The Ever-Evolving Sonnet

Hayes

Sonnets. You remember them from school, right? In this corner we have the Petrarchan (or Italian) sonnet, and in that corner we have the Shakespearean (or English) sonnet. Sonnets loved rules: Fourteen lines. Ten beats per line. A rhyme scheme.

But that was your great-great-etc. grandfather’s sonnet. The new sonnet has only one rule (and even that one is suspect), namely the 14 lines. Some say the lines should be about the same length to form a box-like construction, but some say pay no attention to that martinet behind the curtain.

As proof on how far the sonnet has come, I give you Terrance Hayes, who recently wrote a book of them called American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin. Catchy title, that. But not a book for rules. Instead, all 14-liners that care way more about voice than rules.

All are title-less, unless you count the first line as a title. Here is the lead-off batter of the entire collection:

 

The black poet would love to say his century began
With Hughes or, God forbid, Wheatley, but actually
It began with all the poetry weirdos & worriers, warriors,
Poetry whiners & winos falling from ship bows, sunset
Bridges & windows. In a second I’ll tell you how little
Writing rescues. My hunch is that Sylvia Plath was not
Especially fun company. A drama queen, thin-skinned,
And skittery, she thought her poems were ordinary.
What do you call a visionary who does not recognize
Her vision? Orpheus was alone when he invented writing.
His manic drawing became a kind of writing when he sent
His beloved a sketch of an eye with an X struck through it.
He meant I am blind without you. She thought he meant
I never want to see you again. It is possible he meant that, too.

 

 

ABAB, CDCD, EFEF, GG? Dream on, Mr. Bard. You need not worry about rhyming. As you read the book, you’ll find that lovely Rita, Meter Maid, need not don her uniform, either.

What’s interesting is how the modern sonnet has made nice with free verse. Old school poets would have called them diametrical opposites, but old school poets have given up the tower and fled, porridge still steaming.

To see how close this sonnet comes to prose, you need only read it AS prose, then reconstruct it so Mr. Hayes doesn’t suspect Goldilocks at play. Here’s how it will look:

 

The black poet would love to say his century began with Hughes or, God forbid, Wheatley, but actually it began with all the poetry weirdos & worriers, warriors, poetry whiners & winos falling from ship bows, sunset bridges & windows. In a second I’ll tell you how little writing rescues. My hunch is that Sylvia Plath was not especially fun company. A drama queen, thin-skinned, and skittery, she thought her poems were ordinary. What do you call a visionary who does not recognize her vision? Orpheus was alone when he invented writing. His manic drawing became a kind of writing when he sent his beloved a sketch of an eye with an X struck through it. He meant I am blind without you. She thought he meant I never want to see you again. It is possible he meant that, too.

 

Prose and free verse are a bit like Romulus and Remus. Very good friends weaned off the wolf of rules.

Overall, good news for poets allergic to form poems. You, too, can write the new sonnet! Take 14 lines, drink plenty of liquids, and see me in the morning! Meanwhile, I’ll be enjoying the rest of Hayes’s book.

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