ONE RADIANT FALL MORNING about eight years ago, I needed to revise some poems before I sent them to editors. I approached my desk armed with questions I ask my students: Is the language alive? Check out the metaphor. Does the poem make an argument or take the reader on a journey?
I am a writer. I try to write every day. On days I can’t write, I try to revise. But on this particular morning, the sun flooded my office windows and I followed its brightness to watch two female cardinals briskly cracking sunflower seeds at our bird feeder. I noticed that the beds beneath them needed weeding. I resisted the temptation to garden. I did what I tell my students to do: keep your bottom squarely in your chair. Stick with writing. Bring your mind gently back to your poems.
But words were not jumping, hovering, homing in for a landing as they often are when I sit down to write.
Well, I thought, a writer does, legitimately, need coffee sometimes, before writing. And getting up, moving around can be a strategy for wooing words. So I walked to our kitchen and found a bag of coffee beans in the cupboard. As they rattled and cracked in the grinder, I savored their pungent aroma.
When I returned, more resolutely, to my study with a steaming mug, I noticed the tiny plaster garden elf with his peaked red hat, perched on a bookshelf. Several years earlier our impulsive granddaughter thrust her most beloved toy into my hands as I left her house in Saint Louis to fly home. I love this elf far more than is reasonable. I stood for a long time looking at its crinkly eyes and scraggly gray beard.
Then, as clearly as if I’d opened an envelope and read a personal letter, I realized that I must not be very interested in my own poems.
How could I expect them to interest anyone else?
This was not the first time I had caught myself daydreaming instead of writing. But it was the first time I grasped that I was in danger.
When I was younger, when I was teaching and raising a family and making dinners and buying jeans and shirts every time the kids outgrew their clothes (which seemed like every two weeks) if I had twenty minutes free, I’d sit down at my computer and bang out whatever I could. If the kids left for play dates, I’d draft a poem in a couple of hours. I revised between eleven and midnight. I wrote for dear life.
That sunny fall morning was the first time I realized that I might not be a writer anymore. Or more terrifyingly, that I couldn’t write. After all, there does come a time in some writers’ lives when they inexplicably run out of ideas. Or words. Or metaphors. Or perhaps—this seemed like a dimmer possibility—something had depleted my passion to write.
Some of these writers write anyway, and what they write gets published, at least for a while longer. But I didn’t want to be a marathon runner whose time got worse every year. Maybe, I thought, I needed to stop writing. Maybe I needed to compile scrapbooks or train racehorses instead. After publishing thirteen books, winning prizes and fellowships, and enjoying a career teaching poetry, I felt suddenly alone and terrified about my future as a writer.
I deleted the file of poems entirely and left my desk.
This kind of crisis may seem trivial compared to war or famine, but it can be traumatic enough to utterly upend a writer or a painter. Gustav Klimt writhed in anguish over his failure at a commission for the University of Vienna. In fact, that failure may be what drove him to experiment with gold leaf in The Kiss and his other wildly successful paintings that followed. But artists who face failure do not always find solutions. Van Gogh did not sell a single painting during his lifetime, became increasingly unhinged, and shot himself at the age of thirty-seven. And Coleridge, persuaded that he had lost his ability to compose poetry, wrote “Dejection: An Ode,” after which he became increasingly addicted to opium. We don’t know much about Emily Dickinson’s reaction to the public rejection of her poems, because she guarded herself so closely. And we can’t know about countless other artists who have never been heard from, perhaps because they could not recover from their lack of support. Unwilling to replicate their failures in more paintings or poems, but unable to imagine any alternative, they simply stopped painting or writing.
I had felt increasingly wearied for several years, not merely by my own poetry, but by the flatness of much contemporary American poetry. I fled to poetry in translation. When my husband and I traveled, in Amsterdam, England, Portugal, I asked waitresses and hotel clerks to recommend poets. Which they could do, I discovered, because waitresses in these countries read poetry. One of our servers who wasn’t busy beckoned a colleague to our table to confer with us. That’s how I discovered the luminous Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer.
I ordered Robin Fulton’s translation of Tranströmer and soaked it up the way the desert accepts rain. I carried it with me to the grocery store, to the gym, to my eye and dental exams, and when I wore out one copy, I ordered another. On the October morning in 2011 when Tranströmer won the Nobel Prize for literature, I celebrated with a community of his readers around the world who whooped and slapped high-fives on line. But Tranströmer’s metaphor, his entire idiom, is saturated with the Swedish landscape the way Frost’s poetry is fixed on the American countryside. I loved Tranströmer, but I couldn’t figure out how to be influenced by his work. I didn’t see any way forward.
Eventually I remembered something one of my teachers told me: when all else fails, go back to the old masters. Their strategies will sound innovative. That may appear counterintuitive, but think of Manet, who learned from Velazquez his striking use of black. Van Gogh was influenced by old Japanese prints. Ezra Pound absorbed ancient Chinese art and writing. Then there’s Milton, who learned the epic from Spenser, and Spenser, who learned it from Virgil. And William Carlos Williams, at least arguably, learned from Keats that he did not want to write sonnets like those of Keats.
I reread Shakespeare, Donne, Herbert, and Milton, not to teach them, but in the spirit of an ordinary reader seeking wisdom and pleasure. I was as dazzled by their exuberance and wit as I had been the first time I read them. How different they were from contemporary American verse. What the older poets had in common, of course, was form. All of them wrote sonnets with athletic, lithe, pithy, memorable iambic pentameter lines. Their efficient, witty language felt catching the way laughter can be catching.
So I assigned myself the task of writing sonnets. Ten, I figured, would be a good number. Each sonnet only needed fourteen lines of iambic pentameter arranged in a prefabricated rhyme scheme.
I remember the afternoon I sat down before a blank screen and wrote the first line of a sonnet. Alas, the words did not come out in meter: te da te da te da te da te da. Moreover, I couldn’t think of a word to rhyme with the word that appeared by chance at the end of the line. So I deleted the line and started over.
I deleted and started over a lot.
Meter isn’t hard to “get” in your body; feeling the accent in meter is a lot like feeling the beat in music. But writing in meter is a different story. It is difficult to invent a sentence that is both metrically correct and of interest to the reader. That also uses images. That picks up a sound that appears in the line above.
At my desk I slogged forward, pouncing on any rhyme that made even vague sense, substituting words to fix the meter. I usually approached a writing session with something to say, usually starting with phrases in a notebook or written on the back of an envelope. But the rhyme and meter garbled my plans beyond recognition. One evening after two interminable five-hour work sessions, I sat looking at fourteen skinny lines huddled together like miscellaneous children abandoned in a parking lot. Nevertheless, I permitted myself to imagine that I had written a sonnet. Every week I saved a terrible new entry in my Word file labeled Sonnet.
I can’t remember when I began to feel the sonnet and I were working together. The collaboration felt slightly creepy, at first, but it was indisputable. Every time I chose a word, that choice was defined, not just by the need to say what I meant, but by the sonnet’s demand for a particular sound or stress. It felt like skiing a slalom course. My path was influenced by obstacles determined by the form of the sonnet—but, of course, the obstacles had been selected by me. In line three of the sonnet, for example, I needed to find a word to rhyme with the last word in line one. But I was the one who had previously chosen the word in line one.
Occasionally I would drop a word like orange or month at the end of a line. Perfectly normal, sane English words. But I searched for an hour before the penny dropped: there is no rhyme in English for those words. I snapped, gave up, took a walk, and then shopped for groceries. In the bread aisle it dawned on me that I could go back any time I wanted to and change the earlier end words to create sounds that would be easier to work with. If you are on a sonnet-writing pilgrimage, you don’t have to live with your mistakes, as you often do in real life.
After months of drafting sonnets, I stopped approaching my desk with my mind made up about what I wanted to say. Amazingly, rhyme words began to generate ideas, to suggest possibilities I’d have never thought of by myself. If I ended a line with peach—this seems strange, perhaps—but I’d feel a little jab of excitement about the possibilities for reach. Or maybe a half-rhyme like touch.
Every sonnet became a small adventure. By the time I was drafting my twentieth sonnet (yes, I overshot my target) I had come to depend on the form of the sonnet to evoke new ideas.
Reading sonnets had become exciting, too. In every literary period (with the possible exception of the eighteenth century) poets have written sonnets. The form appears very early in English Renaissance poetry—before Shakespeare, even before Sir Philip Sidney. Every age has bent the sonnet to its distinctive concerns. The sonnet sequences of Wyatt and Surrey and other mid-sixteenth-century English court poets narrate the writer’s passionate, tortured love for a woman. A hundred years later, Donne was writing sonnets about his fervent love relationship with God. Contemporary poets use the form to reflect on food, sailing, endangered orcas, shoes, listening to music—you name it. Not only is the form of the sonnet enduring, I realized. It is amazingly adaptable. I felt curious. Who had thought up this form?
The sonnet was invented in Italy by Giacomo da Lentini in the thirteenth century when he was master of poetry workshops in the court of Frederick II. Soon afterwards Dante wrote sonnets, but it was his young friend Petrarch, the humanist, priest, and man of letters, who made the sonnet famous and for whom one kind of sonnet is named. Petrarch wrote over 350 sonnets, tormented by his own anxiety and passion, haunted by the loveliness of a woman named Laura.
As Petrarch trekked around Europe, he compared notes with other scholars who were reading and translating the great Latin and Greek classics. In his travels, he spread the sonnet throughout Italy and France. “I am a citizen of no place; everywhere I am a stranger,” Petrarch wrote. His alienation and self-consciousness prompted the historian Jacob Burckhardt to call him “the first modern man.” As Petrarch traveled, his perspective would shift. It was this restlessness of perspective that he built into the sonnet. He seemed always capable of imagining himself either from or in another place.
As deeply as Petrarch loved classical writers, it was Augustine he carried with him wherever he journeyed. In a letter to one of his confessors, Petrarch described climbing an Italian mountain with his brother, reaching the top, peering out over the spreading landscape beneath him, and feeling exhilarated. He opened his Augustine, then, and felt remorse because he was more gripped by the beauty of the mountain than by his own spiritual life.
Sitting in my office one autumn morning, watching squirrels burying treasure, I read translations of Petrarch’s letters and many of his sonnets. I felt a rush of affection for the man. In his sonnets he was struggling to work out, through his vivid intellect, a solution to his decade-long yearning to possess the beautiful young woman Laura. Caught between his longing to live a holy, sequestered life, his restless need to travel, and his brilliant literary imagination, Petrarch became to me as familiar as a friend on Facebook. How astonishing that I could open a volume in Philadelphia, hear the voice of an Italian cleric writing in 1330, and feel such a deep bond.
I couldn’t read Petrarch in either Latin or Italian, though I am struggling to learn contemporary Italian. I was reading Petrarch’s sonnets in sixteenth-century translations by the Earl of Surrey. I wanted, at least, to get Petrarch in the language of (roughly) his own age. Here’s Surrey’s version of Petrarch’s 140th sonnet, which expresses the poet’s dilemma.
Love, that doth reign and live within my thought,
And built his seat within my captive breast,
Clad in the arms wherein with me he fought,
Oft in my face he doth his banner rest.
But she that taught me love and suffer pain,
My doubtful hope and eke my hot desire
With shamefast look to shadow and refrain,
Her smiling grace converteth straight to ire.
And coward Love, then, to the heart apace
Taketh his flight, where he doth lurk and plain,
His purpose lost, and dare not show his face.
For my lord’s guilt thus faultless bide I pain,
Yet from my lord shall not my foot remove:
Sweet is the death that taketh end by love.
This sonnet, like all Petrarchan sonnets, seethes with drama. The first eight lines set up the scene. Petrarch spots Laura. He struggles to hide his love, but can’t. She quickly reads the passion in his face and stops him short. He feels embarrassed and suddenly angry.
Then for the last six lines, Petrarch’s perspective shifts. He feels Love (the allegorical abstraction) dive from his face (was he blushing?) to bury itself again painfully in his heart. This secret, unrequited love might kill him, he realizes. But he doesn’t care.
Indeed, in the sonnet he concludes that death-by-love would be sweet. For Surrey’s readers, “death” meant not only the end of life, but also sexual consummation: exactly what Petrarch longed for. No wonder he could imagine death being sweet. The problem in this sonnet is that when the poet looks at Laura, he cannot stop imagining a sexual connection with her, but Laura will not give in to his wooing. She remains out of reach, an ideal that he longs for but cannot attain.
And so he was forced to struggle with the problem in another sonnet. And then in another. Laura dies at the end of the sonnet sequence, before the narrator can win her. We are left with the residue of their love, something like footprints in the grass, evidence of love, the achingly beautiful sonnets which unite Petrarch and Laura.
Reading them, even in translation, I could almost feel the world changing.
It did change, the way it changed when I was seventeen and first read a poem by Richard Wilbur. In “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World,” Wilbur locates his reader with breathtaking immediacy in a tenement bedroom in New York City. It’s dawn. The narrator is just waking up. “Eyes open to the cry of pulleys…” The music of Wilbur’s long vowels transported me to that bedroom. I was the one waking up, hearing a wash line being let out on pulleys, hearing laundry flap outside the window. My seventeen-year-old self wanted to do what the twenty-six-year-old poet had done with language. I began to think about Wilbur’s poem the way a kid might look at a basketball and foresee ways of shooting, strategies for dribbling, how this ball might change his life.
In the same way, reading Petrarch’s poems, I began to see the sonnet as something more than a strategy for creating lithe, witty lines. I saw that the sonnet offers a way to shape a quarrel. To work through an argument. To confront one point of view with another.
Every Petrarchan sonnet begins with eight lines that explain a problem or ask a question. Then comes a turn, a shift, ranging from a subtle tone change to a sharp reversal in a speaker’s argument or perspective. The shift is called a volta. The shorter six-line stanza that follows the volta abruptly reconsiders the problem. A volta is like the light bulb that comes on above a cartoon character’s head. It’s an ah-ha moment. It is this turn that makes fourteen lines into a sonnet.
To put it another way, the volta builds two perspectives into the form. It is like walking through a valley and then climbing a mountain to see the valley from a different point of view. A sonnet is not a public argument between two people, the sort of debate you can watch on nightly news shows. The sonnet offers a vivid way to articulate an internal quarrel, the sort of quarrel we have with ourselves when we can’t sleep at two in the morning.
So months passed. I kept writing sonnets. Slowly I discovered that the sonnet, like most of us, is always of two minds. Its beauty lies precisely in this split personality, a self-consciousness that we think of as contemporary, but which has probably been characteristic of thoughtful people in every age. In the first eight lines the poet considers this; in the last six lines she redefines things: but on the other hand, that. What binds the two sections together, what makes them a unity, is the uniform voice of one distinct poet speaking in iambic pentameter—ten syllables per line—the self speaking to another part of the self, who answers.
Suddenly the sonnet no longer seemed antiquated to me. It seemed astonishingly modern. I no longer wrote sonnets mainly to relearn the art of crafting a line.
I could not wait to write the next sonnet. Perhaps, I realized, I was becoming addicted.
All this time, I knew of the kind of chin-wagging going on in the literary world. Many poets and critics feel that the sonnet is not only old-fashioned but rule-bound and enslaving. In the early twentieth century, as social cohesion collapsed into World War I, poets expressed their irony, nihilism, and despair through fragmentation, radical experiment, and oblique commentary. Rumor has it that the modernist poet William Carlos Williams argued that the sonnet is a fascist form. What is clear: in 1913, on the eve of World War I, Ezra Pound, the influential modernist poet and critic, writing in Poetry magazine, famously banished old forms, especially the sonnet, from the poetry house. He—who had written some pretty decent sonnets himself—nailed to the door his manifesto, “Make It New.” The sonnet, he wrote, is the devil. He inspired the most gifted young poets of his generation, like T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and Williams, many of whom had started their careers writing in form, to venture into free verse.
By the time I was discovering the sonnet, free verse had been around for a century. The poets who had labored to learn the tools of the poetry trade, including rhyme and meter, were long gone. Free verse itself had become an orthodoxy taught in most academic programs. It doesn’t demand the long practice required to achieve the brilliant arguments of John Donne’s lyrics or the wit of Shakespeare’s sonnets. In truth, I love many modernist and some contemporary poems written in free verse. But most of them are not memorable. That is, I literally cannot remember and quote them. Most of them (even the ineffable lines of Wallace Stevens) do not engage my body, either, the way iambic lines do, lines that imitate the beating of a heart. Moreover, the reign of free verse has produced a lot of stuff that sails under the flag of poetry but turns out to be prose cut into short lines.
Edna St. Vincent Millay, who was writing at the same time as the more famous, male modernist poets, resisted their decision to discard poetic form in response to war and chaos. She replied to the nihilism and disintegration around her with a pointed manifesto of her own:
I will put Chaos into fourteen lines
And keep him there; and let him thence escape
If he be lucky; let him twist, and ape
Flood, fire, and demon—his adroit designs
Will strain to nothing in the strict confines
Of this sweet order, where, in pious rape,
I hold his essence and amorphous shape,
Till he with Order mingles and combines.
Past are the hours, the years of our duress,
His arrogance, our awful servitude:
I have him. He is nothing more nor less
Than something simple not yet understood;
I shall not even force him to confess;
Or answer. I will only make him good.
In the first eight lines of Millay’s sonnet, floods break out, fire leaps up, chaos lashes out, nonsense writhes around. By what hand-hold can a poet grasp such a flickering, unpredictable shape, she asks herself?
By words, she answers, arranged, like dance, to a beat. She wrestles Chaos into words and begins to shape him into a sonnet. By the volta, the poet is no longer his victim; she has subjected him. Oddly, she doesn’t destroy him but only makes him “good.”
Good. According to Genesis, when God started, the world was “without form.” Then he separated the light from the darkness. Step by step he rationalized and ordered what had been chaos, and when he had finished, he called it good, in part, surely, because it had form.
By the time I grasped that Millay’s sonnet must be a strategy for sorting out chaos, I had already taught it several times. My years of writing sonnets finally allowed me to see that writing—and perhaps reading—a sonnet can be a way of ordering the dizzying, murderous world. Millay’s strategy as a poet was neither to imitate formal chaos and fragmentation, nor to annihilate it, but to make it good.
This realization became a way station in my long pilgrimage with the sonnet.
While I was thinking about all this, I was invited to teach poetry writing for a month in Orvieto, a walled hill town in Italy, where the sonnet was invented, in the culture that nurtured the young form. Many mornings that spring, trekking on the town’s cobblestone Corso to poetry class, watching new leaves unfolding, I’d think of Petrarch, who was born in Arezzo, just a few towns to the north. He probably visited Orvieto.
In Orvieto most people speak only Italian, so my life became a silent retreat. Of course, I talked sometimes. I taught poetry writing (in English) three hours a day. But I didn’t have time to stream American news. At the tiny supermarket, Meta, every package, every box spoke a language I didn’t know. I didn’t know how to ask the clerks to translate. I couldn’t even eavesdrop on people chatting to one another in the street. I could barely order dinner in a restaurant. I had stepped out of American hyper-news-time into silence. The town became for me a portal to a different species of time, a new kind of reflection.
In this village, life rhythms seem governed by the seasons. Thursday and Saturday mornings farmers sell fresh vegetables and fruit, cheeses, and meat in the Piazza della Repubblica. Window boxes blaze with red and purple flowers from April through October. By late November, shop windows are filled with Christmas wreaths and lights. Ancient citizens who grew up here toil up and down the Corso to shop for dinner, to share coffee with friends they went to school with sixty years ago. Trendy young mothers play with toddlers in the kids’ park where they themselves once played.
One Sunday morning we celebrated the christening of the town’s newest baby in one of the town’s oldest churches. So what, I thought, if the sonnet is five hundred years old? San Giovenale, where the baby was christened, is twice as old as the sonnet. What is new is not always better.
Late one afternoon that spring, on a whim, I hiked up the Corso to the church, which is nestled in a crook of the town’s high stone wall. Dusk was sifting into the valley below as I stepped inside. My feet grazed the hollows of the wooden threshold worn by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims. I could feel on my shoulders the pressure of ten centuries. The air smelled faintly of plaster dust, of sweet lilies on the altar. I lowered myself to one of the hard, timber pews and closed my eyes. For a long time I sat, held within the pressure of the church’s Romanesque balance. Maybe San Giovenale is the least happening place I have ever been. Almost no one visits. I was surrounded by frescos painted when the church was two hundred years old, around the time Petrarch was writing his sonnets. Some of them are missing limbs, parts of faces, a whole left side. They gazed down at me. As I prayed, I could almost feel them wearing away. One hour turned into another.
It was either there, in the stillness of San Giovenale, or shortly after that—I honestly don’t remember—that I realized the sonnet must surely be infused with a force I hadn’t suspected. It seemed, almost, to be alive. We know that in architecture, art, and music certain forms are used repeatedly because they exert unexplained power. For example, the floor plans of many churches (like that of San Giovenale) are shaped like a Latin cross. In music, a diminished seventh incites our passion, and by the end of a piece we expect discord to resolve itself by returning us to the tonic. We are safe. So with the sonnet; as we read the last line we feel we are coming home. I began to grasp the fact that, for me, the sonnet had become what I believe it has been for centuries for others: a force of energy so great that the form itself felt sacramental.
Six months later, as orange and yellow leaves fell, I stood with a tour group in front of the façade of Santa Maria Novella, the vast church across from the train station in Florence. I was listening to a guide talk about the building’s architect, Alberti. I caught the phrase “divine proportions.” Leon Battista Alberti, the guide told us, inherited and articulated mathematical formulas which he used to structure the façade. These ratios appear in music, too. They were developed in the court of Emperor Frederick II of Sicily.
As was the sonnet, I remembered.
What was going on in that court? When I got back to my hotel room, I spent hours ransacking the web for anything on divine proportion and Emperor Frederick II.
Frederick, it turns out, was a deeply learned and curious man. He had Euclid’s Elements translated into Latin (from Arabic) and he employed many mathematicians and writers in his court. Among his mathematicians, for example, Leonardo Pisano was thinking up the Fibonacci sequence. Among his writers, Giacomo da Lentini was inventing the sonnet.
Frederick believed that mathematics and writing are different ways of interrogating the nature of beauty. Poets in his court in Sicily developed not only the sonnet, but other mathematical verse forms we still use, like the villanelle and the sestina. And the mathematics of perfect geometry and divine proportion spoken of during those years came to be essential to architects who designed churches like Santa Maria Novella and San Giovenale.
Six hundred years ago, when these early Italian architects and writers called the proportions of their art “divine,” the word divine referred to God. They believed God had employed mathematical ratios to design his creation and that those ratios could be discovered and used by painters and architects and writers. The word divine has fallen on hard times. It can mean lovely, as in, “The ring he gave me is divine!” But the mathematicians and writers in Frederick’s court were looking for something different—a path to God, a way of experiencing transcendence. I was deeply shaken to discover that Frederick II had hurled all his resources into finding divine proportion, because that’s exactly what I experienced as I wrote sonnets, the form that was invented in his court.
My journey with the sonnet has been a pilgrimage. I know that now, in retrospect. A pilgrimage is a path walked by people who have both a process and a destination in mind. Early Christians went on pilgrimages because they were convinced that by walking the same route as Christians before them, they could experience contact with the original divine revelation that occurred in that time and space.
Walk two hundred miles to a holy place without your cell phone, without takeout, without a map, and you begin to transcend ordinary time and space. Thursday, for example, isn’t about taking the dog for a run, driving to work, checking your messages, picking up your child from play school, logging onto Facebook, and making hamburgers. It’s about stepping forward, over and over. You learn how to pace yourself. You become part of the landscape. Time passes slowly. Your mind idles. The hours of a day begin to measure how far you have gone. You imagine reincarnating the arduous and mystical space traveled by early Christian pilgrims.
For me, learning to write a sonnet was like that. At the beginning, I didn’t know the way, but now I realize I was following a path many writers and readers had walked before me. Learning to write a sonnet requires a writer to submit to discipline, to recognize a tradition, to practice until she masters form. As I read the sonnets of other writers, I became aware of those whose feet had shaped the path I was following: Petrarch, Shakespeare, John Donne, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and many other poets. As the great composer John Tavener testified, a disciplined artistic apprenticeship allows a composer (or poet) to “work with material that is primordial and therefore not [merely] … his or her expression, but the tradition working through” her.
And yet, writing a sonnet is not like stamping out yet another fourteen-line artifact the way a Detroit factory stamps out the bumper of a car—as some poets and critics seem to believe. The miracle is that the tradition works differently through every writer. John Donne’s sonnets are radically different from those of a contemporary poet—even those by Mark Jarman, who took Donne’s poems as models for his “Unholy Sonnets.” The form of a sonnet satisfies a general pattern, but each sonnet is absolutely and unmistakably itself. As a reader I delight in recognizing the pattern but can never entirely predict how a sonnet will unfold. Put it this way: to read sonnets is to enter a gallery, to notice how the shapes and colors of great paintings have changed over centuries. It is to appreciate how individual artists have worked within a tradition. It is to savor the ways a form can be adapted.
When I read a sonnet now, I am alert to the choices its writer is making within severely limited boundaries. And hard as it may be to believe, those boundaries enliven a writer’s awareness of her choices. The demand for a single rhyme can stimulate a profusion of antic ideas. The obligation to create a volta can electrify an afternoon. This way of thinking about how art is made is very different from the Romantic “genius” theory, which holds that random (and sometimes untutored) geniuses are struck with inspiration by some inexplicable force they can neither control nor explain. Maybe so. Naïve geniuses sometimes create good work. But a kid who can dash off something brilliant may not be able to score a second time. She needs someone to teach her how to do again what she has done so well. Most good musicians and poets do not belong to the church of genius. Most of them have conscientiously learned their craft from the great artists in their tradition.
I have spent the last several years reveling in the peculiar power of the sonnet. I have discovered the form’s uncanny tractability and I have been riveted by its mystery. A reader who enters a sonnet emotionally and cognitively willing—and who passes through it—can be significantly changed by the journey. As a reader or writer searches, the sonnet slowly reveals itself. For me, at least for now, the sonnet feels charged with transcendent and transformational power.
It is ironic, and perhaps typical of the wisdom of the form, that in the process of writing a hundred sonnets, I have slowly discovered a plausible way of writing free verse again.
But that is a story I don’t entirely understand yet. A story for another day.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.