[This essay appeared previously in 2013 & in slightly altered form at Pop Matters]
Before some real-deal poet jumps out in front to apply face to my egg, I’ll offer a chicken-and-egg admission. An avid consumer of great poetry, I don’t strenuously identify with being a poet myself, though I enjoy tooling about in the genre purple pen in hand. I prefer the company of thinkers to poets frankly, or at the very least, thinking poets. An essayist at heart, I’m better at converging on dense and prickly concepts in an attempt to nail them down with dense and prickly prose.
How am I doing so far?
I suppose I prefer ground-control precision to imagistic flight. Such tendencies can be driven by individual temperament, the vagaries of native talent or whether or not one was breast-fed until age two. I honestly can’t say my tactics vary greatly from sonnet to essay. That may be the most ringing indictment of my poetry to date.
Then too, it may not be so far off the mark either as the sonnet structure encapsulates a sort of logical progression. There is an argument, a volte (a turn or ‘twist’), a counter-argument and then a resolution, the latter often occurring in the final couplet. I’m convinced many economists are closeted sonneteers seeking false comfort in improbable graphs (on the one hand) and studied superstition (on the other hand). In the words of Shakespeare from Sonnet 138, sort of:
When economics swears it’s made of truth, I must believe all unemployment lies
Voodoo economics aside, the sonnet offers rich terrain for rhetorical hijinks and abbreviated exposition. So why entrust such a tightly-wound machine to muddle-headed poets? I won’t get into all the structural variations and sonnet rhyme schemes here—the Petrarchan, Shakespearean, Spenserian, Protozoan, Heidi Montagian, etc.—as that would require a fearsome erudition beyond my rude powers.
Perhaps if we start with lines today, we can build to whole college syllabi tomorrow. Right now I’m fresh out of paper-mill certificates. Kicking it back and forth will have to do.
Tired thinking and expression is a sprawling hammock that looms large across our culture. Poetry’s ruby-red lips are thus not starved for company. Cliché can afflict poetic intent as surely as it haunts language and image. In my recent spate of sonnet-writing I’m aware of having grown terribly fond of the enjambment technique. For all you auto mechanics out there perusing this essay at lunch, enjambment is a fancy French word for straddling. Yes that’s right, sort of a broken Citroën, but with words not fuel-injection and a superior maintenance record.
Wikipedia gets fancier still, calling enjambment the “breaking of a syntactic unit” in a line of poetry. I suppose the opposite of enjambment is the end-stop of which I have grown supremely tired.
End-stopping is essentially matching syntax to lineation. For all you old-timers out there, imagine a typewriter futzing along until, bang, it reaches the end of the page at which point there is the clatter of a carriage-return. The machine drops to the next line: next thought—bang. I’ve come to regard end-stops as being clunky and deterministic with a Soviet-era flair for centralized control. Why not either fly through the sonnet box impervious to its rigid dimensions or make a game of bumping hard up against its dog-eared perimeters?
I have this vivid mental image of sentences being snapped like twigs in diabolical places, all in the hopes something interesting (a third thing) seeps out—as sap might from a damaged branch. I also imagine a retracement process similar to a Hegelian dialectic where the synthesized result, the unitary sentence, is ‘de-synthesized’ back perhaps to some seminal state of indistinct phraseology or two inert, uncontested thoughts. Verily, I am the crux of a million weird imaginings. A sentence has entrails and antecedent ghosts. So, let’s have a look then. Syntax can also play at subterfuge. By rifling its constituent parts, we reveal previously withheld compartments of meaning. Or, as the Kabbalists might say, what’s poetry anyway but a broken vessel? Here, then, is to breaking dishes. May the better shards win.
At the system level, this dialectical notion is well-observed. That vast sonnet clearinghouse in the cloud Sonnet Central has Nelson Miller referring to these precious little songs as:
“…fundamentally a dialectical construct which allows the poet to examine the nature and ramifications of two usually contrastive ideas, emotions, states of mind, beliefs, actions, events, images, etc., by juxtaposing the two against each other, and possibly resolving or just revealing the tensions created and operative between the two.”
Enjambment might also be thought of as a mini-cut-up method popularized in literature by Brion Gysin and Williams Burroughs; call these fractured clauses tiny naked lunches. Am I making clear that broken sentences, so-called enjambments, can be the keepers of subversive agendas? We belittle the technique therefore by characterizing it primarily as manhandled independent clauses in reluctant service to page width. [See ‘Burroughing in on Borrowed Time‘, Norman Ball, May 12th, 2018, Dissident Voice.]
That said, I find the denser or more complex the sonnet, the more jarring the enjambment effect comes across to the reader. I am guilty of sitting on my sonnets like overstuffed suitcases.
Sometimes it’s the only way to snap them closed. My sonnets are dense more often than not. Whether this makes them less or more conducive to enjambment, I cannot say. Whether this makes me a terminal essayist and not a sonneteer at all, I am similarly mute.
One could argue that density offers enough sense and meaning challenges without having to compound the reader’s task with ‘nonlinear’ syntactical presentations. Perhaps the musicality and horizontal flow suffers for these jagged, atonal edges. Enjambment introduces hiccups where one might prefer uninterrupted melody. That’s certainly a valid aesthetic judgment similar to one’s taste in musical styles.
There may be situational considerations as well. Some topics simply lend themselves better to enjambment than others. For example, harried descriptions of our frenetically paced, post-modern postal world might benefit from razor-sharp edges and abrupt trapdoors. An ode to garden lilies? Not so much. The process of ‘bending and snapping’ prose into the sonnet form can, I believe, yield up whole new platforms of meaning.
Do I belabor the enjambment technique? That’s possible. My consternation with the form in general is longstanding as this ten-year-old essay attests. Sonnet-writing is not unlike a golf game, a never-ending series of adjustments and corrections. Enjambment may be my version of a bad slice. For example, I notice of late I resist end-stops with heroic fortitude. I like the little surprises the travelling eye encounters falling from line to line. Perhaps I’ve fallen into an enjambment ‘trap’. Where’s my sand wedge?
One fascinating discussion on a poetry board began recently with a member disentangling my sonnet and ‘re-rendering’ it into a sequence of natural, sprawling sentences. Immediately I saw his point. I could discern a paragraph crouched in the reeds where a sonnet had once been. This disentangled prose form, the gentleman suggested, allowed my poetry to breathe; where before I had been rather cruelly breaking its butterfly wings against a medieval wheel. My loyalties were misplaced.
The worship of form had crippled the primacy of poetry. He had a point. Interrogating my motivations, I realized I had indeed been sitting down to ‘write sonnets’ and not necessarily poetry. Committing this inversion may be the equivalent of Kafka’s aphorism, a cage gone in search of a bird.
Quite apart from poetic intent, might the sonnet be an implicitly ‘enjambed’ form as it seems to straddle and incorporate features of both prose and poetry? The notion of nonce forms comes to mind. (Nonce being yet another fancy word for ‘I’ll do it once asshole but don’t ever ask me again’, i.e. an un-received, one-off or purely invented form.) This form might best be called a ‘prose-sonnet’. Eureka! (Note to my attorney: Please copyright this essay with all rights thereunto appertaining, alea jacta est and gesundheit.)
Such a sonnet would scan correctly yet be presented in prose form. Conceivably the inherent music of a good, strong sonnet should survive the wholesale abandonment of its conventional visual form-structure. Listening to poets read their sonnets, I’m often troubled at how so many invariably stress the end-rhymes in a manner that tends to rob the rhymes of their subtle beauty and sonic power.
I like a voice to nonchalantly fall through a sonnet, in effect obscuring the lineation from overt aural reception. Sonnets should be read like finely-tuned paragraphs and in a natural, conversational tone as opposed to a sing-songy, pat-the-kiddies-on-the-head Mother Goose twang. Aren’t lines starting to feel more and more like enemy combatants? Down with the barricade of lines! Up with lugubrious incantation!
That said, I find the denser or more complex the sonnet, the harsher the enjambment effect can be to the reader’s ear. Moreover density seems to breed enjambment as expansive and serpentine speculations, certainly mine, have been known to suck the oxygen out of entire rooms, never mind the diminutive parameters of the poor little old sonnet. Some essayists, it has been alleged, do go on a bit.
I am guilty of sitting on my sonnets like overstuffed suitcases. (Sometimes that’s the only way to snap them shut.) The fact my sonnets are rather dense more often than not may suggest I am a terminal essayist and not a poet after all. I stand ready to accept this verdict. Under practically all circumstances, concision is a challenge in the sonnet form. One could argue density offers sufficient sense and meaning challenges without adding insult to migraine via ‘nonlinear’ syntactical presentations. Perhaps the musicality and horizontal flow suffers for these jagged, atonal edges. Enjambment introduces hiccups where one might prefer uninterrupted melody. That’s certainly a valid aesthetic judgment on par with, say, an individual’s tastes in musical styles.
A tasteless palette relishes sour verdicts. In his excoriating 2010 Huffington Post essay “The 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers“, Anis Shivani, already no great fan of Sharon Olds’ “pseudo-confession[alism]” and “gory imaginings”, takes her poetry further to task for “disruptive enjambments — ending on prepositions” which in Shivani’s opinion only, “add to the exhibitionist content of the poems.” Rarely enamored with Shivani’s gratuitously confrontational tone, I am nonetheless sympathetic here to his charge.
In Olds’ 27-line poem (though not a sonnet) “After Making Love in Winter” for example, five lines end with the articles ‘a’ or ‘the’, three end with prepositions (of, like, before) and two end with the conjunction ‘and’. I feel myself being jarred with no jellybean reward at the bottom of the jar. In fact the intended effect recalls old Ms. Harshford’s prohibition in 8th grade English Composition never to end a sentence with a preposition.
Sonnet experimentation notwithstanding, it is a rule I have carried to poetic lineation as well and have, without exception, managed to live with. Methinks enjambment that succeeds in pointing mostly to itself has ventured one trapdoor too far. That said I would never kick a stanza out of bed for making a mess of convention. But I want meaningful intent and purpose behind all the willful infractions — or else I’m calling Ms. Harshford.
We have yet to consider situational dynamics. So if you’re situated comfortably, let’s do it right now. Some topics simply lend themselves better to enjambment than do others. For example, our frenetic, post-modern postal world seems better served by razor-sharp edges and capricious trapdoors. A garden ode to tiger lilies? Not so much. We inhabit an era of collapsed attention spans, vapid emoticons, wafer-screens, dashed-off emails and brusque tweets. Authentic communication suffers in the digitized-ADHD cacophony.
As our mediating syntaxes break down, why spare the sonnet a break, too? I suspect the world, for all its official protest, grudgingly admires something with the moxie to stand, on the one hand, against willful inarticulateness and on the other, against Rod McKuen. So come on you barbaric bloody yawpers, the air is thick with dislocation! Give us a break and don’t break something! Should the sonnet get relegated to Wordsworthian appendix in the post-911 age, at least it’s showing the stomach to weather on as an appendix. I call that guts.
In the final days, order will indulge the creeping advance of chaos. Perhaps the fractured line is an accommodation, or a memorial, to sustained reflection. Do I belabor the enjambment technique? Nah, I wouldn’t belabor anything. My overall consternation with the sonnet form is longstanding and broadly based to which this ten-year-old essay attests. Exasperation is built into the fabric of the enterprise. I find writing them is not unlike a golf game, that is, a never-ending series of adjustments and corrections. Enjambment may be my version of a bad slice. I enjoy the little surprises the traveling eye encounters falling from line to line. Perhaps I’ve fallen into an enjambment trap. Where’s my sand wedge?
Finally, I’d like to shade the page briefly with what I liken to the long game of enjambment, the white space. Perhaps a longer pause, breath-mark or interruption helps acquit the sonnet’s meaning or sonic effect. Perhaps too, irregular spaces between (or even within) lines (beyond the line-space often but not always accorded between sestets (six-line clumps) quatrains (four-line clumps) and ending couplets are desired. As I say, ‘blank page’ is yet another spatial device that can augment the sonnet’s overall impact.
On one poetry workshop I sometimes frequent, a workshop member helpfully ‘disentangled’ a sentence-laden sonnet of mine, yielding a more naturalized sequence of sprawling prose. Immediately I appreciated his rather astute insight. There, in amongst the tangled reeds of my sonnet, appeared a disheveled, mud-caked paragraph. This relaxed prose form, he suggested, allowed my poetry to breathe, where before I had been rather cruelly breaking its butterfly wings against a medieval wheel of fits and starts.
My loyalties were misplaced.
The worship of form had crippled the primacy of unfettered impartation. He had a point. Interrogating my motivations, I realized I had indeed been sitting down to ‘write sonnets’ more than poetry per se. Committing this inversion may be the equivalent of Kafka’s aphorism, a cage gone in search of a bird. Form and content must spring forth with the simultaneity of spontaneous combustion. One cannot be seen to be clumsily seeking the other.
Quite apart from poetic intent, might the sonnet be an implicitly ‘enjambed’ form as it seems to straddle and incorporate features of both prose and poetry? The notion of nonce forms comes to mind. (Nonce is yet another fancy word for ‘I’ll do it once, but don’t ever ask me again’ i.e., an un-received, one-off or purely invented form. Believe it or not there’s even an on-line journal that specializes in this nichiest of niches.)
What my colleague was implicitly pointing me towards might best be called a ‘prose-sonnet’. At least that’s what I’m calling it now. Such a sonnet would scan correctly yet be presented in paragraphed ‘disguise’. The tuning fork in my gut tells me the inherent music of a good, strong sonnet should survive the wholesale abandonment of its conventional visual-structure. Lineation may be overrated. After all the prose-poem is already a well-established poetry sub-genre.
The prose-sonnet amounts to nothing more than presenting an obdurate and venerable syntactic unit, the sonnet, in an altered visual format — a mere flesh wound, one would think. What is the sonnet after all, a machinery of lines or the ghost behind the grid?
Vision can countermand sound. Listening to poets read their sonnets, I’m often troubled at how so many invariably stress the end-rhymes in a manner that tends to rob the rhymes of their subtle beauty and understated power. I like a voice to nonchalantly fall through a sonnet, in effect obscuring the lineation from overt aural reception. End-stops should not ‘sound’ like stop-signs or worse, steep ravines. Sonnets should be read like finely-tuned paragraphs and in a natural, conversational tone as opposed to a sing-songy, pat-the-kiddies-on-the-head Mother Goose twang. Look Mommy, no hands rhymes with pro bands! Aren’t lines starting to feel more and more like enemy combatants? Down with barricades! Up with lugubrious incantation!
In the end, this inquiry seems to turn on the significance of sentences or clauses as unitary grammatical constructs of arbitrary length versus formal poetic lines as sound and meter-driven units of relative (i.e. complete or incomplete) meaning, but determinate length. Beautiful sentences notwithstanding, sentences are aligned more with meaning, whereas poetry lines are more sensuous beasts altogether; for the latter, sound and even space contribute to the effect. In a sense, enjambment allows unitary meaning to ‘fall though the machine’, creating additional sound and meaning variants as it clatters against the silo’s walls. To the extent a sentence or clause is fully expressed in a poetic line, no such variants are exploited. This is hardly an argument against ‘non-enjambed lines’ in all cases. No doubt, like any poetic technique, enjambment can be overused.
I should add there are countless poets pushing the sonnet envelope in novel ways. In Mark Jarman’s “Unholy Sonnet 13”, God seems to be ‘stirring’ in more ways than one, thanks in large part to enjambment:
Because I’m older and I think God stirs
In details that keep bringing back that time,
The late e.e. cummings played wild and loose with the sonnet form. In this instance, the title itself is enjambed (please pardon Mr. cummings’ broken cap-locks key) “i like my body when it is with your.”
Here’s yet another modern twist on an Elizabethan codpiece. Oddly enough, Twitter allows a 140-character maximum per tweet. The traditional sonnet permits 140 syllables (14 lines, 10 syllables). Am I onto the Twitter Sonnet? Is this number cosmologically significant? Without delving Ouija boards or consulting Pythagorean mystics, it’s interesting to find the same number bracketing two conventions of human expression. Hah! The sonnet’s been around since the 13th century. Let’s see how long Twitter hangs on. I weary of the tweet already. [Ed: Twitter has since stretched its wings to 280 characters.]
Below is the work-shopped sonnet previously described, one that sought to grapple with my conflicted affections for pop music. (In case it isn’t iconic enough, the phrase ‘secret chords’ in line 13 is a hat-tip to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” lyric.) The sonnet is presented in lineated form first and conforms to the English (Shakespearian) sonnet rhyme scheme, that is, ABAB CDCD EFEF GG with five feet (i.e., ten syllables) per line. The iambic pentameter (the five ‘ta-DA’ sounds per line) is a little irregular and instead of three four-line sections (quatrains), I sort of ‘keep a fifth line’ in the second quatrain because I like the effect of hanging ‘here and now’ out there like a good little existential predicament and a sore thumb all at once. In line four, ‘sing’ gazes out across a sea of white space. I fancy this imparting the sense of a lone singer warbling out into the void.
If I’ve gone hard on perfunctory end-stops, I meant no disrespect to the existential necessity of line (and paper’s) end and the inevitable onset of eclipsing whiteness. There’s no doubt the deployment of breaks and the ensuing spaces-between can help carry poetic effect. Below this traditional lineation format, the same sonnet appears again in a form not unlike what you’d find in the classified section of a newspaper. (Note to young people: Though help may be wanted, poetry doesn’t pay.)
Here, I’ve taken the sonnet of mine that set off the whole debate and presented it in standard sonnet form as well as in a prose format. I’ll leave each reader to judge the relative merits if each presentation format. Has enjambment merely been a stalking horse for lineation? How do lines, both in their presence and absence, affect the apprehension of poetry? Like most bullies, lineation may be mostly affect absent real punch. Maybe it’s time the sonnet took greater strides to abandon its fourteen-line presentational imperative.
And in plain ole paragraphic formation…
Striking at a moment too sharp for stale repetition, the pleasing sound is nothing to tamp down. Yet reprisal’s a pale echo–one arrival is aloud. Sing by all means, arched into time’s faltering applause. Memory accompanies death’s penchant for time-signature.
Why not bring sharp notes that tempt eternity? Our breath’s too short to box hit singles. Hear and now is the chance to alter prior arrangement as habit revives the grand piano haunting the front parlor. Let sound foment those secret chords ripe ears suspect are there. Ephemera makes light of moment’s air.
I leave you with more questions than answers. Here are but a few. Is aesthetic enjoyment varyingly enhanced or diminished by overt visual cues (e.g., end-rhyme, enjambment, white space, etc.)? Which mode of death-by-avalanche is the more painful: a ton of feathery sound-waves or a ton of collapsed scaffold? Most important for this inquiry, is there a place in great literature for the prose-sonnet nonce form and if so will the U.S. Patent Office honor my claim?
Perhaps it’s time we stopped fetishizing the protocols of line and page’s edge. Somewhere beyond and within the apparatus lies the sonnet’s resilient soul, a wellspring less beholden to typeset conventions than many have imagined.
In the final analysis, it’s what strikes you most soundly, dear listener, that really counts.
Get Norman Ball’s 2013 book of sonnets Serpentrope here.