Hunting Down The Lawless Sonnets of The Old West

Sonnet Eye Chart (1)

 

In fact, it seems to be the opinion of most of the later poets of our language that if the game is to be played at all, it is best to follow the rules without cavil and without claiming any license to depart from them.

 A Study on Versification (1911) by Brander Matthews

It is a conundrum, this holy aura that surrounds sonnets. The nearly religious vow that a poet is expected to uphold in pursuit of writing them, by fervently obeying a sonnet’s ancient rhyming rules and metrical structure. I agree with Matthews; “There is no obligation of any poet to make use of the sonnet framework; and if he would express himself without restraint he has at his command the large liberty of all the other lyrical forms.  It is in the rigidity of its skeleton that the charm of the sonnet is firmly rooted.  It tends to impose a helpful condensation, thus counteracting the temptation to diffuseness.”

Rules aren’t fun when it comes to creative writing. I think it’s why many readers of poetry wrinkle their noses at sonnets like an ancient lyricist has let out a fart in the library and it’s just wafted their way.   We might pin the blame for the modern masses eschewing sonnets on Shakespeare, whose sonnets, even his most ardent fans admit, can be at times practically unreadable in the leaden opacity of some of his verse.  We are told by learned professors of literature we are supposed to like Shakespeare because he is brilliant, not because we actually like his sonnets.  No wonder most modern readers have thrown off their literary chains, shirking their responsibilities of reading Milton, Chaucer, Tennyson, Wordsworth and Dunne to obtain a well rounded appreciation of poetry, instead favoring more accessible poets like e. e. cummings, who followed no rules at all. However, boldly avowing a broad dislike of dusty sonnets would require taking the time to actually read a fair bit of Shakespeare or Milton to have a real opinion on the matter and most of us never cracked those books to begin with in high school, college or beyond.

Sonnets run the risk of offending the sensibility of modern readers of poetry, those readers that are attracted to free verse precisely because poetry doesn’t have to follow the rules of grammar and sentence construction we were taught in school.  A modern poet can claim poetic license at anytime and lay down their “get out of grammar jail” free card whenever he or she chooses.

So dear readers, let’s climb into this poet’s confessional and get something off our collective chests early on in this blog.   Sonneteers sometimes stretch the rules just a bit in favor of a winning line or for the sake of clarity and story.   Let’s not pretend that sonnets are bound by an ironclad suit of armor of 14 lines of 10 syllables each and every time.   Many great sonnets stray slightly from this construction, with the occasional couplet getting its freak on by being 9 syllables followed by 10 or 11 syllables, or the addition of a bonus couplet and winding up with 16 lines, or snipping a couplet off and wrapping things up after only 12 lines.   Believe it or not, there are even 18 line sonnets, who aren’t kicked out of the family tree of sonnets for having an extra few chromosomes as it were. Rudyard Kipling, a contemporary of Brander Matthew, wrote him a letter following the publication of A Study of Versification and quipped; “I’d like to war over the sonnet idea with you.  A sonnet is much more lawless than you’d have it.”

Things happen in poetry, even classical poetry.   Its true, that rules are rules with sonnets, and a serious reader of sonnets should probably know the difference between an English sonnet, an Italian sonnet or a Petrarchan sonnet, but not every line must rhyme precisely in its anointed position if the flow and meter is pleasing.  Some sonnets follow the – if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck rule of sonnets, for even with slight unique modifications – it’s still a sonnet.  But as Brander Matthews said: “A poor sonnet is a poor thing indeed….. nothing is longer than a sonnet if there is nothing in it.”  A boorish writer of sonnets can be a slave to impeccable rhyme sequence and structure with nothing interesting to say and the reader is still left with a shortish bit of rubbish.

Why go in search of great sonnets?  And whose to be the judge of what constitutes a great sonnet?   Both good questions one should ask if we are both to invest considerable time in this endeavor, me in writing this blog and you in reading it. I’ll not impose or assume anything about your motivations. The reason I have an obsession with sonnets is that when I find a sonnet that really speaks to me, in both the fluidity of its language and in the artistry of it’s message, it sparkles. Finding a great sonnet is like finding a keeper agate;  I see a glimpse of it sticking out of the ground, I bend over to pick it up and hope that when I lick off the dirt and study it closely I am going to uncover something incredibly beautiful.

Here are four sonnets about sonnets.  I figured why not let much better writers than I explain why sonnets can suck you in under their influence if you’re not careful.   Astute readers will instantly call foul on the Billy Collins poem, Sonnet, being labeled a sonnet. True, it lacks a sonnets rhyming scheme. But its a ripping good poem, so it qualifies in my book as a true “sonnet.”  A sense of humor scores bonus points if I am judge and jury in curating which sonnets make the grade for this blog.  Enjoy!

 

Scorn Not The Sonnet

William Wordsworth

Scorn not the Sonnet; Critic, you have frowned,
Mindless of it’s just honours; with this key
Shakespeare unlocked his heart; the melody
Of this small lute gave ease to Petrarch’s wound;
A thousand times this pipe did Tasso sound;
With it Camöens soothed an exile’s grief;
The Sonnet glittered a gay myrtle leaf
Amid the cypress with which Dante crowned
His visionary brow: a glow-worm lamp,
It cheered mild Spenser, called from Faery-land
To struggle through dark ways; and, when a damp
Fell round the path of Milton, in his hand
The Thing became a trumpet; whence he blew
Soul-animating strains—alas, too few!

 

A Sonnet

D. G. Rossetti

A Sonnet is a moment’s monument,
–Memorial from the Soul’s eternity
To one dead deathless hour. Look that it be,
Whether for lustral rite or dire portent,
Of its own arduous fullness reverent:
Carve it in ivory or in ebony,
As Day or Night may rule; and let Time see
Its flowering crest impearled and orient.
A Sonnet is a coin: its face reveals
The soul,–its converse, to what Power ’tis due:
–Whether for tribute to the august appeals
Of Life, or dower in Love’s high retinue,
It serve, or, ‘mid the dark wharf’s cavernous breath,
In Charon’s palm it pay the toll to Death.

 

I Will Put Chaos Into Fourteen Lines

Edna St. Vincent Millay

I will put Chaos into fourteen lines
And keep him there; and let him thence escape
If he be lucky; let him twist, and ape
Flood, fire, and demon — his adroit designs
Will strain to nothing in the strict confines
Of this sweet order, where, in pious rape,
I hold his essence and amorphous shape,
Till he with Order mingles and combines.
Past are the hours, the years of our duress,
His arrogance, our awful servitude:
I have him. He is nothing more nor less
Than something simple not yet understood;
I shall not even force him to confess;
Or answer. I will only make him good.

Sonnet

Billy Collins

To read Collin’s poem click the link below.

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse?contentId=40461

 

©2017 Original material copyright T. A. Fry.  Other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.

How First You Loved Me For A Written Line

 

All you have to do is write one true sentence.   The truest sentence you know.

Earnest Hemingway

EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY
Edna St. Vincent Millay

Edna St. Vincent Millay saw the tides of public sentiment regarding her writing wax and wane during her lifetime.  She straddled the era of classical poetry and the emergence of new voices, a new poetic language.  The writing of Walt Whitman, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, just to name a few, was evolving the accepted poetic style that would bring free verse to the forefront of American literature.

To the literary critics who stabbed and slashed at Edna’s prose in search of some kind of retributive analysis; I say phooey. I have no interest in literary critique as character assassination. I think the critics of her day suffered from the same character flaw strong independent women face today; criticism that hides behind misogyny. I prefer to invest my time as unabashed fan of Millay who brings a sense of humor and humanity to her poetry. Millay’s writing is filled with true sentences which stick with me long after the cover is closed.

Sometimes When I Am Wearied Suddenly

Edna St. Vincent Millay

Sometimes when I am wearied suddenly
Of all the things that are the outward you,
And my gaze wanders ere your tale is through
To webs of my own weaving, or I see
Abstractedly your hands about your knee
And wonder why I love you as I do,
Then I recall, “Yet Sorrow thus he drew;
“Then I consider, “Pride thus painted he.”
Oh, friend, forget not, when you fain would note
In me a beauty that was never mine,
How first you knew me in a book I wrote,
How first you loved me for a written line:
So are we bound till broken is the throat
Of Song, and Art no more leads out the Nine.

©2017 Original material copyright T. A. Fry.  Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.

 

A Farewell To Arms

sir r peale
George Baxter’s Portrait of Sir Robert Peele

ob·ses·sion

əbˈseSHən

noun

  1. The state of being obsessed with someone or something.
  2. An idea or thought that repetitively preoccupies or intrudes on a person’s mind.
  3. The judgement of others who believe the person obsessed is spending an excessive amount of time on something.

English Oxford Dictionary

A true confession.  The wonderful thing about an honest obsession is the depth of wonder it constantly evokes, connections that one either uncovers like mini-mysteries, threads woven into the common consciousness or imagines out of whole cloth for one’s own entertainment.   To an outsider, another’s obsession may seem odd, repetitively annoying,  bewildering, or taken to the extreme,  a mental illness.   I haven’t given this much thought,  how my sonnet obsession might appear to others; harmless, eccentric, needlessly academic, outdated, nerdy all jump to mind.  Fortunately, as of yet, it has not proven to be the cause of social ostracism or source of embarrassment to my children.  However, I’ve only just begun this blog; stay tuned..

One of the things I quickly uncovered about sonnets is the ubiquity of their influence on writers of all stripes throughout the ages. Sonnets lend themselves to the obsessive mind because of their seemingly unlimited connections within literature, a backbone of the cosmos of poetic ideals that are inherent to the human psyche’s pursuit of artistic expression.

I have not, as yet, uncovered a sonnet written by Earnest Hemingway. If someone reading this blog knows of one, be so kind as to share it. The title to Hemingway’s novel, A Farewell to Arms, is likely lifted from George Peele’s sonnet of the same name.   The themes of the novel and the sonnet are very much connected; exploring the noble ideals around the concept of service – service to country first as soldier, then, when no longer able to sustain the ravages of war, service to others, friends, family, lovers or Queen.

Reading Peele’s sonnet the first time sent me scurrying to the dictionary, unsure if I truly understood the meaning of the word beadsman.   I’ll save you the trip.  What I learned is in the 1500’s it was common for royalty, nobleman and wealthy benefactors of churches or castles to hire alms men or woman to pray for their well being.  An interesting thought, that the rich believed someone else could pray their way to either earthly success or something more eternal.  I suppose that’s the cynical view of a concept I have no modern equivalent.  A more generous assumption would be that with no social security as safety net, the wealthy shared a modest pension to those that had loyally served them when young, to provide a modicum of support in their waning years. I’ll let you decide.  Regardless, Peele’s sonnet speaks to the ideals of faithful service to a cause that is worthy of something greater than himself.

A Farewell To Arms

George Peele
(1556-1596)

 

HIS golden locks Time hath to silver turn’d;
O Time too swift, O swiftness never ceasing!
His youth ‘gainst time and age hath ever spurn’d,
But spurn’d in vain; youth waneth by increasing:
Beauty, strength, youth, are flowers but fading seen;
Duty, faith, love, are roots, and ever green.

His helmet now shall make a hive for bees;
And, lovers’ sonnets turn’d to holy psalms,
A man-at-arms must now serve on his knees,
And feed on prayers, which are Age his alms:
But though from court to cottage he depart,
His Saint is sure of his unspotted heart.

And when he saddest sits in homely cell,
He’ll teach his swains this carol for a song,–
‘Blest be the hearts that wish my sovereign well,
Curst be the souls that think her any wrong.’
Goddess, allow this aged man his right
To be your beadsman now that was your knight.

©2017 Original material copyright T. A. Fry.  Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.

We are the poets we have been waiting for.

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A Vase From My Glass Blowing Days

Change

Do you want to change your life?
   Screw up your courage sit down and write..…poetry.
                  Any kind will do;
         Rhyming, free verse, limerick, haiku,
                      Silly, serious or a song.
                          Then do something even braver,
                                        Share it with a total stranger,               
                                      And neither shall be strange…. for long.

By T. A. Fry

I was a glass blower before I became responsible.  It wasn’t a passing fancy.  I committed several years to the mastery of the craft,  honing skills both difficult and routine once muscles memorize the ability to mold a uniform layer of molten glass around a bubble of air at the end of a four-foot long pipe that is red-hot on one end, cool enough to handle with bare hands on the other and a blister waiting to happen in the middle.

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I lacked several important character traits to make the jump from art student to artist. The first was skill. Though my skills were good enough to create beautiful functional items, there was a level of creativity, flare, precision and execution that separated me from the very best.  With practice, better equipment and a more united studio, I could have narrowed that gap.  But, I realized there was still going to be a gap and that gap is everything if one wants to be the kind of artist that makes a living from their art.

The second thing I lacked was far more important to any real aspiration on my part in becoming an artist; a belief that my work was in fact art.   I took pride in being a craftsman.  I saw the things I created as functional vessels, intended for the purpose of the shape in which I created them, whether it was as vase, bowl, platter or chalice.  I took pride in their form and function.  I did not see them as art.

Several years ago I was having a drink at the Grand Cafe on 38th and Grand Avenue in South Minneapolis.  The cafe is located two blocks from where I had lived for 8 years in a duplex during my glass blowing days 30 years prior.   I funded a year of college through the sale of my glass out of the duplex, mostly to friends and family, when I finally declared a major and started my academic study to become an agronomist.

I was sitting at the bar, when the owner, an old friend who I had worked with in the restaurant business, came up to me and said she wanted to introduce me to someone; a friend of hers and regular customer who wanted to meet me.   I said sure, but had no clue as to what this was about.  The woman came up and introduced herself and said she wanted to let me know how much she had enjoyed over the years the piece of glass that I had created.    She told me it was her favorite piece of art because it sat in a place that when she came home in the afternoon, the light came through the window and made it glow.   It made her feel like she was home.

I blushed.  I was at loss at how she even came by the piece.  It had been years since I had even thought of myself as a glassblower.  This stranger, bestowed to me a gift, as  her kind words made me feel, for the first time, like an artist.  The oddest part was that the work she described was so unlike the vast majority of things I made in those years.  It stood out because it was created largely to appease a professor as part of an assignment to create something original.

The piece was one of a series of the most un-functional glass creations in my years of blowing glass.  I learned a technique where I would elongate a neck off the pipe by twirling it around like a baton while the glass was glowing orange hot and fluid.  This is not by itself an unusual technique, it’s a step used in creating lots of different types of vases. I would then reheat the end farthest from the pipe and expand the air pocket so that it looked like the 1960’s vases with a big bulbous bottom and long thin top.  Next,  I would heat up the over sized base again, making the second half of the bulb farthest away from me hotter than the lower half and rather than put more air in, I would suck all the air out, so that the glass bulb collapsed in on itself creating two relatively thin layers of glass at the top of a long neck.  It took me many attempts to figure out the right combination of gathers, reheating in the glory hole, the proper expansion of the air bubble and then contraction to create the form I envisioned.  After several weeks and 20 or so attempts, some of them started to turn out.  I would fashion the collapsed plate-like top into a rough approximation of a very large jack in the pulpit, with a long tapering glass stem base.

These pieces were soaked in frustration and uncertainty.  They were only worked off the pipe, there was no second step on the punty rod to shape the top which in reality became the bottom.  The pieces were asymmetrical at the finished end, which doesn’t work particularly well in glass blowing so I soon learned I had to work these pieces fast and on the cold side, right on the hairy edge of breaking on the pipe to keep the shape intact to enable working the top.   Because of this, I had to work these pieces fast.  I would break off the piece from the pipe with a scratch line from a hack saw, when it was ready to go into the annealing oven and sometime the base would shatter or chip beyond repair, meaning it would be discarded moments from completion, with no way to salvage it.

Color in hot glass is something both controlled and uncontrolable, as you never really know what the piece is going to look like until it comes out of the annealing oven several days later.   Color is something a glass artist develops a feel for over time through experience and trial and error in learning how to prepare colored glass combinations in hopes that it turns out like your vision. These pieces contained even more uncertainty because they had two layers of glass that added to the unpredictability in how colors would merge and work together or against one another.

After many failed attempts,  I finally crafted 3 or 4 pieces that worked, both in terms of form, concept and colors.  I ground the stems of those pieces so that they would balance elegantly on their spindly bases.   These pieces were completely impractical, there was no opening facing up, they couldn’t hold anything in the folds of glass at the top because their narrow base, was by its design, tippy.   The were top-heavy and easily knocked over. The point of them was only the beauty of the glass and their form.    I created them for the challenge of trying to figure out the technique and a grade.   But I wasn’t that fond of them and discarded all the failed attempts.  I never displayed in my home the three or four that were presented in class for the assignment and critiqued by my professor and classmates.  I don’t remember getting a particularly good grade on them or enthusiastic feedback.   I thought they were funky and I stopped making them after the assignment was over.   I wound up selling a couple at the final glass show.  I really don’t know what happened to the rest.   As a glass blower, you can’t keep that much of what you make or it would overwhelm you.  I gave away as gifts or sold 98% of what I made over those years and only later realized I failed to keep for myself some of my favorite forms.

The one she has in this series I remember distinctly.  The piece is blue and white, with bits of red and yellow.  It is mostly opaque but has clear dark cobalt blue patches throughout its long slender base and portions of the top.   It’s top was the size of a small dinner plate with graceful curves arching up in the back of the piece and swooping down in the front.  It had a swirl of white around the outside edge.  It stands more than 12 inches in height and is heavy, heavier than it looks.

That the piece still survives and has given someone joy all these years embodies the miracle that surrounds creative acts.   I believe humanity is bound together less by governance, rule of law or morality, but more by the respect for beauty we find in shared creativity: whether its creation of a meal, an article of clothing, a painting, a building, a film, a book, pottery, a photograph, a glass vase, a garden, a poem, or a baby, the list is endless.  Entropy brings destruction and disharmony to everything and everyone with relative ease over time.  Destruction is part of the natural order.  But so too is construction.  It is in creation that I find courage.  Creation is where genius lies in wait to pounce on me when I least expect it and maybe in most of need of it.

What binds together this tale of glass and poetry?   Where does this story connect to the poem at the beginning?   My chance meeting with a woman who owns a piece of art I created long ago and forgotten about,  was a reminder that the power of creation is only truly achieved when it is shared with someone else.   It reminded me that even pieces that I create and might not be that fond, may turn out to enhance the life experience of someone, who sees something in them, that I have failed to see,  and might only later, truly appreciate, through their eyes.    I believe that all art finds its own water level.   And some art is created for an audience of one, which searches for its proper place if set loose within this world.

I wrote the poem Change as a title page to a small chap book I hand bound and gave away for Christmas presents a couple of years ago.   It has grown on me over time and is a proper clarion call of what this blog project is all about.

Is there a poem or piece of art you created,  and set loose, that impacted someone else in ways you couldn’t anticipate?  Start a conversation and share your story of creation and transformation.

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©2017 Original material copyright T. A. Fry.  

Why Write Sonnets?

 

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A completely genuine word of encouragement occurred after a writing workshop by another writer.  He said, “what you are trying to do isn’t easy.  But I can’t relate, because I have never been able to write what I want to write in the structure that a sonnet imposes.”

He summed up in many ways the very reason why I write sonnets.  I find being forced into a structure of ten syllables a line and fourteen lines empowering and reassuring.  Sonnets require me to think clearly.  I enjoy rhyming poetry, both reading it and the challenge of writing it.  For me, it feels like my writing becomes simultaneously both  more accessible and genuine through a sonnet’s structure.

I find writing sonnets a process of discovery.  It requires that I not fear the rhyme.  I explore ideas first and look to uncover rhyme and structure later.  I strive to write poetry that is pleasing to read aloud and has what I call good mouth feel.  I believe strongly poetry should be read aloud, whether alone or better yet, with someone else to share the experience.   I have found, if I am patient and let the sonnet go in unexpected ways, even let the rhyme have the upper hand once in a while, my subconscious steers my writing in productive and interesting ways.

Here is an example where the rhyme guided, rather than obstructed the writing.  It draws on imagery from one of my favorite poems in the Tao.  It was inspired by the bravery of a friend.

Peace Tears

Cry my brave warrior; peace tears like rain.
Let them fall freely; nourish your heart’s threads.
Each able to share the source of its pain.
Awash in the wisdom of roads you have tread.
Sob my brave fighter, each rasp a sad song.
Don’t hold it in. Give it back to the soil.
Each gasp a lyric of when you were wronged,
The blood tragic score of all of your toil.
Give me your tears and I’ll settle my dust,
Soften my glare, blunt what was pointed.
Each shines my soul and rids it of rust.
With every one shed our friendship anointed.
Bless me or curse me, whatever shall be.
Cry in my arms and set our hearts free.     

by T. A. Fry

Where Should I Start?

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If you had told me when I turned 50, that I would find myself writing a blog about sonnets, I would have been incredulous.   I am not a literary scholar or published author.  I am a regular guy, who had up until that point in his life, only a modest interest in poetry as a reader and even less interest in writing poetry.  As a writer, to this day, I am an inaccurate speller, lousy at punctuation and stubbornly ignorant of the rules of grammar.   So what business have I in writing what could be considered by many one of the most structured of poetic forms- the sonnet?  Good question..

There is both a long and short answer to that question and they are the same – I don’t know.  In this blog I hope to share my genuine enjoyment for what feels like a somewhat unwelcome guest of modern poetry journals – the formality of rhyming poetry and in particular – sonnets.

My foray into writing sonnets began after several months as a fledgling writer, working on a poem that was rudderless and frustrating.   I finally figured out the poem was actually two poems, unmercifully mashed together.  One of them, after I stripped it out and gave it it’s own proper space, had a rough construction that looked something like I remembered from high school advanced English as a sonnet.  Being curious,  I Googled “Sonnet Structure” and soon realized it wasn’t even close to being a sonnet.  However, that simple act of exploration got me suddenly reading sonnets.   And once I started reading sonnets, I realized they are everywhere in our shared experience of literature and artistic expression.

Over a month later, an unexpected inspiration occurred.  One Thursday morning, I awoke early and started writing, like I often do in the mornings, and suddenly to my surprise emerged from my typing fingertips a sonnet.   It sprang from my subconscious, nearly fully formed in the first draft.   It contained truths I wouldn’t understand for many months and to this day, surprises me with its genuine imagery of hope.

This was the beginning of my obsession with writing sonnets.   Three years later it is still going strong…..

Oh Darkest Night

Oh Darkest Night, tell us your mystery.
Come like a thief to steal restless minds.
Take only the parts of life’s sordid history,
Which free our regrets from their deepest confines.
Oh love be a locksmith, open our hearts.
We’ll guard what is found as rare mortal treasure.
Love’s masterful thievery will form a new start.
Forgive our past trials as no final measure.
Out of this blackness we’ll create a new day.
A boundless void we’ll fill with pure light.
Dreams!  Savage Hope! Sweet Naiveté!
Restore the magic of love to our sight.
Hold back the sunrise.  Stay by my side.
Nothing before us and eyes open wide.

by T. A. Fry