A Ton of Feathers: Behind Enemy Lines with the Sonnet

One of her feather’d creatures broke away.

— from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 143

An appreciator of great poetry, I don’t strenuously identify with being a poet myself, though I enjoy tooling about in the genre, purple pen in hand. An essayist at heart, I’m better at converging on dense and prickly concepts with dense and prickly prose. How am I doing so far?

I suppose I prefer ground-control precision to imagistic flight. Such tendencies are often driven by individual temperament, the vagaries of native talent and whether or not one was breast-fed beyond age two (burp). I honestly can’t say my tactics vary greatly from sonnet to essay. Therein may lie an inherent limitation in my poetry. Then too, it may not be so far off the mark either as the sonnet structure observes a distinct logical progression. There is within the form an argument, a volta (a turn or ‘twist’), a counter-argument and then a resolution, the latter often occurring in the final couplet.

Without doubt, the sonnet offers rich terrain for rhetorical hijinks and abbreviated exposition. You might rightly ask then, why entrust such a tightly-wound machine to muddle-headed poets? I won’t get into all the structural variations and sonnet rhyme schemes here — the Petrarchan, Shakespearian, Spenserian, Protozoan, Heidi Montagian, etc. — as that would require a fearsome erudition exceeding my rude powers. Perhaps if we start with lines today, we can build to whole college syllabi tomorrow. For the moment, I’m fresh out of paper-mill certificates.

Alas, poetry’s ruby red lips are not starved for company as tired thinking and expression is a sprawling hammock stretched wide across our culture. Cliché can afflict poetic intent as surely as it haunts language and image. In my recent spate of sonnet-writing I’m aware of having grown terribly fond of the enjambment technique. For all you auto mechanics out there perusing this essay at lunch, enjambment is a fancy French word for straddling. Yes that’s right, sort of a broken Citroën, but with words and a marginally superior maintenance record.

Wikipedia gets fancier still, calling enjambment the “breaking of a syntactic unit” in a line of poetry. The alternative to enjambment is the traditional end-stop of which I have grown supremely tired. End-stopping is essentially matching syntax to lineation. Immediately, I picture 14 bumper-stickers carefully lined, one beneath the other, as though taped to a kiosk at a sloganeers’ convention. Yes, VIRGINIA IS FOR LOVERS alright, but I want spillage. I want integrative flow. Otherwise I’m in a box with a limited supply of oxygen. Why not either fly through the friggin’ sonnet impervious to its rigid dimensions or make a game of tagging its dog-eared perimeters with inventiveness and sly purpose? Harrumph! My admonition to sonneteers would thus be, “by all means, conduct me through your squared-off little world but, by the coolest paradox, make that world simultaneously vanish beneath my feet.”

Enjambment abets this sleight-of-hand. Think of sentences being snapped like twigs at odd points in the hopes something more interesting gurgles out — much as sap might ooze from a damaged branch. I liken this to the backtracking of a Hegelian dialectic where the synthesized result, the unitary sentence, is retraced perhaps to some pre-reflective state of fetal irresolution. Fearsome long sentences often house goopy entrails, friendly ghosts, coy feints and ill-considered half-measures. All I’m saying is, why not have a look and give each piece a chance? Some sentences double as magician’s sleeves. By rifling the constituent parts, we reveal previously withheld compartments of meaning. Or, as the Kabbalists used to say (before Madonna dragged the Divine Chariot through one too many renditions of “Hanky Panky”) what’s poetry anyway but a broken vessel? Here then is to breaking some dishes and may the better shards win.

At the system level, this dialectical notion is well-observed. In that vast sonnet clearinghouse in the cloud, Sonnet Central, Nelson Miller refers to these precious little songs in their totality as being:

“…fundamentally dialectical constructs which allow the poet to examine the nature and ramifications of two usually contrastive ideas, emotions, states of mind, beliefs, actions, events, images, etc., by juxtaposing the two against each other, and possibly resolving or just revealing the tensions created and operative between the two.”

— from ‘Basic Sonnet Forms’, by Nelson Miller, Cayuse Press Writers Exchange Board

Enjambment might also be akin to a mini-cut-up method — that randomized technique of word assembly popularized in literature by Brion Gysin and Williams Burroughs; call these fractured clauses then my tiny naked lunches. We risk trivializing the technique therefore by characterizing it primarily as the manhandling of independent clauses in a bid merely to service page width. I’m not saying enjambment foes discount the technique altogether. I merely wish to raise consciousness for the curiously broken branch.

That said, I find the denser or more complex the sonnet, the harsher the enjambment effect can be to the reader’s ear. Moreover density seems to breed enjambment as expansive and serpentine speculations, certainly mine, have been known to suck the oxygen out of entire rooms, never mind the diminutive parameters of the poor little old sonnet. Some essayists, it has been alleged, do go on a bit.

I am guilty of sitting on my sonnets like overstuffed suitcases. (Sometimes that’s the only way to snap them shut.) The fact my sonnets are rather dense more often than not may suggest I am a terminal essayist and not a poet after all. I stand ready to accept this verdict. Under practically all circumstances, concision is a challenge in the sonnet form. One could argue density offers sufficient sense and meaning challenges without adding insult to migraine via ‘nonlinear’ syntactical presentations. Perhaps the musicality and horizontal flow suffers for these jagged, atonal edges. Enjambment introduces hiccups where one might prefer uninterrupted melody. That’s certainly a valid aesthetic judgment on par with, say, an individual’s tastes in musical styles.

A tasteless palette relishes sour verdicts. In his excoriating 2010 Huffington Post essay “The 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers“, Anis Shivani, already no great fan of Sharon Olds’ “pseudo-confession[alism]” and “gory imaginings”, takes her poetry further to task for “disruptive enjambments — ending on prepositions” which in Shivani’s opinion only, “add to the exhibitionist content of the poems.” Rarely enamored with Shivani’s gratuitously confrontational tone, I am nonetheless sympathetic here to his charge.

In Olds’ 27-line poem (though not a sonnet) “After Making Love in Winter” for example, five lines end with the articles ‘a’ or ‘the’, three end with prepositions (of, like, before) and two end with the conjunction ‘and’. I feel myself being jarred with no jellybean reward at the bottom of the jar. In fact the intended effect recalls old Ms. Harshford’s prohibition in 8th grade English Composition never to end a sentence with a preposition. Sonnet experimentation notwithstanding, it is a rule I have carried to poetic lineation as well and have, without exception, managed to live with. Methinks enjambment that succeeds in pointing mostly to itself has ventured one trapdoor too far. That said I would never kick a stanza out of bed for making a mess of convention. But I want meaningful intent and purpose behind all the willful infractions — or else I’m calling Ms. Harshford.

We have yet to consider situational dynamics. So if you’re situated comfortably, let’s do it right now. Some topics simply lend themselves better to enjambment than do others. For example, our frenetic, post-modern postal world seems better served by razor-sharp edges and capricious trapdoors. A garden ode to tiger lilies? Not so much. We inhabit an era of collapsed attention spans, vapid emoticons, wafer-screens, dashed-off emails and brusque tweets. Authentic communication suffers in the digitized-ADHD cacophony. As our mediating syntaxes break down, why spare the sonnet a break, too? I suspect the world, for all its official protest, grudgingly admires something with the moxie to stand, on the one hand, against willful inarticulateness and on the other, against Rod McKuen. So come on you barbaric bloody yawpers, the air is thick with dislocation! Give us a break and don’t break something! Should the sonnet get relegated to Wordsworthian appendix in the post-911 age, at least it’s showing the stomach to weather on as an appendix. I call that guts.

In the final days, order will indulge the creeping advance of chaos. Perhaps the fractured line is an accommodation, or a memorial, to sustained reflection. Do I belabor the enjambment technique? Nah, I wouldn’t belabor anything. My overall consternation with the sonnet form is longstanding and broadly based to which this ten-year-old essay attests. Exasperation is built into the fabric of the enterprise. I find writing them is not unlike a golf game, that is, a never-ending series of adjustments and corrections. Enjambment may be my version of a bad slice. I enjoy the little surprises the traveling eye encounters falling from line to line. Perhaps I’ve fallen into an enjambment trap. Where’s my sand wedge?

Finally, I’d like to shade the page briefly with what I liken to the long game of enjambment, the white space. Perhaps a longer pause, breath-mark or interruption helps acquit the sonnet’s meaning or sonic effect. Perhaps too, irregular spaces between (or even within) lines (beyond the line-space often but not always accorded between sestets (six-line clumps) quatrains (four-line clumps) and ending couplets are desired. As I say, ‘blank page’ is yet another spatial device that can augment the sonnet’s overall impact.

On one poetry workshop I sometimes frequent, a workshop member helpfully ‘disentangled’ a sentence-laden sonnet of mine, yielding a more naturalized sequence of sprawling prose. Immediately I appreciated his rather astute insight. There, in amongst the tangled reeds of my sonnet, appeared a disheveled, mud-caked paragraph. This relaxed prose form, he suggested, allowed my poetry to breathe, where before I had been rather cruelly breaking its butterfly wings against a medieval wheel of fits and starts. My loyalties were misplaced. The worship of form had crippled the primacy of unfettered impartation. He had a point. Interrogating my motivations, I realized I had indeed been sitting down to ‘write sonnets’ more than poetry per se. Committing this inversion may be the equivalent of Kafka’s aphorism, a cage gone in search of a bird. Form and content must spring forth with the simultaneity of spontaneous combustion. One cannot be seen to be clumsily seeking the other.

Quite apart from poetic intent, might the sonnet be an implicitly ‘enjambed’ form as it seems to straddle and incorporate features of both prose and poetry? The notion of nonce forms comes to mind. (Nonce is yet another fancy word for ‘I’ll do it once, but don’t ever ask me again’ i.e., an un-received, one-off or purely invented form. Believe it or not there’s even an on-line journal that specializes in this nichiest of niches.) What my colleague was implicitly pointing me towards might best be called a ‘prose-sonnet’. At least that’s what I’m calling it now. Such a sonnet would scan correctly yet be presented in paragraphed ‘disguise’. The tuning fork in my gut tells me the inherent music of a good, strong sonnet should survive the wholesale abandonment of its conventional visual-structure. Lineation may be overrated. After all the prose-poem is already a well-established poetry sub-genre. The prose-sonnet amounts to nothing more than presenting an obdurate and venerable syntactic unit, the sonnet, in an altered visual format — a mere flesh wound, one would think. What is the sonnet after all, a machinery of lines or the ghost behind the grid?

Vision can countermand sound. Listening to poets read their sonnets, I’m often troubled at how so many invariably stress the end-rhymes in a manner that tends to rob the rhymes of their subtle beauty and understated power. I like a voice to nonchalantly fall through a sonnet, in effect obscuring the lineation from overt aural reception. End-stops should not ‘sound’ like stop-signs or worse, steep ravines. Sonnets should be read like finely-tuned paragraphs and in a natural, conversational tone as opposed to a sing-songy, pat-the-kiddies-on-the-head Mother Goose twang. Look Mommy, no hands rhymes with pro bands! Aren’t lines starting to feel more and more like enemy combatants? Down with barricades! Up with lugubrious incantation!

In the end, this inquiry seems to turn on the significance of sentences or clauses as unitary grammatical constructs of arbitrary length versus formal poetic lines as sound and meter-driven units of relative (i.e. complete or incomplete) meaning, but determinate length. Beautiful sentences notwithstanding, sentences are aligned more with meaning, whereas poetry lines are more sensuous beasts altogether; for the latter, sound and even space contribute to the effect. In a sense, enjambment allows unitary meaning to ‘fall though the machine’, creating additional sound and meaning variants as it clatters against the silo’s walls. To the extent a sentence or clause is fully expressed in a poetic line, no such variants are exploited. This is hardly an argument against ‘non-enjambed lines’ in all cases. No doubt, like any poetic technique, enjambment can be overused.

I should add there are countless poets pushing the sonnet envelope in novel ways. In Mark Jarman’s “Unholy Sonnet 13”, God seems to be ‘stirring’ in more ways than one, thanks in large part to enjambment:

Because I’m older and I think God stirs

In details that keep bringing back that time,

The late e.e. cummings played wild and loose with the sonnet form. In this instance, the title itself is enjambed (please pardon Mr. cummings’ broken cap-locks key) “i like my body when it is with your.”

Here’s yet another modern twist on an Elizabethan codpiece. Oddly enough, Twitter allows a 140-character maximum per tweet. The traditional sonnet permits 140 syllables (14 lines, 10 syllables). Am I onto the Twitter Sonnet? Is this number cosmologically significant? Without delving Ouija boards or consulting Pythagorean mystics, it’s interesting to find the same number bracketing two conventions of human expression. Hah! The sonnet’s been around since the 13th century. Let’s see how long Twitter hangs on. I weary of the tweet already.

Below is the work-shopped sonnet previously described, one that sought to grapple with my conflicted affections for pop music. (In case it isn’t iconic enough, the phrase ‘secret chords’ in line 13 is a hat-tip to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” lyric.) The sonnet is presented in lineated form first and conforms to the English (Shakespearian) sonnet rhyme scheme, that is, ABAB CDCD EFEF GG with five feet (i.e., ten syllables) per line. The iambic pentameter (the five ‘ta-DA’ sounds per line) is a little irregular and instead of three four-line sections (quatrains), I sort of ‘keep a fifth line’ in the second quatrain because I like the effect of hanging ‘here and now’ out there like a good little existential predicament and a sore thumb all at once. In line four, ‘sing’ gazes out across a sea of white space. I fancy this imparting the sense of a lone singer warbling out into the void.

If I’ve gone hard on perfunctory end-stops, I meant no disrespect to the existential necessity of line (and paper’s) end and the inevitable onset of eclipsing whiteness. There’s no doubt the deployment of breaks and the ensuing spaces-between can help carry poetic effect. Below this traditional lineation format, the same sonnet appears again in a form not unlike what you’d find in the classified section of a newspaper. (Note to young people: Though help may be wanted, poetry doesn’t pay.)

Pop Music

Striking at a moment too sharp for stale

repetition, this tart sound is nothing

to turn down. Yet reprisal is a pale

echo — one arrival is allowed. Sing

if you like, arched against time’s faltering

reserve, baby. We hum along to death’s

down beat: where are they now? Better to bring

considered notes to sudden stage. Our breath’s

an expiring allotment. Here and now

is the chance to alter prior arrangement

as habit informs the grand piano

haunting the front parlor. Let sound foment

those secret chords ripe ears suspect are there.

Ephemera makes light of moment’s air.

Pop Music

Striking at a moment too sharp for stale repetition, this tart sound is nothing to turn down. Yet reprisal is a pale echo — one arrival is allowed. Sing if you like, arched against time’s faltering reserve. Nostalgia plays along with death’s down beat: where are they now? Better to bring considered notes to sudden stage. Our breath’s an expiring allotment. Here and now is the chance to alter prior arrangement as habit informs the grand piano haunting the front parlor. Let sound foment those secret chords ripe ears suspect are there. Ephemera makes light of moment’s air.

* * *

I leave you with more questions than answers. Here are but a few. Is aesthetic enjoyment varyingly enhanced or diminished by overt visual cues (e.g., end-rhyme, enjambment, white space, etc.)? Which mode of death-by-avalanche is the more painful: a ton of feathery sound-waves or a ton of collapsed scaffold? Most important for this inquiry, is there a place in great literature for the prose-sonnet nonce form and if so will the U.S. Patent Office honor my claim? Perhaps it’s time we stopped fetishizing the protocols of line and page’s edge. Somewhere beyond and within the apparatus lies the sonnet’s resilient soul, a wellspring less beholden to typeset conventions than many have imagined.