During the last ever reading window, there were many sonnets. This form (unlike the villanelle) is close to my heart, so sending some to me ought theoretically to be a good thing. But I’ve been thinking about sonnets for more than half a century (because I am OLD) and of course I’ve written them (or attempted to) at intervals. So I may be harder on them than anybody else.

A few centuries ago, when sonnets first became popular in courtly circles, the formal rules were clear enough, though even then not fixed. In the sonnets I most love, which include Shakespeare (of course) and Wyatt and Sydney, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Edna St Vincent Millay, Elinor Wylie and Eleanor Farjeon, it’s the tension between constraint and experiment that gives me pleasure. I love this particular way of tying up human consciousness in an electric box.

So I thought I might explain — as much for myself as anybody else — how I read a poem that looks like it might be a sonnet. Is it a sonnet or isn’t it? And what difference does it make what you call it?

If the poem looks sonnet-ish (size and shape) my mental checklist pops up. If more than one box is ticked, I figure the poem could be thinking of itself as a sonnet. Before anybody gets aerated, I’m not suggesting any of these characteristics are essential. Only that they are to me the most obvious indicators, based on the English sonnet tradition.

Sonnet indicators

  1. Calls itself ‘sonnet’
  2. 14 lines
  3. Metrical pattern: most likely iambic pentameter
  4. Lines of 10-11 syllables
  5. Shape — an oblong box, perhaps with a gap just below the middle.
  6. Lines of irregular metre but five strongly stressed syllables in each line
  7. Lines of regular length, syllabically or metrically
  8. A structured rhyme scheme
  9. An argument: opens with proposition, shifts to resolution
  10. A ‘volta’ (or turn in the argument/thought) at or about the ninth line
  11. An 8-line + 6-line structure (octet and sestet) (marked by stanzas or rhyme scheme or ‘turn’)
  12. A rhyming couplet at the end
  13. A structural pattern created by line-end words (hard to define: may not be rhyme so much as deliberate similarity)
  14. High level of compression/intensity focussed round a single idea

If the poem doesn’t have 14 lines but does have a clear ‘turn’ about two thirds of the way through, it may well be thinking of itself in sonnet terms. George Meredith’s sonnets in Modern Love (which was modern in 1862) had 16 lines each.

And if the poem has 14 lines and one (at least) of the first four is in regular iambic pentameter, it certainly suggests something. (Contemporary sonnets with no regular metre will often have at least one such line.)

But if it’s in seven two-line stanzas with no ‘turn’, no rhyme, uneven line lengths, and no metrical pattern, I will wonder whether the term ‘sonnet’ is relevant.

On the other hand, if it’s in seven two-line stanzas rhyming abba abba cdcdcd, I will think SONNET.

If it’s in seven unrhymed, two-line stanzas of loose iambic pentameter, I will feel it’s going sonnet-wards.

None of this is about being right or definitive or exclusive. It’s personal. I am just trying to explain, as a practising poet and poetry reader, my thinking.

Suppose the poem calls itself: ‘Sonnet for Eliza’. Eliza’s sonnet has fourteen lines of irregular length, no metrical pattern, no rhyme or sound structure that I can detect, and apparently no ‘volta’ or any of the other features on my list. I might, therefore, assume the poet is offering it as a ‘free verse sonnet’. But I find that term a bit of an oxymoron and, to be honest, I’m not convinced a free verse sonnet is something to aspire to. This is not a criticism of the poem as a poem.

However, everything that calls itself ‘poem’ stands in some relationship to whatever else is called ‘poem’, just as all visual art asserts itself in relation to a culture and tradition of visual practice. So any poem that calls itself ‘sonnet’ has a relationship to the sonnet tradition. Being aware of that tradition can give added aesthetic pleasure (in the same way that sampling a good malt whisky is enhanced by intimate and informed acquaintance with other quality malts).

Sometimes the relationship between a poem and its traditions is defined simply by doing none of what might be expected. So there’s some mileage (though it is hardly novel) in calling something ‘sonnet’ when it conforms to nobody’s expectations of that form. The most extreme example of this may be Don Paterson’s ‘The Version’, a prose piece with a volta (a kind of joke about a sonnet that vanished) extending over three pages in a book titled 40 Sonnets.

When it comes to learning sonnets by heart (I recommend this to anyone trying to write them), a structured sonnet is the most pleasurable kind. Getting it by heart allows you inside the mind of the poem and therefore the poet. If the sonnet isn’t beautifully constructed, you’re unlikely to get far. If the manufacture is high-quality and durable, each and every phrase will seem inevitable and, at the same time, surprising.

You might start with some of the HappenStance sonnet cards. Each contains a sonnet I recommend, and we produce new ones regularly. I apologise if one of them turns out to be by me. You’ll find these in the HappenStance web-shop

If you learn any one of them by heart, they’ll last a lifetime — which is more than you can say for Glenfiddich.

5 thoughts on “SONNET OR NONNET?”

  1. Not so far as I know, Jim. Though there have been many sonnets written in Scots.

  2. Thanks for this Nell. I love the form but I think it is a very greedy one. By which I mean, there are times when I everything I write seems to want to turn into a sonnet. Or, rather, I catch myself turrning everything into sonnets, which is different. Partly this is just because I do love them and read a lot of them. I wonder whether it isn’t also something to do with the fact that I am often very self-conscious about writing formally (I doubt I’m alone), and sonnets, for all their formalness, are one of the few forms which are so established, and yet so flexible, that they don’t seem to need an excuse. They’ve survived free verse, in part by adapting, like you say, so that they don’t demand rhymes, or turns, or even pentameter. I’m thinking of Lowell in particular, who I also love. So, given I mostly write in a sort of metre, the temptetion to hide behind a sonnet is very strong. I have more thoughts – about turns (I don’t think I use them, but then I look back and often one has appeared), about how sonnets are good at capturing day-to-day life (something to do with perspective), and about poems which tick many of the sonnet boxes, but aren’t spiritually sonnets (in my opinion), like Frost’s ‘Acquainted With the Night’, but this comment is already far more than fourteen lines long!

  3. I suppose I must have written 100 sonnets in my 75 years. I still find them invaluable to anchor chaotic emotion but also as birthday gifts ‘poems are cheaper than flowers’ or at least verse is. Shakespeare’s sonnets have the intimacy of a one to one close up conversation. When I did workshops on screen acting at a Drama School, where each student had to pick a Shakespeare sonnet to own over their three years, I used these to introduce them to the beauty and terror of filming by getting them to confess their 14 lines to the camera, filming themselves as if alone. After that everything else was easy.

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