I have become interested in the sonnet form recently after years of writing and publishing books of free verse. My preference is free verse but why not try my hand at writing a sonnet? It would be a challenge, a way to stretch myself as a writer. But the image that popped into my head once I began to seriously consider doing this was of a corset, the kind aristocrats wore in the royal court. And oddly enough the word corset rhymed with sonnet….was that my first attempt at fulfilling one of the requirements of the form?
Online, I came across a recent exhibition (July 5 – November 24, 2013) at Les Arts Décoratifs in Paris, France, entitled La Mécanique des dessous: une histoire indiscrète de la silhouette (www.lesartsdecoratifs.fr) The goal of this exhibition was to demonstrate how both women and men from the fourteenth century to our times made use of artificial means to shape the silhouette and how many of the creations were mechanical cage-like devices. Women’s corsets were made of velvet, silk, or satin; had front or back laces; and whalebone stays and metal parts to constrict the upper body into the aristocratic fashion. Men wore doublets which were close fitting waist jackets and cinched ceintures or wide belts.
Why is the sonnet not popular in contemporary literature, I wondered? Is it too stiff like a corset? Before I attempted to write a sonnet, I wanted to learn a lot more and began to research its history and read classic sonnets, some of which I had studied in university.
This short poetic form had its beginning in thirteenth century Italy. Poet-lawyers of the royal Sicilian court created the sonneto which is characterized by an argumentative core with a turn of thought, or volta, as the resolution. In the fourteenth century, Petrarch eventually developed the structure known as the Italian sonnet. The sonneto was later imported by English poets and became popular in England. By the last decade of the sixteenth century, Shakespeare modified this form since the English language has fewer rhyme possibilities than Italian. Rereading the first lines of Sonnet 125 from the Bard’s renowned Sonnets:
When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate…..
I was struck more by how subtle the rhyme scheme is, as if there are no rhymes (until I underlined them.) And the short poem’s required fourteen lines were perfect to encapsulate the winning experience of love.
But who could find fault with Shakespeare anyway? I continued to read more classic sonnets and learned that like a royal court corset, it was something that one had to fit into, something that free verse does not require since it is meant to flow with images and be free of formal rules. In our contemporary cult of the unruly, it seems the sonnet has no place.
Its structure, like a corset, moulds ideas and words into an elegant form that has a mechanical underpinning: there is the need to count lines and follow a rhyme scheme. The beauty and eloquence created cannot be missed. Who cannot admire Dante’s La Vita Nuova, the first sonnet sequence ever written? And Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese: intimate love captured in a sequence meant to appeal to the head as well as the heart.
We owe it to the Romantic poets for reviving the sonnet in the nineteenth century, as it had lost favour after the seventeenth century. Interest in science and technology, as in our own time, blunted the sonneteer’s popularity. But eventually William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, Coleridge and others composed inside its constrained power. John Keats sonnet “When I Have Fears that I May Cease to Be” has the enviable effortlessness that comes from a master of the form.
Anne Sexton, an American poet who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1967 for her collection of lyric poems Live or Die, started her dazzling career by learning this poetic form. Her psychiatrist had suggested creative writing might help her overcome her suicidal thoughts. Soon after, Sexton listened to a program on public television with I.A. Richards who taught the sonnet form. Intrigued, she began to feverishly write her own sonnets and continued on with lyric poetry.
It seems the sonnet may not be for our contemporary time since it is a demanding structured short form with the added challenge of rhyme. I have not yet tried to write a sonnet but the more I read and learn about it, the more I want to. It has a long tradition that any poet can fit into. The corset I will forego.
Hirsch, Edward, and Boland, Eavan, eds.,The Making of a Sonnet: A Norton Anthology, (W.W. Norton & Company, New York, London, 2008)
Shakespeare, William, The Sonnets, illustrated by Charles Robinson, (Gramercy Books, Random House, New York, NY, 1991)
Davidson, Peter, The Fading Smile: Poets in Boston, from Robert Frost to Robert Lowell to Sylvia Plath, 1955-1960, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1994.