I wrote twenty sonnets this month. No, seriously, twenty (and I will be deleting them from Poets.org soon, so read them while you still can). I read somewhere that when artists want to learn something, they draw it 100 times. I wanted to learn how to write a sonnet. I’d been writing free-verse with the occasional foray into forms for years but I want to be a writer, not a one-hit-poem wonder. In my life I’ve written technical manuals, insurance books, safety manuals, letters, resumes, stories, poems, and done a slew of other writing-related things, yet there is always something more about writing that I don’t know. I suppose there always will be, for which I am profoundly grateful.
Some people asked me how I did it. How did I write so many sonnets in a row? I have a system. I decided to study cloud forms at the same time which provided a framework. I already know I like to talk about relationships and emotion; that provided subject matter. When I sit down to write, I open up one thesaurus in my browser and two rhyming dictionaries. I choose the last word of the lines based on how many other words rhyme with them, and how interesting the words are to me before I write the line, with a few inspired exceptions.
I chose consciously to enjamb most of the lines, saving end-stopped lines for when I truly wanted to make a point because I think that fundamentally changes the traditional nature of the sonnets, bringing it into the modern era and making it more palatable to the modern ear. I say to everyone who asks: follow the punctuation, not the lines when reading aloud; follow the lines only with the eye. I also stuck mostly to iambic feet, with the occasional trochee substitution and in one poem, an amphibrach at the end, for my meter. When I begin, I chant a fake iambic pentameter line to myself and settle down to work. That’s basically it.
I recently bought Jack Gilbert’s new book, “The Dance Most of All,” and on first glance it seems to be more of the same. He’s one of my favorite poets and I’m certainly looking forward to reading his new poetry (it’s all so comfortable), yet I can’t help feeling as though he discovered one way to do something and hasn’t varied since then. His poems all look the same: like a herd of horses, they’re different colors and even breeds and beautiful, but still, all HORSES. I’ve noticed that other poets tend to do this, never changing that one style that works, that brings them recognition and awards. It’s a trap.
Both beginners and old-hands fall into this trap, in which there are two sides. On one side you write only for yourself, on the other you write only for other people. The best work of any poet straddles the sharp line in-between: where you understand how much information a reader needs to relate to your poem and you also understand that you must push the boundary of sameness and move into artistry. Most of the stuff I’ve read in journals now, respectable journals and respectable poets, is so random that comprehension is also random. These poems do not even pretend to speak to a reader. Most of the other stuff I read is all too conscious of the reader and fails to provide that spark of difference that moves the poem from ordinary into innovative. Boring, boring, boring, both sides.
I don’t want that. I don’t want to write the same kind of poem over and over for the rest of my life. I don’t want to write only for myself and I don’t want to write what is fashionable right now. So, I wrote twenty sonnets and learned how to manage iambic pentameter and rhyme and to my amazement, twenty was enough. I moved on to a type of stream-of-consciousnes poem whose form I invented for myself in a burst of sheer joy one night. It will be another chapbook, yet another unpublished chapbook. I have three finished so far, and one full-length collection, all still unpublished. And now, when this new set is done, I will have four. Absurd. Still, at least they are all different (except in voice, which you can’t run away from and is another topic completely).