NaPoWriMo 2023: A Sonnet Festival

Don’t ask me why, not just yet anyway, but I am moved this year as I anticipate the first day of National Poetry Writing Month to veer away from my annual practice–not by skipping it, or by doing something different, like working on prose, for example, like some fiction writers do in the fourth month of the year. No, I want to continue writing poems, but I’d simply like a more formal project to undertake.

For more than ten years now, I have participated in the National Poetry Pastime by writing a poem a day for each day of the month of April, as one does. I have taken my inspiration wherever I can find it, but typically and religiously I visit the NaPoWriMo website where each day the curator has been so good as to provide a daily prompt. I have found these prompts extremely useful in generating poems. I’d say maybe about half of my poems in April, maybe more (I’ve never done the math), have been inspired by these prompts. On occasion, the prompt does not float my boat, it falls flat, or there is just something more pressing on the front burner. What I end up with at the end of April is, happily, but typically, 30 poems of various styles, subjects, and forms; but rarely if ever do I find during the month of April that there is any through-line, anything that ties the 30 poems together outside of the fact that they were written on each day of the month. Over the years, however, patterns did emerge. And luckily, after about 7 or 8 years of participation, a manuscript of poems about teaching did start to take shape. But I have never set out to plan a month ahead of time, either by choosing a subject, a motif, a kind of through-line, or by choosing a form. The prospect of choosing a thematic, a narrative, or subject matter through-line for the poems in April brings on flashbacks from November–where I attempted a draft of a novel in 30 days. So, for better or worse (only time will tell), I have chosen a form instead: The Sonnet. I propose to write 30 sonnets over the month of April.

Why? Okay, now you can ask. Why? I’m not sure. Let’s explore, shall we? The fact that the sonnet is a short poem, only 14 lines, makes it feel manageable. But the traditional sonnet follows a series of conventions that, if followed, can present some significant challenges: a sonnet typically consists of an iambic pentameter line (10 syllables with 5 accents), a strict structural organization (i.e. the three quatrains and a couplet of the Shakespearean sonnet, or the octave and sestet of the Petrarchan) and a predictable and formal rhyme scheme. So, if you’re following the rules, you’ve got to be counting your syllables, you’ve got to be tapping out the rhythm of each line to make sure an unstressed syllable is followed by a stressed syllable, you’ve got to make sure that each of your quatrains is doing a singular job, that your couplet is providing a satisfactory conclusion, and you’ve got to have your rhyming game on in the worst language for rhyme that ever graced the planet. These things can make the sonnet, as Larry Levis once said or wrote, “a bitch.”

As a poet, I don’t think of myself as much of a formalist. I tend toward free verse. I steer away from rhyme in my song lyrics and in my poems, almost on principle. I tend to write poems that sound not very much like poetry, but more like micro narratives, micro essays, a few good sentences strung together and broken into lines about a thing or a feeling or an experience. I’ve written sonnets, but never 30 of them, so, first of all, I like the challenge of it. But I’m also fascinated by the fact that the sonnet, hundreds and hundreds of years after its inception, still seems interesting and vital. Just last month a poet friend of mine, Robert Thomas, released a book of 80 sonnets, Sonnets with Two Torches and One Cliff (2023). A book of sonnets by Diane Seuss, frank: sonnets, won the flipping Pulitzer Prize and the National Critics Circle Award (2021). And American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrence Hayes was a finalist for the National Book Award (2018). So, something tells me that the sonnet is a form that is worth exploring more deeply–not just as an exercise, but as a kind of discipline, a kind of cultural touchstone, a revered form, but also, as I am learning, a surprisingly flexible form! Flexible? Who am I kidding? Well, if you take just the three examples I’ve listed above as a starting point, it turns out that the sonnet is not the straight jacket English teachers (present company excluded, I hope) have made it out to be. We shall see. Indeed, we shall see. Wish me luck. I hope you’re along for the ride. And if you are, buckets of gratitude in your general direction.

Published by michaeljarmer

I'm a public high school English teacher, fiction writer, poet, and musician in Portland, Oregon

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