Level three

1. Read your journal entries from the Level One and Two exercises. Select two similar ideas from your "Idea File." (Two lyric ideas involving a concept, say.) Do the Level One, Exercise Two again with one idea, composing a prose poem first and then revising it into structured free verse. Do the Level Two exercise again with the other idea, composing structured free verse first and then revising it into a prose poem. Discuss the methods of composition one more time and decide which one you prefer and why, using this as a guide for future work.

2. Select three ideas from your "Idea File" whose content somehow is related to movement. For instance, you might use ideas that involve the flight of birds at dawn (or bats at dusk!), waves of a river at full or low tide (or when a tug passes) or the arc of a falling tree (or a rising column of smoke). Try to mimic that movement with line break and stanza and be sure to employ a voice whose cadence also complements the topic of each idea.

Chapter Eighteen

The Sonnet

William Shakespeare is as beloved for his sonnets as he is for his thirty-seven plays. Four centuries later, many of us know one or more of his sonnets by heart. In a word, the sonnet —or "little song" —strikes a universal chord within us. When we think of the immortality of poetry, we usually think of a sonnet like this one by the Bard:

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate: Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, And summer's lease hath all too short a date: Sometimes too hot the eye of heaven shines, And often is his gold complexion dimmed; And every fair from fair sometimes declines, By chance or nature's changing course untrimmed; But thy eternal summer shall not fade, Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st; Nor shall death brag thou wander'st in his shade, When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st: So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

With lyrics like the one above, Shakespeare helped promote the sonnet in England. (The form has roots in continental Europe.) But others after him also did their part in passing along the grand tradition of composing sonnets to celebrate or bemoan an array of topics and occasions. For instance, Robert Browning composed some of the most accomplished poems in the English language, but his underrated lady Elizabeth Barrett Browning eclipsed the lot of Victorian laureates with this immortal song:

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love thee to the depth and breadth and height My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight

For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.

I love thee to the level of everyday's

Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.

I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;

I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.

I love thee with the passion put to use

In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.

I love thee with a love I seemed to lose

With my lost saints — I love thee with the breath,

Smiles, tears, of all my life! —and, if God choose,

I shall but love thee better after death.

Finally, Edmund Spenser —known for his masterpiece The Faerie Queene — also helped popularize the sonnet by adapting its continental patterns to English, using an intricate but accessible rhyme scheme, illustrated in this sonnet from his famous sequence Amoretti:

My love is like to ice, and I to fire; How comes it then that this her cold so great Is not dissolved through my so hot desire, But harder grows the more I her entreat? Or how comes it that my exceeding heat Is not delayed by her heart-frozen cold; But that I burn much more in boiling sweat, And feel my flames augmented manifold?

What more miraculous thing may be told, ,

That fire, which all things melts, should harden ice; And ice, which is congealed with senseless cold, Should kindle fire by wonderful device? Such is the power of love in gentle mind, That it can alter all the course of kind.

Using the above poems by Shakespeare, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Spenser, let's define each of the sonnet's fundamental forms:

• Shakespearean, rhyming abab cdcd efefgg, each quatrain progressing toward a surprising turn of events in the ending couplet.

• Italian (or Petrarchan), rhyming abbaabba in the octave, or first eight lines, and cdecde in the sestet, or last six lines (or cdcdcd or other variation in the sestet, avoiding any couplets). The idea or question is presented in the octave and the resolution of the idea or question unravels in the sestet.

• Spenserian, rhyming abab bcbc cdcd ee with each quatrain developing a metaphor, conflict, idea or question, and the couplet resolving or concluding the matter.

The Italian form persists because the beauty of the octave and the vehicle of the sestet combine to express truth in a way no other poetic form can quite match. The Shakespearean remains popular because the form is simpler and the couplet, when executed well, packs the power of a punch line. The Spenserian has proved less popular than its cousins over time, but the form is easier than the Italian and more difficult than the Shakespearean, a kind of compromise between the two.

Finally, although we will focus on the above types, poets have been varying the forms of the sonnet for centuries —as you'll see reading sonnets in this chapter. Contemporary poets often vary the rhyme scheme or employ near rhymes, combine elements of the three basic forms, and even compose freestyle fourteen-line "sonnets" that eliminate rhyme altogether, along with the standard iambic pentameter beat. For such poets, varying the form eases restrictions and enhances content.

Furthermore, because of the sonnet's popularity and variations, we'll study it in depth and apart from fixed forms like the sestina, pantoum and villanelle (presented in the next chapter). The latter repeats lines or words in patterns that restrict certain types of topics. The thing to keep in mind about formal poetry in general, and sonnets in particular, is that content is crucial.

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