A Manifesto On The Contemporary
Sonnet: A Personal Aesthetics
PRINCIPLE I: MAKE THE SONNET NEW
To quote Ezra Pound, the poet must "Make it
new." William Carlos Williams took Pound's dictum to mean that
poets must be relentless avant-gardists, the shock troops of the
new. Thus, for Williams, "all sonnets say the same thing of no
importance. What does it matter what the line 'says'? There is
no poetry of distinction without formal invention, for it is in
the intimate form that works of art achieve their exact meaning.
. . ." Williams was so focused on inventing new (i.e., free
verse) forms that a fixed form such as the sonnet was to him
mere repetition, the stamping out of the same product again and
again by a factory press. The form for Williams is the content.
On the other hand, Williams didn't truly
understand metrical form, despite his early, Keatsian attempts
at writing formal poems. For Williams, the fixed-form poem is a
container into which you pour content, and it is true that you
can fill an urn with blood or semen or earth from Sicily, and it
will retain its shape. But set forms are significantly more
elastic than Williams gave them credit for being. "The Sound
must seem an Eccho to the Sense," wrote Alexander Pope in his
Essay on Criticism, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in defining
what he called "Organic Form," wrote:
The form is mechanic when on any given
material we impress a pre-determined form, not necessarily
arising out of the properties of the material, as when to a
mass of wet clay we give whatever shape we wish it to retain
when hardened. The organic form, on the other hand, is innate;
it shapes as it develops itself from within, and the fullness
of its development is one and the same with the perfection of
its outward form. Such is the life, such the form.
For Coleridge and Pope, form should have an
organic relation to sense, not merely be the vase into which
content is poured. The well-wrought urn is shaped to match its
content. And those who write in form today have found countless
ways to reanimate the great tradition of the sonnet form.
Inevitably, for those who become inveterate sonneteers, sonnet
writing becomes a form of experimentation, of hybridizing and
. . . form
should have an organic relation to sense, not merely be the vase
into which content is poured.
Alexander Pope writes, "But most by Numbers
judge a Poet's Song, / And smooth or rough, with them, is right
or wrong" (Essay on Criticism). But many contemporary
sonneteers dispense with meter altogether or use it in only a
few lines of the sonnet and rhyme slant and irregularly, perhaps
just in the couplet or glancingly throughout the poem. The first
example I have found of this poetic practice is actually in the
work of Williams. Though his early attempts at writing sonnets
were unmitigated failures ("I've fond anticipation of a day /
O'erfilled with pure diversion presently, / For I must read a
lady poesy / The while we glide by many a leafy bay"), later in
life Williams wrote a poem modeled upon the sonnet form that was
simply a free-verse poem in fourteen lines. Nevertheless, he
titled it "Sonnet," as if to say, "Here is how you make the
sonnet new; you turn it into free verse." Certainly, that is
one way to do so.
For those who follow William's approach to
modernizing the sonnet, the sonnet becomes simply a
fourteen-line poem, with occasional rhyme, perhaps, and just the
ghost of meter. T.S. Eliot, in his "Reflections on Vers Libre,"
writes that "the ghost of some simple metre should lurk behind
the arras in even the 'freest' verse; to advance menacingly as
we doze, and withdraw as we rouse. Or, freedom is only truly
freedom when it appears against the background of an artificial
limitation." For Eliot, the definition of good free verse
is poetry in which can be glimpsed the ruins of meter. Robert
Lowell wrote hundreds of unrhymed blank-verse sonnets in his
Histories, but when a sonnet has neither meter nor rhyme,
what distinguishes it from free verse? Perhaps the fact that it
is written in fourteen lines. But why should line count be the
deciding factor? After all, the great sonneteer, George
Meredith, wrote his novella-in-sonnets, Modern Love, in
sixteen-line sonnets! And what of the poems in Gerald Stern's
American Sonnets, which are
meterless and rhymeless and vary wildly in line count? Are they
sonnets simply because he calls them sonnets? Each of us has to
answer that question in our own way. Certainly, Stern's title
asks us to think of his sequence of short lyrical poems in the
context of the tradition of the Petrarchan sonnet sequence, and,
in that sense, they are in conversation with tradition, seeking
ways to expand or renew that tradition, which for me, at least,
creates an instant spark of interest. In fact, as I see it, any
practice is acceptable so long as it works as poetry.
It's clear that free verse has much to learn
from the sonnet tradition. I would assert, however, that the
reverse is true as well: the sonnet has much to learn from the
predominant (one might almost say hegemonic) mode of American
poetry, from free verse. Free-verse aesthetics can renew the
sonnet form in more interesting ways than Williams's
fourteen-line experiment, if they are allowed to truly permeate
the sonnet form.
The sonnet is as addictive as heroin, because
it gives the writer certainty about the world. When it truly is
in you, ideas come out in sonnet form, thoughts stream in iambic
feet. Free verse reminds me of a passage from Nietzsche's The
Indeed, we philosophers and "free spirits"
feel, when we hear the news that "the old god is dead," as if
a new dawn shone on us; our heart overflows with gratitude,
amazement, premonitions, expectations. At long last the
horizon appears free to us again, even if it should not be
bright; at long last our ships may venture out again, venture
out to face any danger; all the daring of the lover of
knowledge is permitted again; the sea, our sea, lies open
again; perhaps there has never yet been such an "open sea."
After the much heralded death of form in
modernism (though, to paraphrase Mark Twain, "the rumors of its
death have been greatly exaggerated"), free verse emerged from
the wasteland and set sail on a newly opened sea. Poets set sail
like Columbus, unsure whether they would sail forever, sail off
the waterfalling edge of a flat world, or encounter India or
other new worlds. There is something comforting about knowing
the destination of your journey. Sonnet-mariners know they will
arrive at a port after a voyage of fourteen lines. With free
verse, one travels into the fog, and must map the world again
with every poem. With free verse one has to ask each time, "What
makes this a poem?" Why should I break my line here and not
there? What sort of stanza shape and length should I have? What
voice shall I speak in, with what attitude, with what rhetoric,
with what image structure? We have to come up with organic ways
of making it poetry, because the mechanic form has been
dispensed with. A hundred years later, these "new" lands of
free-verse form are no longer new, no longer radical or
avant-garde. But they remain powerful enough that they have
become the central practice of American poetry, while formal
poets are on the periphery once claimed by free-verse poets and
by experimental, L*A*N*G*U*A*G*E, and elliptical poets. Why not
create a hybrid sonnet poetics that learns from free-verse
practices, that echoes free-verse love of the vernacular, of
biblical rhetoric (especially anaphora), of attitude, of the
collapse of high and low, and of precise, archetypal, resonant
Sonnet-mariners know they will arrive at a port after a voyage
of fourteen lines. With free verse, one travels into the fog,
and must map the world again with every poem.
While free-verse poetry often suffers from a
lack of necessity, the necessity of form in the sonnet too often
makes it feel artificial, distant, and more written than spoken.
One solution might be to abandon the sonnet construction in
which each stanza is seen as a separate box, and the boxes stack
up to make the whole: octave, turn, tercet,
tercet, or octave, turn, quatrain,
couplet. How about a sonnet constructed like Whitman's
poems, or Ginsberg's, through anaphora, sentence rhythm, and
breath? A biblical rhetoric that wraps through the form until
the sonnet form is invisible, transparent? In my sonnet,
"Marriage Psalm," for example, I set out to adapt Whitmanian
anaphora to the sonnet form:
Blessed is the mattress on which they feast.
Blessed the yellow sheet on which she lies,
blessed her skin and blessed are her breasts,
and blessed are the body's lamps, her eyes
lighting the room, rolling in dream, in lies,
and blessed is the darkness that descends
and carries them through sleep. Blessed the ways
of limbs entwined, a tangle without end
that only lack of love or death or time
can untie. Blessed mouth that eats the wool
pants and the folded sweaters, blessed blind
pink worm that digs, the insect in the wall
that feeds on them like rot in fruit yet gives
them years alive with blessings in their lives.
Or consider this sonnet from Chad Parmenter's
Batsonnets, a sequence of sonnets about the world of the
comic book character Batman:
A Holy Sonnet for His New Movie
When Batman finally casts his batarang
across the Gotham skyline, don't you sleep,
my children. Don't you close your eyes to weep
or let them blur with tears; no watering
the roses in your cheeks; he's glittering
beyond these sponsors. Hallelujah. Keep
his theme inside your heart and go ye, reap
your sugar harvest at the snack machine
between the previews. Batfans, think how long
we tried to pray away the preshow night,
how low our spirits flew while he was gone.
Now fill your mouths with Batman candy. Bite
your tongue and swallow that amen. It's dawn
onscreen—here comes your Christ in vinyl tights.
Here is the true contemporary sonnet:
conversational, idiomatic, tongue-in-cheek postmodern ("don't
you sleep/my children"), blending high rhetoric and archaism
("no watering/the roses in your cheeks," "Hallelujah," "go ye")
with pop culture reference ("batarang," "Batman candy"), regular
Petrarchan metrics with slant rhyme
(batarang/watering/glittering/machine). The content is honest,
unembarrassed, adult and mature—not a safe, polite sonnet to
show the "Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls" with
their "comfortable minds." As Richard Wilbur says, ". . . I
think that poetry which tries to fend off the inelegant, popular
world is in danger of seeming prissy and stuffy." With poems
such as this, the sonnet has entered the twenty-first century. I
am tempted to say that this is not your parents' formal poetry,
though, in fact, most of these techniques were anticipated by
e.e. cummings in his sonnets of the 1920s!
COUNTER-PRINCIPLE IA: FIND OLD WAYS TO MAKE THE SONNET NEW
Yes, it is tempting to apply the modernist
avante-garde principles of perpetual renewal and relentless
invention to the sonnet, to follow the dictum of old Ezra. On
the other hand, when we dig a bit further into Pound, we find
that his dictum was itself nothing new. He was cribbing his
famous phrase from the Confucian classic The Great Learning,
the Da Shue, which is also, in Chinese, the term for
"University," so you might say that Pound went to school in
I think Robert Frost stated Pound's idea a
bit more interestingly when he wrote that he likes to find "old
ways of being new." Frost notes that the modernists "ran wild in
the quest of new ways to be new," and he complains that
Those tried were largely by subtraction,
elimination. Poetry, for example, was tried without
punctuation. It was tried without capital letters. It was
tried without metric frame on which to measure the rhythm. It
was tried without any images but those to the eye: and a loud
general intoning has to be kept up to cover the total loss of
specific images to the ear, those dramatic tones of voice
which had hitherto constituted the better half of poetry. It
was tried without content under the trade name of poesie pure.
It was tried without phrase, epigram, coherence, logic and
consistency. It was tried without ability.... It was tried
without feeling or sentiment like murder for small pay in the
underworld. These many things was it tried without, and what
had we left? Still something.
There is still something left after a century
of free verse. In the words of the great Tang Dynasty statesman
and writer Han Yu, to write in form is to "Dance in Chains."
That is, the joy of writing in form comes not in slavishly
following the rule of prosody, of pouring content into a
predefined form, but in creatively interacting with a tradition,
renewing and modernizing it. It is in the interaction of dance
and chain, of freedom and restriction, breath and rhythm, that
the interest comes.
. . . the
joy of writing in form comes not in slavishly following the rule
of prosody, of pouring content into a predefined form, but in
creatively interacting with a tradition, renewing and
modernizing it. It is in the interaction of dance and chain, of
freedom and restriction, breath and rhythm that the interest
At the same time, there is a certain pleasure
that comes from a sonnet that has traditional forms of elegance,
and the studied ease that the best free-verse has. As Alexander
Pope would have it, "True Ease in Writing comes from Art, not
Chance, / As those move easiest who have learn'd to dance" (Essay
on Criticism). Consider this sonnet by Jorge Luis Borges,
Antes que los remeros de Odiseo
Fatigaran el mar color de vino
Las inasibles formas adivino
De aquel dios cuyo nombre fue Proteo.
Pastor de los rebaños de los mares
Y poseedor del don de profecía,
Prefería ocultar lo que sabía
Y entretejer oráculos dispares.
Urgido por las gentes asumía
La forma de un león o de una hoguera
O de árbol que da sombra a la ribera
O de agua que en el agua se perdía.
De Proteo el egipcio no te asombres,
Tú, que eres uno y eres muchos hombres.
—Jorge Luis Borges
Before the oarsmen of Odysseus
strained their arms against the wine dark sea,
I see strange forms, as if in prophesy,
of that old god whose name is Proteus.
He was the herdsman tending to the seas
and had the gift of reading omens too,
but he preferred to hide most things he knew
and wove odd scraps into his auguries.
When urged by people he would take upon
himself a lion's shape, be a huge blaze,
grow treelike by the river, giving shade,
and then like water in a wave be gone.
Don't shrink from Proteus the Egyptian,
you, who are one, and yet are many men.
—Translated by Tony Barnstone
In the Spanish, Borges does some interesting
things with the meter: using Petrarchan a-b-b-a quatrains and
ending with a Shakespearean couplet; using trochaic substitution
in the second and last lines, using widespread elision, and
shifting from pentameter to alexandrines in the final section.
It's a somewhat loosened metrical scheme. However, one of the
pleasures of this poem is just how unapologetic it is about its
sonnet structure. It is happy to place a clear volta after the
octave, and it asserts its Shakespearean roots with a strong
second turn in the couplet. Its form is argumentative and
dialectical: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Furthermore, it
fills each stanza with a single sentence, thus easing the
tension between form and speech and moving the mind with each
sentence just the distance of one stanza.
In this poem, Borges is thinking of the
sonnet in terms of a series of stanza-length rhetorical
movements. I like the way Rhina Espalliat described this effect
in a panel on the sonnet at the West Chester Poetry Conference
in 2005: the sonnet is a chest of drawers, with each stanza a
drawer that pulls out to reveal its own content. There is
something elegant about a good chest of drawers. The drawers
hold things, open and close smoothly, and keep things organized.
Without a chest of drawers, we are left with those contents
piled in the middle of the bedroom floor.
PRINCIPLE II: TRANSLATE FOREIGN LANGUAGE SONNETS INTO SONNETS IN
The art of the translator is to make the past
new by a kind of literary ventriloquism—one gives voice to the
dummy without appearing to move one's lips. And yet how valuable
can such a "new thought" really be to us when delivered through
translation? Walter Benjamín tells us in "The Work of Art in the
Age of Mechanical Reproduction" that art is a crafted product of
the individual genius revealing its own unique aura—it is by
definition "original," not reproduced, and certainly not created
through the ventriloquism of working with already-written words.
How then can the translator speak with his or her own lips, in
an original voice, not in a diminished copy?
Some years ago, I translated several sonnets
into English and was happy with the fact that my translations
were, in fact, sonnets in English, formally regular, though
utilizing a combination of true and slant rhyme. Normally,
formal poetry in other languages is translated into English as
free verse. This is partly because free verse dominates the
American poetry scene, and so, by converting formal poetry into
free verse, the American audience is more likely to like
the translated poetry, and partly because translating into form
is more work-intensive and takes a specialized and somewhat
arcane skill in which many translators haven't been trained.
The sonnets I translated were by Jorge Luis
Borges, Petrarch, and by the Chinese poet Feng Zhi. With the
Borges, I worked from my own faulty Spanish and a good fat
Spanish-English dictionary. With Petrarch, I worked from
bilingual editions, with a bilingual dictionary and multiple
alternate translations to convert a prose translation into
sonnet form. With the Feng Zhi, I used my minimal Chinese and
collaborated with the Chinese poet and scholar Chou Ping.
One translates formal poetry into English as
free verse to make the reader comfortable with the translated
poem, while simplifying the translator's task. But if, as Robert
Frost commented, to write free verse is to play tennis without a
net, then translating formal poetry into free verse is like
presenting a game of dodgeball as an excellent example of
professional tennis. If I were to show you a donkey hung with a
placard labeling it Grevy's zebra, you would most likely laugh.
After all, they're simply different animals.
COUNTER-PRINCIPLE IIA: TRANSFORM SONNETS IN ENGLISH INTO SONNETS
Now, here is the interesting thing: the
process of translating these sonnets into English gave me
something beyond the emotion, the meaning, the imagery, the
rhetoric of the poetry. It gave me the engine that sets emotion,
meaning, imagery and rhetoric into motion, a machine of
language, Coleridge's "mechanic form." It gave me the sonnet.
Suddenly I realized that I had the machine in my head, and thus,
at that time, in the midst as it turns out of a painful divorce,
I began writing sonnets and continued writing them obsessively,
for months. I began by working from the Petrarch sonnets, trying
to adapt and imitate the rhetorical patterns, the Petrarchan
sonnet form, and the conceits behind the poems into sonnets that
would reflect my own situation. Here, for example, is my
translation of Petrarch's Sonnet 195:
Relentlessly, my face and hair grow old
but still I need the hook and lure so sweet
and still can't let go of the evergreen,
the Laurel tree that scorns both sun and cold.
The sea will drain of water and the sky
of stars when I no longer dread and need
her gorgeous shadow; only then I'll cease
to hate and love love's wound I cannot hide.
I cannot hope to rest from breathless work
until I'm flayed, demuscled and deboned,
or till my nemesis will sympathize.
Though everything impossible occur,
still none but she or death can heal the wound
made in my heart with her amazing eyes.
And here is my adaptation, or transformation
of that sonnet:
Perhaps She Needed to Be Cruel to Make Him Understand
Look at how his face grows fat, and look,
his hair curls only like a sea around
an island of bald rock, and yet he's found
he still can't worm free from this hidden hook.
A subtle needle threads its way through him,
and stitches everything he does with pain.
Each time she says "We need to talk" to him,
he sees the sun go blank, the oceans drain
into the toilet, planets rotting through.
He gnaws on every little thing she says
and feels the bones extracted from his flesh.
When she says, "I'd feel better without you,"
he feels his skin pulled off, his muscles flayed.
He needs her more the more she needs him less.
In this sonnet, I am picking up on the
imagery of aging and hooks, on the apocalyptic and anatomical
imagery, the exaggeration of pain, and modernizing the diction
to make it a poem about a twenty-first century divorce. The
catachresis (that is, the extreme, exaggerated use of metaphor)
in the Petrarch poem is wildly romantic, and certainly we see
this in "Perhaps She Needed" as well, but hopefully the
hyperbole of "the oceans drain" is saved for the modern reader
by the anticlimax of "into the toilet," just as the
understatement of "we need to talk," one hopes, will contrast
pleasingly with the emotional hyperbole of "he sees the sun go
I found that approaching the sonnet as a
translation game was a very generative creative mode. The
translator wears the skin of the author. It is a kind of spirit
possession. In my own work, I have learned much about
traditional form by wearing the skin of the Chinese sonneteer
Feng Zhi, of Petrarch, and of Borges. In addition to learning
their techniques in the process of translating their poems into
sonnets in English, I have developed a technique of
transformation that I have attempted to apply intralingually as
well as interlingually. I might, for example, work from one of
Shakespeare's sonnets, using some of his rhymes and filling in
my own lines, or write poems in direct conversation with the
imagery of a source poem. As an example, consider first the
source poem, Shakespeare's Sonnet 49:
Against that time if ever that time come
When I shall see thee frown on my defects,
When as thy love hath cast his utmost sum,
Called to that audit by advised respects;
Against that time when thou shalt strangely pass
And scarcely greet me with that sun, thine eye,
When love converted from the thing it was
Shall reasons find of settled gravity:
Against that time do I ensconce me here
Within the knowledge of mine own desert,
And this my hand against myself uprear
To guard the lawful reasons on thy part.
To leave poor me thou hast the strength of laws,
Since why to love I can allege no cause.
Here is my intralingual translation (or transformation) of
The time has come he never thought would come
when he sees her see in him just defects.
As if his heavy love has kept her down,
what once she thought was perfect she rejects.
She takes an audit of his qualities,
subtracts affection, multiplies distress,
and so, in sum, she takes his sum and sees
the countless reasons she should need him less.
She knows him better than he knows himself
so if she finds his love to be oppression,
and reads all the good years as years of lies,
then he must turn his mind against himself
and see, laid out in infinite regression,
his net and gross of failure in her eyes.
In intralingual transformation there is, as
in traditional translation, a conversation going on with the
originals, but the game is different. The poem is a tribute to
the original that is meant to update it for the present day.
Translation is the creation of an original poem in your own
language that pretends to be someone else's poem in another
language. In writing transformations, however, I found myself
happy to dispense with the idea of being secondary; I felt in no
way that I had diminished authority compared to some "original,"
or that my work needed the label of "copy" instead of "original
COUNTER-PRINCIPLE IIB: TRANSLATE NONPOETIC TEXTS INTO SONNETS
Translating the Borges and Petrarch sonnets
started me off on years of experimental sonneteering, years
during which I found myself engaging in an ever-increasing and
widening gyre of translation, transformation and imitation. I
realized, for example, that instead of working from a prose
translation of Petrarch and sonnetizing it, I could work from a
prose palette of my own materials and make a sonnet that
translated the palette into sonnet form.
With these techniques in hand, I have
continued to write sonnet sequences, many of which continue to
originate from these translation, intralingual translation and
transformation practices. I call this work readymade poetry,
with reference to the readymade assemblages of Marcel Duchamp,
because the sonnet is the last step in adapting and reworking
readymade material into poetry. For ten years I have been
writing a sequence of poems set in the Pacific Theatre during
WWII, spoken from the points of view of participants in,
observers of, and victims of Pearl Harbor, the Island warfare
campaign, and the atom bomb drops on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and
based upon years of research into letters, diaries, histories,
and interviews with American and Japanese soldiers, scientists
such as Oppenheimer, President Truman, kamikaze pilots,
prisoners of war, and citizens of Hiroshima who survived. I
consider this sequence a form of poetic journalism.
The poem "White Pig, Dark Pig" is an example
of such poetic journalism. For this sonnet, I researched
transcripts, oral testimonies, reports and memoirs about
cannibalism in New Guinea and the Philippines in Yuki Tanaka's
account of Japanese military atrocities in WWII,
Hidden Horrors: Japanese War Crimes in
World War II, Patrick K. O'Donnell's
Into the Rising Sun: In Their Own Words,
World War II's Pacific Veterans Reveal the Heart of Combat,
and Studs Terkel's The Good War: An Oral History of World War
Two. Here are some excerpts from Tanaka's book:
There was absolutely nothing to eat, and so
we decided to draw lots. The one who lost would be killed and
eaten. But the one who lost started to run away so we shot
him. He was eaten. You probably think that many of us raped
the local women. But women were not regarded as objects of
sexual desire. They were regarded as the object of our hunger
. . . All we dreamt about was food. I met some soldiers in the
mountains who were carrying baked human arms and legs. It was
not guerillas but our own soldiers who we were frightened of.
. . .
. . . Ogawa Shoji noted that toward the end of the war,
Japanese soldiers referred to the Allies as "white pigs" and
the local population as "black pigs."
Many other cases refer to the fact that Japanese cannibalism
extended to the entrails and the genitals of the victims; in
some cases the brains were taken out . . .
It seems clear that Japanese soldiers removed the bodies of
Allied soldiers from the area in which fierce combat was
occurring and carried them to a safe area to be cooked and
consumed, while others held back the Allied forces in order to
prevent them from recovering the bodies. This indicates that
these incidents were not isolated or sporadic acts but part of
an organized process.
. . . and here is the sonnet I wrote based upon these source
White Pig, Dark Pig
I didn't rape the women, didn't lust
for their dark flesh, not like you think. I dreamed
of food, not sex. A man does what he must
to live. I ate dark breasts and brains. It seemed
normal, almost. I met some soldiers near
the camp. They carried a cooked human arm
from a white pig (that is, a prisoner
from the West). They were lucky, with a farm
of endless white pigs to roast up. But we
had to track down the dark ones hiding, and
we starved. At last we drew lots, and the one
who lost we'd eat. The loser tried to flee.
He'd been my friend. I shot him with my gun,
then wept. I got his leg and his left hand.
(Japanese Soldier, New Guinea)
Although in these journalistic sonnets I
often create composite character, I seek to do so while adhering
to journalistic principles—to invent nothing but, instead, to
report clearly and without editorial judgment on what happened
and to let the readers judge for themselves.
Like literary translation, the essence of
readymade poetry is a transcendence of the self in which the
writer channels other lives and histories and cultures. By
transcending the self and speaking from the point of view of
others, the intense emotional effect of the confessional lyric
can be duplicated, but the poem can be used to address larger
historical and philosophical concerns than usually fit within
the constraints of confessional poetry. The art of
translation is an art of transformation, and it is one that need
not be limited to the transmission of a poem from one language
to another. The act of translating without translation is
(MINI)PRINCIPLE III DICTION: AVOID OVERUSE OF MONOSYLLABIC WORDS
Another lesson about writing in form comes
from Alexander Pope's Essay on Criticism, in which he
rails against the limping use of many monosyllabic words to fill
out a line of pentameter (using ten monosyllables himself to
illustrate the problem): "And ten low Words oft creep in one
COUNTER-(MINI)PRINCIPLE III: DICTION: USE MONOSYLLABLES TO
On the other hand, I wonder if this aesthetic
betrays a Latinate aesthetic prejudice. Certainly I enjoy the
way that Robert Frost makes peace with the Anglo-Saxon
linguistic tradition and uses monosyllables to craft a poetry
that sounds as natural as free verse. In "White Pig, Dark Pig,"
for example, the plainspoken voice of the Japanese soldier,
reveals its sorrow in the straightforward simplicity of its
monosyllabic diction: "At last we drew lots, and the one / who
lost we'd eat. The loser tried to flee. / He'd been my friend. I
shot him with my gun, / then wept. I got his leg and his left
PRINCIPLE IV: USE TRUE RHYME AS A MNEMONIC DEVICE
In the past few years I have been thinking a
good deal about the question of rhyme's function in the sonnet.
Why bother to rhyme at all? Why not just write blank verse
sonnets? Some of the easy answers still make sense. Rhyme
literally makes the poem more memorable. Twenty years ago, I was
living in a small apartment in Beijing and teaching at the
Beijing Foreign Studies University. I had been working for
several hours on a sonnet on my portable computer. In those
days—the mid-1980s—portable computers were the size of a
suitcase and didn't have internal battery backups or programs
that saved themselves automatically. Thus, when the power
suddenly went off, the sonnet disappeared into the ether.
However, I noticed, in the absolute darkness, that the pixels of
light on my screen were still glowing, so I ran my eyes down the
fourteen rhyming words and chanted them as I stumbled around the
room, blindly seeking pen and paper. I scrawled them down in the
darkness and, when the lights came on again, was able to
reconstruct the entire sonnet.
Thus rhyme creates an effect of
expectation. As in music, knowing that in two lines a
rhyming end word will appear helps the sluggish brain to
perform. Paradoxically, however, in the moment of composition
this effect of expectation has the effect of introducing the
unexpected into the poem. Whatever the topic of the poem,
whatever the projected arc of the sentence rhythm and image
flow, the rhyme word militates that a random element must enter
the poem. The poet Alan Michael Parker tells his creative
writing students to avoid taking the first exit off of the
freeway when they write. He's suggesting that his students allow
their imaginations to carry them further from home than their
brains will feel comfortable traveling. Rhyme forces the writer
to stay on the freeway all the way from Indiana to Montana, from
Austin to Boston.
should function to open the poem to wildness.
However, centuries of using the same
rhymes—breath and death, fire and desire, love and dove—have put
up roadblocks that close off this mental voyage. The long road
between breath and death has been shortened as it has become the
road more traveled, paved, and marked with signs. Even in the
eighteenth century, rhyme was in danger of being exhausted
through overuse, so that Alexander Pope complains about the
"Tuneful fools" who use expected rhyme:
While they ring round the same unvary'd Chimes,
With sure Returns of still expected Rhymes.
Where-e'er you find the cooling Western Breeze,
In the next Line, it whispers thro' the Trees;
If Chrystal Streams with pleasing Murmurs creep,
The Reader's threaten'd (not in vain) with Sleep.
Then, at the last, and only Couplet fraught
With some unmeaning Thing they call a Thought . . .
COUNTER-PRINCIPLE IV: USE SLANT, SIGHT, REPETITION, INCLUSION,
ANTONYM, HOMOGRAPH, REVERSE RHYME, AND bouts rimes INSTEAD OF
I take a highly experimental approach to
rhyme on the theory that the excitement that rhyme lends to
formal poetry has been eviscerated by the overuse of rhyme in
advertisement and popular song. Rhyme should function to open
the poem to wildness. A rhyme scheme forces the writer to, in
the words of poet Marvin Bell, "become comfortable with
randomness." Rhyme is, in fact, an arbitrary element in the
poem, essentially a surreal move in which the poet chooses the
word not based primarily on meaning, but upon its aural
similarity to another word. Much of the pleasure of writing and
reading formal poetry comes from the difficulty of the balancing
act, as the poet surfs the chaos, keeping the head of the
surfboard aimed at the shore while wave after wave of iambs and
rhyme try to knock him or her into the sea. However, overuse of
rhyme has caused the exact opposite to happen much of the time.
As noted above, we know when we hear "fire" that the obvious
rhyme is "desire" just as "breath" suggests "death." In other
words, rhyme no longer functions to shock us with wildness but,
instead, often creates a feel of predictability. Predictability
is useful when, in an oral culture, one wishes to remember how
to recite a poem, but in contemporary print culture it can make
the poem seem stale and trite.
rhymes in English are largely exhausted, no longer startling, no
longer bringing a surreal unruliness into the poem, then perhaps
it is necessary to open up the sonnet's semantic range by
embracing alternate and even experimental forms of rhyme."
If true rhymes in English are largely
exhausted, no longer startling, no longer bringing a surreal
unruliness into the poem, then perhaps it is necessary to open
up the sonnet's semantic range by embracing alternate and even
experimental forms of rhyme. I use experimental rhyme as a way
of varying the palette available to the poet in the moment of
composition. More importantly, I hope to reintroduce that
wildness that I think is at the heart of rhyme, while still
maintaining a high level of difficulty and visual and aural
I tend to use a combination of true, slant
and sight rhymes, with a preference for full consonance. In this
way, the palette of meanings is not limited to the expected
rhyme (fire/desire, love/dove), and yet the pleasures of sound
remain in the poem. If "desire" is the first exit off the
freeway for "fire," then down the road one could, perhaps,
detour into full consonance: fire and fear, fire and flare, and
fire and flower are more interesting pairings. Fire and Darfur,
fire and heretofore, and fire and atmosphere take us even
further down the road.
"The Rose Garden" is an example of a number
of these techniques put to use:
The Rose Garden
A world perhaps can fit inside a word,
a sword asleep inside its sheath, but no
thing can be created out of no-
thing and no word can sing outside the world.
A rose is not a rose is not a rose,
as it turns out because the rose turns in-
to something else, some blossoming red thing
at the mind's core, inverted, just a ruse
within the mirror, mirroring without
becoming, much less being. So how to be
when all things multiply their glassy poses
inside our eyes, confusing us about
the real and really false? The world we see
is just some word that fills our eyes (with roses).
The first stanza uses inclusion rhyme ("word"
is included in "world") and repetition rhyme ("no" and "no-").
The second stanza uses inclusion rhyme ("in" and "thing") and
full consonance ("ruse" and "rose"). The advantage of inclusion
rhyme is that, by its very nature, it will tend to also work as
consonance and assonance, as, that is, slant rhyme. The last six
lines round out the poem with three sets of true rhyme. As a
side note, I should mention that this poem is also an attempt to
deepen my understanding of the basics of Classical rhetoric,
such as chiasmus, in which two sets of words are arranged in
reverse parallelism ("within the mirror, mirroring without");
polyptoton, in which repeated words derive from the same root
but have different suffixes ("becoming, much less being. So how
to be" and "the real and really false"); and epanalepsis, in
which the end of a clause repeats the word that began it ("but
no / thing can be created out of no- / thing").
A traditionalist sonneteer might complain
that the use of slant rhyme makes sonnet-writing too easy, that
the difficulty of finding a fresh rhyme and still making the
poem flow is naturally part of the pleasure. I can't deny that,
but some of the rhyme games and experimental practices that I
use and introduce here actually make the process more difficult.
In fact, I invented five of these rhyme experiments—homograph,
antonym, reverse, composite, and inclusion rhyme—specifically to
make writing the sonnet more difficult. Here are some examples
of what one might call a radically experimental use of rhyme:
1. Antonym Rhyme
In the poem "Antonyms," I set myself two structural games:
1) The poem is one of a series of what I call
Amazing Shrinking Sonnets, in which the sonnet either shrinks
from 7 iambs to 1 iamb, or shrinks from 4 iambs to 1 iamb and
then expands like an hourglass back up to 4 iambs again. The
latter structure is an attempt to adapt the hourglass shape of
George Herbert's "Easter Wings" to sonnet form, though my
hourglass sonnets shrink one foot per couplet, whereas Herbert's
poem shrinks one foot per line.
2) All the rhyme words in this poem are
"antonym rhymes," meaning that they are antonyms of each other.
Although I use repetition rhyme (one/no one), sight rhyme (not
here/somewhere) and slant rhyme (retract/give . . . back), the
sonnet was immensely difficult to write because of the intense
restriction of the antonym game.
Although his love is on the incline,
she feels she just can't breathe, not here
with him, has to decline
this life and float somewhere,
to be away
where she can stay
wanting no one.
She's chosen to retract
her love until his death.
He wishes she would give him back
his damage: half his life, each breath.
Although this sort of sonnet might seem an
intensification of mechanic form, the antonym game and the
hourglass game are organically tied into the poem's content.
Herbert worked the shrinking and expanding stanzas both into
imitative form (the two stanzas are shaped like two pairs of
wings, when viewed sideways) and into organic form, as the lines
become slender as the protagonist becomes "most thin" and "most
poor" and widen as his soul broadens into spiritual flight.
Similarly, in "Antonyms, the use of antonym rhyme is meant to
create a structural reflection of the inimical relationship
between the man and the woman in the poem, and the shrinking and
expanding form is meant to pick up on the contrast between her
shrinking and his expanding love.
2. Homograph Rhyme
In another sonnet, "Homograph Hymn," I set
out to write a poem in which the words in each rhyme pair are
homographs of each other (words that have the same spelling but
differ in meaning and pronunciation):
Last year I dropped off thirty pounds, content
to live my salad days on lettuce, raven-
ously unfilled, or unfulfilled, the content
of my poor heart a wish, a croaking raven
from someone else's poem, an unwound
dockline, a white-winged sailboat in the wind
that tacked out of my life. Now I'm a wound,
and you a nevermore, and nights unwind
towards dawn with dreams that scavenge like a dove
whose manic B-B eye seeks through the refuse
for you. Today I ate some air then dove
back into bed alone. I won't refuse
the slightest anorexic hope. I close
my eyelash wings. No black bird brings you close.
3. Composite Rhyme
In "Aftereffect," the rhyme game was to rhyme
on as many composite words containing the word "after" as
possible, as a way of echoing the lustful reverberating
aftereffect of the lover's presence:
I'm reading at my desk, the afterword
of a new book, but cannot concentrate
because my mouth is filled with aftertaste
from an imagined kiss. And afterwards
I batter weights down at the gym, but after-
images hover in the mirror, floating dreams,
her green eyes watching me, the way she seems
to burst each time she detonates with laughter,
the way we stood too close that afternoon
at my place after lunch, and I moaned, "No,
it's hard to stop myself, you'd better go."
She hugged me fast and then she flew
to the door, laughing, while deep aftershocks
rang me and left me just these afterthoughts.
4. Repetition Rhyme
"Laughing Poem" explores a statement that
Robert Pinsky made when he came to visit my campus years ago:
that we think words rhyme because they sound the same, but in
fact they rhyme because they sound different. This is true to
some extent, though true rhyme is defined as two words that
sound the same from the final stress to the end of the word, and
sound different beforehand. Still, I was attracted to the idea
that Pinsky seemed to be rejecting—in that moment—that
repetition is in fact a form of rhyme. Actually it turns out
that the earliest Italian sonnets were not rhymed but used
repeated words instead, as in a sestina. I often choose to use
repetition rhymes in my poems, but "Laughing Poem" was the first
I wrote using the same word repeated throughout:
He started laughing. But what kind of laugh?
A funeral black laugh. A bad joke laugh.
A cracked man laugh. He couldn't stop the laugh,
it came out of his mouth, a dead life laugh,
a dead love laugh, a laugh at faith, a laugh
at his sad, laughable self. What a laugh,
she said "Don't fight for me," and what a laugh,
she said "I'm tired of you," and what a laugh,
she said "Let me alone." That's when the laugh
erupted. What a joke, he thought, and laughed
again, a tight chest laugh, a heave, a laugh
from the odd clown, from the numb mind, a laugh
and then collapse onto the couch, a ha
all teeth and tears and gasping, ah, ha, ha.
In the couplet that ends the poem, I gave
myself the leeway to substitute a conceptual repetition rhyme
for a true repetition rhyme (that is, the sound of laughter for
the word "laugh").
5. Reverse Rhyme
In the next poem, "Reversal at the Battle of
Midway," the rhyme game was to have the rhyme word of each pair
be either the phonetic or the alphabetic reverse of each other
(thus, "saw/was" and "keep/peak"). So, in the case of the
example discussed above ("fire"), the reverse rhyme would be
"rife," and for "laugh," the reverse rhyme would be "fall."
Reversal at the Battle of Midway
The lookout yelled hell-divers and I saw
three black planes plunging towards my head. We shot
a frantic burst from the guns but it was
too late. Their bombs were off. I knew to toss
my body to the deck and quickly crawl
behind rolled mattresses we used to keep
safe from the shrapnel. Like a dark sky lark
diving to snatch a fly, from a high peak
above the cloud-cover, the next plane came
screaming. A flash, strange blast of warm air, then
a startling quiet. We'd been tricked. They'd hid
high up and sent planes skimming low to make
us waste a flight. Then we were in the net,
fueled planes on deck, nothing to do but die.
(Japanese Sailor, Aircraft Carrier Akagi)
"Reversal at the Battle of Midway" is based
upon an oral history by Mitsuo Fuchida, posted online at
http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/midway.htm. The Japanese
aircraft carrier Akagi participated in the attack on Pearl
Harbor. She was sunk in the Battle of Midway on June 5th, 1942.
The poem relates how the Americans turned the tide of the Battle
of Midway and ultimately of the war in the Pacific by sinking a
number of key ships in the Japanese fleet. The Americans first
sent in low-flying torpedo bombers, and the Japanese zeros
scrambled to engage them. Many of the American planes were shot
down, and few of them got their torpedoes off. However, when the
Japanese zeros settled back on the aircraft carriers to refuel,
the Americans launched a surprise dive-bomb attack from out of
the cloud cover, and the Japanese fueled planes on deck, when
hit by the U.S. munitions, acted as small bombs. As in
"Antonyms" and "Aftereffect," I came up with this rhyme game
when searching for a way to mirror the poem's content in the
6. Bouts Rimes
Bouts rimes is a French rhyme game in which
the poet uses the rhyme words of someone else's sonnet. Here,
for example, is Seamus Heaney's "The Forge":
All I know is a door into the dark.
Outside, old axles and iron hoops rusting;
Inside, the hammered anvil's short pitched ring,
The unpredictable fantail of sparks
Or hiss when the new shoe toughens in water.
The anvil must be somewhere in the centre,
Horned as a unicorn, at one end square,
Set there immoveable: an altar
Where he expends himself in shape and music,
Sometimes, leather-aproned, hairs in his nose,
He leans out on the jamb, recalls a clatter
of hoofs where traffic is flashing in rows;
Then grunts and goes in, with a slam and flick
To beat real iron out, to work the bellows.
...and here is my bouts rimes adaptation of the poem:
And when I surfaced topside from the dark
the air was red as if the world were rusting.
The zeros swooped around us in a ring
of fire, and smoke was blossoming, hot sparks
were shooting, fuel oil poured out on the water
and like a metal pot stuck in the center
on a gas stove, we cooked. I'll tell you square,
I lost it, on my knees like at an altar,
till all the beaten metal made dream music.
I almost died then, but smoke in my nose,
heat on my face, woke me. And through the clatter
inside my head I dove, swam from the rows
of ships, then turned and watched flames swell and flick.
I watched as that punk Death worked at the bellows.
(Seaman, USS Arizona, Pearl Harbor)
I chose to echo the blacksmith imagery of
Heaney's poem in order to give figurative resonance to the
bombing and sinking of the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor, but part
of the fun with bouts rimes is to see what radically different
poems can be constructed out of the same rhyme words. I
particularly enjoyed doing a bouts rimes poem based upon
Heaney's "The Forge," because of his loosened use of rhyme. He
rhymes plurals with singulars, accented syllables with
unaccented ones, and dispenses with traditional rhyme schemes.
In the poems above, and elsewhere, I set out
to reexamine some of the prejudices of sonnet aesthetics. Why
not rhyme accented with unaccented syllables? Why not rhyme
plural with singular nouns? Why not redefine what it means to
rhyme in order to charge the poem with an unexpected music and
to create organic relationships between rhyme and content? The
advantage of experimental rhyme is that it broadens the palette
of possibility, allows the sonnet to have more natural diction,
to choose the just-right word more often, and thus it norms the
formal poem to the dominant free-verse aesthetic and makes
old-fashioned poetry attractively contemporary while still
building the poem upon a solid skeleton of form.
advantage of experimental rhyme is that it broadens the palette
of possibility, allows the sonnet to have more natural diction,
to choose the just-right word more often, and thus it norms the
formal poem to the dominant free-verse aesthetic and makes
old-fashioned poetry attractively contemporary while still
building the poem upon a solid skeleton of form.
As I see it, much of even the best American
poetry today suffers from a lack of wit, a paucity of rhetorical
interest, and is thus remarkably unmemorable. In many free-verse
poems that I love and would have a hard time living without,
little would be lost if a line were lost here and there or if
words were added to or subtracted from the line. How then to
write lines that have a rhetorical necessity, a memorable and
epigrammatic wit? One way to do this is to go to school in the
techniques of the past. We lost something as poets when the
American educational system moved away from an education in the
classics. We lost familiarity with Greek and Latin rhetorical
tropes, and thus were no longer required to have training in the
art of being witty.
We have lost also a traditional training in
the use of form. Free-verse poets are, of course, aggressively
defensive about this, as are formalist poets about the
centrality of free-verse practice and the marginality of formal
poetics. But, though traditionalist formal poets might pooh-pooh
a free-verse poet who titles a fourteen-line free-verse poem
"Sonnet," who cares? Let it be a good poem, and let it learn
from the formal tradition, and the two camps can meet in the
middle. Though the free-verse poet might launch an ad hominum
attack against the formal poet, who cares? Such arguments are
patently ridiculous, and the formal poet still has much to learn
from the free-verse poet. To be contemporary, the sonnet needs
to reinvent itself as something that goes beyond literary
politics, something that speaks for our age, while learning from
the sonnet tradition of ages past.
In his Essay on Criticism, Alexander
Pope celebrates the consistency and the regularity of the formal
No single Parts unequally surprize;
All comes united to th' admiring Eyes;
No monstrous Height, or Breadth, or Length appear;
The Whole at once is Bold, and Regular.
However, he continues that:
Whoever thinks a faultless Piece to see,
Thinks what ne'er was, nor is, nor e'er shall be.
Though poets of each aesthetic camp will take
issue with one formal practice or another, the sonnet today is
an immensely expansive form. It is large, it contains
multitudes. It is large enough to include Whitman and Borges, to
include free-verse practices and aesthetics and Greek and Latin
rhetoric, large enough to include experiments with line, stanza,
and rhyme. Whole continents can fit within those famous fourteen