I’ve been chronicling my project with my wife on this blog. I’m going to write a sonnet series about the creation of California. I’m using the dual stories of William Mulholland and John Muir to tell the story of water in California, what really made it what it is. Ann’s a visual artist, so she’s going to do the graphic art work for it.
The question a couple of people have asked me is “Why the sonnet?” My project is going to be updated after all, and thoroughly modern. Shouldn’t I be using free verse? Are the sonnets going to be overrun by the need to rhyme and a difficult meter? The answer is absolutely not.
A lot of free verse poets (and I write free verse too and love it) and prose writers try to write the sonnet and are immediately stymied by the style and the rhyme. They start to work for the rhyme instead of allowing it to help draw ideas out of them. The problem is that they approach the sonnet in exactly the same way as they would approach a free verse poem, and the two are very different things.
The free verse poem is and should be very controlled. A poet starts with a vision and shapes the style and sound games to fit the vision in his or her head. A sonnet, done well, should do the exact opposite. The sonneteer starts with a kernel of an idea and allows the form to shape what he or she is going to say.
What this means is that properly done, the sonnet gives access to both the conscious and unconscious mind. The sonneteer writes the poem but so does the form of the sonnet. It’s a fantastically malleable art form.
Also, properly done, most sonnets should have errors to the form. After all, there are no sonnet police. The form is there to serve you. If you miss a rhyme, drop the meter here and there, good. That means you have carefully considered the way you are going to state something and have chosen the best possible option. If everything fails, and you don’t follow the form at all, what you end up with is a pretty good free verse poem.
Anyway, I made a video a couple years ago about how to write a satisfying sonnet for beginners. Here’s the link: