Posted tagged ‘John Keats’

Spenserian Sonnet (Still Not Keats)

September 18, 2009

Last night (well, very early this morning), I posted an example of a Shakespearian sonnet, which is probably the most common form of sonnet in English.   Another variation is the Spenserian sonnet, named for Sir Edmund Spenser, (author of the wonderful wondeful Faerie Queene.)

Spenser (1552-1599) was born and died a little before  Shakespeare (1564-1616).   Although their lives overlapped, my very brief research has informed me that the group of Shakespeare’s sonnets were not published until 1609 well after Spenser’s death.  They were apparently without Shakespeare’s permission.   Two were published a bit earlier, but likely also after Spenser’s death in 1599 (also without Shakespeare’s permission.)  (And this was well before the internet.) 

Spenser’s form is slightly more strict than Shakespeare’s.  A more limited rhyme scheme requires the poet to stick to the second set of rhymes of each quatrain in beginning the next quatrain.    This makes for a series of couplets throughout the poem and not simply at the end:

A
B
A
B
B
C
B
C
C
D
C
D
E
E

 

The couplets interspersed in the poem can create a beautiful echoing effect.  However, as in the case of the Shakespearean sonnet, that darned couplet at the end can be a real problem.   (See yesterday’s post concerning the difficulty of ending a sonnet without sounding like you are neatly “summing up” all that came before.)

Even so, a sonnet is a fun, flexible, form. 

A couple of pointers:  (I pass these on, not as a sonnet expert, but as a sonnet lover.)  

The rhymes (and meter) make music.   I believe this music works best, however, if it subtle,  almost a kind of murmuring, rather than a series of “bada-bings.”    (Remember you are writing a sonnet, not a limerick.)

The subtlety can be achieved by using run-on lines; these are lines in which the thought or sentence does not end with the rhyme at the end of the line, but in which the thought or sentence runs over.  This means that these is no pause at the end of each line, unless it is called for by a comma or period.   

 The use of run-over lines requires that some care is taken with respect to punctuation.  (Readers! please follow the punctuation.) 

Additionally, I like NOT to capitalize each new line as I feel that encourages a kind of pausing at the end of the line, and to discourage a more flowing read.   

Spy Games

We played spy games galore in the basement.
Running spy games with the boys, our bent hands
guns, till sweating we lay down on cold cement,
shirts pulled up, chests hard.  Not much withstands
the leaching chill of earth, the deep down sands
beneath a childhood basement, except perhaps
the burn of nipple, the future woman’s
breasts.  Our spy games just for girls had traps–
some of us played femmes fatales, poor saps,
while the leader girl was Bond–0-0-7.
She hung us ropeless from the bathroom taps,
then tortured us in ways that felt like heaven,
the basement bed our rack, what spies we were,
confessing neither to ourselves nor her.

 

(All rights reserved.  Karin Gustafson)

 

 P.S.  Check out 1 Mississippi.  (It’s neither Spenserian or Shakespearean, but it will teach your child to count.)

Sonnets!

September 18, 2009

Sonnets have fourteen lines.

Count ’em.

Sometimes they are combinations of eight and six; sometimes four and four and four and two; sometimes strange intersections of four and six, eight and two (only adding up to fourteen.)

I have been thinking about them since hearing about Bright Star, the new Jane Campion movie about Keats.  (I haven’t seen the movie yet, so can make no recommendations.)

Keats wrote great sonnets, even developing his own form.

Even so, I tend to stick to Shakespeare’s form.  (Shakespeare, of course, wrote really great sonnets.)  His form is extremely easy to remember, and relatively easy to write, as it uses a broad assortment of rhymes.

If I’m feeling more ambitious, I’ll try Spenser’s format, which is similar to Shakespeare’s, but uses a more limited rhyming pattern.  (I’ll explain each in the next few posts.)  I have never written a sonnet in Keats’ form (though I intend to try.)

Shakespeare’s form is set forth below.  Remember, under conventions of poetic notation, a rhyme ending a specific line is denoted by a capital letter, so that the first set of rhymes is denoted as “A”, the second set of rhymes as B, the third set “C”, etc.

Shakespeare also uses iambic pentameter.  (More on that later.)

A

B

A

B

C

D

C

D

E

F

E

F

G

G

The biggest problem with a sonnet is often the final couplet.  It tends to have a very pat, “summing up” quality, that is hard to escape.

I do not to want my final couplet to sound like the “moral of the story”. Breaking the lines up so that they run over and do not pause at the end of each line can help in this regard.  Humor is also useful.

A subject matter which is not easily summed up, also creates a certain tension that can temper the patness of the final couplet.   Here’s one, for example on a self-administered, informal breast exam.

In the Stairwell

Descending the building’s stairs, she feels her breast,
fumbling beneath her bra to get to skin,
palpating (as they say) but in a mess
of here and there and not all within
the confines of an organized exam.
Silly to do it here, not time or place,
someone else might come, have to move her hand,
and yet fear seems to justify the race,
as if by checking each time it crosses mind,
especially checking fast, she can avoid
ever finding anything of the kind
that should not be found.  And so, devoid
of caution, but full of care nonetheless,
she steps slowly down the stairs, feeling her breast.

(All rights reserved, Karin Gustafson)

Check out 1 Mississippi at link above.