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.


Villanelle and Sestina: the Repetitive Poetic Forms

Happy National Poetry Month. Poetry forms have largely gone the way of the dodo and jackalope, but I still have a soft spot for them. Two that have become particularly rare are the villanelle and the sestina–two forms that employ repetition to a high degree. Repetition is a particularly wonderful device to show obsession as it gives a reason for the repetitiveness. Probably the best known villanelle in English is Dylan Thomas’:

“Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night”

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at the close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

The form, in brief, is six 3-line stanzas [tercets] of iambic pentameter with a ABA rhyme scheme until the final stanza which has a fourth line [ABAA]. Whole lines repeat with the opening line of the poem also ending the 2nd and 4th stanzas and comprising the third line of the final stanza. The line that finishes the 1st stanza also ends the 3rd, 5th and 6th stanzas. The result is the crazy tight form seen above. I’ve written one, called “Eulogy to Ezra Pound”.

My favorite form is the sestina, which works not by repeating whole lines but rather by repeating end words for the lines of each stanza by weaving the words into a new order to become the end words for the next stanza. This is done for six 6-line stanzas [sestets]. Then a final tercet uses all six key words at the midpoints and ends of the three lines. This creates a developing, evolving quality to the obsession. The first sestina was written by Sir Philip Sidney in his Arcadia. The first I saw was Sylvia Plath’s:

“Yadwigha, on a Red Couch Among Lilies”

Yadwigha, the literalists one wondered how you
Came to be lying on this baroque couch
Upholstered in red velvet, under the eye
Of uncaged tigers and a tropical moon,
Set in an intricate wilderness of green
Heart-shaped leaves, like catalpa leaves, and lilies

Of monstrous size, like no well-bred lilies.
It seems he consistent critics wanted you
To choose between your world of jungle green
And the fashionable monde of the red couch
With its prim bric-a-brac, without a moon
To turn you luminous, without the eye

Of tigers to be stilled by your eye
And body whiter than its frill of lilies:
They’d have had yellow silk screening the moon,
Leaves and lilies flattened to paper behind you
Or, at most, to a mille-fleurs tapestry. But the couch
Stood stubborn in its jungle: red against green,

Red against fifty variants of green,
The couch glared out at the prosaic eye.
So Rousseau, to explain why the red couch
Persisted in the picture with the lilies,
Tigers, snakes, and the snakecharmer and you,
And birds of paradise, and the round moon,

Described how you fell dreaming at full of moon
On a red velvet couch within your green–
Tessellated boudoir. Hearing flutes, you
Dreamed yourself away in the moon’s eye
To a beryl jungle, and dreamed that bright moon-lilies
Nodded their petaled heads around your couch.

And that, Rousseau told the critics, was why the couch
Accompanied you. So they nodded at the couch with the moon
And the snakecharmer’s song and the gigantic lilies,
Marvelingly numbered the many shades of green.
But to a friend, in private, Rousseau confessed his eye
So possessed by the glowing red of the couch which you,

Yadwigha, pose on, that he put you on the couch
TO feed his eye with red: such red! under the moon,
In the midst of all that green and those great lilies!

I’ve written three that I’ve been posting the past few weeks:
“Sestina of a Poet”.

If you’ve never tried one of these forms, do. Why not? They can turn into a bit of a puzzle. Next week, I will dissect the sonnet and talk about rhyming. If you missed it, last week I highlighted the limerick and the haiku.

The Limerick and the Haiku: Odd Bedfellows

Happy National Poetry Month [NaPoMo]. Usually one doesn’t partner up the ribald, irreverent Irish ex-pat with the introspective, nature-loving Japanese native, but there you go. Done. I like these two little forms and would like to shine a little light on each.

The limerick, named after a city in Ireland, is a particularly bawdy poem consisting of 5 lines with a very tight rhyme and rhythmic scheme that has made its way to many a schoolyard playground. An original:

There once was a lady from Kerry
who fancied the gents that were hairy.
With the strands from her teeth,
she wove a grand wreath
to remember the times that were merry.

This particular limerick, which I wrote years ago, shows not only the AABBA rhyme scheme, but also the common opening line pattern of There once was a [noun] from [place] that opens many of the ones I heard as a kid. One could also almost imply a subtle sexually suggestive nature to this verse, too. Which if it exists, would be true to form. The rhythm of the limerick is also important, leaning into the accented syllables of English. The “A” lines [1st, 2nd and 5th] not only rhyme, but have three feet of anapests [ta-ta-TUM], though they can often take on an amphibrachic sound [ta-TUM-ta]. The “B” lines have 2 feet of anapests (or amphibrachs). In this example, the first line is perfectly amphibrachic: there ONCE was / a LA-dy / from KER-ry. So, is the second line. The third line is perfectly anapestic: with the STRANDS / from her TEETH. But then again, limericks are hardly fodder for scholarly analysis so I’m moving on to the Haiku.

The haiku has been co-opted into English from Japanese tradition to much ruffling of feathers and chest-thumping. Some claim that this Japanese form can never be done justice in English due to the very different roots and history of the languages. I don’t hold as extreme a view, but I do think more needs to be present in anything called a haiku than 17 syllables spread over 3 lines in a 5-7-5 pattern. It is more than that. Common, but not definitive, is the subject of the haiku being nature or an observed object. The defining quality of the haiku, more so than even the 17 syllables, is the juxtaposition of two ideas, or objects, or moments and how they brush up against each other. This moment of tension often happens in the second line. It is this philosophical, or meditative moment of juxtaposition that is so often missing in haikus-that-are-not-really-haikus. Counting to 17 does not make a haiku, the juxtaposition of two elements that interact at their meeting may, even without three lines or 17 syllables.

To keep royalty costs down, I’ll insert more original examples. My poem “Verses on a Common Theme” consists of six verses which I do not call haikus, but they are modeled after the form. An excerpt:

Walls of wet ivy
ripple, eroding red brick
with nimble tendrils.

Yes, the line count and syllable count are here. It even looks at observable nature. The key element is where the word eroding darkens the poem and acknowledges a slow, destructive hidden force that is obscured by the first element. It can be an irony, or a twist of agency. Either way, this is the poetic element often overlooked that leads to sneering.

If you’ve read this far–please, feel free to post an original limerick or haiku in the comments below. Or meld the two and see what bawdy offspring you can come up with:

White, torn wifebeater
corner-tossed; man-scent airing

[Yes, I wrote that, too. In my poor 20s, I’d calligraphy that on a ribbed, tank undershirt [wifebeater] and give it to gay friends on their birthday to wear out to a club. Nothing says “fun and desperate” like a shirt begging you to rip it off.]

Next week I’ll tackle the sestina [my favorite] and the villanelle [here]. The week after that, I’ll resuscitate the sonnet and talk about rhyming. Enjoy your Month of Poetry.