A Bee in My Bonnet–Rhyme and the Sonnet

Happy National Poetry Month. The sonnet is the most widely known of the poetry forms used in the English language. Not that it’s English in origin, it’s happily Italian. But whether the sonnet is of the original Italian [Petrarchan] form or the later Shakespearean and Spenserian forms, it was all about the rhyme. Was.

To summarize, the sonnet is a fourteen line poem of iambic pentameter. The line length is not unimportant as rhymes with shorter line lengths tend to sound comedic. See the limerick. So, if one wants to be taken more seriously than Dr. Seuss, a longer line length should be employed, or rhyme should be avoided. Sure, Emily Dickinson rhymed with lines of tetrameter and trimeter and she spoke on some pretty weighty issues, but as a rule it’s harder to be taken seriously if one can sing all of your poems to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas” as you can with Dickinson.

The Italian form of the sonnet tended toward the subject of love. The initial octave introduced the subject with an ABBA ABBA rhyme scheme. The volta [ie turn or twist] came at the ninth line which was the start of the concluding sestet. The sestet could take on one of many rhyme-schemes, but CDE CDE was common.

The English started to warp the original love poem form by having 3 quatrains [ABAB CDCD EFEF] followed by a heroic couplet [GG]. However, the volta stayed in the same place in the poem essentially still breaking the poem into 8 lines of build and 6 of conclusion. Shakespeare, the ultimate hipster, changed everything. Firstly, he moved the volta to the couplet creating a long build-up with development at each new quatrain. The couplet had to be particularly strong to wrap up such a long build. This is almost as lop-sided as the sestina I editorialized last week which had 36 lines of build and development and a mere 3 to wrap up. Shakespeare also injected the pining love theme with his hipster sense of irony.

[untitled sonnet #130]

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow from her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground.
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

Spenser decided to complicate the rhyme even more in mimicry of a different Italian form, terza rima, by interlinking the quatrains with their rhyme [ABAB BCBC CDCD EE].

Hundreds of years later, sonnets do not arise often. But they are not dead though most of the strictures are. The rhyme is fiddled with, the iambic pentameter is not thought determinant, and the theme can be on any old thing. The poetry collection I reviewed last week, Robert Okaji’s If Your Matter Could Reform, included two sonnets: one roughly Petrarchan [see below] and the other Shakespearean.

“Apricot Wood”

I built a frame of apricot
wood. This was for you. The clouds float
through it even as I sleep. You wrote
once of wild herbs gathered and brought
to a lovely girl, an offering not
of passion but of some remote
desire to hear a word from the throat
of the Lord Within Clouds. I thought
of this as I chiseled the wood.
Last night it rained. I listened to
it from my bed by the open
window, hoping that the clouds would
not leave. This morning two birds flew
by. It is raining again.

My favorite sonnet is that written by E.E. Cummings, which I included in my list of 10 poems and poets in English that everyone should read seen here in that it seems just as pertinent today as the day it was written.

“next to of course god america i”

“next to of course god america i
love you land of the pilgrims’ and so forth oh
say can you see by the dawn’s early my
country ’tis of centuries come and go
and are no more what of it we should worry
in every language even deafanddumb
thy sons acclaim your glorious name by gorry
by jingo by gee by gosh by gum
why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
iful than these heroic happy dead
who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter
they did not stop to think they died instead
then shall the voice of liberty be mute?”

He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water

My own sonnet, “Jazz Sonnet #2”, breaks almost all of the rules, because it aims to reflect the jazz in its subject. The rhymes are all over the place, or missing in places. It employs near rhyme, also known as off rhyme to loosen things up a bit.

So, sonnets. Give them a try. Just because.

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