Monday, 27 August 2012

Thinking about the sonnet as form 1


I post this set of long answers to three brief questions put to me by the Turkish writer, Berkan Ulu, because answers are always an opportunity to think. It might make two blogs or maybe three, and that might then offer an opporetunity to reflect on the Guardian blog last week. Answers to questions 2 and 3 are shorter, but answer 1 seeks to set out a territory.

The first part of the answer to the question below deals with my own work which may or may not be interesting - it's an account more than a set of thoughts - but the rest is more about ideas.

1. In what way would you relate your sonnets to the (so-called) conventional sonnets? Or would you? 

I would certainly relate them. That is unavoidable. There are at least four questions lurking within the question. 

One part of the question is personal and relates to my own formal instincts as they develop. To answer: I became far more involved in formal questions in the mid 1970s after my mother died. In wanting to write something in memory of her I found that my usual way of writing - free verse, broadly surreal or fantastical - was inadequate to my state of mind. Over a period of a few months I drafted a poem that eventually consisted of roughly hexameter couplets (the poem is At The Dressing Table Mirror, in my first book, The Slant Door). This led to further explorations of form - not the sonnet at first, just regular-looking rhyming stanzas that employed a lot of enjambent. In my second book, November and May, there is a longer, partly successful, poem,The Birdsnesters, that employs unrhymed stanzas of 12 lines each and, right at the back of the book, the first poem - Mare Street - that might loosely be described as a sonnet. It has 14 rhymed lines and an almost unnoticed rhymed couplet as lines 5 and 6. After that there are poems here and there that move around 12-16 lines, some of which have 14. The next major step is my longest poem, Metro, that consists of 60 x 13 line verses in 10 sections, the verses generally consisting of 12 rhymed and one unrhymed line. By this time I am - and am generally regarded as - a poet with strong formal instincts, but not a writer of sonnets. That comes later.


The second part of the question refers to the idea of form generally. This is something I have written about several times so I will try to sum it up because it is relevant to the question. The experience of writing - as opposed, some might say, to reading - is that whatever complex of feeling, sensation and thought comprises the impulse to write a poem, it is going to have to be explored and realised through language.

The desire to write something is not the same as the desire to have written the final draft.

In other words the act of composition is not a realised act of the will towards a specific end. Language, at its most sensitive, is not a machine, or, if it is, it is one that deals with shifting, arbitrary signs; it is, therefore, a machine that shares some characteristics with an organic being that is bound to be much like ourselves since it is we who have brought it into being.  Writing is an act of intense inward listening to this being.

Since signs are arbitrary and shifting within the greater scheme, it helps some poets to show a particular awareness of that by imposing on the poem various conditions that are, in effect, language conditions.

So, for example, one might write to a specific length or with a particular length of line, or according to a strange programme whereby certain sounds must be repeated at certain intervals - in other words, rhyme. These constraints modify thought by steering the poet in certain directions rather than others. By learning the art of such steering the poet can discover possibilities he or she had not considered. These possibilities are what amount to invention.  It is a justification of the old saying that necessity is the mother of invention.


The third part refers to received form. If, beside the sonnet, we include others we know - the villanelle, the ballad, the ballade, the sestina, the eclogue, the pantoum, the terza rima etc etc - we will see that each is adapted to certain ranges of expression. Why? That is partly a matter of precedent: each form has its history. But history is less rule than terrain. We may turn to what seem to be classics of the form and consider these as the centre of the terrain and other poems that follow a similar form or some approximation of it as part of the same terrain. In other words a classic form is at the centre of a force field. (It is not impossible that later models may join the classic forms at the centre of the force field). Each form is a set of possibilities. A kind of space.


The fourth part refers to the sonnet in particular. It is interesting that, despite historical fluctuations, the sonnet has lasted longer than almost any other received form in Europe. Why? Here too there is more than one answer. I think it is because the sonnet is a very particular kind of space. As a historical form it offers a number of classical models at the centre of the force field. The Petrarchan, Spenserian, Shakespearean, even the much later unrhymed Lowellian are somewhere in that centre. In other words it's a multivalent core that can continue to radiate energy and generate other energies.

I don't want to get too lost in metaphors but I do want to extend the space metaphor just a little further.  I suspect the sonnet-length poem provides just enough space for a thought to become an emotion and vice versa. If I think of the space as a room it is clear it has a certain volume and certain proportions. We can learn to move around this room. Learning to write sonnets is like getting to know a space. After a while you don't have to think about the space so much - you can find your way around the room in the dark - you can think and feel in it.

And like all rooms it is very adaptable. You can choose the furniture, paint the room, light it this way or that, move the furniture here or there, have windows and doors where you want. You can even have a sequence of sonnets where one room leads to another room. The only given is that it is a room of certain proportions. A sequence of sonnets is like a house or apartment block within the force field of the big multivalent suite of rooms at the centre. The important idea then is that of the sonnet as a particularly adaptable form of space, a kind of room, or arrangement of rooms, with views out. You need to have views out.

[continued in next post


marly youmans said...

Looking forward to the rest and how you "build in sonnets pretty rooms."

Carole Bromley said...

Fascinating stuff. More please

Caroline Gill said...

Yes, and so say I!

I have just had an Anglicised version of a Bengali 'Swatantra Sonnet' (form created/adapted by Hassanal Abdullah, editor of Shabdaguchha magazine) published in a volume produced by Poetry Cornwall ... I find the Sonnet fascinating in all its old and new, formal and less formal guises. Your room space analogy is so helpful - thank you.