Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The cool thing about sonnets

Ignore the rhythm and rhyme of a sonnet? In The Handbook of Poetic Forms, Ron Padgett suggests you do exactly that to get started writing them. Because there's a more interesting aspect of (English or Shakespearean) sonnets that's often left out of the descriptions: they're an evolving argument with a punch line.

(Padgett suggests after you get used to the unfolding pattern of thought, then work in rhythm and rhyme. Which is: 14 lines rhyming abab cdcd efef gg with each line having 10 syllables of alternating stress: ba DUM ba DUM ba DUM ba DUM ba DUM.)
  • First set of 4 lines, the speaker sets up an idea.
  • Second set of 4 lines, the speaker explores it further.
  • Third set of 4 lines, there's a larger or new view of the idea. There's a turn in the speaker's thinking for a twist or conflict or emotional or mood shift. Quite literally the 4 lines may begin with But. (Here's some that Shakespeare used: so, yet, but, because, now, ah!, o!, never, for, alas!, thus, no, therefore, then, why.) "The speaker stops presenting evidence and starts to draw a conclusion from the evidence."
  • Last set of 2 lines, there's another turn, and the poet draws a (sometimes surprising) conclusion. It can sometimes feel like a punch line.
In short:
Here's what and why.
Here's some more why.
But wait.
Ah ha!
Of course you don't need to be serious! You can argue why, despite many negatives, you'll still spend the extra money on Starbucks, or why you like the older chapters of Star Wars, or find cats superior to dogs.

As an example, Shakespeare's oft quoted sonnet that begins "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" (#18) can be summarized as:
Here's why I shouldn't compare you to a summer's day.
All beautiful things fade.
But your beauty won't.
Because people will keep my poetry alive down the ages and give your beauty immortality.
Original side by side with modern English
Detailed analysis

And "When my love swears that she is made of truth" (#138).
Even though I know my mistress lies, I believe her and project the illusion of being an inexperienced youth.
Even though she knows I'm old, she believes me young and both of us willingly suppress the truth.
But why don't we tell the truth?
Because believing the lies helps us ignore each other's faults.

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