Eyes are Nothing like the Sun by Shakespeare is interesting because it is a love poem in which the speaker praises unlikely qualities in his beloved, saying that she stinks, she is not beautiful at all. And yet (volta), the speaker is completely enraptured by her. It is a parody of the more classical sonnets where women are represented as angelic creatures. The final couplet corrects, explains the first part of the poem, as an expression of completely different ideas. Many poets have tried to change and to alter the form of the sonnet. The requirements are all so strict, that of course many of them have tried to change them in different ways. The sonnet is such a well-known form that anyone who tries to write a 14 lines poem is going to be said as writing a variation on the sonnet. Some of these variations are very loose, but many are somewhere in between, and some of the original characteristics of the sonnet can be recognised. The sonnet, anyway, proves to be quite a flexible form. It is possible to write longer lines and play with the accents in order to make it sound as having the sonnet’s rhythm. The formal decisions are very important and often interact with the subject matter of the poem. Some sonnets are not rhymed, or do not have iambic meter.

Some poets may want to write about subject matters that require more than the brevity of fourteen lines. Therefore, it is possible to string together a group of sonnets into a sonnet sequence. They tell a longer story. They can also be linked one to the other by repetition: as Richardson explains, each successive sonnet uses as its first line the last line of the preceding sonnt. The final sonnet ends with the same line that begins the first sonnet, completing the circle. This type of sequence is called a crown of sonnets. Some poets don’t take this final step of circling back to the first line at the end of the sequence. The story is not a circle, but it evolves. All these parts are brought into play together, and allow the reader to reflect on every part and on the sequence as a whole.

In class, we read the crown of sonnet Exchanging Vows by Janine Joseph. It is about a failing marriage, and as the first sonnet is the most linked to the traditional conventions, the poems evolve in more free, untraditional sonnets. In the first there is no space between the stanzas (as in Sonnet 29), the rhyme scheme is not too strict but it follows the Petrarch’s stystem. The lines have between 9 – 11 syllables. The last word of the last line is used as the last word of the first line of the following sonnet. It is interesting to notice how, going on towards the end of the sequence, the author chooses to move sentences around the page, putting them in weird places, how sometimes the last couplet is distanced by the first part of the poem. When dealing with such a traditional form, structural and formal choices can have a very important meaning. In this sequence of sonnets, the city is rooted in places, and there is a clear image of Las Vegas. It is impressive how difficult may seem to tell a story through 7 sonnets and being able to do it in such a natural way as it happens here.

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We also read Renegades of Funk by Patrick Rosal, where again the last line of every sonnet is taken and, even if is not exactly the same, affects the first line of the following sonnet. Here, the sonnets are structured in different ways, and the rhythm of every short poem is very well connected to the subject matter. In IV, there is a lot of italic, as the speaker is quoting the lyrics of a chant or a song. The line repeated sounds almost as a chorus, given the reader the impression that it would be an amazing piece to perform. After that, we read Rapture by Jonterri Gadson. In the first sonnet there are many assonances, inner rhymes and allitteratons. It is a beautiful sonnet about the relationship between daughter and mother. The following sonnets all take exactly the last line of the previous one as their first line. This crown of sonnets leaves the tradition but also takes care of it, following some of the rules of the sonnet (for example, the number of syllables). The most shocking sonnet that we read was Sonnet, with Pride by Sherman Alexie, who wrote this very weird sonnet that is shaped as a piece of prose, with justified text. The text is divided by numbers, from 1 to 14 (as the lines of a sonnet), in small paragraphs. It is about a bunch of lions that escape from Baghdad Zoo during Iraq war. It made me think that everything is possible with poetry. Is it really possible to write a sonnet that looks like a piece of prose? Of course you can, I thought. Poetry is tribute… and treason. Alright. Howard Rambsy II said that several African American authors wrote crowns of sonnet, which became a very popular genre in poetry. These poems, in fact, represent the writer’s ability to write a structured and connected piece made out of many smaller ones, all linked by a theme. This help them become well-known in the literary world, where their publication in magazines and the award-winning represent the acknowledgment of their poetry skills.

At the end of our reading, Ron asked what we found surprising in these poems, what we think we should try. We read about many techniques and found others in reading the poems (inner rhymes, allitteration etc). In many of the contemporary sonnets, the form is still present, with the conventions and rules of the genre, but it is not shoved in our face. Is it something we want to try? I would love to try telling a story by writing down a crown of sonnets or just a simple sequence of 7 sonnets. It must be very hard, but it is definitely something I want to take on, just to try and see what it comes to my mind. I love telling stories, and I guess a crown of seven parts allows me to tell it in a way that I’ve never tried before. Laurie Ann Guerrero wrote an essay where she explained her approach to the sonnet. She talks about her grandfather, teaching her how to water tomatoes. He would tell her stories as they were working in their field. He had never learnt to write, but he used to tell amazing stories, choosing the details and the words carefully, as in writing sonnets. The pacing, she says, was always perfect, and his tone always turned just right. In her approach to poetry, she discovered her grandpa’s style: “whole worlds in bite-sized bits“. The art of watering the tomatoes was adjusted and trasmitted for centuries, just like sonnets. Laurie Ann Guerrero compares the last and first lines of the crown of sonnets to the water trickling over to the next row of tomatoes. She wanted her poems to feel “indigenous, easy, from the earth“. I found this extremely inspiring. Her sonnets do not stick perfectly to the rules and conventions of the Italian and English poems, but they are charactered, she says, “like us… working class, rough, Tejano… maybe even beautiful”. This made me think about my approach to poetry: I always think that I really need to uplift myself to write poetry, to talk about important matters and issues, but this is actually only partly true. Poetry must come from the depht of the writer, in my opinion. And those dephts cannot be easily controlled.

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