Reading · Teaching · Writing

In Defense of Form in Poetry

Confession: I love sonnets. I love villanelles. I love heroic couplets.

I love words that have been wrought, not just lined up. I love rhyme, alliteration, and meter. Especially meter. That’s where the music lives.

Not that I don’t love free verse. I do. Not that I don’t love prose fiction. Of course I do. But I adore the extra intensity delivered by metrical verse, and I relish the extra engagement it takes both to read it and to write it.

Today I’m thinking about sonnets. Generally speaking, a sonnet is fourteen lines of iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter, the marching, grave meter of ten syllables in an alternating pattern of weak/strong, weak/strong, weak/strong (five times, so pentameter) is the favored form for serious verse in English since the time of Chaucer. As an “iamb” is two syllables, a weak one followed by a stressed one, like ‘about’ or ‘before’ or ‘Denise,’ a line of iambic pentameter can feel as regular as a drumbeat: “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.”

Sonnets come in two varieties: the English or Shakespearean and the Italian or Petrarchan. Shakespearean sonnets, made famous by his prodigious ability and volume, divide the fourteen lines in to three quatrains and a couplet. These stanzas are often bound by rhyme, and the couplet at the end feels like a punchline or a conclusion the poem has been building up to with each stanza adding a different facet. It’s the “five paragraph essay” of the poetry world, and the thesis is the couplet at the end.

Italian sonnets work differently. Divided in to two stanzas of eight and six lines (an octet and a sestet), they lend themselves to different content. The first, longer stanza often sets a scene or makes a statement, and then the second, shorter one responds in some way—sometimes showing the flaw in the first image, or its faulty reasoning, or maybe just digging deeper in to it—questioning, exploring, or reflecting. This type of sonnet feels more like a debate than an essay, with the first position of the octet countered in the sestet.

So it’s a little form. You can read them quickly or linger over their construction. But they pack a big punch. They have to. They don’t have the space of a novel or even a ballad—just fourteen lines in which to make you sigh or wonder or weep.

Here’s one for the road. Christina Rossetti’s vision of an artist’s model. Enjoy.

“In an Artist’s Studio”

One face looks out from all his canvases,
One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans:
We found her hidden just behind those screens,
That mirror gave back all her loveliness.
A queen in opal or in ruby dress,
A nameless girl in freshest summer-greens,
A saint, an angel–every canvas means
The same one meaning, neither more or less.
He feeds upon her face by day and night,
And she with true kind eyes looks back on him,
Fair as the moon and joyful as the light:
Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.

Color palette with brushes in studio from iStock
Reading · Teaching

Teaching Lies, or the View from the Front of the Class

One of the biggest lies of teaching literature is that if you’ve taught a text, you are prepared for what happens the next time you teach it.

In truth, though, every batch of readers is different, so every time through a text, even a short and relatively straightforward text, is a different conversation.

Last week I taught a short essay by Italo Calvino called “Why Read the Classics?” It’s a perfect introduction for lit students to Calvino because he’s talking about what they think is important—good books—and, in a series of definitions that tighten like a noose, he talks them through why he thinks reading classics is important.

I taught two sections an hour apart. There was virtually no overlap in the discussions.

In the first class the student leading the discussion was of a fairly conservative educational mindset, and we spent most of our time trying to articulate the advantages of reading a shared literary canon. (And this, even though we failed in that class to find one text every person had read.) Topics ranged from the influence of ancient and medieval classics on modern masters to the structural and plot similarities of old texts and new, to the realization that human emotions and reactions haven’t really changed in 3000 years.

I tried a couple times to broach the subject of Calvino’s argument for ‘personal classics,’ but I didn’t get much traction, and the conversation kept veering back to a canon—a widening canon, to be sure, including women and authors of color and other underrepresented writers—but it was generally agreed that a list of books that well read people know was a good thing. It forms bonds between people and creates a sense of shared ownership of an intellectual past. The more cultural history we share, the more jokes we get in movies and books.

The second class never mentioned ancient texts at all. The student leading that discussion responded to the idea of Personal Classics like a kid in a candy store and opened up a discussion of favorite books and how they shape us, regardless of whether anyone read the same ones. In this class Calvino came out looking like an iconoclast, which is fair, but he’s an iconoclast steeped in Ovid and Dante, Shakespeare and Dickens.

I have had classes that met somewhere in the middle—nodding in the direction of our literary forebears and then careening off on our personal trajectories. I have also had classes who spent the whole time niggling with either Calvino’s list of definitions or his list of accepted classics.

But no class is the same. The more times I teach a text, the better prepared my opening comments are, and the larger my range of responses to topics that come up with some regularity, but really, truly… we could go anywhere. Giving students the reins in this way is not so much an act of bravery as an exciting spectacle—an intellectual event.

After nine pages of refined definitions and compelling exceptions, Calvino’s conclusion can feel like a bit of a cop out. We should read the classics (the accepted canon and our personal favorites) because it is better to have read them than not.

But he’s not wrong. We define ourselves and construct ourselves in affinity with or in opposition to what we encounter in the world. That means the more we encounter—the more characters we meet and situations we seen navigated—the finer we can tune our personalities. And the more fun we are at cocktail parties. And the better we react when classes or conversations go places we’ve never seen coming.

Read. Think. Talk. And grow. Have fun out there, y’all.