So, the Sonnet; fourteen lines, cross or envelope rhyme, heroic couplet and job done, right? Some would say that is indeed a Sonnet, others might even say you don’t need any of those ingredients to make one. I think there’s more to it than those nuances of form although as a bit of a traditionalist I like to see some formal elements on display.
A turn, or volta for those of Italian persuasion, is an element of the form I often see ignored by writers. Aside from the dramatic appeal of a change in direction – and, be honest, we all love a bit of drama – there’s something appealing about slowly easing the reader in one direction before dragging them kicking and screaming in another.
The Shakespearean version of the Sonnet should be the mode of choice for all rational thinkers out there. Three quatrains with a closing summation screams thesis, antithesis and synthesis to me. How about prosecution, defence and verdict for those familiar with the court process?
There are, of course, other variations on the Sonnet form. The Spenserian one presents an extra challenge to your rhyming composition and the Meredithian variety has the nerve to extend to sixteen lines!
I think the appeal of the form runs a little deeper than all of that, and at times it’s hard to explain why. Iambic Pentameter is usually the meter of choice and the reassuring heartbeat it provides isn’t even necessary these days, so I can’t attribute it to that. Perhaps it is as described by Stephen Fry, a ‘Goldilocks’ form, and just right in a way that some other forms are too much or too little.
I believe there is great pleasure to be found in writing a Sonnet and for those who haven’t yet attempted it I would highly recommend it. I feel the last word belongs to Don Paterson, a fine poet who knows his way around a Sonnet – read his ‘Mercies’ for one example – who says:
‘Poets write sonnets because it makes poems easier to write. Readers read them because it makes their lives easier to bear.’
If there was ever a worthy aspiration for poetry in any form, I think that would be it.