Almost 30 years ago, Peter van Toorn — a Montreal poet whose work was praised by Northrop Frye as "the product of an unusually intelligent mind" — completed the first of hundreds of drafts of what is, to my mind, a quintessentially Canadian sonnet:
"For pitee renneth soone in gentil herte.
As fit for swinging and full of good oak
as the day it was cut down for a walk;
and taken for granted on any hike
till out climbing up a bouldershot brook
one fall, up mountain; and stopping to shake
the stiffness out of my walk, and just make
some tea in the shade by the brook, I woke
to a moon; and like the world's oldest book
I read my father's spiral in the stick's
bronze skin, with flowers here and there cut out,
a line no shoulderload, sweaty hands, nicks
or scratches from years of walking would flout:
a lifeline — one world, one heart, one motion —
swinging through darkness with the sun and moon.
To hear Peter Van Toorn read "Mountain Stick," click here. I'm not sure how long it took to carve that first line into his notebook, but it is cut with impressive artistry. The mimetic quality of the streaming consonants (k) and open vowels (o, oo, ou) fuses with the singular harmony of the closing couplet. It embraces an optimism that may appear naive, but is an optimism that is perceived at a moment of convergence between human generations and astronomical cycles: an optimism revealed by flowers carved in a taken-for-granted walking stick. To celebrate the forthcoming release of Mountain Tea and Other Poems from Véhicule Press, Poetics.ca here republishes Peter's meditation on a fruitful but unforgiving form, with recent photographs and audio clips included from a recent conversation at his home in Ste Anne de Bellevue in the Banlieu Ouest of Montreal.
The cover page of one of Peter's scrap books where dozens of drafts of poems are archived. Photo by Stephen Brockwell.
Take away the haiku, and the sonnet is the heartwrencher of all the fixed forms: by opening and closing the heart a little more generously than the compactness of its gesture would seem to allow, the sonnet lifts a burden. So, when the occasion it aspires to accommodate is the same as for song and dance — the celebration of thought mastered out of doubt by feeling, in singing words, and in the nick of time — the sonnet is a bouquet of pictures in sound: its syllables touch the heart with a freeing motion. With a “sweet wild twist” it shows the glow of feelings redounding to the soul, joining a moment’s joy and sorrow to sacred waves of being. But, before it lifts a burden, resolves a tension or makes a revelation, before it makes naked the harmony concealed in the very reality to occasion the burden of its theme and energy of its song, the sonnet finds its reason in rhyme, in a tuning suitable to its moody straights. It does this mysteriously, like water stampeding through the bottleneck of a river narrows or talking in bubbles along a slope of stones, quickening from its prosaic stance of doubt into a deeper, more fluently melodious and alive design. The sonnet, like the pine and the pagoda, shows signs of longevity; it is nearly 700 years old now. Yet, it is always in danger of becoming obsolete unless it remembers to deliberate the contemporaneity of its ancestry by attending to the revolutions in diction and the rhythms of common speech. So, one of the sonnet’s themes will always be speech — passionate, musical, rhabdomantic speech itself, the very difficult beauty of it. For the sonnet must not only deliver its burden of love, it must also deliver itself, and in so doing redeem for itself a magic that words (whether spoken, chanted, murmured, declaimed, hummed, intoned or growled) will always have been relinquishing to song and dance.
Small wonder Wordsworth found even a “brief respite,” ruminating the sonnet’s scanty proportions. Its status in English poetry as one of the longest stanzas is one of courtesy, for the sonnet is a hybrid compounded of several measures. At least three stanzas contribute to its fixity of form and adaptability of rhyme scheme — the quatrain, the triplet or tercet, and the couplet. The quatrain is the workhorse of English stanzas and gives the ballad its narrative stamina. It takes the initiative and the brunt of the burden in the sonnet, too, comprising the first eight lines of the Petrarchan sonnet and the first dozen of the Shakespearean. The quatrain drags the load of the theme, frames the problem, and sets the scene and pace — it breaks into the silence of the page until the “turn.” The triplet and tercet are more light-footed than the quatrain, and they generally do the scouting and scooting that provide for the resolution after the turn. The difference between the triplet and the tercet is described by more than rhyme. The triplet piles up its effect by using one rhyme sound three times consecutively before advancing the cause of the next stanza with an entirely new triple rhyme sound. It promotes unity within each stanza, but does not enforce unity between stanzas. It seems suited, therefore, to the mood and pace of the exquisitely turned brief lyric. The tercet, on the other hand, trips along in terza rima. Its alternating rhyme scheme always has one foot in the door of the coming stanza with which it interlocks in rhyme and rhythm. It seems to effortlessly weave and unweave itself in preparation for what is coming. Like Penelope at her loom, the tercet undoes or loosens what it has completed in order to provide the excuse for continuing with a variation on the story. The tercet, therefore, is suited to the prophetic or adventurous long poem: it promotes a lively sublimation or delay of conclusion while it works the threads of the narrative. Exquisite enough in the haiku, the triplet or tercet finds a new orbit in the sestet of the sonnet, especially if it trips along with the spontaneity, fluency, and rapidity or terza rima, or throws a playful light over the lucubrations deposited by the octave’s sturdy quatrains. The sparkling triplet and cunning tercet, each in their own Latin way, bring about the desired release from the pressure that the more steady, Northern quatrains are made to contain.
Another stanzaic layer in the sonnet’s laminated structure is the couplet. The couplet is not as volatile or versatile as the triplet or tercet, but it is witty, pointed and climactic. In the Shakespearean sonnet the couplet provides not only the relief and resolution but a miniature version, an epigrammatic playback, of the entire drama presented in the preceding three quatrains. Sometimes the couplet breaks the bubble of conflict with the pin of irony, sometimes it bravely puts an end to all bluffs and disguises, with an ace of hearts. In the Petrarchan sonnet the couplet can occur at various points: in the rhymed “envelopes” of the octave (11. 2-3, 6-7), in the rhymed “axis” (11. 4-5), and anywhere in the sestet — in triple sequence, as complement to a quatrain, or as the axis of two tercets or triplets with inversely corresponding rhyme schemes. Whether it clinches an argument, offers terms of peace and love, or relaxes the troubled heart into silence by the spectacle of awe and spiritual osmosis, the couplet tends to make for a mock surrender, a thickening keen for change, a concentrated phase of transition described by the phrase, “Reculer pour mieux sauter” (a crouch before a leap, or retreat without defeat).
Aside from nonce forms of stanzaic organization (which the five-, six-, seven-, eight-, or nine-line stanza suggests for the irregularly rhymed sonnet), there are still the possibilities that blank verse suggest for an unrhymed sonnet, a concern that extends beyond the limits of this essay. The outlines of three stanzaic building blocks — quatrain, triplet or tercet, and couplet — are present in all regular forms. These stanzas are less obtrusive in those samples that direct their thematic currency evenly and masterfully throughout the whole of 140 syllables; in outstanding achievements of sonnetry, the presence of form, all form, is subliminal — supportive of intense artistic expression and imaginative experience at all points. The overwhelmingly exquisite sonnet has no corners, only a roundedoutness full of breathing holes. Rhyme, metre and stanzaic organization, therefore, are less conspicuous in a lyric sonnet when a high degree of line integrity is obtained, than in a witty sonnet when articulations of impassioned argument closely follow rhythmic units of stanzaically predictable length. The same elements of versification almost disappear in a dramatic sonnet when enjambment or syncopation stretches or knots the rhythm, which has effect of sprung rhythm: it attenuates the principle of mosaic return or “closure” — dealing with one thing at a time between stanzaically pronounced intervals of rhetoric, rhyme, and syntax.
Like some mountainside hermitage snug near the mountain’s narrow top, the sonnet offers a large perspective. Yet, the sonnet is commodious in illusion only — it is not roomy inside. Its form invokes the principle of imbalance. Its shape of two unequal parts, octave and sestet, overlays three or more even stanzaic units. The structural appeal of two unequal parts fused over three or more symmetrically arranged parts has something to do with the appeal that the crooked straightness of a walking stick makes. Bipartite in shape, the sonnet shows a periodic inclination in syntax and rhythm. Sometimes, in one breath it musically sustains smaller units of phrase and cadence whose stature it magnifies into more momentous perspectives by its turn or emptied moment at the fulcrum of the eighth or ninth line. The numinous quality of the turn, and the mediating propulsion of the periodic sentence in some of the greatest sonnets, set all 140 syllables of its 14 lines chiming in unison behind its burden like a crystal wine glass rubbed at the rim by a moist finger. Some of the more recalcitrant and philosophical sonneteers even resemble weight lifters as they move through the form — lift a weight up to the shoulders in one haul of the octave; pause a moment to borrow strength from somewhere in space and time at the turn; and make the jerk or elevation above the head in the sestet.
In an attitude of rapt attention, the sonnet is both intuitive and analytic to an acute degree because it joins what it divides or finds divided. The turn represents a memory of the abyss — makes the figure a leap of faith makes — and reminds us symbolically of the strophic function of rhyme and metre in ancient Greek odes and Hebrew verse scriptures, where it signals a change in direction to dancers and singers, a modulation in theme, mood and attitude, to accommodate the wisdom of the oracle, chorus or deus ex machina, or to signal a change in tone from lyric or lamentative to prophetic or transcendent in the supplicant addressing his tribe, soul and God. So strong is this bias to the turn in poetry close to its source of divine frenzy and controlled rage, that even in the Shakespearean sonnet the Petrarchan turn occupies a residual status, like a pleat in cloth never completely removed by ironing, at about the eighth or ninth line, before it recurs emphatically in the penultimate line of the clinching couplet.
For all its brevity, the “sonetto” (small sound, or little song) compensates by its power of magnification and refraction. Wordsworth, for example, compares the sonnet, because of this magnifying power, to “an orbicular body, a sphere or a dewdrop.” Its concentrated focus allows for a ubiquity of address that is difficult to match. And so, the sonnet Dante first installed in the vernacular is all of 140 syllables the stiffest exercise in freedom the poet may choose to face. Its specifications are so exacting that since its eclosion nearly 700 years ago, masters of stichic, strophic and stochastic forms have found themselves repudiating this most exotic of English stanzas. The Augustans — Pope, Swift, Dryden, for example — despite their aspiration to “What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed,” (and possibly because of it) deliberately discarded the sonnet for their major poetic purposes. Some of the prime Romantics — Blake and Burns make a telling pair — for all their great love of vocal plasticity, overlooked the opportunity the sonnet provides for wit, melodic elan and compression. The Romantics themselves were less concerned with conforming to the norms of society, or with satirizing false pretenses, than with visiting secret recesses of the soul and salvaging sanctuaries of spirit and feeling invaded by the spread of industrialization; and Wordsworth and Keats used the sonnet form easily, often and unselfconsciously. Some of Clare’s sonnets, irregular in form, are now coming into circulation, and they reflect a direction — the jouncy rural still life and portrait reminiscent of Breughel’s peasant scenes —that his contemporaries did not delve into but that the experiments of the imagists now place in a new, and possibly more elevated, perspective. The Victorians, who relished musical pith in their elegant stanzas, to some degree mismanaged it for their decorative needs when they denuded the sonnet of the earthy, nomadic vitality Clare had restored to it. Some of the sonnets, not all, of Mrs. Browning and Dante Rossetti, even Poe, seem either overstuffed, like pompous furniture in a deserted mansion, or full of bric-a-brac and cobwebs, when compared for vigour in diction and imagery to the sonnets of Renaissance masters like Donne. But, since the same criticism holds for many of Wordsworth’s sonnets (as Arnold would be the first to protest, and Arnold places him fifth in the ranks of poets), and since this criticism applies to the less spectacular samples by sonneteers of all times, Shakespeare included, perhaps the observation can be shunted away from the corners of the Victorian imagination to the bracing status or a generalization. As stated at the outset, the sonnet needs a periodic overhaul in subject, rhythm, imagery, rhyme, syntax and diction before it can yield its ichor. Keats was keenly aware of this need, and his observations herald the misgivings of the 20th century imagists:
On the Sonnet
If by dull rhymes our English must be chained, And, like Andromeda, the sonnet sweet Fettered, in spite of pained loveliness; Let us find out, if we must be constrained, Sandals more interwoven and complete To fit the naked foot of poesy; Let us inspect the lyre, and weigh the stress Of every chord, and see what may be gained By ear industrious, and attention meet; Misers of sound and syllable, no less Than Midas of his coinage, let us be Jealous of dead leaves in the bay-wreath crown; So, if we may not let the Muse be free, She will be bound with garlands of her own.
If Montaigne hung the motto “Que scay-je?” (What do I know?) up in our imagination, Keats, with his syncopated cadences and shaggy, irregular rhymes, has reminded every poet attempting the sonnet, to find “Sandals more interwoven and complete / To fit the naked foot of poesy.”At these instigations, one Victorian went to work: Hopkins, whose powerfully innovative poetics have provided the basis and illustration for most serious experiments in poetry since, stimulated a few poets of the atomic and nuclear age to apply some of their best energies to the form.
Given this periodicity — the sonnet has attracted few poets in any age except the Renaissance — it comes as a pleasant surprise to discover that many poets of all times have used the sonnet, even if only once, to create a successful occasional poem, what Rossetti called “a moment's monument.” From Thomas Wyatt, who introduced the Italian prototype to Europe and first worked it into English form for generations after him to enjoy and use, to Robert Frost, who has given all variants of the sonnet a most unassuming but unmistakeable twist of his own, the list of poets who have utilized this 14-liner is long and illustrious. Here is a sonnet census that includes, in chronological order, poets from England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the United States and Canada: d’Orleans, Wyatt, Surrey, Spenser, Raleigh, Sidney, Daniel, Drayton, Fletcher, Shakespeare, Donne, Herbert, Milton, Gray, Cowper, Wordsworth, White, Hunt, Byron, Shelley, Clare, Keats, Beddoes, Hood, Browning, Trench, Tennyson, Turner, Longfellow, Poe, Marston, Arnold, Meredith, Rossetti, Austin, Butler, Swinburne, Blunt, Symonds, Hardy, Lang, Bridges, Hopkins, Lee-Hamilton, Meynell, Gosse, Henley, Stephen, Wilde, Lampman, Dowson, Johnson, Douglas, Santayana, Yeats, Mew, Robinson, Belloc, Frost, Masefield, Babcock, Pound, Brooke, Jeffers, Ransom, Aiken, MacLeish, Owen, Welles, Millay, Cummings, Blunden, Tate, Adams, Winters, Campbell, Moore, Kunitz, Warner, Auden, Spender, Hassall, Gawsworth, Barker, Thomas, Berryman, Manifold, Lowell, Avison, Cogswell, Wright, Nemerov, Larkin, Acorn, Jennings, Hall, Hollander, Hill, Berrigan, Heaney, Solway, van Toorn, Gold, Norris and McGee. The list could easily be extended by inclusion of more poets from the nuclear era, but it would only gain in depth and variety if widened in linguistic range to contact poets who have worked, or are working, in French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, German, Yiddish, Hebrew, Polish, Russian, and the Scandinavian and Slavic languages.
Why poets have periodically resorted to the sonnet’s fixed form to express some of their urgent concerns is difficult to answer unless the very philosophic notion of freedom in life and art is brought up. If “Nature imitates art,” as Wilde insists, and nature seems nowhere so much without specifications of design and purpose that we are not still trying to uncover it, then it seems inconsistent to expect art to advance in expression without restrictions, free from references to a common language and form. Stravinsky maintains that “The more art is worked on, limited . . . the freer it becomes.” Eliot has said that “No verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job.” And Frost has compared writing free verse to playing tennis without a net. The concern with fixed form, with the compression of rhythm into a stable artefact immune from the process of decay and phonetic fossilization, is perhaps only the obverse of our perennial fascination with chaos and the hold it has on us. Frost, who sometimes felt he was “the only person going who works on any but a worn out theory . . . of versification,” confesses his fascination with chaos and the dark as a poetic motivation:
My poems — I should suppose everybody’s poems — are set to trip the reader head foremost into the boundless. Ever since infancy I have had the habit of leaving my blocks, carts, chairs, and such like ordinaries where people would be pretty sure to fall forward over them in the dark. Forward, you understand, and in the dark.
But he has also written that “Nature within her inmost self divides / To trouble men with having to take sides.” From this stoic’s point of view, “every poem is a momentary stay against the confusion of the world.” Frost does not lean on the comfort or truth of belief; his New England conservatism precludes Eliot’s faith in the Logos, and possibly pre-empts it. His poetic conservatism blinds him, perhaps, to the jazzy and more mystic intuitions to be found in the poetry of imagists such as Lawrence; he certainly appears jealous of the attentions Eliot receives for those innovations, especially those involving any social and religious vision of man, which he believes belong outside the poem. Perhaps his demon presses him too hard, for he has juxtaposed the need for form with the need for working in silence, as coeval with the cure for madness, poetic or other:
Any psychiatrist will tell you that making a basket, or making a horseshoe, or giving anything form gives you a confidence in the universe . . . that it has form, see. When you talk about your troubles and go to somebody about them, you’re just a fool. The best way to settle them is to make something that has form, because all you want to do is get a sense of form.
Frost’s insistence here on form seems a little heartless. It is, after all, not form but feeling that counts. Frost’s stubborn stress on form is less enlightened than Socrates’ relation to his demon would endorse. Frost invokes the old Greek gods, but provokes the American (not New England) traits: rugged individualism, self-reliance, pragmatism and chauvinism. But, then, Frost is complex and often proleptic: he has the good taste (as Baudelaire would chip in) to contradict himself now and then. In a lighter mood, he confesses that for him “Poetry is like a cry,” even like a “blush — you can get something you didn’t know you had.” Perhaps, from this perspective, Frost’s addiction to form is a kind of ritual sticktoitiveness, a belief in the human capacity for redemption through verbal meditation, through dramatic consummation. Frost’s fear echoes not only Yeats’ cry that “The centre cannot hold,” but our own nuclear sensibility as well. To create a formless expression (if the term isn’t tautological) seems to herald a giving way to, rather than a celebration of, the forces that beg to be instructed. The history of destructiveness is the history of our failure to imagine, and supply empathetic and imaginative forms to, the forces that threaten to destroy us. But the impulse to give imaginative heartfelt form is not the same as giving technical form. The threat of perpetual holocaust illustrates the differences between the two kinds of form amply and terrifyingly.
Another possible answer to the question, why poets of many cultures and times have made the pilgrimage to the sonnet’s door (the image is revealing), lies in the direction of fashion, the appeal, perennial it seems, of exotic places and times, of mythic beginnings, of some Golden Dawn before the recorded history of a people. The invention of the sonnet is sometimes credited to the Sicilian poet Jacopo de Lentini, who lived, loved and wrote in the first half of the 13th century. The sonnet, therefore, seems to have rustic roots. It appears at least half a century before it becomes immortalized by Cavalcanti, Dante and Petrarch. This almost anonymous origin of the sonnet promises a certain lustre of naïveté and spontaneity. Borrowed from the Italians, a people with a much longer civilization than the European nations, and with a renown for technical ingenuity (ancient Rome being known for its bathrooms, aqueducts and civil engineering, as Canada is for the documentary), the sonnet may have secretly flattered the European nations that adopted it. The sonnet, after all, was not only the form Dante used to install the vernacular (spoken Italian) in, thereby giving dignity to the voice of the people at a time when classical learning was enjoying a rediscovery, but it was by its structural make-up more republican than the feudal, and, later, more democratic than the monarchic, systems of England, France and Spain could officially ratify.
The sonnet as a form, therefore, may have appealed to European poets by force of its illicitness: it gave Europeans a sneak preview of things to come. And, then, it also represented to an English and French court the zenith of courtly achievement overseas: the sonnet enshrined the new values of the Renaissance, perfection in literary and musical expression as well as in the chivalric devotion to courtly love. To write a sonnet was at one time, as the flood of both excellent and mediocre garlands of sonnets in vogue during the 16th century manifests, a conventional way of dissembling sophistication, of aspiring to an international jet set of poetic values. The sonnet was once in danger of Bovarization; it was the easy formula, replete with stock epithets, to which every “miles gloriosus” and petty social climber could resort to appeal to the fantasy of his lady. Donne responded fiercely, circulating his poems in manuscript form among friends and connoisseurs. Shakespeare reacted savagely and deflated the pretensions of many sonneteers who applied the form without talent or conviction (in “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”). Perhaps Shakespeare’s mockery of the standard list of comparisons used by mediocre sonneteers is less of a parody on extant practice than a sarcastic exhortation to sincerity in poetry and love. Perhaps. It is a question for imagists to ponder.
However we choose to answer the question (although there are reasons to believe the issue is no longer relevant: poets of the nuclear age feel that the form is dead), we must, in speaking of the sonnet as a preterite form, come to its temperamental and technically elusive nature. It seems to require as much fine tuning as an Italian racing car, and as much dramatic sense of timing as a trapeze act. We might as well concur with Wyatt’s unintentional description of the sonnet as it arrived fresh from the Continent:
Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am, And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.
The lines cited do suggest how difficult a lady to please Anne Boleyn was — her “Don’t touch me” challenge, if not characteristic of all English ladies of the court at the time, was probably more provocative than most poets of the time could withstand. Petrarch declares the same thing about his unearthly Laura. Wyatt’s couplet at least confesses how intimidating the obstacles in the sonneteer’s way are. In the same “Whoso List to Hunt,” Wyatt states that the art of making a sonnet consists of emulating the wiles of the hunter and lover, of fashioning a “net” with which to capture or “hold the wind.” It must have been the sonnet’s elusive and oracular nature, which Wyatt only hints at, that prompted Boileau to quip, or gasp in exasperation, a century later, “In the sonnet the last line is all that counts.” Frost, too, has commented on the difficulty of having to “cramp or stretch to come out even” in a total of 14 lines. Perhaps this difficulty is only of an imagined erotic limitation, but Hopkins scaled some of his sonnets down to a 10-and-a-half-line “Curtal” sonnet. “When one goes so far,” he writes, “as to run the rhymes of the octave into the sestet a downright prolapsus or hernia takes place and the sonnet is crippled for life.” It is well known that Welsh ladies were hard on Jesuit scholars, so Hopkins’ chastening of the form breathes a kind of moonly fire. In the 14th century, Michelangelo, painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel from a cramped, supine position, wrote several sonnets in the spirit of burlesque and self-parody. The form he used is caudated: it is a regular sonnet with an added “tail” of one or more rhymed tercets.
Regardless of the kind of sonnet in question, a signally reticent poise, hankered-after density, imagist complexion, intricate vowel balance, strophic integrity, fluid periodic motion and throaty syllabic charm are just a few of the features that have made the sonnet somewhat of a rare and celebrated beauty. Her taunt seems irresistible and calculated to deflate the resolutions of any but her most seasoned, persistent admirers. To Wyatt’s inadvertent picture of the sonnet’s inner workings, one is tempted to add Frost’s meditation on its hidden springs, the creative forces of love, nature and freedom as he describes them in his capriciously whispering Shakespearean sonnet, “The Silken Tent.”
Besides presenting a venue to expressions of the amatory kind, from calls of courtesy and compliment to catcalls and bursts of passion, the sonnet has also explored the primary religious emotion of awe and its aesthetic concomitant of surprise. Perhaps more than any other fixed form except the still largely Oriental haiku, the Western sonnet contains the canon of poetic utterances on the subjects of “agape,” death, salvation, immortality, the feeling of going in and out of sync with the supernatural, and the poetically, if not philosophically, orthodox principle of pantheism. In one of his Holy sonnets, Donne apostrophizes “At the round earth’s imagined corners, blow Your trumpets, angels; and arise, arise From death, you numberless infinities Of souls, and to your scattered bodies go.” In another, he buttonholes Death himself with “Death, thou shalt die,” registering accurately and passionately one of those critical moments of doubt and recovery taking us into the surd element of experience. Donne’s rhetorical address takes into account not only the historical aspect of the times, when plague was often as fatal as cancer is in our century, but he addresses himself to an apocalyptic vision of man; he offers us imaginative release from slavery to temporal decay through the principle of revelation. Though several poets have dallied with the sonnet to celebrate the dimension of the sacred in the nuclear age, poets coming into prominence since the ’40s have, for the most part, sought to incline their more socially urgent moral and imaginative concerns into stichic and stochastic forms. Nothing like the Holy sonnets of Donne or the Terrible Sonnets of intense devotion and nervous breakdown by Hopkins come to mind.
This rejection by most poets in the past four decades of not only the sonnet and fixed form, but of all poetry involving rhyme and metre, shows a return to a prosaic inclination. An age prone to stichic assimilation in verse betrays a predilection for reason over rhyme, statement over suggestion, definition over rune, and confession over apostrophe. The sonnet does not work well off an attitude given to secular norms and the paradigms of statistics. It requires the dimension of vision, the belief in the existence of a transcendent unity, and it urges a resolution of the conflict between sacred and profane. With the unswerving patience of Job, the sonnet stubbornly insists on a core of meaning that will adamantly defy the brunt of the most potent blast man or nature can deal out. It invokes the untroubled confluence of yin and yang, and steps gingerly on the dragon’s tail, seeing in that Oriental flying serpent the connubial alignment of male and female. In this sense, the sonnet is a butterfly skipping with impunity through the hot, open mouth of a tiger caught for a moment by the mystery of the Tao.
At the root of the conception of poetry that the sonnet epitomizes in the West lies the art of song and dance. These rely on reiterative means, on rhyme-measured intervals, rhythmically dramatized pictures in sound, and patterns of expectation and fulfillment. Premised on this conception of harmony, the sonnet further stems from the notion of “condensare,” “dichtung,” or condensation. Poetry, whose units of sound, image, significance and spiritual flow are aboriginally tiny, condenses as it slows down or accelerates into a time whose locus it shares with song and dance. This condensation of poetry with conviction in rhyme, in “moving easy in harness” (as Frost phrases it), gives the word its elation and elasticity, its metaphoric power to magnify by suggestive denseness, its capacity for memorable ubiquity, for reverberating in the very consciousness it is an emblem of. This notion of “accord” will have the poem compact and inevitable in design and purpose, like a seed. Rhyme in this scheme of things is not unfamiliar with the notion of rapid, disassociative juxtaposition, a feature a student once attributed to some of the poetry of Williams when she observed, “Oh, his work is all bricks and no mortar.” But rhyme, at least in English, which lacks the natural musical fertility, the abundance of converging sounds that in some languages, Japanese or Italian, for example, soon make rhyme monotonous or redundant, resists the notion of fragmentation and discontinuity in favour of the maintenance of a metrical continuum. For rhyme discloses an organic point of view; it sees words organized in rows, with intimate contact, growing from the dramatic drive of the theme as “leaves from a tree.” And if each leaf has its own unique shape, colour and position in space, leaves share a collective identity. Rhyme in this scheme is much more complex and reciprocal than the repetition of words with nearly the same sound: it is a matter of intervals of letters, syllables, phonetic clusters, phrases, images, syntactic and rhythmic units with same or reversed sound, with implications of affinity and opposition, contraction and expansion, harmony and dissonance. Rhyme tries to invoke the very body and soul of language to stir the “bones” of revelation.
In a sonnet, every consonant and vowel counts for rhyme, and for good reasons: not just to praise and propel all the atoms named by breathing from A to Z, but to breathe a numinous atmosphere (or the imitation of it in words) in and around the sense-carrying particles of sound, to provide the means of their elate propulsion, much as semen carries and propels the sperm that life swims in. Rhyme is half the meaning of a poem. Utility prose, whose function is blandly referential, abhors rhyme. The poet who relies on utility prose assumes rhyme to be some kind of starchy decoration or archaic organ, an unnecessary appendix for issuing obsolete matter into the void. The vertical friction of rhyme, and the rhythm it rides into, reinforced by diction, image and metric organization, against the horizontal friction of syntax and idiom creates the dramatic tension that supplements the other half of a poem’s meaning. That other half is theme, the particular stroke, which content offers, to make us “hear, feel and see.” The last phrase is Conrad's, and Conrad’s prose is anything but utility prose. When he describes the traders steaming into “The Heart of Darkness,” firing at the natives, and dismisses the spectacle with the phrase “squirting lead into the bushes,” he not only conjures up the folly and futility of men playing with war toys, but makes a corrosive attack upon the attempt at colonization: by reifying the image of onanism he prophecizes the sterility of the enterprise; and by subtly exploiting rhyme and rhythm, even in this brief phrase, he invokes the poisonous image of the nursery choking the infant, and so plays the drums of doom to man’s infantility.
In this sense of a dense, liberated articulation, a sonnet is a giant haiku full of strange caesuras. And, like the haiku, it shows refinement, vigour and simplicity. It leaves no trace of effort. A good sonnet moves with casual subtlety, a relaxed vitality, out of the conviction in brevity and the surpassing power of song. So it remains an artefact with all the resources for squeezing the most out of a theme. So vital and passionate at a formal level as to have the sonneteer by the throat, the sonnet demands a subtle opening and closing of vowels and a seamless meshing of consonants, these two constituting the “soul and bones” of language (a Talmudic notion). The sonnet also demands a swift handling of image, spoken idiom and syntax — a fine tuning of pitch, pause, accent, and suspension or curtailment, depending on the cues for intonation provided by the dramatic voice. And the sonnet insists on the incorporation of all these elements into measures of rhyme and metre allowing for a fusion of accentual, syllabic, accentual-syllabic and quantitative, prosodic systems.
So, for about 80 syllables, the sonnet has it: a rhythm as packed as the burden it possesses to drop, and a rhyme scheme tilted at intervals to match the burden of the theme, with a promise of a chiming off — a promise kept to after the turn when, for 60 syllables or so, the burden is so rhythmically chimed out or resolved that the theme ends off on a lingering in the consciousness. To keep to his promise of a musical opening and closing motion, a design of resolution that is at once as harmonically suspended as it is rhythmically percussive, the sonneteer must wander into Dedalian labyrinths of rhyme. If he’s not for a sesquipedalian diction, he has millions of syllables and phrases to choose from, and he only settles for 140 after each and everyone of them rhymes with, or takes into account the rhythms, rhymes and rhyme intervals of, each and every other. His proper number of rhymes, therefore, is not the two alternating in the octave and the possible two or three lacing the sestet, but a total of 140 reverberating to the conspicuous end rhymes of the Petrarchan template. The same applies, in varying degrees, to the Shakespearean, Miltonic, Spenserian, Curtal, Burlesque and Caudated sonnet forms. All this may be a way of reasserting the traditional view of rhyme or poetry as riding the right words into the right places at the right times and with the right spaces between them. It presumes the poem capable of receiving the best feelings and words crowding in. Inachievable, it is the moon hanging in the poet’s mind.
This decussated rhyme, this conformation of words counterpointing, this net of chiming the syllables make crossing over at different intervals and at minutely different angles of vocal, semantic and imagist incidence, allows for the melody or dramatic tone to show up against a metric background. And it is this nuance in the grid that brings the sonnet close to the kind of total plasticity in vocal form that Cezanne expresses as the development of Impressionism into a form more inevitable and memorable than Imagism. It is what makes the sonnet so exacting and challenging for a contemporary poet whose vision in rhythm, or picture in sound, is further monitored by strictures of vernacular diction and idiomatic syntax. By riding his rhyme out in a steadied rhythm, which the friction of syntax and metre provide or anticipate at critical points, and by developing his theme and melody along logical and syntactical frames of stanza units, using one kind of rhythm to coincide with the braking of sense, another to syncopate or “bend and stretch” it, he emphasizes the theme in its dramatic trajectory and semantic ligature. It is by riding his rhythm into an over rhyme that he depicts his thinking mastered out of feeling in singing words. This over rhyme, which is what can set all the syllables chiming in unison, is sometimes hidden before the sonnet’s turn only to reveal itself more boldly as it rides the sestet out, as if to throw a new net of feeling and sense retroactively over the octave. The analogy from surfing may assist in exposition. The basic metric continuum or rhythmic pattern that the sonnet’s rhymes reinforce represent the total and regular motion of the sea, the steady lap and jog of the waves. The sonnet’s critical momentum, achieved by the time the turn occurs, coincides with the breaking of the boiling comber. The dramatic slide through the pattern of all the syllables, delineating the burden of the song delivering itself out of doubt, indicates the surfer as he rides the comber from sea to shore. Another way of putting it is saying that the over rhyme works like the jazz improvisation or ad lib on an old tune, and on the continued progression of percussive harmony of the musicians who are implying the tune that the soloist is extemporizing on.
In the light of the preceding remarks, the achievement of an adaptation of the sonnet becomes tantamount to innovation. Though it is not within the scope of this essay to elaborate, it may briefly be ventured that Frost’s “Mowing,” which is an irregularly rhymed sonnet, is really a specimen whose architectonics (with antecedents in Shelley’s “Ozymandias” and Keats’ “On the Sonnet”) are so madrigalistic as to constitute a new development of this old, fixed form that it anticipates experiments with free form and seriously calls for a review of the contemporary disdain for form. Though Frost with characteristic elfishness might repudiate it, as he repudiated all behaviourist descriptions of himself — he prided himself on his “uncatchability” and claimed he was neither an extrovert nor an introvert but “just a plain vert from Vermont” — a new type should be added to the list of forms: the Vermont or Frost sonnet. North of the border this has already been done.
“Mountain Stick” appears in Mountain Tea (Véhicule Press. 2003). Republished by permission.
“A Goose in the Caboose” was originally published in The Insecurity of Art: Essays on Poetics (Véhicule Press. Montreal, 2003). Republished by permission.
On a very humid night last summer, Peter and I revisited these ideas in conversation. Here's what he had to say about the sonnet (warning — this is a 2MB wave file). The insight that form is a kind of tea strainer appeals to me. It emphasizes the role of form in the process of composition rather than form as a canonized finished product. As the images below from Van Toorn's scrapbooks suggest, that process can be violent and unyielding.
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