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Why I Like Sonnets
To be lyrical or not to be lyrical, that is the question...
First, let me say that I favor no one form of poetry over another. Is structure better than free verse, or vice versa? To choose one is to invalidate or denigrate the other. Poetry is an expression of the thoughts and feelings of the author, and as long that expression is honest, any form is valid.
I personally like sonnets (English/Shakespearean sonnets in particular) because the structure helps rein in my hyperactive mind. I also enjoy the puzzle like quality of writing a traditional sonnet – once I decide what exactly I want to say, I have to fit it into the mold of the poem. Aside from being just plain fun, this also forces me to experiment with alternative words and phrasing. Often, I will discover something new about my thoughts on a given subject in the process of writing a sonnet.
Does this mean that I am not creative or brave enough to write free verse? Maybe. But I do write free verse at those times when I want to give my mind free reign (which can indeed be quite scary). It all depends on what I want to say and how I want to express it. As long as I enjoyed the process and am satisfied with the final expression, I can sleep soundly with no regrets
My first sonnet (and other animals) by Private Baldrick
Please forgive the obscure Blackadder reference above. This was actually my first attempt at a sonnet, written many years ago in a poetry workshop. It is simple, and obviously an attempt to imitate Shakespeare (stylistic contractions and all), but it is still one of my favorite pieces that I’ve written.
The worm sees not the rich man's pocket book;
The Earth cares not about the poor man's means;
Both wealth and poverty no man can brook
When treasure of his life no longer gleams.
Blind eyes judge not skin's hue or color giv'n,
And hatred cold and quelled no longer seeks
For harmony and concord to be riv'n
When thread is cut and fate its peace does speak.
Stiff hands no longer wield the tools of war;
Deaf ears hear not the insult that is hurled;
The mind recalls not what the fight was for
When none remain to see the flag unfurled.
Mankind may strive for unity in vain,
But death will bring equality again.
Why do I like it? I guess part of it is the feeling of accomplishment, like finishing a jigsaw puzzle. I had an idea, and I managed to twist and turn that idea until it fit the template. I also like that it sounds traditional. The idea of death as the great equalizer is itself quite traditional, so the meter and rhyme scheme are suitable. The poetic form and the idea are long-established, but the content of the poem and the particular take on the idea are uniquely mine.
Can you sonnet like I do?
Pros and Cons of the Sonnet
Can seem quaint/outdated
Encourages alternative thinking
Structure can also limit thinking
Stigma surrounding sonnets can be a turn off
Rhyming keeps things from getting too dark
Rhyming can distract from serious subjects
The Good, The Bad, and the Sonnet.
There are many advantages to using the sonnet form. I already mentioned one above: a traditional form can be good for a traditional subject. Here are three more:
Encourages alternative thinking: As I mentioned in the introduction to this Hub, trying to fit an idea into the structure of a sonnet can help me approach that idea from different angles. In this case, the evolution of the imagery in the poem came about largely because of the form. My original idea was simply about the equality of the rich and the poor in death, but thinking in terms of quatrains led me to the three separate but related ideas of poverty, discrimination, and war. The final couplet points out that, though equality failed in each of these cases, death will ensure that all are equal in the end.
Accessible: In some cases, the familiar structure of a sonnet can make a poem more accessible to a wider audience. Most people start with structured lyrical poetry in school before moving on to more abstract free verse. The structure provides a context in which to understand the meaning of the poet. Free verse, like abstract art, can be very intimidating.
Rhyming keeps things from getting too dark: This is a poem about death - not the most pleasant of concepts. The imagery of a worm eating a corpse could be downright disturbing. The rhyme scheme of the sonnet, however, lends an almost playful air to the verse. It also makes it sound more noble and elegant, instead of visceral and real. It is intended more to inspire philosophical reflection that gut reaction.
Of course, as in all things, the greatest strengths can also be the greatest weaknesses:
Traditional form can seem quaint or outdated: When you are trying to be relevant, sometimes you need to use a form that is more relevant to the times. Death is timeless, so the sonnet. which was developed centuries ago, can still carry weight. If, however, your subject matter is the civil rights movement or the equality of women, you would probably be better off choosing a more modern form. Unless you are trying to be ironic, I suppose.
Structure can also limit thinking: While I find that the sonnet can help me think differently, by its very definition structure is limiting. If you truly want to write without limits, free verse is the way to go. There you will find no limits or rules. Sonnets don't lend themselves to experimentation.
Stigma surrounding sonnets can be a turn off: If you choose to write a sonnet, some people may choose not read to it simply because it is a sonnet. And if they do read it, they may miss the underlying meaning because they are distracted by or too busy criticizing the form. Incidentally, this is exactly what happened in my poetry workshop when this poem was written. The other students universally panned the fact that I had written a sonnet, so we never got to discuss the meat of the piece. It is a shame that a perfectly justified love of the new can keep people from appreciating the value in the old, but there it is.
Rhyming can distract from serious subjects: As I stated above, rhyming worked for me in this poem. I wanted that sense of playfulness to keep things from getting too serious. On the other hand, if you want more of a real, visceral reaction, the rhyme scheme of the sonnet is probably not the best choice. It's all about the proper tools for the proper job.
David Tennant reading Shakespeare's sonnets. I win.
The Grand Summation
I hope you have enjoyed this foray into the world of the sonnet. I intentionally kept it light - I have seen some pretty ugly arguments amongst English majors over poetic form (seriously, one time it almost came to blows. I offered to write a sonnet about it - they didn't find it funny). Ultimately, as with art and music, I find value in all expression, even if it is not my personal preference.
So let me know what you think! Of course, you can feel free to criticize the poem itself, though at this point I am pretty well aware of its value (or lack thereof). What I would really like, though, is to generate an exchange of ideas on the value of the sonnet and other structured, lyrical forms of poetry versus more modern verse.
Thanks for reading!