Thursday, November 3, 2016

Avenue of Poplars in Autumn (Van Gogh), Sonnet #322

The faintest chitter of leaves in the Fall,
The slant auroras beneath the branches,
The blue-gray clouds that are not clouds at all,
But cloudless sky the fading light blanches,
The warmth and the chill I feel on my cheeks
As sunned and unsunned breezes alternate,
Each gust not finding what the other seeks,
And not one beast seeking to find a mate.
Today I walk this ordered avenue
Until the moon tops the furthest poplar.
It's so bright I can't see a single star,
A Milky Way I cannot know, but knew.
I reach home as the shadows slip away.
Only the moon's been moved enough to stay.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The Sonnet Form

As my Literature grad friends know, there are a number of different kinds of sonnets — Shakespearian, Petrarchan, etc. My sonnets don’t follow any strict rhyme or metrical scheme. Rather, I have a few basic principles I follow and never (hardly ever) violate.

First, any kind of rhyme scheme is okay as long as no rhyme is more than 3 lines apart. For example, ABC ABC is okay: ABC CBA is not, because the “A” rhyme is five lines apart. My theory is that a rhyme ceases to be a rhyme if the two rhyming words are too far apart.

Second, any sonnet can have any mix of rhyme patterns. A single sonnet's scheme can be, for example, ABC ABC DD EE FGGF (or FGFG), or any variation of those. Some sonnets can be all couplets, some three quatrains and a couplet.

I work in three metrical schemes, composed of “feet.” A foot is two beats. Dada dada dada dada dada is five feet. Any poem can be tetrameter (four feet), pentameter (five feet), or six feet (hexameter).

I am not fussy about where the accent lies. Most feet are daDA daDa daDA, with the accent on the second syllable, but I play fast and loose with accents and in almost every instance I have my own reason for doing so, having to do with the meaning or music of the poem.

Finally, I never, never, never (almost hardly ever!) distort syntax in order to rhyme. This is the cardinal sin. For centuries it was okay to back into a rhyme or distort syntax in formal poetry. In other words, it was considered a proper tool of poetry to write not necessarily in the same manner in which we naturally speak. I believe that distorting syntax is the main reason the sonnet, and most formal poetry, fell out of favor in the last century.

I would never back into a rhyme, as Shelley does here in the second and third lines from his "Ode to the West Wind," because that’s not how we talk:

O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing...

The poet Rita Dove has written that formal poetry — such as the sonnet — is “a bejeweled casket.” That’s like saying the novel, or the play, or the short story is dead. The sonnet is just one of many, still valid, ways in which to write poetry. If you agree or disagree, I invite your comments.