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  #1  
Unread 06-22-2020, 08:40 PM
Aaron Novick's Avatar
Aaron Novick Aaron Novick is online now
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Default The Sonnet

I wasn't sure quite what forum to put this in, so feel free to move it if there's a better home for it.

But the eternal question of what, exactly, makes a sonnet has shown its face again, in Kurt's thread on Met, and I figured that others besides myself might want a playground to discuss the matter further. So, here's your playground. What is a sonnet?

It's a question that interests me because, as you all know, I write a lot of sonnets that don't follow the form's rules in the strictest sense: heterometrical, unrhymed or off-rhymed, or various other divergences. There are Rick's fifteen-line sonnets. William Bronk wrote an entire book of 14-line (loose) blank verse poems, which I would call sonnets. Frederick Goddard Tuckerman wrote a number of sonnets with non-standard rhyme-schemes. And here's a "sonnet" by Michael Spence:
Broken Sonnet: Divorce

I never knew the birds
The way she did –
To me, a cormorant appeared
To be an egret who shed
All his colors for black.
I forget if herons
Will mate for life. Do the males flock,
Or do they fly alone?
I need to find the name
Of one who leaves the land behind,
Making flight his home.
The wind
Will choose which feathers line a nest
And which glide into mist.
Ok, so what makes a sonnet? I think the key is the history of the form. There is a base set of expectations for a sonnet: fourteen lines, iambic pentameter, some kind of rhyme scheme, a sestet/octet construction with a volta in line 9 (possibly interacting with a three quatrain + couplet structure), maybe others. What determines how far you can depart from these base expectations and still be writing a sonnet?

I say that a poem can reasonably claim the title "sonnet" if, in some meaningful way, it plays off these expectations—whether by following them or disrupting them. If you're leveraging the reader's expectations for what a sonnet promises to some poetic end, then you've written a sonnet. Or at least something that could be called a sonnet.

Ok, have at it.
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  #2  
Unread 06-23-2020, 06:32 AM
Jayne Osborn's Avatar
Jayne Osborn Jayne Osborn is offline
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Hi Aaron,

I've moved this to GT as it's the right forum for this discussion.

(I'm too scared to post what I really want to say on the subject... so perhaps I'll keep quiet!! )

Jayne
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Unread 06-23-2020, 07:12 AM
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Oh, I can't help myself... I have to chip in, Aaron, and say it - though I know there are definitely two sides to this particular fence, and people sit on both of them!

In my opinion this is not a sonnet: It has no metre and no rhyme; it is merely a poem of 14 lines in length; there the similarity ends.

I never knew the birds
The way she did –
To me, a cormorant appeared
To be an egret who shed
All his colors for black.
I forget if herons
Will mate for life. Do the males flock,
Or do they fly alone?
I need to find the name
Of one who leaves the land behind,
Making flight his home.
The wind
Will choose which feathers line a nest
And which glide into mist.

If this is regarded as a sonnet, then you could argue that any 5-line poem is a limerick, couldn't you?

I think I'd better leave it there... (I'm not being contentious, I hasten to add. I fully accept others' opposing views.)

Jayne
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  #4  
Unread 06-23-2020, 07:32 AM
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Aaron Novick Aaron Novick is online now
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It's basically heterometrical iambic (a few lines depart), it uses off-rhymes in a Shakespearian pattern, and it has a volta in line 9.
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Unread 06-23-2020, 07:36 AM
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I'm sorry, but I remain unconvinced. It's just too much of a s-t-r-e-t-c-h for me, Aaron!!

Jayne
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  #6  
Unread 06-23-2020, 07:47 AM
Aaron Novick's Avatar
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Set aside the question of whether it qualifies for the epithet "sonnet" (or even the one Spence gave it: "broken sonnet"), since that question is ultimately boring.

Is your reading of the poem not enriched by drawing on your expectations for what a sonnet promises—both for how the poem meets them and how it departs from them? That's the interesting question. And the answer, for me, at least, is clearly "yes".
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Unread 06-23-2020, 07:47 AM
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A way to form the question might be: what does a poem gain by being called a sonnet? We have sonnet preconceptions; a poem can meet those expectations or subvert them. I think Spence's poem is a sonnet. Aaron has pointed out its traditional placement of the volta and the rhyme pattern. A broken sonnet for a broken relationship. All categorization is to some extent arbitrary, but no more so than the language we use to uphold those categorizations.
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Unread 06-23-2020, 07:48 AM
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Just cross-posted with Aaron, who says the same.
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  #9  
Unread 06-23-2020, 08:15 AM
Mark McDonnell Mark McDonnell is offline
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Yes. What you both said. When a verse form has lasted 700 years (is that about right?) it is inevitable that poets will play with it, subvert it, turn it inside out. If what remains has enough recognisable elements of one of the more traditional sonnet forms, then it's still a sonnet – of sorts. This is clearly a sonnet (fourteen lines, Shakespearen (half) -rhyme scheme, volta). Ricks 15 liners are sonnets because they feel like them and that one extra line is the slight adaptation of the form. Push it too far and it something else. A 16 liner would go too far. A 14 line poem with none of the other elements would go too far.

I recommend "Irresistible Sonnets", the wonderful book edited by our own Mary Meriam. 70 contemporary sonnets running the gamut from traditional to experimental. Available to order from Amazon (pay me later Mary...)

Last edited by Mark McDonnell; 06-24-2020 at 02:32 AM.
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  #10  
Unread 06-23-2020, 08:19 AM
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We'll have to agree to disagree on this one, guys.

It happens, so I won't push it any further

Jayne
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