The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics, Third edition, www.UPNE.com, 2000. ISBN 1584650222, trade paperback, $24.95, 337 pages. “The Poet’s Bible," A companion volume to The Book of Dialogue and The Book of Literary Terms.
People often ask whether a poem that is fourteen lines long and rhymes but is not written in iambic pentameter measures is a sonnet. It is true that the term originally meant simply “little song,” but this question was settled long ago by Dante and Spenser and Shakespeare and Wordsworth and Mrs. Browning (not to mention Longfellow and Robinson and Frost and Millay): If the poem is not written in decasyllabic lines (if Italian or one of the other non-accentual languages), or iambic pentameter lines (if in English), then it is not a sonnet.
The word “sonnet” has come to denote a fourteen-line poem written in iambic pentameter measures and rhymed in various ways. Rhyme schemes of the sonnet have traditionally been allowed to vary, as has the number of stanzas; and the volta or "turn" roams around a bit, but a "sonnet" in our tradition must be fourteen lines of rhymed accentual-syllabic iambic pentameter verse with a volta preceding the final stanza. Anything else is either a quatorzain or a nonce form, meaning a form invented by the writer of the poem for a purpose of the moment.
The Petrarchan or Italian sonnet has an Italian octave which is made up of two Italian quatrains (abbaabba) after which a volta or turn takes place, a shift in direction of thought which is pursued in the succeeding sestet, which is either an Italian sestet (cdecde) or a Sicilian sestet (cdcdcd).
The envelope sonnet rhymes abbacddc efgefg or efefef. The Sicilian sonnet combines a Sicilian octave and a Sicilian or Italian sestet; the rhymes change at the volta: abababab cdecde or cdcdce.
The Italian and Sicilian octaves and ottava rima (abababcc) are heroic octaves. The sonetto rispetto combines one stanza of ottava rima or one iambic pentameter rispetto (ababccdd) with either an Italian or a Sicilian sestet (abababcc defdef or dedede or ababccdd efgefg or efefef). The English or Shakespearean sonnet has three Sicilian quatrains (abab cdcd efef) followed by a volta and a heroic couplet (gg).
The Spenserian sonnet has three interlocking Sicilian quatrains (abab bcbc cdcd) plus a volta and a heroic couplet (ee); the terza rima sonnet has interlocking Sicilian triplet (aba) stanzas: aba bcb cdc ded, a volta and a heroic couplet. All these couplet, triplet, quatrain, sestet, and octave forms are heroic stanza forms because they are written in iambic pentameter measures (iambic pentameter is the “heroic line” in which most English-language epics are written), as are quintet and septet forms written in the same measures, such as the Sicilian quintet (ababa) and the Sicilian septet (abababa).
Other quatorzain forms (see The Book of Forms, Third Edition) are the blues sonnet (see blues stanza), the envelope sonnet which combines one heroic octave rhyming abbacddc with either an Italian (efgefg) or Sicilian (efefef) sestet; the Courtwright sonnet which has an octave made of one envelope sestet and a heroic couplet (abccbadd) plus another envelope sestet after the volta (efggfe), and the sonetto rispetto, discussed above.
In the thirteenth century, according to Kim Addonizio, "Vanni Fucci" invented the Florentine (Italian) sonnenizio to treat the subject of undying love satirically, but in fact she invented the form herself;
“The marvelous current of forgotten things,” William Wordsworth, Artegal and Elidure.
The marvelous current of forgotten things
Drains down Styx till it is no longer current.
We remember a currant or a raisin,
Currently, of our former youthful love life:
Half-baked, doughy, a largely fruitless courante
Danced upon the car seat of a jalopy.
Yes, of course, we wished it to last forever –
Or a thousand years at least of intercourse.
Our first lass, alas! is precursor only,
Never a courtesan for eternities.
Therefore currently we try to remember
What once the world was like riding that current
Now that we’ve wasted all of youth’s currencies
And such occasions are non-occurrences.
— Wesli Court
Copyright © 2009 by Lewis Turco, all rights reserved. May not be reproduced in any form, in any venue, without the express permission of the author.
Kim invented the sonnenizio herself. Vanni Fucci is a minor player in The Inferno.
I suspected something like that because of the "-izio" ending. Many thanks. I'll make the change.
Thanks for the lucid updates to The Book of Forms My previous understanding of the ghazal has been murky, so you make me feel clearer about it. Your revised entry on the sonnet sure does lay down the law. I'd have been for liberalizing that definition a little, myself, but it's nice to see someone uphold traditional verities.
Happy Eve of September Morn,
How would you liberalize it, Joe?
The sonnet can rhyme any old way, have any number of stanzas so long as the poem has a total of 14 lines, and the volta slides around. Besides the length of the poem the only hard requirement is the meter, and that's pure tradition. Anybody can call anything a sonnet (the "blues sonnet" isn't one because it has refrains), but unless you have a definition you don't have a form. What's wrong with the term "quatorzain"? I didn't make that up, and it means any 14-line poem that isn't a sonnet. People have written "sonnets" in hendecasyllabics: within the past few days I've been corresponding with a man in Italy who writes those and calls them "atonal sonnets." Of course, hendecasyllabics in Italian literature are something different from ours, so he and I figured out one can't really write atonal sonnets in English.
I guess "quatorzain" is as good a term for an almost-sonnet as any.
Maybe that legendary band of monkeys who might accidentally write a book by pecking on typewriters could produce QUATORZAIN OF THE APES.
Or, if they were monks rather than monkeys, perhaps they could write a movie called The Quatorzain of the Apse.