Dear Ms. Evans,
Many thanks for "The Future of the Fourteen Liner," your essay in the Winter 2006 issue of The Barefoot Muse, which stimulated some productive thinking about my own sonneteering efforts.
Many years ago, I lost points on a college quiz for defining a sonnet as "a 14-line poem in iambic pentameter." The professor said I should have specified a rhyme scheme. As it happens, I was aware at the time (although I didn't think to say so on the test) of two options -- the English/Shakespearean model with four quatrains and a couplet, and the Italian/Petrarchan with an octave and a sestet -- but totally unaware of the Spenserian alternative scheme, and also unfamiliar with such exotica as nonce, blank verse, and monorhyme sonnets. I had never (I probably don't need to say) written or published a sonnet of any description.
Flash forward a number of years. Today, sonnets account for something like one-quarter to one-third of my published poems, but when it comes to defining the form, I'm really none the wiser. I've stayed faithful to a line count of 14, and reasonably faithful to iambic pentameter, permissively defined to offer leeway for metrical substitutions. My rhyming, however, has colored outside the lines as often as not -- Shakespearean sonnets with abba "envelope" quatrains, Italian sonnets with abab rhymes in the octaves and three couplets in the sestets, nonce flings, promiscuous dalliance with slant rhyme. On occasion, I've even dispensed with rhyme altogether.
Since "a 14-line poem in iambic pentameter" is the only description that comes close to fitting every one of these sonnets, perhaps I should seek out that professor and brandish a thin sheaf of publications as I demand some retroactive credit. On the other hand, maybe not. Sometimes I'll compose 14 lines of blank verse and there will be no question in my mind that the poem deserves to be called a sonnet. Other times, I'll nail one of the traditional rhyme schemes yet still feel that I've failed to achieve some indefinable essence of "sonnetness." Pressed to explain what's present in the former case but missing in the latter, I wouldn't be able to offer much of an answer. Most likely, I'd do some vague hemming and hawing about the "structure" of the poem's "argument," but just between you and me, I would barely know what I was talking about.
I've never had more than a seat-of-the-pants understanding of the "volta" or "turn" concept. I'm similarly hazy about the dialectical relationship between octave and sestet or between the final couplet and the preceding 12 lines. And the way in which a sonnet structures its argument or develops its theme is something I can only intuit, not define. I simply know that "a 14-line poem in iambic pentameter" may have many virtues -- strong imagery, concise storytelling, intelligent wordplay -- yet still be missing some thesis/antithesis or issue/resolution construction that would get it past the velvet rope into Club Sonnet.
So I guess I'm stuck for the time being with my unsatisfactory quiz answer. If I want a more comprehensive definition of the form, I'll just have to continue cobbling it together 14 lines at a time (and enjoying efforts by you and other poets to do the same). Again, thanks for tackling the topic.
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