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Why the sonnet?

Why the sonnet?

Because it is one thing. Because it is many.

First of all, the many. Petrarch in the late Middle Ages, Terrance Hayes in Trump’s America, Camões, Shakespeare, Goethe, Baudelaire, Lorca and thousands of other poets across the centuries in their different cultures and languages: who would pretend that their poems are anything like homogenous, or indeed that what, say, Wendy Cope calls a sonnet is the same thing as a sonnet by Anne Carson? The lure of the sonnet is the lure of plurality – even if that plurality usually has fourteen lines.

Yet the sonnet can seem a much more singular entity. A sonnet by Petrarch, Hayes, Carson, Cope, or whomever will, if carefully made, usually impart a strong sense of ‘sonnetness’ that is not imparted by other poems of similar length. Forms of attention, ways of shaping, thinking and feeling peculiar to the sonnet that will be familiar to anyone who has given the form some time and thought.

This quality of being at once singular and multiple must help explain much of the immense popularity of the form. A villanelle will always be a villanelle. Unless one is taking such large liberties that the term ‘villanelle’ becomes a moot point, villanelleness will inevitably be to the forefront of the experience of both writer and reader. A sonnet, on the other hand, isn’t always a sonnet. Or rather, it is and it isn’t. Many sonnets, even sonnets in one of the traditional permutations, won’t necessarily register as sonnets at first reading. They may seem short poems of no type but their own. Yet those very same poems looked at in a different way may also suddenly seem quintessentially sonnet-like; they are like those pictures that can be seen as either a duck or rabbit.

Seven hundred years and more in, the sonnet is experiencing its revival. I haven’t got the statistics to back up the hunch, but I would guess that there are more sonnets being written now than at any time since the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Not all these sonnets are particularly distinguished, of course, but it is remarkable how many of our most respected poets, from right across the stylistic spectrum, will turn to the form and make it work anew. Some artists continue to produce very elegant traditionally shaped sonnets. Others will tweak or interrogate the form, seek to deconstruct it, expand it or ‘explode’ it, or write sonnets in free verse or in prose. A poet like Don Paterson will seek to do all these things – in the same collection.

In my course for the Poetry School, I’m going to be examining the multiple nature of sonnets, sampling the huge range of potential types of sonnets old and new, but also trying to locate more singular qualities of the sonnet and what we might be looking for in a sonnet as we seek to write one ourselves. It promises to be a singular experience. Oh yes, and a multiple one.

Explore the origin of the sonnet and create your own masterpieces with William Wootten on his new face-to-face course in Bristol, The Art of the Sonnet. Call 0207 582 1679 or book online.


Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

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