Minneapolis Convention Center | April 10, 2015

Episode 111: The Sonnet: Not Just for Men in Tights

(Maryann Corbett, Allison Joseph, Marilyn Nelson, Nasir Sakandar) Contemporary sonnet is not a contradiction in terms. This timeless and versatile form can single handedly deliver your creative writing workshop, literature classroom, or even your composition classroom from villainous mindsets like narcissism, nihilism, and flabby writing. Our panelists, who are writers, teachers, and admirers of the sonnet old and new, will share strategies and insights so you can harness its superpowers to help your students.

Published Date: January 20, 2016


Speaker 1 (00:00:04):

Welcome to the A W P podcast series. This event was recorded at the 2015 A W P conference in Minneapolis. The recording features Marianne Corbett, Alison Joseph, Marilyn Nelson, and Nassir der. You will now hear Marianne Corbett provide introductions

Speaker 2 (00:00:33):

As it is 10 30 as people find their places here. I'd like to welcome you all and thank you very much for being here. I know there's a lot of competition for your time and attention here this morning. I'm Marianne Corbett, your standin moderator for our panel this morning. I'm standing in of course for Anna Evans, who is the mother of this panel, writer of many sonnets, champion of the sonnet editor of Rain Town Review, former editor of the Barefoot Muse and now Barefoot Muse Press, and a frequent finalist for the Nimeroff Sauna Award. Now, as some of you know, in life's usual way of interfering with our best laid plans, Anna's mother became critically ill about a month ago and Anna flew back to England to be at her side. Anna's mother passed away last Sunday and she can't be with us, although she can't be here.

Speaker 2 (00:01:44):

She's sent me a sonnet about her mother and I can't think of a more ideal introduction to our proceedings today. I'd like to read you my mother's last texts, my mother stoic alum from the kind of British boarding school that gave Jane Air. Her pluck was not a woman you would find warmhearted in my childhood. Hugs were rare and smiles a thing that needed to be earned and a perhaps some chores willingly done a page of French vocabulary, learned a good woman, my mother, but not fun. And so it was alarming when I scrolled that page of texts all smileys in a long unbroken string, some small, some large, all bold eyewitnesses to something badly wrong. Yet in those smiles, I also choose to see the final message that she meant for me. So with that, I'm going to turn it over to our panelists this morning, Alison Joseph Nasir, candor, Marilyn Nelson and me. Each of us is going to hold forth on our favorite aspects of the sonnet and the place of sonnets in poetry today for about 15 minutes. And I'm going to try to keep us in line and somebody else will have to keep me in line. And finally, we'll open the floor to your questions.

Speaker 2 (00:03:54):

Our first speaker today is Alison Joseph.

Speaker 3 (00:03:58):

Hello everyone.

Speaker 4 (00:04:02):

Hi. Can you hear me without this all up in my face

Speaker 3 (00:04:07):


Speaker 4 (00:04:08):

Okay, good. The title of my talk today, and I'm going to be invoking the spirit of Anna a lot because she's very much involved in what I'm going to talk about. But the title of my talk is Female Friendship, the Sonnet and Pedagogy, or How Two Women Learn to Love the Sonnet and Each Other. I first met Anna at the Westchester Form Narrative Conference. She asked me to be on a panel about placing formal poems in non-formal journals. I'm one of the editors of Crab Orchard Review. We're in the book Fair, go by, get a free copy, and I was delighted to be on the panel, but I was dismayed when I got to Westchester and saw that the panel's title had something about the ghettoization of formal poetry in today's literary journals or something like that. Anna's always scheming. She's always coming up with something and I tore her a new one. I said, being the only African-American person on the panel, I said, you cannot use that. You cannot go there. And she thought, oh my God, what did I do? I made a black woman mad.

Speaker 4 (00:05:22):

But as is the case at many of the conferences that we writers go to, you spend a lot of time, you spend a lot of time eating, you spend a lot of time drinking wine. You spend a lot of time in the lobby bar and we got to know one another. And that initial hesitation, that initial frustration on my part, gave way to an abiding friendship. It wasn't a good beginning though. The friendship continued when we both found ourselves. Marianne Corbett mentioned the Howard Nero Sonnet Award. I don't know if you're aware of this award formerly given by the Formalist magazine and now given by its successor measure, but every person who writes sonnets in America wants to win this prize. I want to win it. I've been like a finalist so many times. I just want that a thousand dollars check for 14 lines.

Speaker 4 (00:06:15):

You do the math, you figure out how much that is per line. We noticed we were both finalists and we started to joke about having t-shirts made like bridesmaids of Nimeroff just becoming our own troop, bemoaning that status. And I was really thrilled when not too long afterwards, Anna sent me an email about her new manuscript, which is called Sisters and Courtesans, and it's a book now. It was published by White Violet Press and I was flattered. I'm not one of those people who sees doing blurbs as an imposition unless I really don't care for your work. But if I do, I'm all about it. I'm like, I will write you some artful, elegant sentences that will make people at least turn over the back of your book. And she chose me to blurb her manuscript sisters and Corson. And if you're familiar with this book, it is a series of sonnets in persona and some of the sonnets are the sisters, meaning the nuns and some of the courtesans meaning the whores.

Speaker 4 (00:07:21):

Yes, the whores. So I thought, okay, I'll take a look. I will spend some time with these whores and these nuns. And I opened up the book at the time I was also, and if you teach formal poetry, you will delight in the best of the Barefoot Muse. Marianne also mentioned Bare Barefoot Muse and Barefoot Muse Press. This is an anthology of what came out in the magazine, barefoot Muse. And these are contemporary poems in form. And I was teaching an undergraduate form class at the time, and I had jettisoned the anthology that I had been using for the class for years and moved on to using this because number one, it's cheap and number two, people who are living and breathing in the book. I thought my students would be impressed by that and they were. So Anna chose me to be one of the blurber for the manuscript. And as soon as she sent me the manuscript, the teacher in me, the person who's interested in how you teach received forms, how do you make received forms more accessible to students who are afraid and can only think of a sonnet In terms of Shakespeare, we love some Shakespeare, but for a lot of the students that I deal with, they can even conceive of writing anything similar. So I thought my students like sex.

Speaker 4 (00:08:47):

So I immediately wrote Anna back and said, oh, can I teach from these? Because the poems do two things. They make voice a priority. Since they're persona poems, some of the titles of the poems are my life as the woman at the well. My life as a camp follower, my life as a hand dynasty concubine my life as a temple prostitute. You get the idea that she's exploring the dichotomy between Madonna and whore using the sonnet form where they part and where they come together. So I immediately wrote her and said, can I teach these? And her response was, well, yes mind. And I'm trying to do her British accent mind. I love it. They were huge fun and intended for a non-academic audience, which of course is why they've been rejected by most of the literary journals I sent them to. And she asked me, which ones are you going to use?

Speaker 4 (00:09:47):

And I'm going to read two of the three that I chose to use for my students. And in terms of this dichotomy between literary and non-literary, they are very accessible. The rhyme schemes are there, but they're not setting. They make sense. So they were perfect for me to teach undergraduates who are afraid of rhyme and when they think of sonnets they think, oh my God, I have to rhyme. And if you teach undergraduates, one of the problems they have is either rhyme is very clunky to them or rhyme is all they can do. So these poems helped me to get across. Don't be afraid of rhyme, don't be afraid of subject matter that's controversial. Okay, this is my life as the woman at the well. I always went for water when the sun was at its height. I didn't want to see the other township women who would shun my friendship while they whispered next to me.

Speaker 4 (00:10:42):

I had outlived five husbands when the last one died. No one would marry me for fear, but Jesus didn't care about my past, my origins. He simply said, come here and asked for water. I drew him a cup and then he told me, Lord God had forgiven all my sins that I would be drawn up if I believed and lived well into heaven. Though I'm not sure if all of that is true, at least I get respect now, which will do. So I chose that one because I figured my students at least knew who Jesus was and knew that story. But also the titillating ones were the poems and the voices of prostitutes or whores or courtesans, and they know what that is. This is the other one. I chose to read my life as an honest esson in Venice. I must confess that I can barely walk in these new shoes.

Speaker 4 (00:11:51):

The platforms are high advancing regally. I pause to talk unrest when an acquaintance passes by these split brocade sleeves force me to hold my arms spread out as if I mean to fly. My heavy pendant heart is solid gold. I hope it's the epitome of class for that's the point of all this. So I'm told I may be vu, but I can pass. Don't ever dare to lump me in with whores with their thin skirts and ornaments of brass. And as for those new sumptuary laws, I am exempted by a special clause. So these were very teachable. They were very accessible to my students. They gave them food for thought, freed them from the notion that sonnets had to be only love poems. That was a notion that a lot of my students had that if you were writing a sonnet you had to be depressed or sad or you had to write about love lost.

Speaker 4 (00:13:00):

And certainly that's part of the sonnet territory. But the fact that they could invent a character and become that character and describe that character's life in 14 lines was a real appealing thing to me as a professor. I myself have written so many sonnets and having someone like Anna who is a huge advocate for their use among contemporary writers was really a thrill. Our relationship became one that I came to really treasure, and when she asked me to be on this panel, I was touched because I consider myself a poet. I love writing formal poetry. I love writing free verse. I don't partake in those political arguments that one is better than the other. I think all of the forms that we have inherited as human beings are great to practice. Some of them I'm not particularly good at. I do not have the haiku mind, but what Anna and I share as poets is this idea that the sonic can be used as a snapshot out of one's life.

Speaker 4 (00:14:11):

In my last book, my Father's Kites, I have a sonic sequence for my own father and I wanted to read just one of those to close because since Anna has lost her mother, I feel another kinship with her. The loss of a parent and the sonnets in my father's kites are all about the loss of my own father. So I wanted to close by reading one of those and throughout the book I talk about my father as kind of being a schemer. I grew up in the Bronx, New York, and one of the about growing up in an urban setting is people sell you things out of the backs of cars. And my dad was one of those people who would buy things out of the backs of cars. What the I beholds, I find your camera a knockoff brand called Nikon. You bought Hot off the street. There's film in it. A role made bittersweet by knowing that your death swift and unplanned assures me, I will never understand your life. It's so elusive, incomplete, and I can't help but feel I'm obsolete. Our bond has disappeared. Like slight of hand, the camera's photos show another life, a birthday party for a new girlfriend. Her children gathered close to celebrate. Was this the one you loved? Just like a wife, I put the pictures down and can't pretend to know my father's worlds. His loves, his hates. Thank you very much.

Speaker 5 (00:16:14):

That was very lovely. Many of you are perhaps wondering when I have wondered my entire life, who is this guy? I am very thankful and grateful for Anna for inviting me to be on this panel and with these wonderful writers. So I'm perhaps a bit of an oddball. So here it goes. I do have the graduate degree, m f a, university of Minnesota. I have wonderful poetry friends and I write poetry. And I'm an educator. I get to teach classes sometimes, but I'm one of those weird people that loves math or loved math as a child. So I work in the civil engineering industry currently. That's how everything gets paid usually. So I'm a very technical person and before I read some sonnets that I really do admire, again, I wanted to thank Anna. Her work has inspired me as well as the work of the panelists.

Speaker 5 (00:17:10):

Here I want to talk about constraint really quick. The infrastructure of the poem, the sonnet. When I first started writing poetry in high school, I was very concerned about this idea of constraint. I thought poetry was immediately what I felt and my emotions. This is what's happening, I want to write it down. And then as I started to write, I realized that quality aside, I wasn't actually conveying what I was my feeling. And so I was introduced to the sonnet in a very weird way. I was introduced to it in the way I understand most things, in a formula, in a math formula, which for me was, alright, there's a solution. The solution has to be there, there's a problem. And then I realized it was limitless. Working within those constraints are limitless. So in the industry that I currently work in, we deal with a lot of constraints and it's so interesting how much the sonnet and formal poetry comes in to conversations with senior engineers about either a structure or a highway working within those constraints. How do you deliver something that is able to be limitless and to whom sees it? And so that's something I want to talk about. And when I teach the sonnet to students, they're always hesitant and I realized that most of my students probably never liked math, so I can't do the math formula with them. I remember once my students didn't turn in an assignment and I'm like, well, we're going to do math quizzes on blank verse, and they were just like, no, we'll turn it in next time, I promise.

Speaker 5 (00:18:54):

But when I introduce it to them, I want them to think of how limitless a constraint can be at times the boundlessness within constraint and the sonnet, which provides so many opportunities, not only the tradition of our language, but also in the extent to which it can. So I will be reading three sonnets. This is from Anne Carson, someone that I think is a wonderful writer and she's actually reading right now that one does not consider to write sonnets, but she did write one that I really do enjoy. It's called Sonnet Isolate, and this opens with a quote. I force myself to contradict myself in order to avoid confirming to my own taste by Marcel Dcha. A sonnet is a rectangle upon the page. Your eye enjoys it In a ratio of eight to five, let's say you're an urgent man in an urgent language, construing the millions of shadows that keep you alive.

Speaker 5 (00:20:00):

If only it were water or innocent or a hawk from a handsaw, if only you were Adonis or Marcel chump settling in it to your half hour of sex or chest, not this raw block cutout of the fog of meeting still damp, but no, you are alone. Whatever idea here rises from its knees to turn and face you quicker than a kiss or a hyphen or the very moment he felt the breeze of being a creature who will die one day, not this who will ask of you most of your cunning in a deep blue release like a sigh while using only two pronouns, I and not I. The next is sonnet by Robert Haas, A man talking to his ex-wife on the phone. He has loved her voice and listens with attention to every modulation of its tone, knowing intimately, not knowing what he wants from the sound of it, from the tendered civility, he studies out the window, the seed shapes of the broken pods of ornamental trees, the kind that grow in everyone's garden that no one but horticulturists can name four arched chambers of pale green, tiny vegetable prone arches, a pair of black tapering seeds bedded in each chamber, A wished geometry, miniature Indian or Persian lovers or gods in their apartments outside white patient animals entangled vines and rain.

Speaker 5 (00:21:35):

And finally, a poem by Ken Fields who teaches at the Stegner Fellowship. Well, the Stegner, I dunno what it's Stegner program. He's a wonderful writer right now it's 19 years today since he last held a drink in his hand or held his breath while smoke filled as much of him as he could stand till letting it out, he sought oblivion of the trace of memory or anticipation and his life fell into a death spiral. Since then, he's been around folks like him when he's been asked and sometimes eager when he hasn't been, he talks to the ones who aren't even sure they want to learn how to stop killing themselves. That feeling still seems close to him some days right now he's okay and that's enough right now. Thank you.

Speaker 2 (00:22:37):

You remember my name? I'm Maryanne Corbett and I'm going to talk about ways to make the sonnet new and all this is about the legal size handout that I hope most of you have. And if you don't, I hope you can get into a position where you can share.

Speaker 2 (00:22:59):

So the first question we have to ask is what do I mean by new for readers, especially student readers who've been exposed to nothing but free verse, the most traditional of sonet forms might be truly new and the effects we can get from tight Iam ic pentameter in 14 lines with a clear octet and a clear stet and a turn in between them might be a real revelation, but perhaps you have to deal with an audience that assumes as many do that the sonic form is constricting, that it hobbles freedom, that it's anti-modern, that it's politically reactionary, even that it's anti-feminist. Now I ask you, look at this panel, and if that's true, then my job is to show you that a great many people, a lot of them in this audience by the way, have found ways to make those constraints fruitful and that those methods are available to you and your students.

Speaker 2 (00:24:19):

The essence of the first way, and this is practically a no-brainer, and you've been hearing it for two talks already, is that you deploy the sonnet on absolutely contemporary subjects using absolutely contemporary diction on totally immediate situations, which is what, for example, I've tried to do in my own sonnet, wading up, which I will take the liberty of reading to you, not home, not home yet 4:00 AM un not me God, whom I less than half believe my help damp down the pounding underneath my scalp, unhook the gut tight line of fear that's caught me listening for cars, oh me of little faith, they've seized their own lives, laughing, go to bed, and God, I hate her, hate the hag in my head, who mutters praying through her gritted teeth, make them come home, come home. God shutter up. Let me believe the thousand times they've come home safe will make the door. Click one more time and lock behind them. Free me from the trap of thinking your ideas of safe and home might not my God be anything like mine I.

Speaker 2 (00:26:13):

And to press the point about immediate situations, I'll read just a few lines from one of Mark Jarman's unholy sonnets. This has the epigraph, God is in the details, that statement by Albert Einstein, in which of these details does God in here, the woman's head in the boy's lap, his punctured lung, the place where she has bitten through her tongue, the drunks truck in three pieces, the drunks beer tossed from the cooler made to disappear the silk tree whose pink flowers overhung the roadside and dropped limp strings among the wreckage, the steering column like a spear.

Speaker 2 (00:27:15):

I urge you to look up the whole poem online. I think you'll agree that it's powerful, it's immediate, it's from life, it's vivid, it's direct. The little bibliography I've put together for you on one side of that handout includes a number of collections, including some by my fellow panelists that use the sonnet with that kind of vividness. No question. Finding that gripping subject is the biggest challenge we have in writing sonnets or any other poems. But once we've latched onto a subject, we may sometimes find that the sonnet form seems to fight it. I've listened to many discussions about the difficulty of in quotes here, finding a sonnet shaped idea, and this is where I come to the suggestions on the other side of my handout. There are many, many ways to tinker with the form to make it better fit the argument that you've got, or to give it a novel spin or a surreal feeling, or simply to give yourself more space to work in.

Speaker 2 (00:28:40):

I'm just going to focus on four elements that you can tinker with. You've got choices when it comes to rhyme scheme. You've got choices when it comes to meter. You can choose to do doubles and linkages and flip overs, and you can choose to do multiples of the form so you can tell a longer story. So let's talk first about rhyme schemes. You will know the Elizabethan or the Shakespearean on it with three quadrants in a closing couplet and you'll know the petro conson it with two qurans in envelope rhyme and then assessed it with three rhyme words. Both of those traditionally ask for a turn or volta after the first eight lines or octet and at the start of the last six or cesta. In practice though poets mess with those forms quite a lot. I certainly do. And some of the examples of messing with the position of the turn are very well known, like frosts acquainted with the knight.

Speaker 2 (00:29:49):

One of the tools for tinkering with the position of the turn is using some alternative sonnet form or rhyme scheme the way frost used Tema. That gives me an opening to talk about one of the lesser known schemes called the Stile sonnet, which is the invention of Felix Stile. I won't give you his bio, you can look that up, but he's only recently passed away. Take a look at the example on the reverse of your handout in the upper left, which is notes from Echo by am Juster. This particular Stephanie sonnet won the Howard Mirov Sonnet Award some years ago, and what you want to notice about it is the structure. It doesn't divide into two but into three. And the rules for the form say that there should be no enjambment between the parts, no sentence that hangs over from one segment to another.

Speaker 2 (00:30:57):

Let's look closely at the ends of the lines at the rhyme word pattern. Three, lines A, B, a, followed by a break. Then eight lines, B, C, C, D, B, B de followed by a break. Then three lines, f, e, f. So what is this good for? It's good for situations where the argument of your sonnet, your train of thought, breaks up in two places, has two turns rather than one or has a natural break later than line eight where the traditional form says it's supposed to be. And because it breaks up the usually expected A, B, a, b rhyme pattern at the beginning, that triggers in some readers that reaction, oh, this is a sonic. It might be good. The Stephanie Lane might for keeping some of those folks reading beyond the point where they might otherwise turn off and look for something else. There's another novel rhyme scheme I want to mention even though I didn't have room for it on the handout it's called, at least by some of us, the Hilbert Ian, solid sonnet because it was invented by Earnest Hilbert and to see some examples of it, I recommend you look at any of his books, 60 sonnets or all of you on the Good earth for a little taste of it.

Speaker 2 (00:32:33):

You can look up my review of 60 sonnets, which is online in the rattle collection. I'll just read you a little snippet from that review. The rhyme scheme is Interset, A, B, C, a, B, C, D, E, F d e F, Gigi. It's a form designed to gr against your expectations of quadrants or that four squareness that you expect to see in a sonnet. It cuts across that squared grain of some of the poems arguments too, since the rhymes are in threes. But the thoughts are in twos like this. This is called the fortunate ones. This poem, you will inherit large sums of money, but someone dear to you will have to die first. You will travel far and see the world and load yourself with debt. These things aren't free. You can relax now, you've been through the worst, but it consumed your youth and now you old. You almost don't notice the rhymes because they conflict so much with the pairing of the thoughts. Bucking our expectation of Qurans is one way of allowing rhyme to be present but not foregrounded, and it helps you get past the resistance of the students whom Allison mentioned, who are scared of rhyme.

Speaker 2 (00:34:17):

Another basic element you can mess with naturally is meter. And here I need to digress slightly. If you own and believe in Lewis Turko, the book of Forms, you might disagree that a sonnets meter can be messed with because Mr. Shiko says that if it isn't in I ambi pentameter, it's not a sonnet. And if your aim is to win sonet contests, perhaps you'll stick to his rules. But if your aim is to make the sonnet new, you'll try for example, teter sonnets like Wendy Divide lock's Snag or this very new invented form, which is in the lower left of your handout called a ssic sonnet invented as far as I know by Rachel Briggs and first published in a collection called Irresistible sonnets. If you're familiar with the SFI stanza, you'll see that the sic sonnet simply builds on that form. Its three SFI stanzas with that characteristic 11 syllable pattern and those short lines called ADONs plus a rhymed couplet in the same heyl at the end.

Speaker 2 (00:35:36):

So what be the advantages of this choice? It lets you place your turn either after line eight or after line 12, so that it gives you options in terms of rhyme. This particular example is pretty demanding, a, B, B, B, B, C, C, C, D, D, lots of mono rhyme. It's hard to do, but you might well do something different. You could use the Shakespearean rhyme pattern in this form. You could use three sets of envelope rhyme, either all the same or different. The main thing is to play with it and see what happens. Yet another trick that leans the sonnet in a contemporary direction is to use effects that veil the rhymes that make the rhyme scheme less obvious so that when readers finally do see it, it's a surprise. I hinted at this when I talked about messing with the rhyme scheme and talked about how the placement of the stanza rakes disguises rhyme patterns.

Speaker 2 (00:36:41):

And another major technique for veiling rhymes is heavy encampment. The continuation of the grammatical element from one line to the next as in, let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments. The average sonnet of the traditional sort has some lines, as you all know, that are end stopped and some that are unjammed and that gives you a variety that's pleasant, but it's quite possible to go on for a long stretches with jammed lines. And doing that has quite a specific result, which you can see in the example at the upper right of your handout, the sonnet by Tony Barn stone with the title that begins on a blow up bed. Take a look at the first few lines and look at the line ends. You'll see that he goes on for eight lines before there's any sort of punctuation at the end of a line.

Speaker 2 (00:37:47):

And that has the important effect of creating suspense, of feeling desperate almost as we're forced to keep reading, keep reading, keep reading. We're only allowed to begin to rest at about line nine where we begin to see more end stopped lines and the poem quiets down and we hear the protagonist resign himself to the situation of having been kicked out of the house and simply admit, my life is hell. Since this sonnet is part of a collection that makes up the narrative of a broken marriage, the on rush of all those encampments is important to the mood at this particular point. While the rhyme schemes that make the poem a sonnet are much less important because that pattern has already been established by lots of other sonnets earlier in the story. Which brings me to the subject of telling stories in a sonnet, especially with pairings and groupings of sonnets.

Speaker 2 (00:38:57):

The pairings of the groups themselves of course are not new because people have been writing sonic crowns and sonnet sequences almost from the beginnings of the sonnet in English. But the kind of pairing that's really new is something called the mirrors on it, in which there are two sets of 14 lines and the second uses the same lines as the first but in reverse order yet somehow still making basic sense. As far as I know, this was invented by Annabel Mosley and first used in her book The Clock of the Long. Now though it's been used by a number of other people since I have made and have with me copies of Annabel's poem. But the poem that you have on your handout at the bottom left is by Kim Bridgeford called Telling It and first published in the latest issue of the Rain Town Review.

Speaker 2 (00:40:05):

You want to notice that this is the absolute opposite of the technique in the barn stone sonnet we were just looking at. It's entirely ends, stopped with no encampments at all. When you get time to read it with concentration, I think you'll notice how surreal it is, how it uses all that repetition like a litany. I think you'll notice too the effect of the surprise of seeing how the lines unfold when it's in reverse and that the meaning shifts when the lines are in a different order. I don't know how other readers interpret this sonnet, but it makes me think of that horrific case of not too long ago in Cleveland, the one in which two girls were abducted and held for 10 years in captivity and a house and abused. It's a chilling poem as it evokes that whole situation. Quite a lot more could be said about storytelling with sonnets. And that brings me back to my bibliography where you'll find several collections that are narratives in verse, including as I said, some of the collections of my fellow panelists. And as we get into our question period later on, I hope we'll hear more about

Speaker 6 (00:41:32):

Those. Thank you.

Speaker 6 (00:41:47):

I think what I have to say is mostly to reiterate what my fellow panelists have been saying, that there has been for many decades, more than decades, hundreds of years, the sense that the sonnet exists as a law. That you look at a sonnet and say, no, no, that's wrong, that's not following the rules. And that sense of sonnet legislation is offputting for many readers and many more writers. Why should I try to do this if I have to follow the rules so closely? I'm going to talk a little bit about a course I've taught a couple of times in a non-traditional program at Wesleyan University for Adults Bachelor of Graduate Studies. So these students I've been working with are people who are not poets, they're just interested people who come with interest. And I've been offering a course called Pushing the Envelope Experiments in the sonnet. One of the first things I share with them from an essay by Stravinsky, the composition of music. Here, he's talking about the rules, the restrictions, the freedom one finds within restriction. So this is Stravinsky.

Speaker 6 (00:43:33):

The more art is controlled, limited, worked over, the more it is free. As for myself, I experience a sort of terror when at the moment of setting to work and finding myself before the infinitude of possibilities that present themselves, I have the feeling that everything is permissible to me. If everything is permissible to me, the best and the worst. If nothing offers me any resistance, then any effort is inconceivable and I cannot use anything as a basis. And consequently, every undertaking becomes futile. However, I shall not succumb, I shall overcome my terror and shall be by the thought that I have the seven notes of the scale and its chromatic intervals at my disposal that strong and weak accents are within my reach. And that in all of these, I possess solid and concrete elements, which offer me a field of experience just as vast as the upsetting and dizzy infinitude that had just frightened me.

Speaker 6 (00:45:02):

So for him, he says, again, my freedom thus consists in my moving about within the narrow frame that I have assigned myself. For each one of my undertakings, I shall go even farther. My freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful, the more narrowly I limit my field of action. And the more I surround myself with obstacles, whatever diminishes, constraint diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one's self of the chains that shackle the spirit. So giving people who are afraid of constraint and of writing within constraint, the fact that constraint can be freedom is a way of offering them, obviously offering them freedom. I had an experience once with a student who was trying to write about his sexual identity and having major problems with trying to write about this in poetry, and I suggested that he write sonnets.

Speaker 6 (00:46:26):

He wrote a sonnet sequence that enabled him to write about coming out and which won our university poetry prize very, they went on to become a saer, which is the next thing. The next thing I wanted to say is that the people I've worked with in the B g S program leave at the end of a 10 week session identifying themselves as saners. They become ERs. They become dedicated to the idea of exploring the form within these constraints, pushing the envelope. How can you push the envelope? I start the course by teaching them how to scan, how to write iam pentameter, how to avoid padding, which is I think one of the major problems with many beginning son tears as they add words to fit the meter, how to avoid that padding, how to use enjambment, and then how to rhyme. I think there's a major prejudice among contemporary poets against rhyme.

Speaker 6 (00:47:48):

I've talked to many people who when they notice a poem rhymes, they won't read any further. It's a rhyming poem. It's garbage. How to use rhyme, how to stretch the idea of rhyme. I myself use a rhyming dictionary and I ask my students to buy a rhyming dictionary, but I show them that you can use a rhyming dictionary not only for exact rhyme, but also for slant rhyme. You can use your dictionary and find many, many more options. And then beyond slant rhyme, I've been following some experiments made by William Meredith who's written a couple of sonnets that use mono rhyme all the way through. You don't even notice it because it's so cleverly done. The same word ending each line for 14 lines. Another thing Meredith does, I don't know if he had a name for it. I call it conceptual rhyme. Sometimes instead of rhyming, I rhyme or ear rhyme.

Speaker 6 (00:48:59):

He rhymes ideas. He will, instead of rhyming, one word will end with brother and the next one might end with sister so that they're related and the mind hears the echo, the relationship, but it's not a kind of rhyme that you're used to. I have a sonnet in which the rhymes are opposites of each other, non tart day, night and so on. And I think those satisfy our desire for echo without giving us the kind of rhymes that we're most familiar with. Other ways of pushing the envelope are the length of an iic line, moving from pentameter to teter, but really pushing the envelope. So Brad Light Hauser has a sonnet in which each line is a one syllable word. So it's 14 one syllable words. It's called Post cotes. Why do you sigh roar fall all for some drum come.

Speaker 6 (00:50:30):

So students really enjoy seeing how far we can push the envelope without losing the sense of the sonnet. And then what got me most interested in writing sonnets was something I read about the origin of the sonnet. Paul Oppenheimer, the Birth of the Modern Mind. He says that the petro sonnet came into existence as a way to replicate the proportions. The ratios of the golden mean. The same ratios that are used in Greek temples, the same ratios that you see in tornadoes. One of my b g s students who was a math teacher, gave me this poster of the Fibonacci sequence. I am not a mathematician, so I don't know if I can explain this suitably, but the ratio of the way the convolutions relate to each other, it is constant and it occurs in many, many forms in nature, in flowers, in the way trees grow the leaves.

Speaker 6 (00:51:58):

If you look up Fibonacci sequence, you'll find hundreds if not thousands of examples of this ratio, which is six to eight to 12. And again, my math teacher student did the math for me so I can read it to you a little bit. I love the idea of trying to write something that replicates the perfect proportions that we find in so many aspects of nature and in so much of what we find beautiful, a symmetrical human face can be broken down into the same sequence. The way the veins in leaves grow can be broken down into the same sequence. And apparently the Petros contemporaries were seeing this proportion and trying to convert it into language. He says the petrarchan sonnet, which is eight to six, is pretty close to the golden mean. But then you figured out a nine to six sonnet would be even closer.

Speaker 6 (00:53:19):

A 10 to six sonnet would be even closer. An eight to sonnet would be the closest of all. But in any case, the sequence, the ratio used in the Italian sonnet is very close to the golden mean Fibonacci sequence. And I just love the idea of trying to do this, trying to write something that is perfect and classic. My own experience of writing sonnets the most fulfilling sonnets. However, the most difficult have been sonnets in this form, in the patroon form, pushing the envelope, but staying with the eight six sequence, eight six ratio. I have one other sonnet I read you, the Brad Lighthouse one. I have another, I don't know if you've seen this, John Updyke sonnet. It's called Love sonnet. This pushes the envelope about as far as it's possible. I think it's called love sonnet. The first line is in love's rubber armor.

Speaker 6 (00:54:34):

I come to you and then the rest of the sonnet is a blank ending with B, a blank ending with, ooh, a blank ending with B, with a period and one with C, one with D, one with C. He's just graft out the rest of the sonnet without writing it. It's a perfect Shakespearean sonnet that pushes the envelope about as far as you can go, and I think that's what we're about. My end ended my course by asking how far we can push the sonnet without losing the definition of the sonet. What kind of further experiments can we make in the sonet? We can change the length of the lines. We can change the rhyme scheme. We could experiment with pushing the ratio. What is it? Modern love by modern love, classic Meredith. Okay, see, he changes the sonnet by adding two lines instead of 14, he writes 16 line sonnets.

Speaker 6 (00:55:49):

That again, is a way of, I don't know whether people call him sonnets, but it is, it's a way of pushing the envelope of the sonnet. For me, what I've been experimenting with most recently, Elizabeth Alexander and I collaborated on a collection of sonnets in which each of us, we were writing about a school and 18th century school in Connecticut, and I wrote sonnets using the rhyme scheme invented by Pushkin in Eugene. GaN and Elizabeth's sonnets are all different. And then she wrote an essay at the end of our book talking about the sonnet and the form of the sonnet and how it's possible to stay within the constraints of tradition or to push the envelope. Some of hers rhyme, some of them don't rhyme. What I'm interested in now is narrative sonnets, and I'd like to read a couple of my own totally egotistical, but nobody's mentioned Vikram Seth's book, A Golden Gate, which I think should be mentioned in this context because it's a whole novel written in sonnets.

Speaker 6 (00:57:13):

This is a young adult book that I wrote in collaboration with a friend Tanya Heman. It started with note that was given to me by a friend who's a stone mason in Connecticut. He found behind the bricks of a fireplace in a colonial house in Connecticut. He was working in it. He found a note behind a brick and our book for us. It began with this note, and then we invented a story around the note. I'll read the note first, May 22nd, 1795. I am writing in a dreadful fear that someone may see this. As soon as I have hidden this, it may be will pass. This a terrible thing to feel, and I hope no one may ever feel it. As I turned around a little while ago, I thought I saw the old man staring at me out of the dark. It was terrible to hear the old man scream.

Speaker 6 (00:58:25):

As I knocked him down. It seemed to me that I still hear him. Will he always haunt me? If anybody ever finds this, which I hope they never will, they know how terrible I feel. I have a Xerox copy of this note on the wall of my study. Tanya and I invented a colonial story to explain the existence of this note, and I'm just going to read one bit of it. Our way of working together. She's a novelist who writes for young adults. This was a young adult novel. It's called PBAs Song. I wrote sonnets to tell the story of an 18th century girl who was enslaved in Connecticut. She witnesses the murder that's described in this note that was found behind the fireplace brick. I wrote my sequence first about the life of this girl, girl, and then Tanya wrote a story around my sonnets about a contemporary girl who moves into this colonial house and who starts having seizures or visions in every room of the house in which she becomes a conscious and the sonnet appears.

Speaker 6 (01:00:01):

She sees the slave girl story unfold through the sonnets. I'm going to read three of these sonnets again. What I'm working with is the idea of narrative. This is a little, I don't know if it's called a cornet of sonnets. It's three linked sonnets. Maybe it's a tiara of sonnets. This is late in the story. There's an old man in the house who owns her and a younger man who's married to the daughter of the old man. And the young man is a wastrel and wants to sell their slave to pay off his debts. And he and the old man have a fight and he pushes the old man down the stairs and the old man and the young man, because the girl sees this, the younger man starts poisoning her. This is called corner closet. There are three of them. I won't read the numbers.

Speaker 6 (01:01:08):

I feel as though I have faded from chestnut brown to a sickly yellowish palor almost white. All of a sudden, practically overnight, sometimes the room seems to go upside down. Sometimes I must sit for a moment to catch my breath. Sometimes I fairly weep with a headache. Perhaps there's some medicine I could take. But I think Master John hopes for my death. No doctor has come. This afternoon I fell to my knees in here with an arm load of sheets. As I revived, I heard a furtive sound and saw master John at the fireplace looking around, removing a brick, holding a folded note, replacing the brick and tiptoeing into the hall, replacing the brick and tiptoeing into the hall. He quietly closed the door. I am alone. What can I do? How can I make a plan a way to live on? I have grown so ill.

Speaker 6 (01:02:18):

I feel the nearing of my journey's end. Help me point out that murderer, master John. So when he dies, his infamy may live on. That's all I ask of you and life, dear friend. Except for the Holy Bible, Jesus. And Lord, I cannot read. Someone must find that note yet. But for dark people, I saw on market days illiterate as I, who would believe a slave shall I die with huge truth throttled in my throat because I can only read five words? Because I can read only five poultry words. I must take master John's cruel secret to the grave with me, please, friend. If there's time in eternity for justice, this house is a place to start. For here was a great wrong done. I open the door, my eyes met Master Johns stifling a scream. I curtsied. Eyes lorded. Phyllis, you seem peaked child.

Speaker 6 (01:03:45):

Later, I'll bring you some more of that tonic. His mouth smiled. His eyes frowned. Yes, sir. I mumbled and pulled myself upstairs to my airless room. I fell on my narrow bed and lay weeping. Oh friend, I shall soon be dead cursed with a life in which nobody cares if I live or if I fade from chestnut brown. So what I've been working on lately is trying to push that envelope with narrative. This book, the Sonnets All Rhyme and are All Petro. My most recent book is a book of untrimmed sonnets, because I keep hearing it rhymes. I'm not interested. So I decided to go in that direction. But I think the sonnet is an infinity of possibilities offered to us and that we should explore the freedom of that narrow cell of the sonnet form. So that's all I have to say.

Speaker 2 (01:05:08):

You are all realizing that they want this room, so we must leave. Thank you for being here.

Speaker 7 (01:05:22):

Thank you for tuning into the A W P podcast series. For other podcasts. Please visit our website@www.awriter.org.


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