Sonnets are undisputably my favorite medium for poetry. I come back to them again and again, both for writing and for reading. Why do I care about them? Why does a member of Generation Y gravitate to this poetic form that goes back a long, long time in history? Why not free verse or some other form?
It all goes back to 6th grade and a book of prose. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle captured my imagination and faith at that time, and I loved how the author captured both sci-fi and Christianity in one book, science and the arts if you will. In that book is an conversation about sonnets that jumped out at me:
“It is a very strict form of poetry, is it not?”
“There are fourteen lines, I believe, all in iambic pentameter. That’s a very strict rhythm or meter, is it not?”
“Yes.” Calvin nodded.
“And each line has to end with a rigid rhyme pattern. And if the poet does not do it exactly this way, it is not a sonnet, is it?”
“But within the strict form the poet has complete freedom to say whatever he wants, doesn’t he?”
“Yes.” Calvin nodded again.
“So,” Mrs. Whatsit said.
“Oh, do not be stupid, boy!” Mrs. Whatsit scolded. “You know perfectly well what I am driving at!”
“You mean you’re comparing our lives to a sonnet? A strict form, but with freedom within it?”
“Yes,” Mrs. Whatsit said. “You’re given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself. What you say is completely up to you.”
That idea of order and freedom was what caught my attention. From there, I only had to start reading Shakespeare’s sonnets. and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s, to realize the charm. Sonnets are very easy for me to wrap my mind around. Being 14 lines, they’re the perfect length. Not so long I lose interest; not so short they don’t have something to say. The rhythm and rhyme make for some great opportunities for creativity and make them easier to remember. That also has a tendency to make them more classic. I’ve never quite gotten into the swing of odes or some of the other forms of poetry, but one quickly gets used to the cadence of sonnets and can enjoy it at the same time as the words and the overall meaning of the poem.
For me, for getting across what I want to say or expressing what I want to express, sonnets have built into them both a spur for inspiration and a rein to keep my thoughts together. When I try to come up with possible rhyming words for the end of a line, sometimes the possible words take me in exciting new directions or insights that are true but that I hadn’t thought of before. And it’s always a challenge to come up with rhymes that do not sound stale or over-used (never ever ever end a line with “God” or “love”). The length of the poem helps keep me from going off on a bunny trail, which is what usually happens when I try to write free verse. Then, I start with one concept in mind and digress to a completely different topic and end up throwing out the poem entirely. With a sonnet, I’m forced to encapsulate only a few related ideas, and the result is a much tighter, often more insightful, poem.
So, sonnets will always be my first love of poetry.