Poetry in Form: Sonnet

Poetry in Form: Sonnet

“Close-up of a fountain pen writing in a notebook” by Aaron Burden on Unsplash
Sonnets are the very first poetic form many people learn about. The two traditional forms of the sonnet are the Shakespearean (think Shakespeare) and the Petrarchan (think — you guessed it — Petrarch). Both are 14 lines long and include a “volta,” or turn, in the argument or imagery of the poem occuring around line 9, and both are traditionally written in iambic pentameter.

Poetic forms usually rely on repetition. The repetition can be of lines or words in specific patterns, or of a metrical pattern or a rhyme pattern. Like language, though, poetic forms are constantly evolving.

Once the sonnet form was established, poets started stretching it to fit their taste. The twentieth century saw much variation on the sonnet form, but that variation has been going on for centuries. Poets employ varied rhyme schemes, or no rhyme schemes, or change the traditional number of lines, as in the curtal sonnet. Sometimes these are called “nonce sonnets,” nonce meaning a one-off. Of course, once a one-off is created, poets may imitate it.

Two of my favorite contemporary practitioners of the sonnet are Deborah Warren and Natasha Trethewey. The sonnet below, originally published in Mezzo Cammin: an online journal of formalist poetry by women, is my attempt at a Shakespearean sonnet.

Seven-Card Elegy

My father taught me how to play the hand

he dealt. I had to memorize each card

that fell face-up, obey his stern command

to take advantage of the chumps who didn’t guard

against their tells: the finger on the chin

that meant the player filled a Swiss-cheese straight,

the blink that meant a bluff. I learned to win

and lose without expression, to lay in wait.

When Pops had nothing left to teach, he lost

his patience, grew disgusted when I bet

on clearly losing cards, or when I tossed

a winner out. I taught myself to get

up from the table — to play the card of tough

indifference. Then indifference paid enough.

3 thoughts on “Poetry in Form: Sonnet

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