The Hypothetical Sonnet (a note on playing with the form)
There’ll be another sonnet of sorts posted here tomorrow (the first four I’ve written specifically for the blog are here, here, here, and here), and so I figure it’s time to touch upon how I view the form, how it fits into my poetics; and how those things affect my writing of sonnets, shape the intent and the result.
Above I said “sonnet of sorts” because in a sense the ones I’m writing could be called theoretical or hypothetical sonnets in that they diverge deliberately from the traditional sonnet forms.
In them I eschew (or intend to eschew) rhyme and formal meter, unless, of course, there are places where the presence of those would serve to strengthen the poem rather than weaken it—a rare situation these days, and so I find such things are best used for effect, as trim or garnish.
The sonnet was brought into the English language from the Italian and there are some traditional variations on its form, mostly having to do with the sequencing of end-rhymes through its fourteen lines.
I’m not claiming to be doing anything particularly new or startling with the form. I’m simply attempting to keep it fresh for myself, which means adapting it for my voice—and for our time, as it was adapted to fit the English language when English poets first began to use it.
What I find to be useful, perhaps even essential, in the sonnet are three things:
- The length of the poem
- The length of the line with which it is composed
- And how it twists under the hand, before the mind’s eye, turns, sometimes subtly, sometimes severely, upon itself after the mid-point—traditionally in the ninth line, as the first eight were used to propose or question something and the last six to resolve it.
So I keep the length of the poem because fourteen lines allows room to give illusion of depth to the treatment or exploration of the subject.
I keep a longer line because its length allows it to be limber or rigid, even to be half one and half the other if need be, giving it at least a resemblance to the (highly overrated) natural rhythms of speech while rejecting formal meters that can leave it flaccid or staid, dull.
And I keep the turn (though I let its placement wander, depending on the needs of a particular poem, anywhere from the seventh to the final line) because it acts as a payoff, a door or window by which we enter or view the strange—which is really only a place or thing we have not encountered from a particular perspective before, or an association we have never made before; looked at like this, the sonnet and its attraction for us (for me, anyway) could be seen as a metaphor for the creative process, which I continue to claim proceeds by the formation of new associations between familiar things, memories, experiences, and the synthesis of those into a new, coherent whole.