MANY years ago on a summer job, one of my fellow workers suddenly recited to me a sonnet of Shakespeare's he had been forced sometime previously to memorize in school. It was the only time I ever heard him talk without profanity. Shakespeare would have been pleased with his verbal fire. I was. It was a fine nugget in the silty stream of his speech. I think the form, neatly cinched up with its couplet, helped him capture the poem as a unit. No doubt the task had been inflicted on him. It certainly hadn't changed his life. But he had retained some finely stated ideas gathered in an economical and beautiful form. That package, and its expectations of excellence, are one of the resources of our poetic life - and of his and mine.
My friend had memorized an ancient form, originated sometime in the early 13th century by Italian poets who developed it from the Sicilian strambotto, a regional folk poem. Called in Italian the sonneto, or little song, the new poem was formalized by Giacomo da Lentino and others.
Ever since, sonnets have had, with a few exceptions, 14 long, metrical lines, with a formal rhyme scheme. They have also generally maintained internal divisions of thought structure. The sonnet was no exception to the medieval love of complexity in verse, though it was far simpler than most poetic forms of that time.
Surely its originators had no idea what they had accomplished in creating a poem that would survive the disappearance of almost all the other forms of the time, would spread throughout Western literature, and would become a form on which many great poets have lavished attention.
The sonnet was centuries old when it entered English in the work of Sir Thomas Wyat, who apparently picked it up on an Italian journey in 1527. His compatriot, Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey, further developed it, first adopting the variation we know today as the Shakespearean sonnet. Though the English did not immediately embrace it wholeheartedly, by the end of the century, in the work of Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, Sir Philip Sidney, Michael Drayton, and others, the sonnet saw its high point in the language.
But it was by no means all downhill from there. John Donne's famous ``Holy Sonnets'' took the form into the 17th century. Milton wrote great examples. After a lull in the 18th century, which seemed hypnotized by the heroic couplet, the great sonnets of Wordsworth and Keats seemed to usher in the 19th century. Since then, while sonnets have been avoided by some, and despised by others, the form has persisted in the English-speaking world.
Even the advent of free verse and the flood of new forms did not prevent the sonnet from persisting in 20th-century American writing. Frost, Pound, Millay, Merrill Moore, and even E.E. Cummings produced fascinating examples, and today Richard Wilbur, Howard Nemerov, and others have continued the tradition.
BUT sonnets have never been universally admired, even among poets who have written them. In our time, with its love of poetic freedom, new sonnets are often, even generally, seen as fripperies or exercises. As poetry editor of the Saturday Review, John Ciardi would not even look at a sonnet. Some moderns maintain that the sonnet is an essentially European form not suited to American character, which needs the freedom of the Whitmanesque line.
The writer of sonnets is challenged. Not only does the sonnet make formal demands, but somehow it expects a solid content, a serious discussion, tightly structured yet lyrical. A light observation cannot easily be stretched into the form - the result is merely a verbal curlicue. A complex subject tends to strain its seams with unstated implications. And yet earnestness is what the sonnet expects.
Good sonnets tend to be understated without seeming to be. They growl in dulcet tones, say deeply essential things in the voice of someone ordering a light dessert, or batter against the form while taking care not to break it.
Many writers of sonnets have to prune, clip, coax the poem into harmony with its impetus. They tear it apart and rebuild it until form and function join in an entire harmony. And yet they maintain the spontaneity that both fulfills the form and frees the poem from it.
In times intolerant of obvious rhymes, as ours is, sonnets have to preserve rhyme while muting it, so it creates the harmony of a distant bell, not the whack of a frying pan against the sink. With demands like these, naturally there is no such thing as a monolithic sonnet form, only norms and outlines.
Certainly there must be reasons for the vitality, the slight resurgence of sonnets. Alone among medieval forms it has widely survived and spread to many languages. My friend who remembered Shakespeare's sonnet would have wilted under a sestina or villanelle. Sonnets are neat, manageable packages. But they are more than packages. As a form that has fascinated great poets of many Western cultures, they are an ongoing resource. One imagines with pleasure the great sonnets yet to be written.