Poetry Friday: Sonnets and Structured Poetry

On Wednesday I posted a review (really more of a booktalk) of A WREATH FOR EMMETT TILL. In it, I mentioned the unique structure of the poems in the book called a heroic sonnet. I thought that I’d talk a little bit more about sonnets specifically, and structure in poetry generally, and how that works for me.

First sonnets. I do not claim to be an expert poet, instead I am a student of poetry which is a good place to be. A student always recognizes that they have more to learn and that promise of new knowledge can be very motivational. One place that I love to go for poetry information is  Lewis Turco’s, THE NEW BOOK OF FORMS: A HANDBOOK OF POETICS.

The book is a dictionary style reference of hundreds of forms from acrostics to tumbling verse but it begins with sections on the typographical, sonic, sensory and “ideational” levels of the poem. Maybe I’ll go into those levels more in another post, but now, on to sonnets.

Science Walk Sonnet
By Anna J. Boll

Each morning when we start our day
We put our backpacks straight away.
Then line up for our morning walk
Before it’s even nine o’clock.

We watch the backyard birds that sing
They gather leaves and bits of string.
We fill their water, then their feed
With suet, corn and sunflower seed.

Waxwings at the windowsill
Bluejays squawk and finches trill.
Squirrells flip, and dive and climb
gathering seeds for dinner time.

Then quietly we go to class
Still watching songbirds through the glass.

Sonnets are 14 line poems in iambic pentameter that have one of a few rhyme schemes. Many people get interested in sonnets because of Shakespeare. (follow the link for examples) The English sonnet generally comes in three groups of four lines (quatrains) that rhyme abab cdcd efef gg (a heroic couplet). Usually there is some sort of turning point or dramatic climax before the couplet.

The Italian Sonnet is divided into an octave and a sestet or 8 + 6 = 14. The rhyme scheme for the octave is abbaabba. Turco says that the sestet’s rhyme can vary but is usually cdecde or cdcdcd.  The turning point here is between the octave and the sestet. These are the two basic types but there are a bunch that I don’t know about.

The form of  poems in EMMETT TILL are defined by the author Marilyn Nelson as a heroic crown of sonnets. In her book each last line becomes the first line of the next sonnet. The final poem is a collection of all of those first lines.

Turco labels this chained structure as sonnet redoubled. He defines a crown of sonnets as a sequence of seven Italian sonnets where the last line of each of the first six sonnets becomes the first line in each of the ensuing sonnets; the last line of the seventh is the first line of the first. So the poems go around and around like a crown.

So here’s the thing… who cares? Who cares if the iambs are right, or if you repeat a rhyming word, or if the rhyme scheme is abab or dfxy. Well, I’m here to argue that you should. Just as writers need to understand and have a full command of grammar before they choose to write a sentence fragment and mean it, so too should poets study poetic structure before they declare that they just prefer free verse. (Now might be a good time to mention that I don’t use 5 iambs- soft-hard- but 4 in each line above but that was a thoughtful choice). This especially goes for writers who choose to write novels in verse (which I’ll talk about next Wednesday when I review Nikki Grime’s new book PLANET MIDDLE SCHOOL).

When a poet practices highly structured poetry it forces her to: 1) study other poets (read, read, read) 2) solve problems with words (Julie Larios is amazing in this way)  and 3) – well first a quick story.

This past Wednesday, I met with a wonderful group of junior high students to study and write poetry. We started with a wall of cool words they brainstormed and then used each other’s words. They each chose a free verse style and the poems were so angst ridden that it was difficult to glean meaning. Too, Marilyn Nelson says that focussing on the structure of her book allowed her to detach a bit from the subject matter- the lynching of a boy- so she could complete the project. Therefore, structure forces the poet to 3) push aside the emotion for a moment to study word choice and meaning. 

Whether it be a sonnet, limerick, rondeau, or haiku, try some structure in your poetry today.