I went to a poetry masterclass given by the inestimable Don Share a few months ago, where I read out a poem for some feedback. He instantly asked how many lines the poem was, and when I said 14 he asked, ‘Is it a sonnet?’
I am not sure what makes a sonnet a sonnet. Once I saw one with 13 lines. Jo Bell has invented decimal sonnets – ten lines each. And what is this, Gerard Manley Hopkins? Are sonnets only sonnets because they are metred? Do they have to be in iambic pentameter? What about rhymes? And what if I write a 14-line poem in metre but without rhymes – what the hell is that (which is, perhaps, actually what Don Share was asking me, with exquisite politeness)?
Sonnet comes from sonetta, ‘little song’ in Italian, itself from sonus, the Latin word for sound. It is a little song – or a little sound, and often a love song. Sonnets have been mainly written in vernacular language – that is, they are informal. Aside from number of lines and rhyme structure, sonnets are supposed to have a volta – a turning point. Mostly they do. And perhaps this combination of compression and about-facing is what I find so exciting about sonnets. 14 lines is just about enough room for an argument, but it must be all muscle, no fat.
Here are two sonnets from me at Judi Sutherland’s brilliant site The Stare’s Nest. I am not sure they are entirely fat-free mind.