Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Sonnets - An Innocent's Introduction

Note: The "Innocent" referred to is I, not thee... (of course!)

To be reductionist - a Shakespearean sonnet consists of 14 lines, each line has ten syllables, written in iambic pentameter (unemphasized/emphasized syllables X 5). The rhyme scheme is a-b-a-b, c-d-c-d, e-f-e-f, g-g; three quatrains and an rhyming couplet. I've posted four very different sonnets from Shakespeare, Edna Vincent St Millay, Heaney and (my favorite so far) Kathyrn Simmonds, author of Sunday at the Skin Launderette (2008). The best crafted sonnets are the ones that don't read like "sonnets", where the form just slips past you.

I've tried to work one of my pieces into a sonnet, it just wouldn't fit but in the process I did skin off a lot of excess fat; words I didn't realise weren't essential until I'd broken the poem open to re- form it. It all sounds quite brutal doesn't it? There must be a better way! Any suggestions?

Sonnet 18
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:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd,
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or natures changing course untrimm'd:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest,
Nor shall death brag thou wandrest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest,
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
-William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

Sonnet II

Time does not bring relief; you all have lied
Who told me time would ease me of my pain!
I miss him in the weeping of the rain;
I want him at the shrinking of the tide;
The old snows melt from every mountain-side,
And last year's leaves are smoke in every lane;
But last year's bitter loving must remain
Heaped on my heart, and my old thoughts abide!
There are a hundred places where I fear
To go, - so with his memory they brim!
And entering with relief some quiet place
Where never fell his foot or shone his face
I say, "There is no memory of him here!"
And so stand stricken, so remembering him.
-Edna St.Vincent Millay (1892-1950)

Clearances (Sonnet 3)
(A sonnet from his series of eight written about his mother.)
When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
They broke the silence let fall one by one
Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:
Cold comforts set between us, things to share
Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.
And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes
From each other’s work would bring us to our senses.

So while the parish priest at her bedside
Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying
And some were responding and some crying
I remembered her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives-
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.

The return to lipstick
I'm wearing your old jeans, no make-up and
a cardigan that's big enough for two -
I'm giving Oxfam shops a helping hand
but anyway, who's looking now? Not you.
I'm far more desperate than a life of crime
and all my wasted days are Guinness black,
I'm drinking like a drunk at closing time
as if I'd find a way to drink you back.
But you have gone, so I must sober up
and wash you from my long-neglected hair,
go home, put on a dress and raise my cup
of tea to toast the last night of despair.
I'll coat my lips with Damson in Distress -
they miss your mouth; one day they'll miss it less.
Kathryn Simmonds (Magma Winter 2002)

Links to more sonnets! -
Ceasefire by Michael Longley - Poetry Archive
Sonnet by Billy Collins - Poetry Archive
The Happy Grass by Brendan Kennelly - Poetry Archive


Old Kitty said...

Oh my goodness - so flashback to the poetry section of my course!!! Oh Sonnets are beautiful - they have a rhythm and romanticism all on their own. I envy anyone able to master a sonnet!! Gosh, you've really awakened that great few weeks I had with all of us novices in the course trying our hand at poetry and loving every difficult minute of it!

Thank you for these lovely samples. Lovely!

Take care

Theresa Milstein said...

Beautiful sonnets. The last two were nice modern takes. I don't think I've read any after the 1800s until now.

Padraic Murray said...

I enjoyed the sonnets. The sonnet format must be one of the best in literature. Thanks for the three poems and the three poets - Heaney whom I had discovered through Helen Ryan, and the two new names for me - Kathryn Simmonds (a very funny lady - I posted her 'Handover notes' to my Facebook page) and the intruiging Edna St. Vincent Millay. Ciao!

Barbara Scully said...

Thanks Niamh for this post. Shakespere brought me right back to school where we had a really scary (in a kind of deviant way) English Teacher. But the last one by Kathryn Simmonds is just beautiful. Thanks again

Talli Roland said...

I love sonnets - my husband writes them too! Sadly he's never written one on me. Hmm.

Thanks for all these lovely examples!

Jan Morrison said...

I love sonnets. I wrote one a few years back in university but I can't share it because I haven't time to find it. It was about Lot's wife.
thanks...Jan Morrison

Aubrie said...

Sonnets are so pretty....and so hard to write! I've tried to write one before and it hurts my head to fit what I want to say into the 14 line structure!

Martin H. said...

This is new territory for me but, you've inspired me to post something of my own.

Words A Day said...

@old Kitty any tips from your course are very welcome here, esp on cracking the imabic pentametre!

@Theresa, I like the modern ones too esp Simmonds

@Padraic, your welcome, Billy Collins (c. link) sonnet is good too

@Barbara, sorry for any flashbacks to the scary deviant english teachers!

@Hi Talli - maybe you could set him a challange!!

@thanks Jan - if you find it in the furure would love to read it?

@Aubrie, I know! They look so simple but the words turn to mush after a while of moving and reducing and cutting to fit!

@Martin H
Thanks Martin, dropped over to read your sonnet & loved it, how do you approach writing them?

Orla Fay said...

I enjoy writing sonnets, I have a notebook of them and turned to its form last year for some months. Perhpas I needed the structure. I don't know, I just think that they are lovely to write. Some are better than others. I suppose to get it just right would be like playing a perfect note or hitting a perfect pitch.