Monday, July 20, 2009

Happy Birthday to Petrarch

Today is Petrarch's birthday. Petrarch didn't invent the sonnet form, although he gets that credit. Today, the website The Writer's Almanac gives us a great sonnet by William Shakespeare and much background information on the history of this poetic form. Go here to read all about the sonnet and its important creators.

Often, I'll ask my students, "Why write a sonnet? Why subject ourselves to such a rigorous form?"

They understand. Anyone can create a poem with rules they create themselves. But not everyone can write a sonnet.

In fact, a lot of folks don't understand what a sonnet should be, even people who should know better. I was at a poetry reading, where a poet introduced another poet by saying, "He's such an innovator. He's done so much with the 13 line sonnet."

I nearly fell out of my chair. A 13 line sonnet is NOT a sonnet. It's a failed sonnet. It may be a more interesting poem than it would have been if wrestled into sonnet form, but it's not a sonnet. I'm old-fashioned that way. We've been agreeing about the particulars of the sonnet form since about 1575, so I'm hesitant to just rewrite the rules. Maybe I'll let you write an unrhymed sonnet (but I'll do so with serious misgivings), but you must write 14 lines.

So, today, in honor of Petrarch and the sonnet, maybe we should all try writing one. Or if that's too hefty a task, take an old poem of yours and see if you can rewrite it in sonnet form. Even if you fail, you may come up with a more interesting way of crafting a line or two of the poem.

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