Last week I gave a workshop, “Reading (and Writing) Robert Frost,” which gave me the opportunity to re-immerse myself in Frost’s poetry and Jay Parini’s great biography of him, Robert Frost: a life. This weekend, I read a collection of poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay, thanks to my friend Jane who reminded me of Millay’s astounding work. Between Frost and Millay, how could I not be thinking sonnet?
“Life Goes On”
Frost, it was, who said it so succinctly
in summarizing all that he had learned
from death: father, mother, Elinor,
and four of his six children, almost killing
him before his work was done. We know it best
while in our bed, the most alive, flesh
pressed against flesh in yet another
transcendent, metaphorical death.
We hope the sun will no longer shine,
and rainbows, sunsets, and full moons exist
no more. The sky? It must collapse. The night?
Shroud living loves once we are gone.
In beauty, the worst cruelty is found;
Frost, with just three words, on this expounds.
Sonnets are addicting. That’s probably why they’ve been around since the 13th century. Once inside your head, it’s hard to get rid of the da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM rhythm of iambic pentameter. (However, before the ten syllable line that Shakespeare developed, the sonnet line was commonly eleven syllables – hendecasyllable – or twelve syllables – Alexandrine). It’s difficult, too, to drop the challenge of explaining the world (or love or death) in fourteen lines. Along with the meter of the line and the length of the poem in a sonnet, go particular rhyme schemes that are now often ignored in contemporary sonnets. These rhyme schemes of sonnets are typically classified as Italian (Petrarchan), English (Shakespearean), or Miltonic and information about these can be easily found on line, so I will not go into them here.
One note about meter before going on; you’ll find some lines in the sonnet, “Life Goes On,” not in iambic pentameter, or at least, they might not start out that way because the first syllable of the line is stressed instead of the second. Changing the meter intentionally adds emphasis on particular words. Which lines above reflect the variance from iambs?
Although nothing surpasses the beauty of rhyme scheme when done well, what interests me more is the division of the sonnet into sections. In general, the first eight lines or octave, which is often broken into two quatrains, sets up the situation, problem, or question. The next six lines (sestet, often broken into two tercets), presents a resolution. The ninth line is considered the “volta” or turning point in the mood or tone of the poem.
What also interests me is the seemingly infinite ways to riff off the original sonnet form. I love both the strict traditional sonnet and the individual interpretations of the form, or rather how the form is a springboard for pieces that don’t quite sever the cord to it. Below I have included some of my favorite sonnets that I have come across in my readings over the past few years, some famous, some not. Included is a new one I discovered just today. It is a word sonnet, which has one word in each of its fourteen lines. After reading several of these, I think they are as much like haiku, maybe more, than the sonnet. But it doesn’t really matter what gets you there, as long as you arrive.
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Seven sonnets: Shakespeare, Frost, Millay, Walcott, Collins, Nelson, Kehoe
Romeo and Juliet
ACT I – PROLOGUE
Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,
And the continuance of their parents’ rage,
Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.
The Silken Tent
She is as in a field a silken tent
At midday when the sunny summer breeze
Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent,
So that in guys it gently sways at ease,
And its supporting central cedar pole,
That is its pinnacle to heavenward
And signifies the sureness of the soul,
Seems to owe naught to any single cord,
But strictly held by none, is loosely bound
By countless silken ties of love and thought
To every thing on earth the compass round,
And only by one’s going slightly taut
In the capriciousness of summer air
Is of the slightest bondage made aware.
Edna St. Vincent Millay
Time does not bring relief; you all have lied
Who told me time would ease me of my pain!
I miss him in the weeping of the rain;
I want him at the shrinking of the tide;
The old snows melt from every mountain-side,
And last year’s leaves are smoke in every lane;
but last year’s bitter loving must remain
Heaped on my heart, and my old thoughts abide!
There are a hundred places where I fear
To go,—so with his memory they brim!
And entering with relief some quiet place
Where never fell his foot or shone his face
I say, “There is no memory of him here!
And so stand stricken, so remembering him!
From “Tales of the Islands”
Chapter X/”Adieu foulard…”
I watched the island narrowing the fine
Writing of foam around the precipices, then
The roads as small and casual as twine,
Thrown on its mountains; I watched till the plane
Turned to the final north and turned above
The open channel with the grey sea between
The fishermen’s islets until all that I love
folded in cloud; I watched the shallow green
That broke in places where there would be reef,
The silver glinting on the fuselage, each mile
Dividing us and all fidelity strained
Till space would snap it. Then, after a while
I thought of nothing; nothing, I prayed would change;
When we set down at Seawell it had rained.
Martha Collins (click on name to read NY Times book review of Blue Front)
From Blue Front
might have been from the other side but here
the other side was a river on both sides trains
ran if you started out on the wrong if
you fell off if you lost you might not cross
a visible line but nevertheless wherever
you were there were ways to find to put
for example dogs to follow a path beaten
by or as by an animal say a scent
to make to move quickly in order to stop
in his own who might not cover to stay
on the right no question of getting off to follow
into the house the fields the woods by whatever
means a horse a hijacked train some wagons
to follow the indisputable evidence down.
My father came back regularly, to see
how I was doing, long after he died.
He came in dreams in which he lovingly
explained that he’d returned to be my guide
through the important shadows. I awoke
and all day saw day’s light intensified.
The last time, in an aureole of smoke
that somehow shone, he stood outside my door.
I didn’t open it. Instead, I spoke:
“I’m grown up. I don’t need you anymore.”
He smiled and nodded, saying, “Yes, I know.”
Last night I had another visitor:
Love’s ghost, as though compelled by need, as though
it knew the way. My love, I’m grown. Let go.
Word Sonnet from “Foreplay: An Anthology of Word Sonnets