Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Sonnets = Discipline + Constant Failure

I am writing sonnets.

Yes, that's right. On the one hand you have me, who barely got through my required poetry writing class alive. And on the other you have sonnets, which are a very difficult form of poetry to master. And now those two hands are coming together. In a...clap-like gesture.

There are several reasons for this sudden plunge into poetry. Among them is that in the absence of constant instruction about craft, which is the sad part about not being in school, I feel like it's important to work on the actual writing part of the writing again, when I have been so focused on the structure.

I don't care if you like poetry or not, if you dabble in poetry or not-- if you're a writer, you should try this sonnet thing. And here's why.

Sonnets require discipline in a way that novels do not-- that is, novels do not have a definite structure, though they certainly have elements of structure in common. Also, while you're writing novels, you're so deeply involved in what you're doing at the moment that you can't even see the whole structure until later. That's not the case with the sonnet. It is completely rigid. Every line has a set amount of syllables and patterns of emphasis, and must end with a rhymed word. Groups of lines have to relate to each other in a specific way. And the poem itself must be a complete unit-- an idea first expressed, and then complicated, and then resolved-- maybe. This is an insane level of organization. And mostly, you have to stick with it, or it's not really a sonnet.

What this means is: you constantly have to think of new ideas and then discard them, moments or hours later, when you realize they won't work. You have to write lines that you love and then cross them out when they don't fit. You have to fail, over and over and over again, and when you revise, a problem in one line might cause problems for the entire poem.

Constant failure: it's good for you. I promise. Because you will fail repeatedly in your struggle to get things right-- in writing as in life-- and part of improving as a writer is learning how to work through that feeling of inadequacy. Maybe even learning how to ignore it.

This also forces you to be more resourceful in your writing. If you have something you need to say, you have to think of half a dozen ways to say it before you'll find one that works. That means constantly reinventing your idea, which means coming to a greater understanding of what you're thinking and all the ways in which it can be viewed and explored. If I did this while writing a novel I might never use another cliche or idiom. Imagine that.

Beyond all this, though, what I find most helpful is that sonnets are small. They require a lot of focus. Writing them is like dropping each word into place with tweezers. And if any of the words aren't working, you can see it-- the error will be staring back at you, no matter which line you're working on. It's a huge strain. But it's like when you train a muscle: the gym is a foreign environment in which you strain yourself beyond your normal capacity. After you've been going for awhile, though, you probably notice that it's easier to do things in your normal life, like walking up a flight of stairs. After a few sonnets, working on the novel seems easier, like I can breathe better.

So, because I'm not such a fan of Shakespeare's sonnets, I'm going to leave you with one by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who is famous for that "how do I love thee? Let me count the ways" line (but I like her other stuff better).

XXII-- Elizabeth Barrett Browning
When our two souls stand up erect and strong,
Face to face, silent, drawing nigh and nigher,
Until the lengthening wings break into fire
At either curved point,—what bitter wrong
Can the earth do to us, that we should not long
Be here contented? Think. In mounting higher,
The angels would press on us and aspire
To drop some golden orb of perfect song
Into our deep, dear silence. Let us stay
Rather on earth, Beloved,—where the unfit
Contrarious moods of men recoil away
And isolate pure spirits, and permit
A place to stand and love in for a day,
With darkness and the death-hour rounding it.


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