some thoughts on sonnets, but first on breaking silence

I’ve been reading through The Penguin Book of the Sonnet: 500 Years of a Classic Tradition in English and loving it so much more than even I thought I might. In part, of course, because I’ve quite fallen for this form, although I’m still no where having even one come together for me in my own writing life. And in part because the book has women. Contemporary women, sure, but not only—women who published sonnets and sonnet sequences hundreds of years ago. Women who seemed to not exist when I was an English major in college in the early 1980’s. And who certainly didn’t exist when I was at UC Irvine in 1985-86 and was told I couldn’t write about women writers in the 1700s because there were no women writers then—a statement made even more sexist-piggish because, in fact, all the male writers we were studying said that one particular woman was the best poet of their time. Odd how there was a best poet yet she didn’t exist? And the professor who proclaimed this was a scholar of exactly that group of male writers. Had he not read them? Or did he just have some awful brain disorder that couldn’t process female pronouns?

All those years of feminist scholarship have made this huge difference, and even such a mainstream anthology now includes women writers, and talks about their work seriously. Yes, the legacy of male writers is still far greater, or perhaps just far less suppressed, but that utter silence is gone.

Or is it just that this amazing anthology is edited by a woman writer?

In any case, the editor, Phillis Levin, has written a great introduction, with pretty much anything you’d need to know about the sonnet in English. A few highlights I am writing so I will remember:

The easiest thing to say about a sonnet is that it is a fourteen-line poem with a particular rhyme scheme and a particular mode of organizing and amplifying patterns of image and thought; and that, if written in English, the meter of each line usually will be iambic pentameter. Taken as a whole, these fourteen lines compose a single stanza, called a quatorzain, the name given to any fourteen-line form. But though a sonnet typically has fourteen lines, fourteen lines do not guarantee a sonnet: it is the behavior of those lines in relation to each other—their choreography—that identifies the form.

Whatever its outward appearance, by virtue of its infrastructure the sonnet is asymmetrical. The dynamic property of its structure depends on an uneven distribution of lines, of the weight they carry. It is top-heavy, fundamentally. Opposition resides in its form the way load and support contend in a great building.

In Italian, volta (a feminine noun) can refer to a change that is temporal, as in prossima volta, “next time,” or spatial, as in “a bend.” In architecture, it is the term for a vault, which forms the supporting structure for a roof or ceiling—an apt metaphor, as the volta supports and defines the structure of the sonnet. Turning marks time and its passage: in an Italian sonnet, the poet has less time before the turn arrives, but more space in which to make the turn, more time to amplify the aftermath.

Shakespeare is clearing the stage for a new way of thinking and speaking about love and time, death and the power of rhyme. He begins with the assumption that love is like nothing else but itself: it is beyond compare, beyond comparison. Yet this reflection beyond reflection mirrors the self-reflexive nature of the sonnet, its tendency to implode in its solitary cell. The unrepeatable instant is suspended and refracted in verbal and acoustical repetition; the unreproducible being produces an echo of everlasting absence.


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