|The Sonnet: a fourteen-line poem written in iambic pentameter (five feet of stressed and unstressed syllables).|
But over the weekend, I'd started reading poetry--lovely, concise, perfect poetry. From the Greek verb poiein, meaning "to make," poetry is one of our oldest genres of literature, positioning the writer as a "maker" of rhythms, images, and verse. In fact, many scholars surmise that poetry historically grew out of the rhythmic chanting and singing of oral traditions. It is possible that poetry is one of our oldest modes of communication, and it is rooted in the human drive to communicate clearly, concisely, and with great feeling or meaning.
|Poetry's link to oral traditions.|
Yet what's really interesting about poetry is the way in which it allows the writer to use language in its most condensed form. While it might take me 500-words to explain an idea, it might take a poet fifty or a hundred words to communicate the same thing. Because of this compression, I have often thought that reading poetry required more work, but with greater benefit. Poems don't always make their meaning obvious to readers, and they require a level of collaboration with the text that you don't usually see when reading a novel by Charles Dickens.
"Collaboration with the text?"
Basically, becoming involved in the creation of a poem's meaning. By nature, reading is a passive act, but poetry doesn't allow its readers to be passive. Readers go back, ask questions about a poem's meaning, look for repeating images, sounds, ideas, and "unpack" a text as they work their way through its short lines and intentional movements.
Here is an example of a poem our class worked with on Wednesday, "Nuns Fret Not at Their Convent's Narrow Room" by William Wordsworth:
|Wednesday's poetry explication: "Nuns Fret Not at Their Convent's Narrow Room" by William Wordsworth.|
This particular example by Wordsworth is a Petrarchan Sonnet that is divided into two parts: an octave, or 8 lines, at the beginning, and a sestet, or six lines, at the end. Usually, the octave will suggest a situation or an idea and the sestet will comment on that idea, offering a solution. In the image above, our class identified the rhyme scheme (abba, abba, cddccd), the main idea at the beginning: nuns, hermits, students, maids, and bees are happy in their monotonous, "restricted" lives, and the solution or resolution at the end: the "speaker" believes that the "prison unto which we doom / Ourselves, no prison is" (lines 8-9). This argument is a lovely way of contradicting the idea that nunneries/monasteries, cells, and citadels, just like the Sonnet form (line 11), are not places of restriction but opportunities to express meaning in a structured way.
Ultimately, Wordsworth is using the Petrarchan sonnet form to explain why he (or any poet) uses the sonnet form: its classical restrictions still offer modern poets (nineteenth century) the ability to express themselves.
Could our class have gotten to Wordsworth's argument without first annotating his poem? Maybe, but not likely. Like most poems, sonnets beg to be poured over and engaged. It's one of the things I love about poetry and the reason for tonight's homework!
Homework (DUE Monday, Feb. 21st, 2016):
Write a 14-line sonnet about a topic of your choice following the Petrarchan model: 8 lines to identify your topic and 6 lines to offer a resolution or solution. Your sonnet can be on any topic you like, but it must be 14-lines and follow one of these alternating rhyme schemes:
line 1 - a
line 2 - b
line 3 - b
line 4 - a
line 5 - a
line 6 - b
line 7 - b
line 8 - a
The remaining 6 lines, or sestetarranged in a variety of ways:
lines 9-14: c d c d c dlines 9-14: c d d c d clines 9-14: c d e c d elines 9-14: c d e c e dlines 9-14: c d c e d c