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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Is A Sonnet That Doesn’t Rhyme Still A Sonnet?

William Shakespeare played with the sonnet form. His final non-dramatic work was The Sonnets, published in 1609.

William Shakespeare played with the sonnet form. His final non-dramatic work was The Sonnets, published in 1609.

Here & Now Guest:

UMASS Boston English Professor and Fresh Air Music critic Lloyd Schwartz

Recently we challenged listeners to write an American Sonnet:  A non-rhyming, free verse, 14 line poem. We got a number of contributions, but it also ignited a debate over whether sonnets without a rhyme or meter count.

We look at the history of the the sonnet form as well as hear a few samples from John Keats, Robert Lowell and one of our listeners.

UMASS Boston English Professor and Fresh Air Music critic Lloyd Schwartz says that from the sonnet’s beginnings in the13th century, there was no single form: Dante, Petrarch, Shakespeare and Spenser all wrote different types.  Schwartz says the word literally means “a little song or a little sound.”

We heard from listener Kay Dolezal, who sent this sonnet.

The Kindness of Strangers

Three urban red tail hawks were growing up
in a nest on an office building on a nearby Parkway.
Birders gathered and named them, calling one Larry.
My father was called Larry by friends and coworkers,
although he was Lawrence to my mother and Daddy to me.
I didn’t want to, but the hawks made me remember
the unfamiliar distance that grew between us
with the bitter dementia of his last months
and the dark, beaked mask of his dying.
And they helped me see across a longer distance,
somehow shared their telescopic vision so I could see him living.
Now I can picture my father as his young hawk namesake,
launching a feathered body into currents of the air
again and again as watchers below call out to him and cheer.

-Kay Dolezal

This poem comes from Danielle Fontaine, a student of UMASS Boston English professor Lloyd Schwartz.

It Started With a Screw
spliced into our door frame.
I removed it, slipping
it into my right hand
pocket, before I left
you. In our bedroom,
the windowsills warped, knots
tangled up in wood. Unraveling
flannel, the screw catches corners.
The star branded into its head
is chipped, its threads, too worn
to grip. Still, I drive the point
into fresh drywall, dusting
the blue carpet, twisting up
new window dressings.

– Danielle Fontaine

(note: line breaks for this poem are not accurately reflected below, it is intended to be 14 lines)

This Sonnet came from Sam Cha, also a student of UMASS Boston English professor Lloyd Schwartz.

THE CONFERENCE OF THE BIRDS

After Spicer

Dear Jack,

Heard you talking to Lorca the other day. Didn’t catch the whole conversation. It was
loud in Harvard Square and there were flecks of grit flying in the wind like the tiniest
paper airplanes in the world, or ghost money: I really think you should give Boston
another chance—it’s probably more like California now you’re dead. All I remember is
you were saying something about skulls, something about sunlight or maybe traffic
signals. Lorca was talking in Spanish, which I don’t know, but it’s OK, I kind of like it
that way, and I must say I liked his green vowels but couldn’t see how he was making
them, so I don’t believe you when you say the perfect poem has an infinitely small
vocabulary.

And underground do you exchange teeth sometimes, do you pluck from your mouth a
molar stained by strong whiskey and black earth and hand it to him like candy? Can his
bones taste your bones? I hope you do. I hope they can. Let me know.

Love,
Sam

This poem also comes from student Sam Cha.

A non-sonnet arranged from fourteen lines about birds by Jack Spicer
A swallow whispers in my loins
I throw a naked eagle in your throat.
“And are we angels, Bird?”
They call me bird-girl, parrot girl and worth
The time of any bird;
I sing a newer song no ghost-bird sings.
The bird’s screaming is empty as a lake.
And no one but a bird could hear our voice.
I was a singer once, bird-ignorant.
Birdlimed in Eloquence.
What have I lost? The trees were full of birds.
The sun becomes a nest of singing birds
Sings through the mirror at me like a whippoorwill
An ugly bird, call him the heart’s agony.

-Sam Cha


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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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