Where Did the Sonnet Go? - An Article on Formal Verse

We all grew up learning rhymes like “roses are red, violets are blue,” or “twinkle twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are.” The first poems we wrote probably mimicked these childhood verses, simple and sing-songy. However, as we grew older, we realized that poetry is not all about rhyme. Pick up any anthology or book of poems written in the last century, and they will most likely all be written in free verse, when the poets decide the form themselves and can choose whether to use meter, rhyme and pattern. It is liberating in the sense that the poet has complete freedom for expression, but also difficult because it takes considerable creativity to work without any limits or structure.
Why has poetry shifted away from formal structure, and why are sonnets, sestinas, and villanelles now considered quaint and out of fashion? As with every art form, whether it is painting, dance, or music, revolutions in writing constantly reject the old in favor of the new. Having to stick to a certain syllable count, stress specific beats, and repeat a particular pattern is unappealing to many freedom-loving poets of today, but it is important to remember the merits of formal verse. Some say that structured poems are restrictive and unoriginal, but it takes just as much creativity to take a formal pattern and make it your own, working within its limitations to create original expressions.
The book Strong Measures: Contemporary American Poetry in Traditional Forms, compiled by Philip Dacey and David Jauss, is an excellent example of how formal verse is used creatively by modern poets. This anthology was published in 1986 but is still a helpful overview for readers today, bringing lesser known traditional poetry to light and showing that it has not disappeared. It includes contemporary poems written since the end of WWII. The selected works represent a wide variety of formal structures, but all follow repeated patterns. For example, “Sestina” by Elizabeth Bishop is written in the French form of a sestina. There is no end rhyme but the same six end words are used in every stanza, in a different order each time. Here is an excerpt:

“Summer rain falls on the house.
In the failing light, the old grandmother
Sits in the kitchen with the child
Beside the Little Marvel stove,
Reading the jokes from the almanac,
Laughing and talking to hide her tears.

She thinks that her equinoctial tears
And the rain that beats on the roof of the house
Were both foretold by the almanac,
But only known to a grandmother.
The iron kettle sings on the stove.
She cuts some bread and says to the child…”

This complex form tests the poet’s creativity in having to come up with new meanings for the words in each stanza and have them further the overall meaning of the poem. The repetition adds predictability to the poem, but it is also captivating to read how the same words take on different significance in each stanza.
Another category of formal verse is accentual meter, in which the structure depends on a pattern of accents. The poem “Sleeping With One Eye Open” by Mark Strand is an example of split couplets, which follow no syllabic pattern, but the first line of each couplet is in iambic pentameter and the second is in iambic dimeter. The rhyming couplets also provide structure as the shorter line echoes the sound of the one before it. This creates an intriguing rhythm:

“Unmoved by what the wind does,
The windows
Are not rattled, nor do the various
Areas
Of the house make their usual racket-
Creak at
The joints, trusses, and studs.
Instead,
They are still. And the maples,
Able
At times to raise havoc,
Evoke
Not a sound from their branches’
Clutches…”

One of the most complicated formal structures is the sonnet, which specifies syllable counts as well as accents and rhyme scheme. Bruce Bennet’s “True Story of Snow White” is an envelope sonnet, a variation on the common Italian sonnet and proof that sonnet writing did not disappear with Shakespeare. There are three stanzas of four lines, with eight syllables per line. The poet’s choice to use this highly structured poem is deliberate; the traditional form reflects the traditional tale of Snow White, but this tale is unexpectedly twisted to have a different ending. Instead of the princess living happily ever after, the evil stepmother poisons Snow White and then finishes off the dwarves, leaving Snow alone:

“And doomed, because her heart was full of love,
To lie forever in unlovely sleep,
Which not a prince on earth has power to break.”

The shock of this unconventional ending is juxtaposed with the strictly conventional form of the poem. Therefore, poets who use formal verse are not just adhering to tradition and remaining stuck in the past, but can use it deliberately to emphasize a poem’s overall meaning.
I asked Philip Dacey to share his thoughts on the role that formal verse still plays in today’s poetry scene. He said that the undercurrent of traditional verse is beginning to resurface, and poets and readers are realizing that it is a viable alternative to free verse instead of an old-fashioned art. It is appearing in more publications, including the new magazine Measure: A Review of Formal Verse and the anthology Villanelles by Annie Finch. I have often wondered how the movement toward free verse began and whether the schools system played a role in its popularization; from my own experience, I found that poetry units in school consisted of experimenting with sonnets, sestinas and other traditional forms as things of the past, while modern verse was taught to be unrhyming and usually not metrical. Dacey agrees that schools have played a large role in assigning formal verse to the shadows, but it is not entirely their fault; in the 1960s there were a large number of poets who rebelled against traditional form because of a supposed association with political conservatism. “Such an association has zero validity,” Dacey says, “and is like saying someone who relies on cookbooks is more politically conservative than someone who wings it in the kitchen. Bullying is in the news today, and there can be poet-bullies, too, who like to beat up on poets who are different from themselves.” The popularization of free verse also does not have to be thought of as a rejection of the old in favor of the new; the two have been around for centuries and will probably continue to do so, although trends of the times and historical circumstances may shift the balance in favor of one or the other. As Dacey says, “both kinds of verse meet certain needs of the human spirit…a world in which one or the other is totally lacking would be seriously diminished.”
Many prominent free verse poets today, such as Ted Kooser, Robert Pinsky, and Philip Levine, also experiment with traditional verse. It is the mark of a good poet to be comfortable with different styles and have a variety of skill sets, allowing them to choose the best style to convey a message or feeling or shape the direction of the poem. Dacey practices this in his own poetry; although he compiled Strong Measures, this does not mean that he promotes traditional structures over free verse. His advice for young poets trying to write formal verse is to take it slow. It can be discouraging to try and tackle a sonnet immediately without any practice; instead he advises that a poet first learn “to write lines in syllabics; then learn to write in iambics; then add the step of pentameter; then rhyme without any meter; write nonsense sonnets before you try a ‘real’ one. Learn metrical variation within a line before taking on a whole sonnet. Learn to write in couplets before trying a quatrain. And so on.” His recommendations of useful books to start with are Paul Fussell’s Poetic Meter and Poetic Form and James McAuley’s The Art of Versification. And of course, Dacey’s own Strong Measures is a valuable resource for anyone interested in the possibilities of formal verse.

Through the 3rd Eye was supported in its inception by the Grand Rapids Humanities Council and is currently made possible by continued volunteer effort and private support. Copyright 2013.