Sonnetary Confinement

John Robinson

I'm too intrigued by the potential for self-display that the Web promotes, to miss out on being a part of it. Poetry is ideal. It's very personal, so putting it online gives you the thrill of mental exhibitionism. The downside is that personal poetry quickly gets boring for other people. So it has to be either good or short. My poems are short. They're sonnets.

Sonnets have fourteen lines of ten syllables that rhyme abbaabbacdecde (Italian pattern - my favorite) or ababcdcdefefgg (English pattern - Shakespeare's favorite). Of course, if you get stuck, you make up your own rhyme pattern, which I often do. Keats did it too, but in his case, it wasn't because he was stuck. Many of my sonnets look more than 14 lines because they're broken up on the page, but when you reassemble everything, they (usually) fit the mould.

There was a time when sonnets were uncool. If a character in a play mentioned "my small book of sonnets", you knew they would turn out to be a complete idiot, not to mention snobby, unimaginative, and dull, dull, dull. This is no longer true. The world's most exciting people write sonnets, put them up on their websites, and know they're surfing poetry's coolest wave. To help you join this movement, I'm going to explain why sonnetry is so great while commenting on my own. In this collection I include 40 poems. I don't say my best 40, because I'd prefer you to think there are others that are so good I have to keep them secret. But 40 there are, almost all written in the late 1980s in Kitchener, Ontario. If you want to skip my linking commentary, you can also get to them via the list at the bottom of the page.

The sonnet is a rigid framework, which immediately makes it suitable for two subjects. The first, paradoxically, is slush. A poem like The Cafe on the Shore wears its heart on a strait-jacket sleeve. Bundled up in iambic pentameter, it can't quite embrace romantic sentimentality, though it's certainly trying. Here's another Italian sonnet where the structure tracks the poem from context (first eight lines) to event (last six), drip-feeding a tragic loss. Imagine how melodramatic it would be without the sonnet's walls. Which brings us to the second, more obvious, sonnet subject: imprisonment. As you see at the top of the page, this collection is called Sonnetary Confinement. I'm sure I'm not the first to think of this pun, or even the first to enjoy it. Here's the title poem, which sets a pretty pessimistic tone, after which things can only look up. Incidently, that one was supposed to use fully-justified text, which unfortunately is not consistently implemented in web browsers. It also illustrates giving in to poetry's temptation to coin a new word. In this case the word is "chimering", which is a noun that's been verbed to make a handy homophone. I love that sort of thing. It seems to be a hazard of sonnetry that you get end up writing sonnets about themselves. So instead let's move onto another great thing about this verse form.

The length of a sonnet makes it ideal for a short story where everything leads up to a punchline. For example, here's a story where the last two lines really must be read last. Everything else is just a set-up. That poem needed a few extra syllables, but another captures my pessimistic view of human wisdom in the regulation-length final couplet. Here's one where I think the summing up says it all, though I like the rest of the poem too. Of course, that poem isn't really a sonnet because it's not iambic. There are other rogue rhymths later in this collection. In fact, here's one --- a poem that gives you a number of ways to finish the story, depending on whim or chance. And, on similar lines, here are 16,384 sonnets.

"English" sonnets are more suitable for punchlines than "Italian" sonnets, because of their final rhyming couplet. The Italian form is good for painting a background, then filling in a detail, as in Frank's Tree earlier, or for thesis and antithesis. But you can also use the English form for thesis/antithesis, with the antithesis only getting a couplet, which seems a bit unfair. Of course, you can also make up your own forms, with rhyming schemes from the non-existent, through the extreme, to the tangled.

Sonnets form a nice building block for bigger poems. For example on this watery poem I went overboard by writing three stanzas (so it's not a sonnet), all of which are needed to appreciate the last, which is the one I really like. This poem shows I have a subconscious desire to be Matthew Arnold. Unfortunately that makes me 150 years out of date. Talking of Victorian poetry, here's a rather melodramatic poem that has too few syllables to be a real sonnet. I think it's fair comment that many of my poems are somewhat nostalgic, but I like nostalgia, so tough.

Here is a slightly unusual poem about meaning and indigestion. Sonnets are good for the semi-macabre, because they embed strange ideas in a very structured framework. It's kind of a shame that Mike's the one that gets it in The Snow Idol, but I used to have "boys" instead of "Mike" in the last line and that just doesn't have the same edge. The structure of a sonnet also provides an excuse when you write a poem and don't have a clue what it's about. Here's a sonnet about God, a less sympathetic one, and an acrostic poem about a goddess.

Can you use the sonnet for love poetry? Well Elizabeth Barrett was very good at it. For doomed love it's certainly got potential. Here's another one about lost love (and one about lost sex -- kind of). And in the running for least sexy poem about sex, my non-erotic defence of eroticism illustrates the dangers of ending lines with the syllable "ee". On the other hand you can write a sonnet about the dilemmas of sexual attraction, such as this one which I include purely for its valuable message about tar(a).

Because so many sonnets have been written, they're always ripe for parody. Here is some pastiche (this is not really a sonnet, but is included because it has something to do with the Internet). The sonnet is a nice length for sticking together a couple of other people's ideas and seeing how they fit. But really, any subject is up for grabs. This is a sonnet I wrote at Kill Devil Hills in North Carolina. I'm ashamed to say, it's my only poem about engineering.

I went through a phase where I wrote a poem about everything I did and read. Here are a couple I wrote afer reading Phaedra. The context of them both is the impending death of Socrates. Now the second of these contains the lines: "Eternity may mark time, for the ends/Of lives are marked by this world's pulses." Honestly I think that's wonderful! It sounds like Shakespeare. Maybe it is Shakespeare. This is the only place where I read one of my poems and think, "Wow, that's so good I must have stolen it." Now I know you're thinking, "It's not that good - he repeats 'mark' and it isn't really saying anything." Well, hey, if you're going to take that attitude, write your own!

Here's a contrasting pair. First, to demonstrate that nostalgic sentiment can get out of hand even in fourteen lines if you don't stick to traditional rhyming rules, here's a pastoral piece. On the other hand, you can stick to the rules but split the poem up so much, that no-one can tell.

Sometimes the demands of the sonnet structure get too much. Like all sonneteers, I've thought I'll abandon it.