The Enduring Appeal of the Sonnet Form
A sonnet, as we are usually told, is a poem of fourteen lines, usually iambic, with a rhyme scheme and recognisable structure. Looking into the history of this well-known poetic form, we may also learn of the Shakespearean and Petrarchan varieties, which, although rather different, also share a set adherence to rules. While the Shakespearean sonnet has a rhyme scheme of ababcdcdefefgg, with the final couplet as the principle feature, the Petrarchan sonnet has an octave of eight lines and a sestet of six; the rhyme scheme of the octave is ababcdcd, and that of the sestet is cdecde. The poem is nearly always on the subject of love, and there is usually at least one turn or volta which can be understood as a rhetorical shift or dramatic change in thought or emotion.
If contemporary poets continue to make use of this form, it seems to me that the motive is more complex than simply keeping to the tradition of responding to past works (though this is perhaps just as important as ever for many poets). It is also apparent, by looking at some recent examples by poets working today, that the sonnet form introduced above can stand some adaptation while still regarded as a sonnet. I think, for instance, of a series of sonnets read by Deryn Rees-Jones at Poets & Players (Whitworth Art Gallery), a ‘sonnet sandwich’, poems of just thirteen lines, which were described as ‘disappointed sonnets’. Likewise, Michael Symmons Roberts’ Drysalter presents 150 sonnet-psalms of fifteen lines, which have been referred to by more than one critic as ‘super- sonnets’. More recently, Terrance Hayes was effusive in his appreciation of the sonnet form and how he makes use of multiple turns within the same poem, speaking after reading from his most recent collection, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin (Central Library):
Whether examples similar to the above can be understood as ‘near-sonnets’ or ‘broken-sonnets’, it is clear that for many of today’s poets the sonnet form remains popular and functional. Clearly, the question remains how far the rules can be bent or twisted before the poem is no longer seen as a sonnet or indicates some indebtedness to tradition. For Hayes at least, love as the overriding subject and the presence of the volta seem to be essential characteristics. While others can debate this further, for me the enduring appeal lies in the measure (the length of the poem is convenient for our modern-day attention span) and the accessibility of the form (how relatable and universal it is for us to write on the subject of love, and how its particular restrictions enable a sweet spot: neither too lax nor too stringent).
In an age where ‘experiment’ is often regarded as inherently positive and free verse thought of as simply liberating, I would encourage poets to discover or re-find (if they haven’t done so already) the beauty and creative potential of form. I would recommend the sonnet as a starting point. It is here where not only we can learn the rules before we break them properly, though also develop a deeper understanding of how conventions can be generative and just as vital as imagination.