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

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