Don’t sound like no sonnet

by Michelle

According to Wordsworth, within the sonnet’s scanty plot of ground there is solace to be found. Though I’m no confined nun, hermit, or maid at the wheel, I’ve been interested of late in the sonnet, inspired particularly after reading Lucy Holt’s brilliant contemporary sonnets, which experiment and liberate the structure and tonal variation of this traditonally epistolary form. (isn’t it great when a book actually inspires?) Jordie Albiston is another poet who has delighted and excelled in innovative con-textualising interpretations.

Back in the nineties, Richard Ashcroft from The Verve turned the Sonnet into epic.

What I like about the sonnet is it compels the poet to condense the thought, emotion, and image of a poem that might otherwise be fatigued by unnecessary quatrains, even plain verse stanzas. Economy has always seemed a virtue to me, in poetry. The volta, or tonal shifts are particuarly invigorating, as is the tension between the lyric and narrative elements. I had been working on a poem for quite some months, with initial drafts including up to 32 lines of free quatrains. After struggling with clumsy, overladen draft after draft, I finally had the courage to pare the poem down to 14 essential lines: no rhyme, no iambs, as I do admit, I have never been a formalist. What resulted surprised me with its aesthetic focus, the abstractions were rarefied, and there is a kind of volta, or shift in tone. Here it is, as it appeared in Australian Literary Review in December:


Snow falls undisturbed in branches. The city refuses
to dream for sparrows, for park drunks, though it’s past
midnight. Like a prayer, our moon waits to be spoken.
Once we chased Mallarme’s swan, dragging dissolute
wings into flight. Winter’s amnesia preserved us —
unearthly swans, writhing in mud. Words broke their
baroque chords creaking in my nest of bones. You wrote
me tempting alibis, singing the frost, blotting out stars.
Night birds slumber. Stay—with arms unhinged, we’ll
watch sparks flame as dancing roses, souvenirs of silence.
My body rivers over absent fields, where words rescue
or reduce me until I try to erase whiteness, her artefacts—
a snow-dusted angel of the lake, the symmetry of elms
undressing like brides in the night’s incomplete sentence.

I’m enjoying writing these sonnet variations. Gig Ryan, Sudesh Mishra and Peter Minter come to mind as poets who have played within the constraints and liberties of free verse sonnets. Ryan, though, like a dystopian fencer, shows a mastery of metre, structure and argument. Here’s a gorgeous example from Pure And Applied:


When I consider what my life has been
the tightening streets that struck me to their side
the turning penitential globe inscribed
with gold and thorn, I picket what I’ve seen
as if the will were new, the heart were keen
before despair became where you abide
alone with cold ideals and clinging pride
acts and dreams spread out across the screen
I pause at the silky prolonged sunset
that death or god should taper off and shrink
as all the city’s woe and all the skies
say not to remember but to forget
and chafing through the cars I fall to think
how sorrows lift and pleasures cauterise.

Gig Ryan, Pure and Applied, Paperbark Press 1998