Tony Barnstone - SONNET FEATURE December 2006  



The Cortland Review


Tony Barnstone
  "A Manifesto on the Contemporary Sonnet: A Personal Aesthetics"
Tony Barnstone considers the sonnet from its formal beginnings to its evolution into the twenty-first century, including some generative techniques for sonnets of your own

Tony Barnstone

Willis Barnstone
Lorna Knowles Blake
Kim Bridgford
Billy Collins
Leisha Douglas
Barry Ergang
Ross A. Gay
Soheila Ghaussy This marks an author's first online publication
Miranda Girard This marks an author's first online publication
Myrna Goodman This marks an author's first online publication
Susan Gubernat
Heidi Hart
Jay Leeming This marks an author's first online publication
Anne Marie Macari

Patricia O'Hara
John Poch
Michael Salcman
Patricia Smith
A.E. Stallings

Gerald Stern
Joyce Sutphen
Jeet Thayil
Meredith Trede This marks an author's first online publication



Tony Barnstone

Tony BarnstoneTony Barnstone is Professor English at Whittier College, where he anchors the creative writing program and teaches American and Asian literature. He is the author of two books of poetry, Sad Jazz: Sonnets (Sheep Meadow Press, 2005), Impure (University Press of Florida, 1999), a chapbook of poems, Naked Magic (Mainstreet Rag, 2002), and has edited and/or translated several books of Chinese poetry and prose, including The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry (Anchor Books, 2005), Out of the Howling Storm: The New Chinese Poetry (Wesleyan University Press, 1993), Laughing Lost in the Mountains: Selected Poems of Wang Wei (University Press of New England, 1991), and The Art of Writing: Teachings of the Chinese Masters (Shambhala, 1996). His forthcoming book is Chinese Erotic Poetry (Everyman Press, 2008).
A Manifesto On The Contemporary Sonnet: A Personal Aesthetics 


To quote Ezra Pound, the poet must "Make it new." William Carlos Williams took Pound's dictum to mean that poets must be relentless avant-gardists, the shock troops of the new. Thus, for Williams, "all sonnets say the same thing of no importance. What does it matter what the line 'says'? There is no poetry of distinction without formal invention, for it is in the intimate form that works of art achieve their exact meaning. . . ." Williams was so focused on inventing new (i.e., free verse) forms that a fixed form such as the sonnet was to him mere repetition, the stamping out of the same product again and again by a factory press. The form for Williams is the content.

On the other hand, Williams didn't truly understand metrical form, despite his early, Keatsian attempts at writing formal poems. For Williams, the fixed-form poem is a container into which you pour content, and it is true that you can fill an urn with blood or semen or earth from Sicily, and it will retain its shape. But set forms are significantly more elastic than Williams gave them credit for being. "The Sound must seem an Eccho to the Sense," wrote Alexander Pope in his Essay on Criticism, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in defining what he called "Organic Form," wrote:

The form is mechanic when on any given material we impress a pre-determined form, not necessarily arising out of the properties of the material, as when to a mass of wet clay we give whatever shape we wish it to retain when hardened. The organic form, on the other hand, is innate; it shapes as it develops itself from within, and the fullness of its development is one and the same with the perfection of its outward form. Such is the life, such the form.


For Coleridge and Pope, form should have an organic relation to sense, not merely be the vase into which content is poured. The well-wrought urn is shaped to match its content. And those who write in form today have found countless ways to reanimate the great tradition of the sonnet form. Inevitably, for those who become inveterate sonneteers, sonnet writing becomes a form of experimentation, of hybridizing and reinventing.

. . . form should have an organic relation to sense, not merely be the vase into which content is poured.

Alexander Pope writes, "But most by Numbers judge a Poet's Song, / And smooth or rough, with them, is right or wrong" (Essay on Criticism). But many contemporary sonneteers dispense with meter altogether or use it in only a few lines of the sonnet and rhyme slant and irregularly, perhaps just in the couplet or glancingly throughout the poem. The first example I have found of this poetic practice is actually in the work of Williams. Though his early attempts at writing sonnets were unmitigated failures ("I've fond anticipation of a day / O'erfilled with pure diversion presently, / For I must read a lady poesy / The while we glide by many a leafy bay"), later in life Williams wrote a poem modeled upon the sonnet form that was simply a free-verse poem in fourteen lines. Nevertheless, he titled it "Sonnet," as if to say, "Here is how you make the sonnet new; you turn it into free verse." Certainly, that is one way to do so.

For those who follow William's approach to modernizing the sonnet, the sonnet becomes simply a fourteen-line poem, with occasional rhyme, perhaps, and just the ghost of meter. T.S. Eliot, in his "Reflections on Vers Libre," writes that "the ghost of some simple metre should lurk behind the arras in even the 'freest' verse; to advance menacingly as we doze, and withdraw as we rouse. Or, freedom is only truly freedom when it appears against the background of an artificial limitation." For Eliot, the definition of good free verse is poetry in which can be glimpsed the ruins of meter. Robert Lowell wrote hundreds of unrhymed blank-verse sonnets in his Histories, but when a sonnet has neither meter nor rhyme, what distinguishes it from free verse? Perhaps the fact that it is written in fourteen lines. But why should line count be the deciding factor? After all, the great sonneteer, George Meredith, wrote his novella-in-sonnets, Modern Love, in sixteen-line sonnets! And what of the poems in Gerald Stern's American Sonnets, which are meterless and rhymeless and vary wildly in line count? Are they sonnets simply because he calls them sonnets? Each of us has to answer that question in our own way. Certainly, Stern's title asks us to think of his sequence of short lyrical poems in the context of the tradition of the Petrarchan sonnet sequence, and, in that sense, they are in conversation with tradition, seeking ways to expand or renew that tradition, which for me, at least, creates an instant spark of interest. In fact, as I see it, any practice is acceptable so long as it works as poetry.

It's clear that free verse has much to learn from the sonnet tradition. I would assert, however, that the reverse is true as well: the sonnet has much to learn from the predominant (one might almost say hegemonic) mode of American poetry, from free verse. Free-verse aesthetics can renew the sonnet form in more interesting ways than Williams's fourteen-line experiment, if they are allowed to truly permeate the sonnet form.

The sonnet is as addictive as heroin, because it gives the writer certainty about the world. When it truly is in you, ideas come out in sonnet form, thoughts stream in iambic feet. Free verse reminds me of a passage from Nietzsche's The Gay Science:

Indeed, we philosophers and "free spirits" feel, when we hear the news that "the old god is dead," as if a new dawn shone on us; our heart overflows with gratitude, amazement, premonitions, expectations. At long last the horizon appears free to us again, even if it should not be bright; at long last our ships may venture out again, venture out to face any danger; all the daring of the lover of knowledge is permitted again; the sea, our sea, lies open again; perhaps there has never yet been such an "open sea."


After the much heralded death of form in modernism (though, to paraphrase Mark Twain, "the rumors of its death have been greatly exaggerated"), free verse emerged from the wasteland and set sail on a newly opened sea. Poets set sail like Columbus, unsure whether they would sail forever, sail off the waterfalling edge of a flat world, or encounter India or other new worlds. There is something comforting about knowing the destination of your journey. Sonnet-mariners know they will arrive at a port after a voyage of fourteen lines. With free verse, one travels into the fog, and must map the world again with every poem. With free verse one has to ask each time, "What makes this a poem?" Why should I break my line here and not there? What sort of stanza shape and length should I have? What voice shall I speak in, with what attitude, with what rhetoric, with what image structure? We have to come up with organic ways of making it poetry, because the mechanic form has been dispensed with. A hundred years later, these "new" lands of free-verse form are no longer new, no longer radical or avant-garde. But they remain powerful enough that they have become the central practice of American poetry, while formal poets are on the periphery once claimed by free-verse poets and by experimental, L*A*N*G*U*A*G*E, and elliptical poets. Why not create a hybrid sonnet poetics that learns from free-verse practices, that echoes free-verse love of the vernacular, of biblical rhetoric (especially anaphora), of attitude, of the collapse of high and low, and of precise, archetypal, resonant images?


Sonnet-mariners know they will arrive at a port after a voyage of fourteen lines. With free verse, one travels into the fog, and must map the world again with every poem.

While free-verse poetry often suffers from a lack of necessity, the necessity of form in the sonnet too often makes it feel artificial, distant, and more written than spoken. One solution might be to abandon the sonnet construction in which each stanza is seen as a separate box, and the boxes stack up to make the whole: octave, turn, tercet, tercet, or octave, turn, quatrain, couplet. How about a sonnet constructed like Whitman's poems, or Ginsberg's, through anaphora, sentence rhythm, and breath? A biblical rhetoric that wraps through the form until the sonnet form is invisible, transparent? In my sonnet, "Marriage Psalm," for example, I set out to adapt Whitmanian anaphora to the sonnet form:

Marriage Psalm

Blessed is the mattress on which they feast.
Blessed the yellow sheet on which she lies,
blessed her skin and blessed are her breasts,
and blessed are the body's lamps, her eyes
lighting the room, rolling in dream, in lies,
and blessed is the darkness that descends
and carries them through sleep. Blessed the ways
of limbs entwined, a tangle without end
that only lack of love or death or time
can untie. Blessed mouth that eats the wool
pants and the folded sweaters, blessed blind
pink worm that digs, the insect in the wall
that feeds on them like rot in fruit yet gives
them years alive with blessings in their lives.

Or consider this sonnet from Chad Parmenter's Batsonnets, a sequence of sonnets about the world of the comic book character Batman:

A Holy Sonnet for His New Movie

When Batman finally casts his batarang
across the Gotham skyline, don't you sleep,
my children. Don't you close your eyes to weep
or let them blur with tears; no watering
the roses in your cheeks; he's glittering
beyond these sponsors. Hallelujah. Keep
his theme inside your heart and go ye, reap
your sugar harvest at the snack machine
between the previews. Batfans, think how long
we tried to pray away the preshow night,
how low our spirits flew while he was gone.
Now fill your mouths with Batman candy. Bite
your tongue and swallow that amen. It's dawn
onscreen—here comes your Christ in vinyl tights.

Here is the true contemporary sonnet: conversational, idiomatic, tongue-in-cheek postmodern ("don't you sleep/my children"), blending high rhetoric and archaism ("no watering/the roses in your cheeks," "Hallelujah," "go ye") with pop culture reference ("batarang," "Batman candy"), regular Petrarchan metrics with slant rhyme (batarang/watering/glittering/machine). The content is honest, unembarrassed, adult and mature—not a safe, polite sonnet to show the "Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls" with their "comfortable minds." As Richard Wilbur says, ". . . I think that poetry which tries to fend off the inelegant, popular world is in danger of seeming prissy and stuffy." With poems such as this, the sonnet has entered the twenty-first century. I am tempted to say that this is not your parents' formal poetry, though, in fact, most of these techniques were anticipated by e.e. cummings in his sonnets of the 1920s!


Yes, it is tempting to apply the modernist avante-garde principles of perpetual renewal and relentless invention to the sonnet, to follow the dictum of old Ezra. On the other hand, when we dig a bit further into Pound, we find that his dictum was itself nothing new. He was cribbing his famous phrase from the Confucian classic The Great Learning, the Da Shue, which is also, in Chinese, the term for "University," so you might say that Pound went to school in China.

I think Robert Frost stated Pound's idea a bit more interestingly when he wrote that he likes to find "old ways of being new." Frost notes that the modernists "ran wild in the quest of new ways to be new," and he complains that

Those tried were largely by subtraction, elimination. Poetry, for example, was tried without punctuation. It was tried without capital letters. It was tried without metric frame on which to measure the rhythm. It was tried without any images but those to the eye: and a loud general intoning has to be kept up to cover the total loss of specific images to the ear, those dramatic tones of voice which had hitherto constituted the better half of poetry. It was tried without content under the trade name of poesie pure. It was tried without phrase, epigram, coherence, logic and consistency. It was tried without ability.... It was tried without feeling or sentiment like murder for small pay in the underworld. These many things was it tried without, and what had we left? Still something.


There is still something left after a century of free verse. In the words of the great Tang Dynasty statesman and writer Han Yu, to write in form is to "Dance in Chains." That is, the joy of writing in form comes not in slavishly following the rule of prosody, of pouring content into a predefined form, but in creatively interacting with a tradition, renewing and modernizing it. It is in the interaction of dance and chain, of freedom and restriction, breath and rhythm, that the interest comes.

. . . the joy of writing in form comes not in slavishly following the rule of prosody, of pouring content into a predefined form, but in creatively interacting with a tradition, renewing and modernizing it. It is in the interaction of dance and chain, of freedom and restriction, breath and rhythm that the interest comes.

At the same time, there is a certain pleasure that comes from a sonnet that has traditional forms of elegance, and the studied ease that the best free-verse has. As Alexander Pope would have it, "True Ease in Writing comes from Art, not Chance, / As those move easiest who have learn'd to dance" (Essay on Criticism). Consider this sonnet by Jorge Luis Borges, for example:


Antes que los remeros de Odiseo
Fatigaran el mar color de vino
Las inasibles formas adivino
De aquel dios cuyo nombre fue Proteo.
Pastor de los rebaños de los mares
Y poseedor del don de profecía,
Prefería ocultar lo que sabía
Y entretejer oráculos dispares.
Urgido por las gentes asumía
La forma de un león o de una hoguera
O de árbol que da sombra a la ribera
O de agua que en el agua se perdía.
De Proteo el egipcio no te asombres,
Tú, que eres uno y eres muchos hombres.

        —Jorge Luis Borges


Before the oarsmen of Odysseus
strained their arms against the wine dark sea,
I see strange forms, as if in prophesy,
of that old god whose name is Proteus.
He was the herdsman tending to the seas
and had the gift of reading omens too,
but he preferred to hide most things he knew
and wove odd scraps into his auguries.
When urged by people he would take upon
himself a lion's shape, be a huge blaze,
grow treelike by the river, giving shade,
and then like water in a wave be gone.
Don't shrink from Proteus the Egyptian,
you, who are one, and yet are many men.

        —Translated by Tony Barnstone

In the Spanish, Borges does some interesting things with the meter: using Petrarchan a-b-b-a quatrains and ending with a Shakespearean couplet; using trochaic substitution in the second and last lines, using widespread elision, and shifting from pentameter to alexandrines in the final section. It's a somewhat loosened metrical scheme. However, one of the pleasures of this poem is just how unapologetic it is about its sonnet structure. It is happy to place a clear volta after the octave, and it asserts its Shakespearean roots with a strong second turn in the couplet. Its form is argumentative and dialectical: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Furthermore, it fills each stanza with a single sentence, thus easing the tension between form and speech and moving the mind with each sentence just the distance of one stanza.

In this poem, Borges is thinking of the sonnet in terms of a series of stanza-length rhetorical movements. I like the way Rhina Espalliat described this effect in a panel on the sonnet at the West Chester Poetry Conference in 2005: the sonnet is a chest of drawers, with each stanza a drawer that pulls out to reveal its own content. There is something elegant about a good chest of drawers. The drawers hold things, open and close smoothly, and keep things organized. Without a chest of drawers, we are left with those contents piled in the middle of the bedroom floor.


The art of the translator is to make the past new by a kind of literary ventriloquism—one gives voice to the dummy without appearing to move one's lips. And yet how valuable can such a "new thought" really be to us when delivered through translation? Walter Benjamín tells us in "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" that art is a crafted product of the individual genius revealing its own unique aura—it is by definition "original," not reproduced, and certainly not created through the ventriloquism of working with already-written words. How then can the translator speak with his or her own lips, in an original voice, not in a diminished copy?

Some years ago, I translated several sonnets into English and was happy with the fact that my translations were, in fact, sonnets in English, formally regular, though utilizing a combination of true and slant rhyme. Normally, formal poetry in other languages is translated into English as free verse. This is partly because free verse dominates the American poetry scene, and so, by converting formal poetry into free verse, the American audience is more likely to like the translated poetry, and partly because translating into form is more work-intensive and takes a specialized and somewhat arcane skill in which many translators haven't been trained. 

The sonnets I translated were by Jorge Luis Borges, Petrarch, and by the Chinese poet Feng Zhi. With the Borges, I worked from my own faulty Spanish and a good fat Spanish-English dictionary. With Petrarch, I worked from bilingual editions, with a bilingual dictionary and multiple alternate translations to convert a prose translation into sonnet form. With the Feng Zhi, I used my minimal Chinese and collaborated with the Chinese poet and scholar Chou Ping.

One translates formal poetry into English as free verse to make the reader comfortable with the translated poem, while simplifying the translator's task. But if, as Robert Frost commented, to write free verse is to play tennis without a net, then translating formal poetry into free verse is like presenting a game of dodgeball as an excellent example of professional tennis. If I were to show you a donkey hung with a placard labeling it Grevy's zebra, you would most likely laugh. After all, they're simply different animals.


Now, here is the interesting thing: the process of translating these sonnets into English gave me something beyond the emotion, the meaning, the imagery, the rhetoric of the poetry. It gave me the engine that sets emotion, meaning, imagery and rhetoric into motion, a machine of language, Coleridge's "mechanic form." It gave me the sonnet. Suddenly I realized that I had the machine in my head, and thus, at that time, in the midst as it turns out of a painful divorce, I began writing sonnets and continued writing them obsessively, for months. I began by working from the Petrarch sonnets, trying to adapt and imitate the rhetorical patterns, the Petrarchan sonnet form, and the conceits behind the poems into sonnets that would reflect my own situation. Here, for example, is my translation of Petrarch's Sonnet 195:

Sonnet 195

Relentlessly, my face and hair grow old
but still I need the hook and lure so sweet
and still can't let go of the evergreen,
the Laurel tree that scorns both sun and cold.
The sea will drain of water and the sky
of stars when I no longer dread and need
her gorgeous shadow; only then I'll cease
to hate and love love's wound I cannot hide.
I cannot hope to rest from breathless work
until I'm flayed, demuscled and deboned,
or till my nemesis will sympathize.
Though everything impossible occur,
still none but she or death can heal the wound
made in my heart with her amazing eyes.

And here is my adaptation, or transformation of that sonnet:

Perhaps She Needed to Be Cruel to Make Him Understand
Look at how his face grows fat, and look,
his hair curls only like a sea around
an island of bald rock, and yet he's found
he still can't worm free from this hidden hook.
A subtle needle threads its way through him,
and stitches everything he does with pain.
Each time she says "We need to talk" to him,
he sees the sun go blank, the oceans drain
into the toilet, planets rotting through.
He gnaws on every little thing she says
and feels the bones extracted from his flesh.
When she says, "I'd feel better without you,"
he feels his skin pulled off, his muscles flayed.
He needs her more the more she needs him less.

In this sonnet, I am picking up on the imagery of aging and hooks, on the apocalyptic and anatomical imagery, the exaggeration of pain, and modernizing the diction to make it a poem about a twenty-first century divorce. The catachresis (that is, the extreme, exaggerated use of metaphor) in the Petrarch poem is wildly romantic, and certainly we see this in "Perhaps She Needed" as well, but hopefully the hyperbole of "the oceans drain" is saved for the modern reader by the anticlimax of "into the toilet," just as the understatement of "we need to talk," one hopes, will contrast pleasingly with the emotional hyperbole of "he sees the sun go blank."

I found that approaching the sonnet as a translation game was a very generative creative mode. The translator wears the skin of the author. It is a kind of spirit possession. In my own work, I have learned much about traditional form by wearing the skin of the Chinese sonneteer Feng Zhi, of Petrarch, and of Borges. In addition to learning their techniques in the process of translating their poems into sonnets in English, I have developed a technique of transformation that I have attempted to apply intralingually as well as interlingually. I might, for example, work from one of Shakespeare's sonnets, using some of his rhymes and filling in my own lines, or write poems in direct conversation with the imagery of a source poem. As an example, consider first the source poem, Shakespeare's Sonnet 49:

Sonnet 49

Against that time if ever that time come
When I shall see thee frown on my defects,
When as thy love hath cast his utmost sum,
Called to that audit by advised respects;
Against that time when thou shalt strangely pass
And scarcely greet me with that sun, thine eye,
When love converted from the thing it was
Shall reasons find of settled gravity:
Against that time do I ensconce me here
Within the knowledge of mine own desert,
And this my hand against myself uprear
To guard the lawful reasons on thy part.
To leave poor me thou hast the strength of laws,
Since why to love I can allege no cause.

Here is my intralingual translation (or transformation) of Shakespeare's sonnet:

The Audit

The time has come he never thought would come
when he sees her see in him just defects.
As if his heavy love has kept her down,
what once she thought was perfect she rejects.
She takes an audit of his qualities,
subtracts affection, multiplies distress,
and so, in sum, she takes his sum and sees
the countless reasons she should need him less.
She knows him better than he knows himself
so if she finds his love to be oppression,
and reads all the good years as years of lies,
then he must turn his mind against himself
and see, laid out in infinite regression,
his net and gross of failure in her eyes.

In intralingual transformation there is, as in traditional translation, a conversation going on with the originals, but the game is different. The poem is a tribute to the original that is meant to update it for the present day. Translation is the creation of an original poem in your own language that pretends to be someone else's poem in another language. In writing transformations, however, I found myself happy to dispense with the idea of being secondary; I felt in no way that I had diminished authority compared to some "original," or that my work needed the label of "copy" instead of "original creation."


Translating the Borges and Petrarch sonnets started me off on years of experimental sonneteering, years during which I found myself engaging in an ever-increasing and widening gyre of translation, transformation and imitation. I realized, for example, that instead of working from a prose translation of Petrarch and sonnetizing it, I could work from a prose palette of my own materials and make a sonnet that translated the palette into sonnet form.

With these techniques in hand, I have continued to write sonnet sequences, many of which continue to originate from these translation, intralingual translation and transformation practices. I call this work readymade poetry, with reference to the readymade assemblages of Marcel Duchamp, because the sonnet is the last step in adapting and reworking readymade material into poetry. For ten years I have been writing a sequence of poems set in the Pacific Theatre during WWII, spoken from the points of view of participants in, observers of, and victims of Pearl Harbor, the Island warfare campaign, and the atom bomb drops on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and based upon years of research into letters, diaries, histories, and interviews with American and Japanese soldiers, scientists such as Oppenheimer, President Truman, kamikaze pilots, prisoners of war, and citizens of Hiroshima who survived. I consider this sequence a form of poetic journalism.

The poem "White Pig, Dark Pig" is an example of such poetic journalism. For this sonnet, I researched transcripts, oral testimonies, reports and memoirs about cannibalism in New Guinea and the Philippines in Yuki Tanaka's account of Japanese military atrocities in WWII, Hidden Horrors: Japanese War Crimes in World War II, Patrick K. O'Donnell's Into the Rising Sun: In Their Own Words, World War II's Pacific Veterans Reveal the Heart of Combat, and Studs Terkel's The Good War: An Oral History of World War Two. Here are some excerpts from Tanaka's book:

There was absolutely nothing to eat, and so we decided to draw lots. The one who lost would be killed and eaten. But the one who lost started to run away so we shot him. He was eaten. You probably think that many of us raped the local women. But women were not regarded as objects of sexual desire. They were regarded as the object of our hunger . . . All we dreamt about was food. I met some soldiers in the mountains who were carrying baked human arms and legs. It was not guerillas but our own soldiers who we were frightened of. . . .

. . . Ogawa Shoji noted that toward the end of the war, Japanese soldiers referred to the Allies as "white pigs" and the local population as "black pigs."

Many other cases refer to the fact that Japanese cannibalism extended to the entrails and the genitals of the victims; in some cases the brains were taken out . . .

It seems clear that Japanese soldiers removed the bodies of Allied soldiers from the area in which fierce combat was occurring and carried them to a safe area to be cooked and consumed, while others held back the Allied forces in order to prevent them from recovering the bodies. This indicates that these incidents were not isolated or sporadic acts but part of an organized process.



. . . and here is the sonnet I wrote based upon these source materials:

White Pig, Dark Pig

I didn't rape the women, didn't lust
for their dark flesh, not like you think. I dreamed
of food, not sex. A man does what he must
to live. I ate dark breasts and brains. It seemed
normal, almost. I met some soldiers near
the camp. They carried a cooked human arm
from a white pig (that is, a prisoner
from the West). They were lucky, with a farm
of endless white pigs to roast up. But we
had to track down the dark ones hiding, and
we starved. At last we drew lots, and the one
who lost we'd eat. The loser tried to flee.
He'd been my friend. I shot him with my gun,
then wept. I got his leg and his left hand.

        (Japanese Soldier, New Guinea)

Although in these journalistic sonnets I often create composite character, I seek to do so while adhering to journalistic principles—to invent nothing but, instead, to report clearly and without editorial judgment on what happened and to let the readers judge for themselves.

Like literary translation, the essence of readymade poetry is a transcendence of the self in which the writer channels other lives and histories and cultures. By transcending the self and speaking from the point of view of others, the intense emotional effect of the confessional lyric can be duplicated, but the poem can be used to address larger historical and philosophical concerns than usually fit within the constraints of confessional poetry. The art of translation is an art of transformation, and it is one that need not be limited to the transmission of a poem from one language to another. The act of translating without translation is infinitely generative.


Another lesson about writing in form comes from Alexander Pope's Essay on Criticism, in which he rails against the limping use of many monosyllabic words to fill out a line of pentameter (using ten monosyllables himself to illustrate the problem): "And ten low Words oft creep in one dull Line."


On the other hand, I wonder if this aesthetic betrays a Latinate aesthetic prejudice. Certainly I enjoy the way that Robert Frost makes peace with the Anglo-Saxon linguistic tradition and uses monosyllables to craft a poetry that sounds as natural as free verse. In "White Pig, Dark Pig," for example, the plainspoken voice of the Japanese soldier, reveals its sorrow in the straightforward simplicity of its monosyllabic diction: "At last we drew lots, and the one / who lost we'd eat. The loser tried to flee. / He'd been my friend. I shot him with my gun, / then wept. I got his leg and his left hand."


In the past few years I have been thinking a good deal about the question of rhyme's function in the sonnet. Why bother to rhyme at all? Why not just write blank verse sonnets? Some of the easy answers still make sense. Rhyme literally makes the poem more memorable. Twenty years ago, I was living in a small apartment in Beijing and teaching at the Beijing Foreign Studies University. I had been working for several hours on a sonnet on my portable computer. In those days—the mid-1980s—portable computers were the size of a suitcase and didn't have internal battery backups or programs that saved themselves automatically. Thus, when the power suddenly went off, the sonnet disappeared into the ether. However, I noticed, in the absolute darkness, that the pixels of light on my screen were still glowing, so I ran my eyes down the fourteen rhyming words and chanted them as I stumbled around the room, blindly seeking pen and paper. I scrawled them down in the darkness and, when the lights came on again, was able to reconstruct  the entire sonnet.

Thus rhyme creates an effect of expectation. As in music, knowing that in two lines a rhyming end word will appear helps the sluggish brain to perform. Paradoxically, however, in the moment of composition this effect of expectation has the effect of introducing the unexpected into the poem. Whatever the topic of the poem, whatever the projected arc of the sentence rhythm and image flow, the rhyme word militates that a random element must enter the poem. The poet Alan Michael Parker tells his creative writing students to avoid taking the first exit off of the freeway when they write. He's suggesting that his students allow their imaginations to carry them further from home than their brains will feel comfortable traveling. Rhyme forces the writer to stay on the freeway all the way from Indiana to Montana, from Austin to Boston.

Rhyme should function to open the poem to wildness.

However, centuries of using the same rhymes—breath and death, fire and desire, love and dove—have put up roadblocks that close off this mental voyage. The long road between breath and death has been shortened as it has become the road more traveled, paved, and marked with signs. Even in the eighteenth century, rhyme was in danger of being exhausted through overuse, so that Alexander Pope complains about the "Tuneful fools" who use expected rhyme:

While they ring round the same unvary'd Chimes,
With sure Returns of still expected Rhymes.
Where-e'er you find the cooling Western Breeze,
In the next Line, it whispers thro' the Trees;
If Chrystal Streams with pleasing Murmurs creep,
The Reader's threaten'd (not in vain) with Sleep.
Then, at the last, and only Couplet fraught
With some unmeaning Thing they call a Thought . . .


I take a highly experimental approach to rhyme on the theory that the excitement that rhyme lends to formal poetry has been eviscerated by the overuse of rhyme in advertisement and popular song. Rhyme should function to open the poem to wildness. A rhyme scheme forces the writer to, in the words of poet Marvin Bell, "become comfortable with randomness." Rhyme is, in fact, an arbitrary element in the poem, essentially a surreal move in which the poet chooses the word not based primarily on meaning, but upon its aural similarity to another word. Much of the pleasure of writing and reading formal poetry comes from the difficulty of the balancing act, as the poet surfs the chaos, keeping the head of the surfboard aimed at the shore while wave after wave of iambs and rhyme try to knock him or her into the sea. However, overuse of rhyme has caused the exact opposite to happen much of the time. As noted above, we know when we hear "fire" that the obvious rhyme is "desire" just as "breath" suggests "death." In other words, rhyme no longer functions to shock us with wildness but, instead, often creates a feel of predictability. Predictability is useful when, in an oral culture, one wishes to remember how to recite a poem, but in contemporary print culture it can make the poem seem stale and trite.

 If true rhymes in English are largely exhausted, no longer startling, no longer bringing a surreal unruliness into the poem, then perhaps it is necessary to open up the sonnet's semantic range by embracing alternate and even experimental forms of rhyme."

If true rhymes in English are largely exhausted, no longer startling, no longer bringing a surreal unruliness into the poem, then perhaps it is necessary to open up the sonnet's semantic range by embracing alternate and even experimental forms of rhyme. I use experimental rhyme as a way of varying the palette available to the poet in the moment of composition. More importantly, I hope to reintroduce that wildness that I think is at the heart of rhyme, while still maintaining a high level of difficulty and visual and aural pleasure.

I tend to use a combination of true, slant and sight rhymes, with a preference for full consonance. In this way, the palette of meanings is not limited to the expected rhyme (fire/desire, love/dove), and yet the pleasures of sound remain in the poem. If "desire" is the first exit off the freeway for "fire," then down the road one could, perhaps, detour into full consonance: fire and fear, fire and flare, and fire and flower are more interesting pairings. Fire and Darfur, fire and heretofore, and fire and atmosphere take us even further down the road.

"The Rose Garden" is an example of a number of these techniques put to use:

The Rose Garden

A world perhaps can fit inside a word,
a sword asleep inside its sheath, but no
thing can be created out of no-
thing and no word can sing outside the world.
A rose is not a rose is not a rose,
as it turns out because the rose turns in-
to something else, some blossoming red thing
at the mind's core, inverted, just a ruse
within the mirror, mirroring without
becoming, much less being. So how to be
when all things multiply their glassy poses
inside our eyes, confusing us about
the real and really false? The world we see
is just some word that fills our eyes (with roses).

The first stanza uses inclusion rhyme ("word" is included in "world") and repetition rhyme ("no" and "no-"). The second stanza uses inclusion rhyme ("in" and "thing") and full consonance ("ruse" and "rose"). The advantage of inclusion rhyme is that, by its very nature, it will tend to also work as consonance and assonance, as, that is, slant rhyme. The last six lines round out the poem with three sets of true rhyme. As a side note, I should mention that this poem is also an attempt to deepen my understanding of the basics of Classical rhetoric, such as chiasmus, in which two sets of words are arranged in reverse parallelism ("within the mirror, mirroring without"); polyptoton, in which repeated words derive from the same root but have different suffixes ("becoming, much less being. So how to be" and "the real and really false"); and epanalepsis, in which the end of a clause repeats the word that began it ("but no / thing can be created out of no- / thing").

A traditionalist sonneteer might complain that the use of slant rhyme makes sonnet-writing too easy, that the difficulty of finding a fresh rhyme and still making the poem flow is naturally  part of the pleasure. I can't deny that, but some of the rhyme games and experimental practices that I use and introduce here actually make the process more difficult. In fact, I invented five of these rhyme experiments—homograph, antonym, reverse, composite, and inclusion rhyme—specifically to make writing the sonnet more difficult. Here are some examples of what one might call a radically experimental use of rhyme:

1. Antonym Rhyme

In the poem "Antonyms," I set myself two structural games:

1) The poem is one of a series of what I call Amazing Shrinking Sonnets, in which the sonnet either shrinks from 7 iambs to 1 iamb, or shrinks from 4 iambs to 1 iamb and then expands like an hourglass back up to 4 iambs again. The latter structure is an attempt to adapt the hourglass shape of George Herbert's "Easter Wings" to sonnet form, though my hourglass sonnets shrink one foot per couplet, whereas Herbert's poem shrinks one foot per line.

2) All the rhyme words in this poem are "antonym rhymes," meaning that they are antonyms of each other. Although I use repetition rhyme (one/no one), sight rhyme (not here/somewhere) and slant rhyme (retract/give . . . back), the sonnet was immensely difficult to write because of the intense restriction of the antonym game.


Although his love is on the incline,
she feels she just can't breathe, not here
with him, has to decline
this life and float somewhere,
to be away
where she can stay
embracing never,
wanting no one.
She's chosen to retract
her love until his death.
He wishes she would give him back
his damage: half his life, each breath.

Although this sort of sonnet might seem an intensification of mechanic form, the antonym game and the hourglass game are organically tied into the poem's content. Herbert worked the shrinking and expanding stanzas both into imitative form (the two stanzas are shaped like two pairs of wings, when viewed sideways) and into organic form, as the lines become slender as the protagonist becomes "most thin" and "most poor" and widen as his soul broadens into spiritual flight. Similarly, in "Antonyms, the use of antonym rhyme is meant to create a structural reflection of the inimical relationship between the man and the woman in the poem, and the shrinking and expanding form is meant to pick up on the contrast between her shrinking and his expanding love.

2. Homograph Rhyme

In another sonnet, "Homograph Hymn," I set out to write a poem in which the words in each rhyme pair are homographs of each other (words that have the same spelling but differ in meaning and pronunciation):

Homograph Hymn

Last year I dropped off thirty pounds, content
to live my salad days on lettuce, raven-
ously unfilled, or unfulfilled, the content
of my poor heart a wish, a croaking raven
from someone else's poem, an unwound
dockline, a white-winged sailboat in the wind
that tacked out of my life. Now I'm a wound,
and you a nevermore, and nights unwind
towards dawn with dreams that scavenge like a dove
whose manic B-B eye seeks through the refuse
for you. Today I ate some air then dove
back into bed alone. I won't refuse
the slightest anorexic hope. I close
my eyelash wings. No black bird brings you close.

3. Composite Rhyme

In "Aftereffect," the rhyme game was to rhyme on as many composite words containing the word "after" as possible, as a way of echoing the lustful reverberating aftereffect of the lover's presence:


I'm reading at my desk, the afterword
of a new book, but cannot concentrate
because my mouth is filled with aftertaste
from an imagined kiss. And afterwards
I batter weights down at the gym, but after-
images hover in the mirror, floating dreams,
her green eyes watching me, the way she seems
to burst each time she detonates with laughter,
the way we stood too close that afternoon
at my place after lunch, and I moaned, "No,
it's hard to stop myself, you'd better go."
She hugged me fast and then she flew
to the door, laughing, while deep aftershocks
rang me and left me just these afterthoughts.

4. Repetition Rhyme

"Laughing Poem" explores a statement that Robert Pinsky made when he came to visit my campus years ago: that we think words rhyme because they sound the same, but in fact they rhyme because they sound different. This is true to some extent, though true rhyme is defined as two words that sound the same from the final stress to the end of the word, and sound different beforehand. Still, I was attracted to the idea that Pinsky seemed to be rejecting—in that moment—that repetition is in fact a form of rhyme. Actually it turns out that the earliest Italian sonnets were not rhymed but used repeated words instead, as in a sestina. I often choose to use repetition rhymes in my poems, but "Laughing Poem" was the first I wrote using the same word repeated throughout:

Laughing Poem

He started laughing. But what kind of laugh?
A funeral black laugh. A bad joke laugh.
A cracked man laugh. He couldn't stop the laugh,
it came out of his mouth, a dead life laugh,
a dead love laugh, a laugh at faith, a laugh
at his sad, laughable self. What a laugh,
she said "Don't fight for me," and what a laugh,
she said "I'm tired of you," and what a laugh,
she said "Let me alone." That's when the laugh
erupted. What a joke, he thought, and laughed
again, a tight chest laugh, a heave, a laugh
from the odd clown, from the numb mind, a laugh
and then collapse onto the couch, a ha
all teeth and tears and gasping, ah, ha, ha.

In the couplet that ends the poem, I gave myself the leeway to substitute a conceptual repetition rhyme for a true repetition rhyme (that is, the sound of laughter for the word "laugh").

5. Reverse Rhyme

In the next poem, "Reversal at the Battle of Midway," the rhyme game was to have the rhyme word of each pair be either the phonetic or the alphabetic reverse of each other (thus, "saw/was" and "keep/peak"). So, in the case of the example discussed above ("fire"), the reverse rhyme would be "rife," and for "laugh," the reverse rhyme would be "fall."

Reversal at the Battle of Midway

The lookout yelled hell-divers and I saw
three black planes plunging towards my head. We shot
a frantic burst from the guns but it was
too late. Their bombs were off. I knew to toss
my body to the deck and quickly crawl
behind rolled mattresses we used to keep
safe from the shrapnel. Like a dark sky lark
diving to snatch a fly, from a high peak
above the cloud-cover, the next plane came
screaming. A flash, strange blast of warm air, then
a startling quiet. We'd been tricked. They'd hid
high up and sent planes skimming low to make
us waste a flight. Then we were in the net,
fueled planes on deck, nothing to do but die.

        (Japanese Sailor, Aircraft Carrier Akagi)

"Reversal at the Battle of Midway" is based upon an oral history by Mitsuo Fuchida, posted online at The Japanese aircraft carrier Akagi participated in the attack on Pearl Harbor. She was sunk in the Battle of Midway on June 5th, 1942. The poem relates how the Americans turned the tide of the Battle of Midway and ultimately of the war in the Pacific by sinking a number of key ships in the Japanese fleet. The Americans first sent in low-flying torpedo bombers, and the Japanese zeros scrambled to engage them. Many of the American planes were shot down, and few of them got their torpedoes off. However, when the Japanese zeros settled back on the aircraft carriers to refuel, the Americans launched a surprise dive-bomb attack from out of the cloud cover, and the Japanese fueled planes on deck, when hit by the U.S. munitions, acted as small bombs. As in "Antonyms" and "Aftereffect," I came up with this rhyme game when searching for a way to mirror the poem's content in the form.

6. Bouts Rimes

Bouts rimes is a French rhyme game in which the poet uses the rhyme words of someone else's sonnet. Here, for example, is Seamus Heaney's "The Forge":

The Forge

All I know is a door into the dark.
Outside, old axles and iron hoops rusting;
Inside, the hammered anvil's short pitched ring,
The unpredictable fantail of sparks
Or hiss when the new shoe toughens in water.
The anvil must be somewhere in the centre,
Horned as a unicorn, at one end square,
Set there immoveable: an altar
Where he expends himself in shape and music,
Sometimes, leather-aproned, hairs in his nose,
He leans out on the jamb, recalls a clatter
of hoofs where traffic is flashing in rows;
Then grunts and goes in, with a slam and flick
To beat real iron out, to work the bellows.

...and here is my bouts rimes adaptation of the poem:

The Forge

And when I surfaced topside from the dark
the air was red as if the world were rusting.
The zeros swooped around us in a ring
of fire, and smoke was blossoming, hot sparks
were shooting, fuel oil poured out on the water
and like a metal pot stuck in the center
on a gas stove, we cooked. I'll tell you square,
I lost it, on my knees like at an altar,
till all the beaten metal made dream music.
I almost died then, but smoke in my nose,
heat on my face, woke me. And through the clatter
inside my head I dove, swam from the rows
of ships, then turned and watched flames swell and flick.
I watched as that punk Death worked at the bellows.

(Seaman, USS Arizona, Pearl Harbor)

I chose to echo the blacksmith imagery of Heaney's poem in order to give figurative resonance to the bombing and sinking of the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor, but part of the fun with bouts rimes is to see what radically different poems can be constructed out of the same rhyme words. I particularly enjoyed doing a bouts rimes poem based upon Heaney's "The Forge," because of his loosened use of rhyme. He rhymes plurals with singulars, accented syllables with unaccented ones, and dispenses with traditional rhyme schemes.

In the poems above, and elsewhere, I set out to reexamine some of the prejudices of sonnet aesthetics. Why not rhyme accented with unaccented syllables? Why not rhyme plural with singular nouns? Why not redefine what it means to rhyme in order to charge the poem with an unexpected music and to create organic relationships between rhyme and content? The advantage of experimental rhyme is that it broadens the palette of possibility, allows the sonnet to have more natural diction, to choose the just-right word more often, and thus it norms the formal poem to the dominant free-verse aesthetic and makes old-fashioned poetry attractively contemporary while still building the poem upon a solid skeleton of form.

The advantage of experimental rhyme is that it broadens the palette of possibility, allows the sonnet to have more natural diction, to choose the just-right word more often, and thus it norms the formal poem to the dominant free-verse aesthetic and makes old-fashioned poetry attractively contemporary while still building the poem upon a solid skeleton of form.


As I see it, much of even the best American poetry today suffers from a lack of wit, a paucity of rhetorical interest, and is thus remarkably unmemorable. In many free-verse poems that I love and would have a hard time living without, little would be lost if a line were lost here and there or if words were added to or subtracted from the line. How then to write lines that have a rhetorical necessity, a memorable and epigrammatic wit? One way to do this is to go to school in the techniques of the past. We lost something as poets when the American educational system moved away from an education in the classics. We lost familiarity with Greek and Latin rhetorical tropes, and thus were no longer required to have training in the art of being witty.

We have lost also a traditional training in the use of form. Free-verse poets are, of course, aggressively defensive about this, as are formalist poets about the centrality of free-verse practice and the marginality of formal poetics. But, though traditionalist formal poets might pooh-pooh a free-verse poet who titles a fourteen-line free-verse poem "Sonnet," who cares? Let it be a good poem, and let it learn from the formal tradition, and the two camps can meet in the middle. Though the free-verse poet might launch an ad hominum attack against the formal poet, who cares? Such arguments are patently ridiculous, and the formal poet still has much to learn from the free-verse poet. To be contemporary, the sonnet needs to reinvent itself as something that goes beyond literary politics, something that speaks for our age, while learning from the sonnet tradition of ages past.

In his Essay on Criticism, Alexander Pope celebrates the consistency and the regularity of the formal poem:

No single Parts unequally surprize;
All comes united to th' admiring Eyes;
No monstrous Height, or Breadth, or Length appear;
The Whole at once is Bold, and Regular.

However, he continues that:

Whoever thinks a faultless Piece to see,
Thinks what ne'er was, nor is, nor e'er shall be.

Though poets of each aesthetic camp will take issue with one formal practice or another, the sonnet today is an immensely expansive form. It is large, it contains multitudes. It is large enough to include Whitman and Borges, to include free-verse practices and aesthetics and Greek and Latin rhetoric, large enough to include experiments with line, stanza, and rhyme. Whole continents can fit within those famous fourteen lines.


© 2006 The Cortland Review