Learning the Sonnet - The sonnet one of the oldest strictest and most enduring poetic forms comes from the Italian word sonetto meaning \u201clittle

Learning the Sonnet - The sonnet one of the oldest...

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The sonnet, one of the oldest, strictest, and most enduring poetic forms, comes from the Italian word sonetto , meaning “little song.” Its origins date to the thirteenth century, to the Italian court. Giacomo de Lentini is credited with its invention, though Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch) was its most famous early practitioner. The form was adopted and enthusiastically embraced by the English in the Elizabethan period, most notably by Shakespeare , who gave it the structure we commonly think of today: 14 lines of rhymed iambic pentameter. Its tight rhyme scheme and metrical regularity emphasize its musicality, but the sonnet is also thought of as the first poetic form that was intended to be read silently , as opposed to performed and shared: it is “the first lyric of self-consciousness, or of the self in conflict,” according to Paul Oppenheimer in The Birth of the Modern Mind: Self, Consciousness, and the Invention of the Sonnet (1989). As such, the form consists of two parts, often called the proposition and resolution. Dividing them is the volta , or turn. Thus, a problem or question is often presented in the first section of a sonnet and then, via the pivot made by the turn, resolved or given new perspective in the second. The basic requirements of a traditional sonnet are the following 14 lines iambic pentameter rhyme scheme: Petrarchan: ABBA ABBA CDECDE or ABBA ABBA CDCDCD Shakespearean: ABAB CDCD EFEF GG In the Petrarchan sonnet, the sections are broken up into an octave (first eight lines) and a sestet (final six lines). In the
Shakespearean sonnet, there are three quatrains (four-line stanzas or sections) and then a couplet . In both types, a volta marks the transition to the final section. With such strict requirements, and such a small amount of space within which to work, the sonnet often gets compared to a box; fourteen lines of iambic pentameter end up looking rather dense and square on the page as well. In her poem “Bop: The North Star,” Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon refers to teaching prison inmates about poetry: “teach the sonnet’s a cell,” her speaker says. But then she advises, in the next breath, “now try to escape.” The best sonnets do perform this “escape”— somehow, by working within such a strict enclosure, they transcend it. The voice bends the form to its own will, instead of obligingly succumbing to the form’s demands. One of the sonnet’s most popular aims is to write in praise of someone (or something) beloved. So let’s take a look at a couple of love poems to see the difference between a Shakespearean and Petrarchan sonnet up close. Shakespeare ingeniously turned expectations of the love poem on their head in many of his sonnets, which praise unlikely qualities in his beloved. In “ My Mistress’ Eyes are Nothing like the Sun ,” for example, he mocks the tropes that would compare women to goddesses and enumerate their beauty in sweet metaphors (the sun, roses, music, and so on). Instead, the speaker’s mistress has “black wires upon her head” and breath that “reeks.” This poem provides a great model for a sonnet

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