Sometimes when you get the first idea for a poem with a line or so, such as “The squirrel in the attic of his brain / Shreds photographs and memories”, and the very nature of the idea leads to a long straggly exposition.
If a squirrel is in his brain destroying his memories… and if he is an old house, of which his brain is the attic… then what other creatures might there be in the house? What other parts of the body might be represented by creatures? Can we get all the way from the hair to the toenails?
Here is how the rest of the squirrel poem worked out–it took a few months, the last image to make it into a sonnet coming while I was in the dentist’s chair having a root canal. You can guess which line that was.
THE SQUIRREL IN THE ATTIC OF HIS BRAIN
The squirrel in the attic of his brain
Shreds photographs, pulls memories apart;
The old dog in the basement of his heart
Howls, lonely, soft, monotonous as rain;
And somewhere further underneath, a snake
In hibernation stirs, irked by its skin.
Up where the world’s news and supplies come in
Through the five senses of his face, to make
The room in which a garrulous parrot squawks
And sometimes songbirds sing – it’s his belief
Mice gnaw behind the wainscots of his teeth.
The cat of consciousness, impassive, walks
Towards the door to go out for the night:
Is everything (oh dog, shut up!) all right?
The sonnet is useful for imposing order. Initial long thoughts get compressed into quatrains or couplets, long lines get compressed into pentameters. And then the search for a rhyme triggers an additional related thought or image, and it has to get squeezed in, which means unnecessary words get squeezed out. And hopefully you end up with something that feels both rich and compact.
The two most traditional forms of the sonnet are the Italian or Petrarchan, and the Shakespearean. The former lays out a position, argument or question in the first eight lines, the octave, rhyming ABBA ABBA; and then makes a turn or volta to provide a resolution in the last six lines, the sestet, rhyming CDE CDE. Shakespeare popularised a sonnet structure of three quatrains (ABAB CDCD EFEF) to lay out a position, with the volta coming for the final couplet, GG.
There is a lot to be said for following those formal sonnet structures, because their rhyme schemes support a clarity of exposition of thought. But people frequently allow themselves unconventional rhyme schemes in order to achieve the meaning they want in the poem. And from more varied rhyme schemes, you can easily move to more varied line lengths, or shifting metre, or a different number of lines–yet still call it a sonnet. Merrill Moore, an American psychiatrist and poet, used loose sonnet-like structures to write down his observations several times during the day. He wrote thousands of poems a year, which, though rarely meeting strict definitions of formal verse, all have a sonnet feel to them.
So you can feel comfortable with sonnets which adhere to the sonnet concept, but use a non-iambic metre, or maintain four feet to the line, or six feet, or use a different rhyme scheme, and so on. I think the metre should still be regular, and there should be solid rhyme, for the poem to be labeled a sonnet. The sonnet above doesn’t adhere strictly to either the Petrarchan or Shakespearean format, but uses a mixture of them. Although I like it, it fails to achieve their true elegance.