The Poetry Porch


The Sonnet

After a century of free verse, why would anyone tackle the sonnet, with its architectural demands, preference for rhyme, history of experts?

Praised for technical intricacy—what Paul Fussell describes as structural imbalance, arbitrary turn, use of “white space,” formulaic rhyme schemes—the sonnet can confront reader and writer with daunting challenges (Poetic Meter and Poetic Form). Questions arise for critic and practitioner alike concerning the relation between form and content and tradition and freedom.

Three types of sonnet dominate eight centuries of poetry. The Petrarchan, developed in Italy, is recognized by its rhyme scheme like an envelope (abba abba cde cde) and its two unequal parts, octave and sestet. The Shakespearean sonnet, an example of what happened when the Italian sonnet was adopted by the English, consists of three quatrains of alternating rhymes followed by a couplet (abab cdcd efef gg). The Spenserian sonnet also consists of three quatrains and a final couplet, although its rhyme scheme creates the occasion for more coupled rhymes (abab bcbc cdcd ee). Each type consists of fourteen lines in iambic pentameter.

Although these structural rules might seem to limit creative freedom, their popularity is evidence to the contrary. Documented variations of the sonnet are many and lead one to suspect that the number of undocumented variations are more still. Milton varied the Petrarchan by making the “turn” a little later into the sestet. Hopkins created what has come to be called a curtal (or curtailed Petrarchan) sonnet of six lines followed by four and a half (abcabc dbcdc). The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics lists some additional deviations: caudate, iterating, retrograde, chained, interwoven, terza rima sonnet, tetrameter, sixteen line sonnet, and sonnet crown. Robert Lowell wrote a volume of sonnets in blank verse (History). Because of twentieth century adaptations to free verse, Annie Finch suggests that sonnets now be categorized as metrical and non-metrical. Some theorists are pressing for the term sonnet to include the narrative, though traditionally it has always designated the lyric poem. The developmental structure of the sonnet has proved suitable for any topic or mood over the centuries. Clearly, the adaptability of the form explains its popularity, whether poets see the sonnet as a welcome constraint, a physical pleasure, or a link with a poetical tradition (A Formal Feeling Comes, edited by Annie Finch).

On these pages you will find a variety of sonnets from the featured poets of the Poetry Porch. Julia Budenz follows the Petrarchan form very closely in her "Replies to Petrarch’s Poem 107," while three by K. E. Duffin show how useful the sonnet structure can be in contemporary poetry. Rafael Campo, in an interview conducted via email, describes his fascination with the sonnet form as way of addressing social conventions. Annie Finch, author of _The Ghost of Meter_, echoes the concerns of many poets who view the use of meter as a love/hate relationship.

I speculate that there are many writers out there—searching the Internet, enrolled in classes, attending poetry readings—who are writing sonnets. With this in mind, the Poetry Porch invites submissions to an electronic sonnet scroll, open to contributions through the Internet or US Mail. See guidelines.

Joyce Wilson
January 1998

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