Issue Four

Summer 2012


Notes on the sonnet

William Carlos Williams supposedly called the sonnet a 'fascist' form, although I’ve not been able to track this statement down, so it may well be apocryphal. What he might have meant, had he said it, was perhaps along the lines of the sonnet being rule-bound, restrictive and culturally privileged in such a way that it traps poets into a particular way of writing, establishing itself as a benchmark for the pure and beautiful in poetry, especially the poetry of love.

I imagine the comforts of fascism include having someone else do your thinking for you and so being able to dispose of uncertainty.  I expect other authoritarian absolutisms offer similar escapism. So I’m sure that some sonneteers will feel that the rules of the sonnet give a regulation and traditional authority which readily make ‘good poems’ without the poet having to worry too much about what they’re actually doing. How well does iambic pentameter truly represent contemporary speech rhythms? Does the turn create a shift in attention that is actually meaningful in this poem? Do the words paired in the rhyming suggest any connection beyond their chime? We’ll generally not worry too much about such difficult poetic questions, if what we end up with has fourteen lines of ten syllables, a Shakespearian rhyme scheme and a change of tense or viewpoint in the ninth line.

But, as Cathy Shrank shows in her wonderfully erudite essay elsewhere in this issue of Antiphon, the rules of the sonnet are not rules, they’re conventions, semi-formalised in the late sixteenth century. All, therefore, testable. Breakable. And, as her essay also suggests, from the earliest those rules have often been reacted to or deviated from, especially in the sonnets posterity preserves as of particular interest.

In his introduction to the his edited collection, ‘101 Sonnets’, Don Paterson pretty much contradicts the ‘fascist’ position on sonnets, seeing them as open, variable and the quintessential expressions of imaginative thinking (in English, at any rate). For Paterson, the combination of a fourteen line chunk of thinking/feeling structured into a two part dialectic or dialogue represents a building-block of experience, articulated in a way which is natural, intuitive, with a clear internal logic but also infinitely flexible. Following the rules is no guarantee of worth, so there are no fixed rules which must be followed to yield something which might legitimately be called a sonnet. Here’s what Paterson says:

The truth, these days at least, is that the sonnet is pretty much in the eye of the beholder. The form has diversified to the point where its definitive boundaries are so blurred that it has effectively ceased to exist. All we can say with any certainty is that sonnets often demonstrate certain characteristics. But these characteristics are frequently described as if they were laws...

(Don Paterson: ‘Introduction’, 101 Sonnets, Faber and Faber, 1999)

This seems little different from the situation Shrank describes prior to Gascoigne in the 1500s. Paterson’s sonnet anthology  in its variety in many ways confirms the similarities. Perhaps nothing has changed. Perhaps it doesn’t matter one way or the other. What we are interested in is good poetry, not definitions and rules. And if good poetry comes from a set of mutually reinforcing possibilities which, taken together, typically yield something sonnet-like (a poetry paragraph, a clearly colonised dark patch on the centre of the white page), that’s fine.

In this issue of Antiphon we’ve aimed to represent both more restrictive and more open senses of what a sonnet can be. We’ve only taken poems that we like, of course, poems that we feel work well and effectively. So we’ve  not taken some looser sonnets which have pushed the boundaries but which we’ve felt were doing nothing more than that, not working as effective poems in their own right. Where, for example, instead of using the traditional characteristics of the sonnet, something new was done – but nothing interesting was then done with the novelty.

Formally, therefore, most of the sonnets we have on offer are quite conservative and would be pretty much recognisable to George Gascoigne as such. However, Gascoigne would perhaps be surprised by some of the sonnets here, such as the sonnet in a single sentence or the sonnet built on an inverted rhyme scheme. Phonic effects are one of the things we like to admire in the poetry we choose for Antiphon, and there are certainly some excellent examples here. My personal favourites include rhymes on déjà vu, tum te tum and halitosis, though possibly some of the most interesting sonnets among those we’ve selected either ignore rhyme or use it in the most elusive of senses, barely an echo of consonance.

You’ll find scattered in the pages of this issue very few sonnets that are love poems, even with a wide understanding of what love might be. Those of James Nicola and Carol A. Taylor are perhaps the most conventional in this respect. Nicola’s uses a sustained analogy very much in the sixteenth century mode, though with a very contemporary voice. Taylor’s seems to hearken to a more romantic tradition. Catherine Chandler’s sonnet describes love of another kind, though her lines are a long way from iambic pentameters, and she’s offering a slant on another traditional theme – transience. We might call L.M. Price’s ‘Flash Point’ a love poem, too, though it’s a very contemporary take on a relationship which has not exercised poets very much since Cardinal Newman. Amongst subjects we’ve also sonnets about computer games (or possibly  existential angst), tectonic shift, art, Samuel Beckett, fathers and sons, migraine and waves. (At least, that’s what I think they’re about.)

The contemporary sonnet remains traditional in that it both accepts and reacts to the tradition, the form, the rules, the characteristics, the subjects. That’s how the sonnet’s vitality persists. It’s only a fascist form if there’s no resistance to it, and a great virtue of fascism, perhaps the only one, is that it breeds active resistance amongst those who’re imaginative, prepared to think for themselves, to experiment and question what is thought necessary or desirable in poetry.