Mastering a poetic form


POETRY:THIS BOOK WILL delight all who love poetry - and not only those who already feel affection for the standard 14-line rhyming sonnet we encountered in school.

Here the reader finds not only nearly 400 finely crafted, well-wrought sonnets (or versions of sonnets), written over the last 600 years and brought between the covers of a single volume from such places as Australia and Poland (as well, of course, as from Britain, Ireland and the USA) - but also rich and rewarding sections on the poets themselves, on the making of the sonnet, and on its effect on readers.

The clue to the book's range lies in its subtitle: for this is a "Norton Anthology" - designed not just for lovers of the sonnet but for use as a university text-book. So its sales will far outstrip those of a standard anthology and, as a consequence, WW Norton and Co can afford to offer this handsomely-produced, beautifully-printed cornucopian feast at a mere €25; poetry-lovers should snap up what is a remarkable bargain.

The editors, Edward Hirsch and Eavan Boland, start with disarmingly personal essays recounting how each encountered this most durable of poetic forms, after which the book is divided into sections containing sonnets from the 16th to the 20th centuries; these are flanked by further selections in sections entitled The Sonnet in the Mirror (containing sonnets about the sonnet), The Sonnet Goes to Different Lengths (containing fascinating variations of the standard form), and The Sonnet Around the World (containing translations of sonnets from the 13th-century Guido Cavalcanti through sonnets by Verlaine, Rilke, Neruda and Borges to one by the contemporary Vietnamese writer Lam Thi My Dai).

The book also contains two sections designed for students; the first is entitled Ten Questions for a Sonnet Workshop and addresses all the queries one might have about the form - What is a Petrarchan sonnet? Can there be an unrhymed sonnet? Can a sonnet be more (or less) than 14 lines? Ticklish topics one might not like to ask about but that one is glad to find out about.

The other contains a useful collection of comments on the sonnet ranging from those of George Gascoigne in 1575 to those of the contemporary Mona Van Duyn in 1992. Finally there are two invaluable appendices - the first a comprehensive list of further reading and the second nearly 80 pages of accurate biographical information on the poets, all 337 of them. There are also short introductions throughout the book - including The Sonnet in Summary and The Making of a Sonnet - which the student will find essential and the general reader, though he or she may feel a bit patronised by them, will probably enjoy.

The critical emphasis that lies behind the book is on the formal elements of the sonnet and on how it has been adapted over the centuries by each poetic generation. There is much talk, in the critical interpolations, of rhyme and rhythm, of "turns" and "the binding couplet"; in fact, everywhere in the editorial parts of the book, one feels that the authors are on a mission to make us agree with them (and Rossetti) that every great sonnet is a "moment's monument" to the sonnet itself; not surprisingly, they also quote Northrop Frye's famous remark that the true father or shaping spirit of Shakespeare's own sonnets was the form itself.

Leafing through this book, one is amazed at how often and how variously, over the ages, poets have chosen to coax (or, sometimes, force) the wild disturbances of their minds into this toughly reasoned form of 14 lines. Page after page of the anthology reveals wonderful, richly exciting verse which derives its strength from the way in which the poet confronts and solves the (to the neophyte often crippling) constraints of the form.

And how tall contemporary Irish writers of the sonnet - Paula Meehan, Medbh McGuckian, Paul Muldoon, Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, John Montague, Tom Kinsella and Michael Longley, for instance - stand in this galaxy of internationals.

The sonnet is just too short to make it possible for each poem to start on a new page, so some poems in this book inevitably hit the reader with more force than others because of their place on the page. But there are few "widows" - those lonely final lines of a poem carrying over from one page to the next - and the book, as whole, is beautifully designed.

There is, however, a lot of repetition about the origins of the sonnet (annoying for the general reader) and a patronising tone in places: it would also have helped if the dates of poems could have been given beside the poems themselves in the non-chronological sections: one ends up having to consult the contents pages or the biographies. But these small cavils apart, this is a book one can confidently recommend to anyone who is interested in the making of a poem - for few poems require such self-conscious "making" as the sonnet; if, as a writer, you can master the sonnet, then you can master anything - even "free verse".

Many lines still ring in the reader's mind from this wonderful book - some of the best of them being those in which Louise Bogan sums up the love/hate relationship between the poet and the sonnet:

Now, you great stanza, you heroic mould, // Bend to my will, for I must give you love.

Andrew Carpenter has just retired as professor of English at UCD and head of the UCD school of English, Drama and Film

The Making of a Sonnet: A Norton Anthology, Edited by Edward Hirsch and Eavan Boland, By WW Norton, 510pp, €25