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.

Book Review Wednesday: A Wreath for Emmett Till

Recently,  the name Emmett Till has surfaced quite a bit in relation to the  Trayvon Martin case in Florida. Houghton Mifflin’s teacher guide to A WREATH FOR EMMETT TILL gives the following short explanation of Emmet Till’s death.

Emmett Till was a fourteen-year-old African American boy murdered in 1955 in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at or speaking to a white woman. Though two men were tried for the crime, they were acquitted; no one has been convicted for Emmett’s murder. In 2004 the U.S. Justice Department reopened the case based on new evidence brought to light by two documentary films.

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Marilyn Nelson’s  A WREATH FOR EMMETT TILL is a heroic crown of sonnets– a sequence of fifteen interlinked sonnets, in which the last one is made up of the first lines of the preceding fourteen. The final poem is also an acrostic that reads RIP Emmett L Till.

The book was published in 2005 and won the 2005 Boston Globe—Horn Book Award, a 2006 Coretta Scott King Honor Book, a 2006 Michael L. Printz Honor Book, and a 2006 Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award Honor Book. Nelson is not a stranger to awards and prizes and holds three Coretta Scott King honors for her books EMMETT TILL, FORTUNE’S BONES, and CARVER and the Newbery Honor for CARVER: A LIFE IN POEMS.

With all of these awards, my opinion is unnecessary. Instead, this posting is a way to alert those of you interested in poetry and social justice about this sophisticated, complicated, and emotional book of poems.

I mentioned in a comment last Wednesday that we learn and retain new information when we have a scaffolding of previous learning upon which to hang the new knowledge. To this end, EMMETT TILL came across my desk at just the right time. I happen to be completing my first reading of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. The classic courtroom and coming of age novel transported me to the deep south in 1935. While writing this post I also found out about “Strange Fruit” the 1936 poem about lynching referenced in EMMETT TILL. That poem was published by Abel Merrapol and made popular by Billie Holliday.

It is the season of Easter and martyrs, death and rebirth. Further, it is the season of Passover. I spent this afternoon teaching children about the importance of remembering  history so we will not be doomed to repeat our mistakes. Each year, Jews try to put themselves ourselves in that place of slavery, and deliverance so that they we will not allow slavery and injustice to happen again. But injustice is all around– in far away lands and close to home.

The poems of Marilyn Nelson remind us of this. Below is the fifth stanza, and I’m taken with how it captures my feelings for Trayvon Martin’s parents.

Your only child, a body thrown to bloat,
mother of sorrows, of justice denied.
Surely you must have thought of suicide,
seeing his gray flesh, chains around his throat.
Surely you didn’t know you would devote
the rest of your changed life to dignified
public remembrance of how Emmett died,
innocence slaughtered by the hands of hate.
If sudden loving light proclaimed you blest
would you bow your head in humility,
your healed heart overflow with gratitude?
Would you say yes, like the mother of Christ?
Or would you say no to your destiny,
mother of a boy martyr, if you could?

This book crossed my path at the exact right time.

While researching this post, I found a video of an hour long speech/reading that Ms. Nelson presented at Politics and Prose in Washington, DC. The section of the video on this book starts around 15:00-34:00 and she discusses the heroic crown of sonnets structure and the final acrostic poem. She also reads the entire book in the most melliflulous voice.

If you are interested in more information about Ms. Nelson, please follow the links to some of these other online resources.

There is an NPR interview with Nelson who was the Connecticut Poet Laureate at the time.

More about Marilyn Nelson at the Poetry Foundation here.

And a ton of links at Teaching Books including slide shows, videos, and other websites.