Thursday, October 1, 2009

October Challenge: A Contemporary Sonnet

Tony Barnstone begins his essay, “A Manifesto On The Contemporary Sonnet: A Personal Aesthetics,” published in The Cortland Review,* by quoting Ezra Pound, “Make it new.” The sonnet is an old form (or perhaps I should say “forms,” since there are differences between Petrarchan (or Italian), Spenserian and Shakespearean sonnets. One major difference is in the rhyme scheme (including whether the sonnet is composed of an octave and a sestet, as in the Petrarchan sonnet, or four quatrains and a couplet as in Spenserian and Shakespearean sonnets. Another is the location in the sonnet where the volta or turn takes place.

Possibly as a result of the chaos created by World War I, many poets writing in English forsook formal poetry, including the sonnet, to write mostly free verse. Barnstone believes that the sonnet has a future—if it is modernized. Updating may involve both writing about contemporary subjects and bending some of the rules. In 2005, Barnstone published Sad Jazz: Sonnets. This book begins in the marriage bed and proceeds through separation, divorce and its aftermath, and ends with hope that one can make a new life for him- or herself. Here is a sonnet from Sad Jazz: Sonnets:

Zero at the Bone

And now she takes her chance and blows like wind
out through the door she’s ripped out of his life.
And now his spirit clamps around the wound
and seizes up like flesh around a knife.
And now he feels an anger that could crush
the bones of planets, hates his worried face,
his roll of fat, the strands of hair his brush
picks up from his scalp. And now she’s gone. No force
can fetch her back like Lazarus from death.
She’s in the undiscovered country where
she’s free of him. And now there’s only love
to love, invisible as God, as breath
siphoning from a hole. What’s left of her
for him? An absence in which to believe.

Tony Barnstone
© Tony Barnstone, Used by permission.

Three of the first five lines and two sentences later in the sonnet begin with the words “and now.” This is something I normally would eschew in poetry, but here, it works well. The words “and now” seem to me to serve two functions. First, “and now” announces this sonnet as a continuation of the “plot” of Sad Jazz. More than that, however, the repetition of these words emphasizes the narrator’s feeling that everything (even his own anger) is happening to him, and is beyond his control. He is incapable of stopping the tsunami turning his life upside down.

Another characteristic of the poems is the use of strong images. Because of its subject and language, the poem seems “modern,” even with the biblical reference Lazarus).

Barnstone suggests in his Cortland Review article that, in making the sonnet new, the poet should use rhyme to “open the poem to wildness,” instead of allowing rhyme to make it predictable. English does not have the wealth of rhyme found in French, Spanish or Italian, so the same rhymes have been used over and over through the centuries. In “Zero at the Bone,” Barnstone uses true rhyme (life/knife; crush/brush and death/breath) and slant rhyme (where/her). But he also uses what he calls “full consonance” rhyme, in which the consonants are the same but the vowels are different (wind/wound; face/force; love/lieve [in “believe”]). In Sad Jazz, Barnstone uses a number of other variations which are not “true rhyme.” These forms make the sonnet less predictable, while creating a “poetic” sound.

Another poet whose sonnets are contemporary is Marilyn L. Taylor. The following poem, from Subject to Change, is part of a seven-sonnet cycle, in which the last line of one sonnet morphs into the first line of the following sonnet. The last line of the last sonnet is almost the same as the first line of the first sonnet. The cycle, called “Notes from The Good-Girl Chronicles, 1963,” narrates events from the time “when the friendly skies were full of virgins.”

Celebrity’s Mother

I’ve slapped myself three times across the face,
so I know it’s not a dream, I swear—
my babygirl has really won first place
in the beauty pageant at State Fair.
Look how she slinks on those high heels,
cranks her little hips just like a pro
down that runway—honey, she’s on wheels,
she’s headed for the Johnny Carson show.
Come on, sweetheart, talk a little louder,
bat those lashes, lick your lips a lot;
make your poor old mama even prouder—
grab for what your mama never got.
Thank you, Jesus! Thank you, Maidenform!
Just watch my baby take the world by storm.

Marilyn L. Taylor
© Marilyn L. Taylor, Used by permission.

This sonnet is accessible. The subject is modern. The language is conversational—especially “honey,”“babygirl” and “mama”. The reference to Jesus may elicit memory of more classic sonnets, but it's use is contemporary, and is paralleled in an ironic way with the Maidenform bra. References to popular culture (of 1963) abound: “the beauty pageant at State Fair,” “the Johnny Carson show” and “Maidenform.” Taylor sticks to true rhyme in this poem (though she doesn’t always do so), and there is a turn after the second quatrain, but she takes liberties with iambic pentameter (some lines have only eight or nine syllables).

Sonnets which break the traditional rules, as by adding a line, changing the rhyme scheme or abandoning iambic pentameter, come under criticism from purists. But Barnstone and Taylor are not alone in bending the rules. In her book, Nomina (American Poets Continuum), Karen Volkman has a “sonnet” of fourteen iambic lines, but there is only one foot in each line. If one is entering a sonnet contest, some judges would throw such poems out without reading them.

In Nomina, labeled “poems” on the front cover but “sonnets” on the title page, Volkman’s almost seems to be writing in a different genre than Barnstone and Taylor. Despite the fact that Barnstone deals with sadness, anger, even bitterness, most of his sonnets, like Taylor's, are accessible, and have a playfulness about them. Volkman’s are elusive and full of obscurities. Often after reading one of her sonnets, I an unable to say what it is about. There are no titles to provide clues. On the other hand, Volkman’s poems are full of word-play, assonance and alliteration. Volkman is much more likely than Barnstone or Taylor to stick faithfully to iambic rhythm (though not necessarily to pentameter) throughout a poem (Barnstone argues for including some non-iambic feet so the sonnet doesn’t become sing-song). Reading Nomina aloud is a good way to get iambic pentameter into your head. If you enjoy poems for their sound, totally apart from their meaning, you may find Nomina very enjoyable.


For October, write a sonnet which follows most (or all) of the rules of the Petrarchan or Shakespearean sonnet, but sounds contemporary because of the subject matter, language, etc. Bend a rule or two if you wish, but don't break them - your poem should be recognizable as a sonnet. If you don’t know the traditional rules, borrow a book on poetry from your public library, or Google “sonnet forms.” Read Barnstone’s article for additional ideas, if you wish. Please, no pornography or objectionable language. Submit your poem by October 15 by clicking on “Comments” below. If you are using Foxfire and have trouble posting, try Internet Explorer (or vise versa), or send me a message through my Facebook page. Winner or winners will be posted by the end of October.

Poems posted on blogs are considered published and can be included in your resume.


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