Saturday, March 27, 2010

Sonnets: Poems of Love and Ideas

Sonnets are one of the most popular and yet most challenging of poetic forms.  As a closed form, sonnets follow very stringent guidelines regarding meter, rhyme, and stanza structure.  Yet the real strength of the sonnet forms lies in these guidelines - these short poems are packed with rhythm, and the author can use very slight changes in the form to indicate subtle shades of meaning.  (see also some Exercises in Sonnet Writing).

The sonnets unit focuses on five sonnets: Donne's "14," Frost's "Design," Shakespeare's "130," Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays," and Muldoon's "Why Brownlee Left."
Sonnets are, according to popular mythology, the "love" poems of the literary world.  One reason for this is the tradition of poets such as Shakespeare to address a sonnet to a lover (as in "130").  However, this reputation of the sonnet is often underestimated.  Instead of merely addressing romantic or even familial love, sonnets are often used to express unexpected or even broken love.  Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays," for example, uses a shifting meter and nontraditional stanza lengths to reveal the the conflicted love a son feels toward his father.  Muldoon's "Why Brownlee Left" doesn't appear, on first glance, to address love at all - it simply tells of a man who left his farm behind.  And yet this, too, is revelation of love - of a love that remains unfulfilled, or a love that was left behind, or a feeling that was empty from the beginning.

Donne's "14" goes a step further, addressing the twisted tormented love between the narrator and his God - yes, the poem addresses love head-on, but in doing so it challenges some of the deepest-held assumptions about what faith really means.  In a way, it presents religion as less of an article of a faith and more of a codependent (and possibly abusive) relationship with God.  Then we have Frost's "Design," a poem which appears to have nothing at all to do with love.  And yet, in all the observations of white and the existential questions at the end, the poem questions the efficacy of assuming an ordered "design" in life, as poetry often does.  In this way, it follows Donne's example in "14" of using the sonnet as a tight structure for proposing an idea or - just as importantly - protesting a commonly-held assumption.

For an exercise to help you master the art of writing sonnets with meter and rhyme, see "Writing Sonnets with Meter, Rhythm, and Proper Form."


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