"I am a Minnesotan by birth and a traveler in wild places by vocation and compulsion." -Paul Gruchow

Friday, January 25, 2013

Eng. 250: The Sonnet

I can't believe how the semester has already gained so much steam that regularly updating this blog as to the really exciting things that are happening in my classes has gotten away from me.  I resolve to be better about that--because there area some really neat things happening there.  On a side note, coming into my 250 (Intro to Creative Writing) on Tuesday, after the inaugural on Monday, was pretty neat, because we got to talk about our national tradition of inaugurating our president with music and poetry--and then we got to talk about Richard Blanco's "One Today."  Terrific discussion.

(I have specific things to report about the contemporary Nebraska fiction we're reading in my 252 class, as we've been reading mostly Ron Hansen's short stories from his new and collected collection, She Loves Me Not, recently released.  My personal favorite:  "Wickedness."  But more on that later.)

In my English 250, Introduction to Creative Writing, we're starting with poetry.  This is the first time I've taught a multi-genre creative writing class since my MFA and I'm so excited about it, hoping this rubs off on my students.  Not only are we starting with poetry, but we're starting with form poetry.  I believe that students need to have a grounding in the history of the genres they're choosing to write in, especially in an intro class, because if they choose to take further poetry (or literature) classes, they're going to be expected to know what these forms are and what they do.  I often think that the wealth of fantastic poetry that happens to be written in form is often overlooked, often dismissed by beginning students--and I want them to be able to appreciate what these forms do (if I can't convince them to love them).  We started out with the villanelle last week, then the sestina.  Tuesday we looked at the pantoum; Thursday (yesterday), we looked at the sonnet.  (We're using Eavan Boland and Mark Strand's anthology The Making of a Poem.)

Each of my students has been divided into groups to present on each of these forms and doing such presentations so early in the semester is deliberate.  First, it gets my students talking to each other in small groups, bonds them early in a way that they need to be to function well in a workshop.  Second, it makes them accountable to the rest of the class, gets them talking to fellow students outside their groups.  And third, it actively involves them in the making of the class.

Yesterday, the sonnet, was my favorite day so far and I didn't see it coming.  The class started with the presentation and this group, like the ones before, picked up on things that have started to be very important--namely, hearing the poetry aloud.  We not only got the specifics of the form, what separates a Petrarchan sonnet from a Shakespearean, but they found Edna St. Vincent Millay reading via YouTube (something we've done quite often these past weeks).  It's become very important to us to hear the writer reading his or her own work, whenever we can.  As the presentation closed, we were talking about Gerard Manley Hopkins' "Carrion Comfort" and we pulled it apart (with a gentle reminder to Google unfamiliar words and references).  What kind, what meter, what rhyme scheme--this is is our first line of inquiry.  My students had some trouble discerning what the poem itself was about, and because we knew it was Petrarchan, we knew that the first octet would be different than the sestet.  So, what's happening in the octet?  Line by line, word by word, we were able to figure it out.  What's the turn in the sestet?  What's the allusion in the final line?  Once we understood the content, we were able to talk about why Hopkins chose a sonnet for this poem, rather than any other form.

I then assigned each group a sonnet with the directions, as has become familiar, to scan the poem to determine meter, label the rhyme scheme, and identify what kind of sonnet it is.  We looked at Shelley's "Ozymandias," Patrick Kavanagh's "Epic," Seamus Heaney's "The Haw Lantern," Denis Johnson's "Heat," and Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "How do I love thee."  Having two Irish sonnets in there was unintentional, but they turned out to be the most interesting discussions of the day.  Denis Johnson's "Heat" also provoked an incredible discussion about why he uses this constrictive form to write about the chaos that is August--and what we felt also dealt with the freedom of the 1960s.

And before I get into Heaney, I will say that I got the interpretation of Kavanagh's "Epic" wrong--and as I realized I was wrong (something I will bring up in class on Tuesday), I started to wonder if it matters, to what extent a poem must stand on its own.  My reading of "Epic"--which started with the literal reading of the poem, aloud, by one of my students.  (And as a side note, teaching my students how to read aloud has been interesting, trying to get them to slow down and READ the poem, not just the words--this is an incredible poem to read aloud, over and over again.)  This group had looked at meter, rhyme scheme, format and then we looked at the references--and my thought process identified "that Munich bother" as the 1972 Munich Olympics and Ballyrush and Gortin as sites of conflict during the Troubles in the 1970s.  Kavanagh's closing with Homer's ghost whispering, "I made the Iliad from such/A local row.  Gods make their own importance"--that made sense to me in terms of the Troubles.  Upon further research, the "Munich bother" was the Munich Agreement, which did not result in "peace for our time" and saw WW2 start a year later.  Hm.  "Epic" was published in 1960, so Kavanagh could not have been referencing the Troubles, but I believe that good poetry is porous.  There's a part of me that doesn't want to give up that interpretation.

But the highlight of the day--and I still may be riding this high--was the discussion of Seamus Heaney's "The Haw Lantern."  The group first identified that it's not a real sonnet, because it only has thirteen lines (though it would be Petrarchan if it had that line), and the octet and the sestet are reversed.  They did not mind so much a lack of consistent meter or rhyme scheme, but the line issue irritated them.  We then, as a class, worked through what the poem meant, what a "haw" was, who Diogenes was.  The movement of the little light of hope in the sestet that turns into great cynicism.  But then, my flash was this:  what if the white space between the stanzas isn't actually white space?  What if that is actually the fourteenth line of the sonnet?  My friend Jeannie rightly observed that "Irish sonnets are not accidental," which is incredibly true--and true of any form--and I'm still searching for an answer to this question from anyone who knows poetry better than I do, someone who knows this particular poem better than I do.

Needless to say, the class ended on a really high note.  I have their Think Pieces from this last week (which I don't think will address the sonnet, though it might)--but I'm really looking forward to seeing what they have to say--I can honestly say that my students' Think Pieces are one of my most favorite parts of the week.  Last week, I got pretty excited over how many of my student wrote about no longer being afraid of form, of meter and rhyme, that they could see the freedom that these forms offered.  Glorious.  I also have their first poems they've turned in, so we'll see how those look too.  Next week we study the elegy and the ode--they have poems due next week as well--and then we jump into our first workshop!  


  1. I'm only mildly familiar with Heaney's work. However, when such a careful craftsman alters a sonnet (or a quasi-sonnet) so conspicuously, it's safe to assume the alteration is not accidental.

    Without the meter and rhyme scheme, all the emphasis is placed on the octave-sestet aspect of the sonnet. Thus, the inversion and the missing line are rendered especially important.

    In my reading, that the sestet is actually a quintet is significant; the sixth line really is missing. The white space of the stanza break calls attention to the truncation of the sestet (or "almost-sestet" as Helen Vendler calls it). The modesty of the "small light for small people" is emphasized by the missing line, as if this "small light" cannot even fill a full-length sestet. As a result, the content of the octave overwhelms the content of the sestet even more powerfully.

    That is my best guess, anyway.

    I'm reminded of the time I heard Heaney read in Ann Arbor at the U of M's Rackham auditorium. The place was so packed that people were sitting in the aisles (until fire marshals made them leave).

  2. Oh, that's great, Michael--thank you! I agree that when somebody like Heaney messes with a sonnet, it's absolutely not going to be an accident. I like your explanation that the small light can't even fill a sestet and that makes total sense. The idea that form and content and form are inextricable is one of the foundational tenets of this class in particular (and my classes in general). Love it.