I believe in sonnets. I believe there is something magical in that venerable poetic form. The sonnet is a fourteen-line hall of mirrors that is ideal for capturing midnight reflections. Or any other kind of reflections, really. Writing sonnets helps me to crystallize my thoughts about a vast array of subjects, from books I’ve read to my granddaughter’s recent homecoming dance. Here’s one I call “Why I Don’t Drink”:
By life itself am I intoxicated,
By words and foods and voices from the street
And nearly every person that I meet,
And so I do not get inebriated.
Some people cannot fly above the wall
That separates desire from its goal,
That keeps the flesh divided from the soul,
Unless they fuel the flight with alcohol.
They cannot act upon their wildest urges
Without the courage alcohol distills.
It silences their doubts and steels their wills,
But it’s a courage morning always purges.
Far better than to fly above a wall
Is never to be bound by it at all.
The sonnet form was invented in the early 13th century by an Italian attorney, which makes sense, since the form is bound by all kinds of rules and regulations.
My bookshelves are filled with collections of sonnets. Even when I am too pressed for time to read a novel or too turbulous of mind to read a magazine, I can usually manage to read and enjoy sonnets. But even more than reading them, I enjoy writing them. On the night of the last presidential election, I wrote a sonnet about Barack Obama and posted it on a New York Times website. Recently, after reading a biography of Louisa May Alcott, I wrote sonnets about both her and her eccentric father, Bronson. Even my feelings about large abstractions, such as Success or The Environment, have at one time or another been condensed into sonnets. The form requires you to focus on your subject like a laser beam and to eliminate from your composition all but the essential elements. I cannot memorize the full text of a book, but if I write a sonnet after reading, say, a biography of Amelia Earhart, then I have a snapshot of her that will remain in my mind forever. My brain is full of such snapshots. They help me to comprehend the world, to see it more clearly.
The word “sonnet” means “little song.” And just as a catchy song can get stuck in your brain forever, so too can a well-composed sonnet. I sometimes think the world would be a better place if politicians were required to explain each of their positions in a sonnet. I believe that education would be improved if school textbooks contained a sonnet at the end of each chapter that summed up the preceding material. The first religion that produces a god who speaks in sonnets will win my currently-agnostic heart. If you want to clarify your thinking about a subject, try writing a sonnet on it. If you can’t condense your thoughts to fourteen lines of iambic pentameter, it’s probably because you don’t know enough about the subject matter. In that case, keep on reading and studying. The song will come to you eventually.
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