WRITING THE SONNET

writing the sonnetIntroduction

Sonnets are not difficult to write, and poets traditionally dashed one off before breakfast every morning just to limber up. But correctness has little value in the arts, and good sonnets — exactly phrased and deeply moving — need more than three adequate quatrains and rhyming couplet.

The verse has to hold together, and those textural devices also allow the form to be pushed in new directions.

Starting: The Jubilee

I shan't lay out the steps of writing this and the following pieces — there's enough elsewhere of your author blundering into competence — but would draw attention to the textural devices and the needs they serve:

The Jubilee

It rained the day that we commemorate
Somewhat unwillingly this wet June day.
Cold for the young queen then; her ride in state
Diademed a darkened Europe. "We pray

For peace among our peoples. . . as we have sinned
Against our neighbour . . . " Such pieties were tossed
Into the dark grey sky above, and that keen wind
Makes us contemporary to a world whose cost

Was not for us to sense. It's hard for us
Who interceded things thought for the best,
Cooperated, were not covetous,
To altogether feel we have progressed.

We push the kiddie to the launderette;
Watch rain fill up the wobbles in the wet.

A fairly dense but quiet use of sound patterning, with internal rhyme and a caesura marking the change in rhythm after unwillingly:

It rained the day that we commemorate
Somewhat unwillingly | this wet June day.

Sound repetition can be far-spaced, or close, depending on the work it has to do (in British, not American pronunciation):

                               were tossed
Into the dark grey sky above, and that keen wind
Made us contemporary to a world whose cost

Was not for us to sense. It's hard for us
Who interceded things thought for the best,
Cooperated, were not covetous,

And so on. Many more will be obvious, but not so much as here:

On a Photograph by Sarah Moon

The girl, clothing by a casement window, holds
It. Click. The lens collects the light that bathes
Her limbs so splendidly in blazing golds.
Who knows what blemishes the sunlight swathes

In bars of brightness or of shade? Who cares?
We see too little, there's no privacy,
Are matters agent with the contract squares.
For us the camera's clouding alchemy

Transmutes to generic a jaded view
Of breasts and bodies and dark hair. And yet
How artfully beguiling is this ingenue,
How beautiful in truth. Curious, isn't it, that

More than a girl's fastidiousness in make-
Up is the magic of this colour plate?

Why should we want anything so bombastic? I'd offer two reasons:

1. To vary the pace. The short fragments of the opening lines broaden into the long rhythms of:

For us the camera's clouding alchemy

Transmutes to generic a jaded view
Of breasts and bodies and dark hair. And yet
How artfully beguiling is this ingenue,
How beautiful in truth.

and conclude in the hurried:

Curious, isn't it, that

More than a girl's fastidiousness in make-
Up is the magic of this colour plate?

2. The dense sound patterning of, and centrally placed caesurae:

More than a girl's | fastidiousness in make-
Up is the magic | of this colour plate?

sounds highly artificial, as indeed is the carefully controlled eroticism of Sarah Moon's work.

Dartmoor

Sonnets are formal pieces, perhaps too formal for today's society. What can we do to make them sound more contemporary, closer to the reigning orthodoxy of free verse? One approach is to clip the syllables, as we did with the Li Bai translation:

Dartmoor

Talk, turn up the radio as you pass
Uplands of heathery, half-stifled screams.
Sun blushes into the wayside grass;
Pebbles flit quietly in the headlong streams.

In none of them, mysteries — not in traces
Of sheep's wool on wire, in rabbit's bones.
Not even in winds, though their eddies turn faces
Inward at encampments and in standing stones.

The heather roots thickly. The rivulet fills
Eventually the pools now as black as jet.
Spattering the blue a hawk swoops and spills.
Incessantly, the birdsongs chip at granite.

Shadows of clouds graze the far hills whence
Comes a patterning of white, pure white on the silence.

In strict iambic, the opening lines would run:

Now listen to the radio as you pass
The uplands of heathery, half-stifled screams.
The sun is blushing in the wayside grass;
And quietly pebbles flit in headlong streams.

Correct, but intolerably boring. The menace disappears, and we could achieve none of the necessary phrasing in such flat-footed lines. None of this:

1. Opening spondees:

Tálk, tùrn úp the dio ás you páss

Sún blúshes íntò the wáyside gráss;

2. Trochaic inversion:

Spattering the blue | a hawk swoops and spills.

Inward at encampments and in standing stones.

3. A varying or wavering stress pattern:

Shadows of clouds | graze the far hills | whence
Comes a patterning of white | pure white | on the silence.

4. Sound patterning:

Uplands of heathery, half-stifled screams.
Sun blushes into the wayside grass;

Inward at encampments and in standing stones.

The heather roots thickly. The rivulet fills

5. Parallelism:

In none of them, mysteries — not in traces
Of sheep's wool on wire, in rabbit's bones.
Not even in winds, though their eddies turn faces

6. Masculine/feminine rhyme:

Shadows of clouds graze the far hills whence
Comes a patterning of white, pure white on the silence.

Warwick Castle

And a second approach is to use pararhyme rather than strict rhyme. The syllables can again be clipped, but the sense is more conveyed by images:

Warwick Castle

Heavy the smell of river, the prevailing seasons
Of drift and of rottenness, a running on.
Weaker than sun through a stilled translucence
Of water, the Renaissance here was thinly-borne.

Opening from their calyxes the swans preen
Improbably on the water and dissolve.
The gunmetal colours are flurried, levelled; soon
There is nothing but stillness where moorhens delve.

All this was Offa's, Warwick's, the middle kingdom:
Land of fat willows, slow streams, unaccountable crops.
Dowager, the river gathers its itinerants in,
No archers but clouds on the embattled steps.

A dream, just a dream, with no more semblance
To Italy than willows on the water's blaze.

The sonnet form has almost disappeared: the lines end in a faint echo of rhyme, and the phrasing runs against the stanza pattern.

Heavy the smell of river | the prevailing seasons a
Of drift and of rottenness |a running on. || b
Weaker than sun through the stilled translucence a
Of water | the Renaissance here was thinly-born. b

Opening from their calyxes the swans preen c
Improbably on the water and dissolve. | d
The gunmetal colours are flurried | levelled | soon c
There is nothing but stillness | where moorhens delve.|| d

All this was Offa's |Warwick's |the middle kingdom: | e
Land of fat willows | slow streams |unaccountable crops. || f
Dowager | the river gathers its itinerants in | e
No archers but clouds on the embattled steps. || f

A dream | just a dream |with no more semblance g
To Italy than willows on the water's blaze. || g

 

The second poem is published in free pdf form by Ocaso Press.

A 568-page free pdf ebook on practical verse writing is available from Ocaso Press. Click here for the download page.

 

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