Wednesday, April 17, 2013

National Poetry Month 2013: Sonnets -- Old Form, New Technology

Darlings, are we ever in for a treat in the TechnoVerse today. Moira Egan -- one half of the spicy duo behind HOT SONNETS -- is with us today.

(The other half, poet Clarinda Harriss, will join us next week to talk about mis-texting.)


Poet Moira Egan is a Baltimore native, now living in Rome.
If poetic form's got you in a funk, Moira has the answer: an app to soothe your sonnet sorrows. After this post, you'll have iambs mastered faster than you can say kerPLUNK.


Sonnets? There’s an App for That!

Just as Shakespeare and the great sonneteers were expert at mixing the high and the low, this introduction to sonnets is going to mix technology with old-school, hands-on fun.

image borrowed from The Poetry Foundation [poetryfoundation.org],
another terrific online source for all things poetry!
So, let’s get started on our sonnet adventure.
Yes, there really is an app for that!

The Sonnets by William Shakespeare iPad App

You will be expecting wonderful performances from Patrick Stewart (oh, that voice); Dominic West (we always believed him when he said that McNulty was smarter than the average cop); and actor/poetry-guide author Stephen Fry. But you might be surprised by the sonnets read by Kim Cattrall, Sex and the City’s smart, sexy Samantha, or develop a little crush (who, me?) on rising-star, Nigerian-Scottish actor Tunji Kasim. Enjoy – this app includes all 154 of Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence.  

After immersing yourself in the rhymes and rhythms of these poems, you might – and this happens to the best of us – accidentally find yourself speaking in iambic pentameter, or thinking of words that rhyme with life and love and art and breath. Beware! This little Shakespeare finger puppet from the Unemployed Philosophers’ Guild makes a fine companion on your journey into these rhymed and metered realms:

The Unemployed Philosopher's Guild has amazing gifts for your literary pals, like...
Mr. Poe, who often accompanies Author Amok to elementary schools.
Ever the actor, he will take away your self-consciousness as you recite classic lines such as “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? / Thou art more lovely and more temperate” or “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.”

Then, you might – and this happens to the best of us – get the irresistible urge to write sonnets of your own. Fear not! Even if you have never written a sonnet before, there are fun and painless ways in to what may seem like a complicated process, a terrifying verse form. And it might even be entertaining.

Have you ever thought about what people did for entertainment, sitting around after dinner, before Apps, before iTunes, before DVDs and VCRs and TVs and radios and telephones and horses and … oh my god we’ve just landed in the Dark Ages!

The sonnet had its start in the 13th Century courts of Sicily, where people loved their olive oil, behaved in a courtly manner, and appreciated increasingly complex poetic forms as evening entertainment as they sat around the grand fireplace, sipping very strong red wine. Meanwhile, wandering troubadours began to spread out, predating even Peter Mayle in Provence and environs, inventing ever more exotic verse forms in order to keep their patrons happy (and to make sure that their invitations were extended and they could stay in the big house and enjoy that good green olive oil and the strong red wine just a little bit longer).

this is Agnolo Bronzino’s portrait of Laura Bettiferri from around 1560
But sooner or later, the troubadours would have to move on to the next big house, leaving the noble denizens to their own, post-prandial devices. What would these nobles do for fun, without the slightly tipsy yet ever-so-creative Bard “singing” his own songs to them? Well, maybe they could steal his end rhymes and make up their own sonnets! This little pastime is called bouts-rimés, which in the French means “rhymed ends” because that is exactly what you have stolen. (Good poets borrow. Great poets steal. Let’s aim for “stolen”!)

And just because this became a popular pastime in the 17th century doesn’t mean that we can’t enjoy it today. Pick a card, any card:

Yes, this accessory is a deck of 48 cards, each of which features one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. (And by now you have begun to appreciate the abject geekiness with which the author loves her sonnets!)
So, pick a card, any card.

http://www.shakespearesden.com/shakespeare-sonnets-knowledge-cards.html
Ah, there we have it, one of my favorites:

Sonnet 138

When my love swears that she is made of truth
I do believe her, though I know she lies,
That she might think me some untutored youth,
Unlearnèd in the world's false subtleties.
Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young,
Although she knows my days are past the best,
Simply I credit her false-speaking tongue;
On both sides thus is simple truth suppressed.
But wherefore says she not she is unjust?
And wherefore say not I that I am old?
O, love's best habit is in seeming trust,
And age in love, loves not to have years told.
Therefore I lie with her, and she with me,
And in our faults by lies we flattered be. 

* * *

Thank you, Mr. Shakes, for laying it out so honestly! And please don’t mind if I steal your rhyme words, which, in this case, are: 

/

x
/
x
/
x
/
x
/
x
RHYME SCHEME










truth
A










lies
B










youth
A








sub
tle
ties
B










young
C










best
D










tongue
C









sup
pressed
D









un
just
E










old
F










trust
E










told
F










me
G










be
G

Please note that you should fill in only the last block if the end word has one syllable; if it has two, you fill in the last two; if three, the last three, etc.

Now you have not only the skeleton of your sonnet, in this case a Shakespearean or Elizabethan one, but a little bit of the musculature as well. In the game of bouts-rimés, it’s your challenge to write the lines that lead up to those end words. The sentence doesn’t have to end where the line ends; it’s often even better if the sentence wraps around onto the next line. That’s called enjambment, which is one of a sonneteer’s best friends.

If this is your first time ever writing a sonnet, I encourage you to be as concrete and specific as you can. Even if you write about love, loss, death, or art, or any huge topic, be clear, avoid abstract nouns, and by all means, have fun. Feel free, too, to make your first sonnet utterly goofy, to the point of writing something that’s going to make you laugh for the rest of your days. Here are two blank sonnet maps to use for your own adventures, whether serious or silly.

Map of a Sonnet (Shakespearean)

/

x
/
x
/
x
/
x
/
x
RHYME SCHEME











A











B











A











B











C











D











C











D











E











F











E











F











G











G

Or if you like things Italian, you may use this rhyme scheme, one of several Petrarchan possibilities:

Map of a Sonnet (Petrarchan)

/

x
/
x
/
x
/
x
/
x
RHYME SCHEME











A











B











B











A











A











B











B











A











C











D











E











C











D











E

Now, about that iambic pentameter. Meter is one of the hardest things to hear, and to reproduce. [We looked at meter on Friday when April Halprin Wayland took us to visit RhymeWeaver.com.] If you’re a first-time sonneteer, just give the meter a go, but don’t sprain your ankles trying to get the perfect feet.

Follow the bouncing /’s and x’s, / for unaccented, and x for accented syllables:

/x /x /x /x /x
baDUM baDUM baDUM baDUM baDUM

Here are (and hear!) some classic iambic pentameter lines:

i LOVE to HEAR her SPEAK but WELL I KNOW…
if MUsic BE the FOOD of LOVE, play ON…
i WALKED aCROSS the ROOM to SHUT the DOOR.
We HOPE we HOPE we HOPE you HAVE some FUN.

So, where were we? Right. At this point, (full disclosure) the author would like to confess that she is, in fact, the author of some 100 sonnets; the co-editor (with Clarinda Harriss) of Hot Sonnets, a century’s worth of juicy sonnets by various sonneteers, living and dead; and she is about to publish yet another collection of her own work whose title includes the word “Sonnets.”

From Entasis Press.
That said, she would like to share with you her very own bouts-rimés, written with great fondness for the students who kept asking if they could read the sonnets she was working on at the time. In fact, the first part of the answer was no, they could not. So, with all due apologies to Mr Shakespeare for having switched the end rhymes of his couplet, the rest of that answer goes like this:

(Though poets lie in service of the truth
and fiction’s simply truth tricked out in lies,
what do I tell my students, whose sweet youth
does not allow for gritty subtleties?
That I commit the crimes of one still young
and too immortal to obey what’s best
for organs such as liver, heart, and tongue?
I keep my wild-hair story-box suppressed
(I love my kids) and though I feel unjust
I hope they’ll understand me when they’re old
enough to see that love’s a blinding trust
that lives, or doesn’t, once the lie’s been told.
Therefore I lie to them, so I can be
a part of them, and yet hold on to me.)

Bar Napkin Sonnet #8
from Bar Napkin Sonnets (The Ledge Chapbook Competition, 2009)
and from Spin (Entasis Press, 2010)

So get yourself that awesome sonnet app
and listen to those fab and sexy sonnets,
and then get out your handy sonnet map
and rhyme and play and make magic upon it…

I admit to being pro-sonnet, but I appreciate the form even more now that I know some of its history. Thanks, Moira!

Moira Egan was born and bred in Baltimore. Her poetry collections are Cleave (WWPH, 2004); Bar Napkin Sonnets (The Ledge, 2008); La Seta della Cravatta/The Silk of the Tie (Edizioni l'Obliquo, 2009) Spin (Entasis Press, 2010, for whom she also co-edited Hot Sonnets,  2011).  Her work has appeared in many journals and anthologies, including Best American Poetry 2008 and The Book of Forms Including Odd and Invented Forms. Egan lives in Rome, where she and her husband, renowned literary translator Damiano Abeni, are rabid Ravens fans [CAW!] She visits Baltimore whenever she can, and is looking forward to reading from her Hot Flash Sonnets (forthcoming in June from Passager Books passagerbooks.com)

I need some fresh air after all that sonnet hotness. Luckily, poet Greg Luce is taking us out for some fresh air tomorrow. He'll be guiding us through the Poetry Foundation's poetic Washington, DC walking tour podcast.

2 comments:

laurasalas said...

Love this! I'm not a ginormous sonnet person, though I do play around with one every so often. I adore charts and graphs--especially poetry-related ones. AND...I am off to download the app. Thanks for all this deliciousness!

laurasalas said...

Ah, boo. It's only on iPad. Shoot.