Monday, 9 September 2013

Part Two. The Sonnet.

I'm finally getting back into writing and studying after having a longer than intended break.
Part Two of the module looks at sonnets.                        

'If you want to say something for eight lines and take it back for six, write a sonnet.
                                                                                            Robert Frost

While I have no trouble recognising the features of the traditional Petrachan or Shakespearean sonnet - listed here;

Features of the Petrarchan sonnet.
5 basic features;
  • it consists of 14 lines
  • it is split into an octave (8 lines) and a sestet (6 lines)
  • it has a volta or a classic turn
  • it is metrically regular (usually iambic pentameter)
  • it has a formal rhyme scheme
Features of the Shakespearean sonnet.

5 basic features;
  • it has 14 lines
  • it is split into 3 quatrains (verses of 4 lines) and a 2 line couplet
  • the couplet forms the epigrammatic close - sums up what's been said in the preceding 12 lines
  • it generally has a regular rhyme scheme
  • it tends to have a regular meter - usually iambic pentameter
                   .... Many of the poems identified as sonnets seem to me to bear no resemblance. I'm hoping that as I work through Part Two I will reach a better understanding than my current level.
       I often come across poems that I've loved since schooldays but failed to identify as sonnets, such as Wordsworth's ' Lines Composed upon Westminster Bridge'.

Lines Composed upon Westminster Bridge.

Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear

The beauty of the morning: silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.

Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!

The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

Although described as a petrachian sonnet, instead of the expected octave and sestet format it is usually presented as two quatrains followed by two tercets. Confusing!

 I've also always struggled with identifying the subverted and experimental forms. They appear to follow any structure that has little bearing on the traditional features yet they still sit under the 'sonnet' umbrella. For example even after studying Fennelly's (1996) wonderful sonnet ' Poem Not to Be Read at Your Wedding'  (copied below), it still has me completely baffled. It has 14 lines and a volta at line 8 so presumably that's enough to qualify as a sonnet?

Poem Not to Be Read at Your Wedding

You ask me for a poem about love
in lieu of a wedding present, trying to save me
money. For three nights I've lain under
glow in the dark stars I've stuck to the ceiling
over my bed. I've listened to the songs 
of the galaxy. Well Carmen, I would rather 
give you your third set of steak knives
than tell you what I know. Let me find you
some other store-bought present. Don't
make me warn you of stars, how they see us
from that distance as miniature and breakable,
from the bride who tops the wedding cake
to the Mary on Pinto dashboards
holding her ripe red heart in her hands.

Exercise 1. Write two sonnets on the same theme. Choose one of the following themes:
  • a love poem to a partner
  • the secret life of .....(an animal of some kind)
  • the aftermath of a battle
The first should stick to the classic guidelines of a Petrachan sonnet, the second should be in experimental form.

Here goes with my own sonnets. 

Exercise 1.
Theme 2 - 'The secret life of ....(an animal of some kind)'.
a) Classic Petrarchian Sonnet form.

October Shetland Pony Sales.

The breeders bring their surplus stock to sell,
The barren mares along with this years crop
of foals. They keep their stallions on the fell.
And city people come to window shop.
The wild eyed foal is wrested from its dam
at fifteen weeks or so the passport says,
It takes a good stout stick and calloused man
to chase it round the ring to see who pays.

Ten guineas bid and then the hammer falls,
The buyer laughs – he only came to look,
He doesn’t hear the baby’s frantic calls,
His spotless shoes have never stood in muck.
Wee Chardonay will love this latest whim
But novelties and starving foals wear thin.

b) Experimental sonnet form.

October Shetland Pony Sales.

The breeders sell their annual surplus stock.
All of this year’s crop.
A man in a track suit and bright white trainers
that have never met muck or manure
raises his soft skinned hand and the hammer falls.
Someone calls ‘Sold.’, and a handler with a stick
tears the foal from its dam at fifteen weeks, two days.
So the passport says.

Its frantic antics make him laugh
as it skids and slips on the soiled floor.
It’ll take the place of the kid’s damned rabbit
which cost a pound more
and was useless
at keeping down the lawn.

The workbook suggests that I compare my two sonnets explaining why I chose to make the modifications I did to the classic form and how these changes have influenced 1. The way the sonnet reads, and 2. the meaning of the sonnet.

I really enjoy reading traditional sonnets. I like the melodious flow of iambic pentameter and the rhythm and rhyme makes the words and meaning memorable. When I attempt to apply these aspects to my own writing I feel that the poems become contrived. I struggle to achieve iambic pentameter and have difficulty recognising masculine and feminine endings so my lines tend to be more syllabic than iambic. I feel that the looseness and immediacy of free verse is lost and with it the 'honesty' of the poem. I like to use internal and half rhyme in my poems even if I don't use end rhyme and I've found it difficult to do so when following the rules of classic form.

Initially I didn't think that the different forms affected the meaning of the sonnets here, but on reflection I see that the the traditional form focuses more on the sale ring and the dealers whereas the subverted one focuses more on the buyer. This was not intended although the poem was inspired by my homing of an abused yearling pony from an animal sanctuary. As a foal the pony went through the experience written about and was lucky to survive and I find it interesting to discover how my feelings towards the auctioneers, the callous breeder and the incompetent buyer come across in both poems but with different foci in each one.

The final question is 'Did your modification improve the sonnet?' and despite the contrived feeling I don't think it did. Neither do I feel that I've managed to convey my outrage in either one and I think this is because I find the both the form and the word/line limitations too restrictive for my current ability. Also the free verse sonnet was written after the traditional one and was further limited by the restriction of  trying to develop it from the already constrained first poem.

Fennelly B.A.  (1996) Poem Not to Be Read at Your Wedding, in Neale, D. A Creative Writing Handbook. A & C Black Publishers Limited. London.

Wordsworth. W. (1802) Lines Composed upon Westminster Bridge. Available at Accessed 15thAugust 2013.

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