Tag Archives: sonnets

Sonnet: “Unanswered”

The Afterlife – some Happy Hunting Ground?
Or Jesus, virgins, merging flesh and breath?
Or god of your own world, white-robed and crowned?
Or ghost? Rebirth? Just, please, no final death!

The sparrow through the Saxon hall at night –
Brief light and warmth, then cold obscurity.
Is this our life? But yet the bird in flight
lived in the dark, both pre and post. Do we?

Frogs, living in a buried water tank,
spend all their time in darkness. Then the lid
is lifted and sun shines into the dank –
lid down, light gone… but they live on, though hid.

We work and play throughout our brief day’s sun –
Day raises many questions – night, just one.

This sonnet was published in Snakeskin No. 265, edited by George Simmers. I write both religious and irreligious poetry as the muse suggests, but my own personal views are Fundamentalist Agnostic: “Nescio et tu quoque”, “I don’t know and neither do you.” The sparrow reference is to a passage in the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People which usually seems to resonate well.

Technically the sonnet is Shakespearean: iambic pentameter rhyming ABAB CECD EFEF GG. The three quatrains are each self-contained, but leading to the resolution (or lack of resolution) in the couplet. The last line is the strongest, which is always satisfying.

Sonnet Contest: Cash prizes, no entry fee!

poetry magazine, Better than Starbucks logo

Better Than Starbucks has just opened its annual sonnet contest, an opportunity for all lovers of formal poetry to practice their skills and show off their best work.

Open through October and November (closes December 1), the contest has no entry fee but awards prizes of $100, $50 and $25 for the top three sonnets, which will be published in the magazine along with seven runners-up.

Expect the competition to be fierce! Better Than Starbucks already has a solid following among formal poets. Last year’s competition drew 560 sonnets, this year’s will undoubtedly see more. And you can only send two sonnets. Make sure they are good!

What “good” means can be gleaned from looking at last year’s results in the January 2019 issue, and more sonnets on the Formal Poetry page in March 2019. There are explanatory notes on the contest page, showing some leniency in the definition, and clarifying that previously-published work is acceptable:

This contest is for a metrical sonnet.
Your sonnet can be shakespearean, petrarchan, spenserian, rhymed, or slant-rhymed.
Blank verse is fine, as long as the sonnet form is clearly identifiable.
We’ll consider tetrameter, hexameter, etc. as well as pentameter.
Some metrical variation is fine, but don’t forget the volta!
As always, we do accept previously published work.

Good luck!

Poem: “Carefree Youths”

Carefree Youths

Like fishing boats sailing a landless sea,
an edgeless game-board for an endless game,
hauling their random catch from wide-spread nets,
hunting without the hunter’s hunt and aim,
but sailing, drifting, without cares or frets,
so carefree youths under the bowl of sky
will chance their drifting lives on random lips.
And then the Kraken rises, sinking ships.

“Carefree Youths” was published a couple of days ago in Bewildering Stories. It is in iambic pentameter with irregular rhyme. After the meandering start to the poem (about the youths’ meandering lifestyle), the last line is a hard punchline (reflecting the brutal ending of that lifestyle). There are no sequential rhymes until the last two lines, which thereby become the clear ending of the poem. The form of the poem accentuates the poem’s meaning. That is what form should do.

Final rhyming couplets were used extensively by Shakespeare in various ways. In his sonnets they provide a very strong ending after four quatrains, and is a reason for preferring the Shakespearean sonnet’s ABAB CDCD EFEF GG over the Petrarchan sonnet’s more mannered but less forceful ABBA ABBA CDE CDE. Many of his final couplets are well known – such as:

If this be error and upon me prov’d,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.

Shakespeare did the same sort of thing throughout his plays, in which a scene or a soliloquy will be in blank verse but often terminate in a rhyme. Some of the best-known examples being:

the play ‘s the thing
Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king. (Hamlet)

Fair is foul and foul is fair:
Hover through the fog and filthy air. (Macbeth)

Good night! Good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow
That I shall say goodnight till it be morrow. (Romeo and Juliet)

The rhymed sentence helps sum up the scene, and signals that the scene is ending and that a new scene is about to begin – particularly useful since in Shakespeare’s time there were no stage curtains and no real sets to speak of.

Ah, formal verse! So many uses!

Poem: Sonnet: “My Thunder-Galloping Unconscious Mind”

A sonnet from a couple of years ago, published in Snakeskin, November 2016 :

Fire Horse

“fire horse” by sk8rboi90 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

 

MY THUNDER-GALLOPING UNCONSCIOUS MIND

My thunder-galloping unconscious mind –
On which I, jolly joking jockey, perch
And whose divine intentions I besmirch
With claims its selfishnesses I’ve divined –
This powerhouse, this generator blind,
With pattern-seeking data-crunch research,
Unschooled, ungoverned, then will trip and lurch
Drunk as a soul must be in a mad mind.
But loved and honoured it’s a thundering horse
That powers all the body’s work and health
And flushes poisons in its daily course
And monitors all dangers in its stealth
And feeds uplifting feelings, love and right…
And gifts these images to me at night.

This encapsulates a lot of my thoughts about the way the world works: a lot goes on under the surface of the mind, and we are not as much in charge as we think. In that sense I agree with those who say there is no free will – we think we are consciously deciding to act, but when the brain is monitored we find that we begin to act before the conscious decision – the conscious mind merely rubber-stamps the decision already taken by the unconscious and then, like any figurehead, takes credit for the action.

Also, I am of the opinion that acknowledging the power and healthfulness of the subconscious is key to a happy, balanced and creative life.

The structure of the poem – well, it’s a sonnet, but not pure in form. The first lines rhyming ABBA ABBA are Petrarchan, but after the (weak) volta the CDCD EE is Shakespearean. The effect to a purist is messy, muddy. But honestly, the awareness of four-line chunks is driven by either of those types of fundamental rhyme, just as it is by a rubaiyat’s AABA. When the final couplet comes, the sonnet feels complete – and this couplet is the strength of the Shakespearean sonnet. (The Petrarchan would have ended CDE CDE.)

I am only aware of one sonnet where switching between Petrarchan and Shakespearean was done deliberately and appropriately: a sonnet by Keats in which he was discussing form, and clarifying his new-found preference for the Shakespearean over the Petrarchan.

In anyone else, switching is not ideal, but it’s also not a major obstacle. It is a sign of slight imperfection. But I think this poem still holds. 

Sonnets: John Keats’ 64 Sonnets

The 64 extant sonnets of John Keats make for a very interesting read for anyone interested in formal verse. Not only do we have the poet developing his skills and The 64 Sonnets by John Keatsexpression in the last five years of his short life (he was 18 when he wrote his first sonnet, and died at 23), but he consciously experimented with the form, outlining in his letters the shortcomings that he saw in the Petrarchan and Shakespearean versions while he looked for a better structure.

This collection has a useful but insufficient introduction by Edward Hirsch and incompetent notes by Gary Hawkins. Hirsch writes of the development of Keats’ themes, but fails to tie the poems into the details of his life. I suggest reading at least the Wikipedia entry on Keats to get a fuller sense of what was going on in his mind, his life, his environment.

The notes by Hawkins appear to have been thrown together without either care or insight. There is a facing page of three or four comments for each poem, and there is a further note on the rhyme scheme in an appendix at the back. The appendix catches four of the lengthened lines (6 or even 7 feet in a line) but misses three of them; and notes one of the shortened lines but misses another. Worse, the analysis of the rhyme scheme for the technically most interesting sonnet (“If by dull rhymes our English must be chain’d”) fails to understand the structure Keats was creating, despite quoting his comments in the letter containing the poem.

Hawkins gives the structure as
abc ad (d) c abc dede (tercets, quatrain)

This is wrong on so many levels… First, the fifth line’s rhyme is b, not d. Second, there is no quatrain at all. Third, Keats has shown how to analyze the sonnet – which is a single sentence – by breaking it into tercets with the use of semicolons to clarify the structure of his thought. Its structure is
abc; abd; cab; cde; de.

That this doesn’t fit into Hawkins’ categories of Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnets is precisely the point Keats makes in his letter (“I have been endeavouring to discover a better sonnet stanza than we have”) as well as in the sonnet itself (“Let us find out, if we must be constrain’d, / Sandals more interwoven and complete / To fit the naked foot of Poesy;”)

Hawkins also makes errors of fact and interpretation in the notes facing the sonnets themselves. The very first sonnet, written in 1814, references “the triple kingdom” which Hawkins explains as “Great Britain, composed of England, Scotland and Wales.” Wrong. With the Act of Union of 1801 the three kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland were united, as represented by the simultaneous creation of the Union Jack with its combination of the crosses of the three flags. Wales was not a kingdom but a principality, and its flag never figured in the larger national flags.

In the sonnet “How many bards gild the lapses of time!”, Keats writes “A few of them have ever been the food / Of my delighted fancy.” Hawkins annotates this as “namely, the epic poets Milton and Spenser.” Oh really? How about Shakespeare, whom Keats addresses directly as “Chief Poet!” in another sonnet. And this is quite apart from sonnets addressed to Byron, Chatterton, Hunt, and Burns.

I have to smile at Hawkins’ interpretation of “artless daughters”:

Happy is England, sweet her artless daughters;
Enough their simple loveliness for me,
Enough their whitest arms in silence clinging:
Yet do I often warmly burn to see
Beauties of deeper glance, and hear their singing,
And float with them about the summer waters.

Hawkins interprets the “artless daughters” as “Scotland and Wales”. Oh come on! Keats could fall in love at a girl’s glance, at a stranger pulling off a glove. I don’t think he meant Scotland and Wales – he meant girls, classic “English rose” girls, and contrasted them with what he might find in the Mediterranean. Where he went, and died.

Few of the sonnets are near as memorable as “On first looking into Chapman’s Homer” or “When I have fears that I may cease to be”, but they are all readable and rereadable, and to have them as this collection is a treat.

Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins

Hopkins being difficult to read, this edition with very insightful introduction and notes by 20th century English poet James Reeves is about as good as it gets.

That said, most of Hopkins’ poetry is uninteresting in content except to a religious person, or to a person interested in poetic technique and the elasticity of the English language. His ‘sprung rhythm’ work and his use of alliteration and assonance draw on Anglo-Saxon rather than Norman French roots, though he frequently uses the sonnet and other rigid structures. His phrasing of his thoughts, however, is idiosyncratic and often dense to the point of unreadability.

His best-known poems date mostly to 1877, when he suddenly felt free to express an ecstatic joy in nature – God’s Grandeur, Pied Beauty, and The Windhover. Spring and Fall (“Margaret, are you grieving / Over Goldengrove unleaving?”) dates from 1880, As Kingfishers Catch Fire a year or two later. Living an isolated and unappreciated and religiously constrained life, his health and emotional balance became ever weaker and his poetry ever bleaker. His last two completed poems, Thou art indeed just, Lord, and To R. B. (Robert Bridges), were written in despair shortly before his death in 1889 at age 44.

His output was not extensive, but half a dozen of his poems posthumously charged and changed English verse forever.