Spend any time in the company of a poet and you will find that they talk an awful lot of guff about sonnets. For some, the early de Lentini form, in the original rhyme scheme, in Italian, preferably discussing the relative merits of different grades of olive oil, pesto or nduja is the only thing that can truly be called a sonnet. For others, the syncopated rhythms of the Shakespearean sonnet, together with the Petrachian volta on line nine is the classic, resolved form. For many poets in this all too modern age, the mere fact that the poem appears to occupy fourteen lines on the page is enough, even if the last line is a slightly suspicious-looking single word all on its lonesome. It is of course very rude to point out that the poet might be stretching things a little – the politest reaction is an encouraging; ‘and it’s a sonnet!’ as if meeting a proud new parent’s tiny offspring for the first time. In response, no points are earned by the poet reacting with a surprised, ‘is it? How can you tell?’
Perhaps this very versatility is the reason why poets continue to explore the form today, long after the Sestina, the Ballad and even the Limerick have faded as serious forms. Parsonage was kind enough to insert a few queries into the Ferranti Pegasus’ busy workload concerning the longest sonnets that have appeared at the Pitshanger Poets. Of course, no one likes to admit to have written a long sonnet – they’re all supposed to be the same length, more or less. However, we suspect that some poets did do their best to smuggle longer works into workshops by turning the page to portrait and running on the lines to an inordinate length. ‘How sophisticated, long lines, and how clever, an internal rhyme scheme’ would be among the most playful comments from the chair. Robert Frost, WB Yeats, WH Auden, we are looking at you.
There were no sonnets in tonight’s Workshop, though it’s not been unknown. Pat Francis pulled together a compact 21-line form for her celebration of elusive moments of pleasure that just appear in the day. Peter Francis flexed his stanzas in a loose collective, gathering memories of the Reading Room in some enigmatic library. This week Michael Harris revealed thoughts about his mother – we are almost certain that he has a sonnet or two in him, so accomplished is he at the short forms. Doig Simmons is also an accomplished writer of poems which do not take up too much room upon the page, this one concerned itself with the great spirit. Nick Barth regularly claims that he could write an epic or two if he had the time, but found only enough of it to produce five stanzas concerning a man whose greatest achievement is his use of hairspray. Alan Chambers’ piece this week was written for an eightieth birthday celebration, did not out-stay its welcome and encapsulated the achievement of a long marriage. Daphne Gloag, also commented on a long relationship, this time in twelve lines, while describing a trip in Concorde, an aeroplane which regularly bent time. Anne Furneaux brought us one of her dearest childhood memories, that of travelling in her pram, in a mere eleven lines. Finally, Martin Choules conjured up his local street preachers with their rack of comforting unread magazines in a mere twelve. Surely tonight’s workshop represented something of a lost sonnet opportunity?
However, we are not the sort of gathering to issue directives, ask for poems on themes or guidelines on structure. If we were, we might initiate a sonnet week, but my betting is that our members would find something better to do, like washing their socks in soda water or sorting their writing pencils in order of seriousness rather than be boxed in to a subject or format. I personally find the sonnet a hugely useful form, if for no other reason than you know when you have damn well finished the damn thing. If you have been, thank you for reading.