The Art of the Sonnet
The basic elements of the sonnet include fourteen lines set in one of two essential rhyme schemes. Originally the metric scheme was iambic, but that convention was one of the first to go as the sonnet found common purpose with poets who preferred to tinker, rather than obey the letter of Roman law. The earlier, Italian form offered an octet, usually abba, abba. This was followed by an answering sestet. Most common would be cde, cde. The Shakespearean sonnet, in the late Sixteenth Century, waves away the octet/sestet structure and prescribes:
The final couplet is the poem’s defining feature. Once the original mold was broken the only proviso to stand up was the convention of fourteen lines.
Could its apple-cheeked health be explained by its trim, modest fourteen-line foundation, its good-natured adaptability, its willingness to go along with nearly every theme a poet might wish to dress her up in? Sure. But talent underscores talent, and the 100 poems presented in this volume, with a page or three of extrapolation and comment by esteemed experts, work well to show off the form. We find within the volume some of the oldest recorded sonnets, several from the Victorian and Georgian era, a parcel from the early and “post-modern” era, and an assortment (Whitmanesque) from America, Europe, and other “overseas” stations. The package is complete.
. . . Give me your tired, your poorYour huddled masses yearning to breathe free,The wretched refuse of your teeming shores.Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
It’s early December,the breeze freshens the skin of this earth,the goose-skin of water,and I notice the blue plungeof shadows down Morne Coco Mountain,December’s sundail,happy that the earth is still changing,that the full moon can blind me with her foreheadthis bright foreday morning,and that fine sprigs of white are springing from my beard.
Rarely has a poetry anthology been better conceived, for purpose or pleasure. If I had to quibble it would only be to say that I had expected to find one of the best and most often anthologized of all American sonnets, “Those Winter Sundays,” by Robert Hayden. It is not included. Surely I can make a decent excuse for the good professors’ decision, as editors, to leave it out. The fact that it is so well known and loved leaves room for one more in the collection that we know less well. At the end of the day I admit that I would not want to be without medical doctor and poet Rafael Campo’s poem, from 2007, “Rest Stop near the Italian Border.” Like so many in this volume, his is a poem I will come back to.