I’ve now written three sonnets in three weeks. That seems like quite an accomplishment! These are 3 of my least successful poems, but I think this is a testament to the challenge that sonnets pose, as well as evidence of why the form has remained so vital for so many years. John Keats, in a sonnet (characteristically), described it as a “scanty plot of ground” where he could, nevertheless, find “short solace” from the burdens of the excessive freedom that came from longer (or looser) forms. I’m not sure I find much solace in writing sonnets, but I sure get the “scanty plot of ground” part!
My former colleague, Erin Goss (now at Clemson University), recently posted a query on Facebook asking for people’s favorite contemporary sonnets. I was glad to see several people suggest the sonnet cycle included in Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard, a book of poems about her experiences as a child of a black mother and white father in Louisiana, as well as her recreation of the experiences of the Louisiana Native Guard– an all-black regiment of the Union Army in the Civil War. These are incredible poems. One of the things I really admire in Trethewey’s poetry is how her use of traditional forms accentuates the ways that common people’s experiences are left out of “traditional history.” Here’s an example:
Before the war, they were happy, he said,
quoting our textbook. (This was senior-year
history class.) The slaves were clothed, fed,
and better off under a master’s care.
I watched the words blur on the page. No one
raised a hand, disagreed. Not even me.
It was late; we still had Reconstruction
to cover before the test, and–luckily–
three hours of watching Gone with the Wind.
History, the teacher said, of the old South–
a true account of how things were back then.
On screen a slave stood big as life: big mouth,
bucked eyes, our textbook’s grinning proof–a lie
my teacher guarded. Silent, so did I.
How much richer this simple poem becomes when you realize that it is, in fact, an English sonnet! I think it’s immensely cool to see how Trethewey effaces this most traditional and respected of forms underneath her tragic story of educational failure. In telling this story, she exacts revenge on the institutional structures (both physical structures like schools, and structures of knowledge like history books and sonnets) that once silenced her.
If you liked this, check out “Elegy for the Native Guards,” her poignant yet trenchant response to the Southern Fugitive poet Allen Tate’s nostalgic “Ode to the Confederate Dead.” I find it fittingly ironic that Trethewey is our current poet laureate, and has served longer in the position than Tate did (he was poet laureate from 1943-1944). Another species of revenge, one could say.
And now– drum roll please– here is my attempt at the Spenserian sonnet. I thought this would be less difficult to write than either the Italian or English sonnets, just because the rhymes carried over from quatrain to quatrain. (The rhyme scheme, recall, is abab bcbc cdcd ee.) In the end, the limited number of rhymes made it just as difficult as the Italian sonnet, which also has 5 rhymes, abba abba, cde cde. I thought it would help facilitate things to distribute the rhymes more evenly over the course of the poem, but at least with this one, it didn’t work out that way.
“I’ll bring the chicken salad,” she said. “You
bring something green.” I thought, to my chagrin,
Another salad; summer’s scourge. Now, who
Really loves eating lettuce, leafy greens?
They’re awfully good for you, but then again,
There still persists a small, yet glimmering wish
That someone will be brave and bring a main
That’s worthy of the name, a luscious dish
Of veal in brandy sauce, decadence-kissed,
And give us license to indulge ourselves,
To eat, for once, like kings, each morsel rich
With flavors sounding on the tongue like bells.
We’d be content for life with just one bite.
But potlucks never offer such delight.
My rather mundane choice of subject may reflect my current state of sonnet-writing fatigue. But I have learned from this three-week experiment, just as Thoreau did by living in a cabin in the woods for 18 months. Part of the reason why I wanted to try both the Italian and Spenserian sonnet forms is because they are adaptations of a longer, narrative form: the terza rima, used by Dante Alighieri in his Divine Comedy. I will try one for next week. (After this, I may take a break from rhyming poems for a bit. And I now have a great respect, verging on fear, for the villanelle, which only uses two rhymes, a and b, throughout!)
The terza rima, in its most basic form, is a succession of tercets (3-line stanzas) using alternating rhyme, where the sound used for the middle line of each tercet is carried over to rhyme with the first and third line of the subsequent stanza– aba, bcb, cdc, and so on. Then, the end of the poem, or each section of the poem (cantos, in the case of the Divine Comedy) is a rhymed couplet, continuing the rhyme from the preceding tercet. There’s a fair amount of variation in this form. Sometimes it’s written in iambic pentameter, sometimes in iambic tetrameter (4 iambs per line). Sometimes there is a quatrain at the end, sometimes not. I plan to use all of the flexibilities of the form to my advantage over the next week! No more scanty plots of ground for me!
Here is a classic example of terza rima, Robert Frost’s “Acquainted with the Night” (note: it also has 14 lines and is written in iambic pentameter, but is not a sonnet).
Signing off for now … have a great week, everyone.