Monday, April 22, 2024


You realize, even as you start this
that it won’t end up as a sonnet—
and by “sonnet” I don’t mean just a poem
in fourteen lines—or all right, fourteen lines, if
you insist, and iambic pentameter,
with a couplet at the end, but that’s not
all it takes to make a sonnet;
a real sonnet has a certain movement
of ideas, a special way the argument
reveals itself, with a shift in the point
of view at the middle of the poem,
or just past the middle, at the end
of the eighth line. This goes for either the
Italian or Elizabethan form.
And at the library you can get those
anthologies from the twenties and thirties
of local poets, meaning amateurs,
and they all seem to be writing sonnets,
or what they thought were sonnets; sonnets
on every imaginable subject:
Abraham Lincoln, Dante, Italy,
the months, the holidays, Lake Erie, death
and the death of children, larks, cardinals,
seashells, insomnia, Elizabeth
Tudor, and Mary Stuart, everything.
They even wrote sonnets about writing
sonnets. I found one about why
Shakespearean sonnets are better than
Italian sonnets. But none of these sonnets
are any good. The rhymes are all in the
right place, but the people who wrote them
had no idea what a sonnet can do
or even what poetry can do.
So the hell with those assholes. They’re all dead
now anyway, or soon will be, thank goodness.
In more recent times the term sonnet
has been used very freely, and the form
has become extremely loose. But some
of the modern sonnets are very good,
such as Robert Lowell’s sonnet on
Harpo Marx or his sonnet on Ezra Pound.
But one keeps getting back to the question
of writing, how it is done, and whether
it is fun. Certainly there are other things
that are more fun—going to bed with
attractive men or women, or eating
Chinese food. One thinks of the T’ang Dynasty,
the golden age of Chinese poetry—
in three hundred years, some of the best
poets ever in any language.
Li Po is the best known in this country,
though Tu Fu was probably a better poet,
and Po Chu I was more versatile.
But even after these three were dead, there
were many great and beautiful poets;
like Han Shan, the Cold Mountain hermit,
and Li Ho, the demon poet; and we
must not forget the great landscape poet,
Wang Wei, who was contemporary with
Li Po. Ezra Pound’s translations of Li Po
are the most exciting in English,
though perhaps not the most exacting
from the sinologist’s point of view.
Li Po was an habitual drunkard,
and wrote in a style that was rather free,
at least by the standards of ancient China.
Tu Fu, on the other hand, wrote in
a style called “regulated verse” (lü-shih),
which is an eight-line form with even
stricter rules than our sonnet, and died,
according to the legend, from eating
Chinese food, or rather, too much Chinese food.
He was trapped in the mountains by a flash flood,
and after starving for several days
he overate at a banquet and died
when the rice swelled up and ruptured his
intestine. This story may not be true.
Li Po and Tu Fu were great friends in their
lifetimes, just as Pound and Yeats were great friends,
and went to Chinese restaurants together,
all of which leads one to ask oneself,
“Will I ever be a truly great poet,
or even the friend of a great poet?”
Not likely. But to be a good poet
may be quite within the reach of many people.
It seems to require initially
an ability to listen with trust
to the little voices you have inside,
the voices that tell you what to do,
and how to write, like the one right now that’s
saying, “This is no sonnet, you damn fool;
it doesn’t even look like a sonnet.”

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