Auld Lang Syne

Sunday, May 22, 2011

OK ... the sonnet and other frustrations...part 1

I am ticked off. I am really frustrated. I am annoyed. I am disconcerted. Did I mention ticked off?

Don't get me wrong here, I love sonnets. I really love sonnets. But what I do NOT like is the pole-up-butt attitude on the parts of some folks regarding what constitutes a sonnet.

Yesterday's Maine Poets Society meeting featured a speaker/contest judge who took on the sonnet as his part of the afternoon's judging/activity. He totally rejected from award any sonnet that did not conform to the five beat line. OMG. The four beat line is a perfectly acceptable way to go here. AND, many many many sonnets of great repute, including some of Shakespeare's, have substitutions in meter, such as beginning a line with a trochee. He admitted that he did not consider any which did not conform to the five beat line.... really? OMG  OK, he is right to adhere to the five beat line IN HIS OWN WRITING. No problem there for me. But into what damned century is he sucking us here? We live in the 21st, thank you very much.

I can now see why so many of my professors (undergrad) and advisors (MFA) mocked the formalists and said they are "making it old." We cannot dial it back, people. We CAN use the sonnet frame to paint a newer, more contemporary portrait. Robert Bly and others have tweaked the form to make it more American. In fact many believe that the framework of 14 lines is up for revision as well. I am ok with that. My mindset is more aligned to the notion of variations on a basic. What I do emphasize in teaching others to write a sonnet is that you have to know the form before you tweak it. I was encouraged in this thinking by a few very smart teachers at Iowa and other places.

Let's face it, for most students of poetry, and not just a few practiced poets, the form is a daunting proposition. Most just avoid it altogether. They do themselves and poetry a huge disservice in this avoidance. It is not a form to fear. It is a wonderful platform from which to build skill in poetry, particularly in the realm of meter and rhyme. Many situations about which you might like to write are well-suited to this form. The obvious unrequited love theme is not all there is to writing a sonnet. Themes that are lighthearted and jovial are ok here too, especially the parody.
But there are some that are simply done in by imposition of the form on topic. Not everything can be a poem anyway. I had a professor in college who, in an intermediate poetry class, took out a credit card and read the information on the back, asking us if this can be considered a poem. One dunderhead in the class said, "oh of's a manner of personal interpretation." Uh-oh. I won't get detailed about the professor's response, but suffice it to say there was a loud silence after he stormed out of the room. Yikes. My point is that not everything ought to be applied to the sonnet form if the poem is to be taken as a serious sonnet attempt.

One thing I did a few years ago was to devise a teaching plan for decreasing the anxiety of my students in terms of their willingness to try a sonnet. It was originally designed (this thing I invented) to just be a springboard to the "real" sonnet. What has happened tangentially is a new form, one that I sometimes use outside of teaching. People who have learned it like it. It is fun to do and does not mock the sonnet or parody it. It is most definitely NOT an actual sonnet. But it is a foot in the door to "Sonnetland." I call it the "perfect reversing sonnet" or the "sonnetelle."

Now that I have your attention, a break to take a little snooze. Back later with the rest of the story.

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