Day 19/30 - sonnets

Sometimes having a structure or an unrelenting restriction can paradoxically give space, freedom and energy. It's the same way that resistance builds strength, collision propels speed. There's something in physics about this, I am sure. After all, humans are three-quarter water, not vapour. 

Among poetic forms in English, the sonnet is probably the most popular because of its strict rules. The common ones are: within 1 line there are 10 syllables only, they are in typically iambic rhythm; the lines form sets of rhymes; it ends with a couplet; and whatever else changes, always only 14 lines. And so when these rules are broken, there is even more significance and purpose. 

Perhaps because of the rules, those who love the Sonnet form keep writing them - as a kind of exercise and practice, as a discipline. So with the sonnet, the sense of writing as craft comes to the fore. Like a very technical traditional recipe you've inherited that you have to both perfect yet make personal. 

Today I thought to share a sonnet by the popular American poet Edna St Vincent Millay (1892-1950). She wrote sonnets about love (of course) but also grief, suffering, art, Beethoven, friends, war, politics, freedom, injustice, growing old, death and dying, the Race of Man - about all possible aspects of life. 

This being a Saturday and I just spent the morning at a zoom meeting with some 80 young women half my age, I thought would share one of her early poems from "The Harp Weaver". It was a collection that probably seemed bold in the 1920s for asserting this voice of the free and independent woman, comfortable in her own sex and sexuality:

I, being a woman and distressed
By all the needs and notions of my kind,
Am urged by your propinquity to find
Your person fair, and feel a certain zest
To bear your body's weight upon my breast:
So subtly is the frame of life designed,
To clarify the pulse and cloud the mind,
And leave me once again undone, possed.
Think not for this, however, the poor treason
Of my stout blood against my staggering brain,
I shall remember you with love, or season
My scorn with pity, - let me make it plain:
I find this frenzy insufficient reason
For conversation when we meet again.


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