Out Hitting Ted Williams

Reader Solveig sent a note the other day about the inclusion of a few lines from Edna St. Vincent Millay in a post (SeriouslyApril). It just so happens that I have been reading some Millay lately. Her sonnets are so seemingly effortless. They aren't contorted by the formal requirements. Indeed, you only realize they are sonnets upon close inspection. She attains such a freedom within the form.

The sonnet, of course, is taught in just about every English literature class on poetry. The problem is that no English teacher I ever had was able to impress upon me the stupefyingly complex demands of writing one. In class we would examine a few sonnets by Shakespeare or Petrarch, count the syllables in each line and dutifully put little letters next to the end rhymes. The exam question inevitably had us distinguishing between the Italian and English forms.

But if this is all you know about sonnets, then you really don't know much. I never realized just how demanding a form of poetry it is until I tried to write one. Nothing ever gave me a greater respect for Shakespeare's genius than trying to do what he did in the sonnet form. I may as well have been trying to out hit Ted Williams. Of course anyone can compose a sonnet that conforms to the rules, but most of us only end up with formally-correct gibberish.

Writing a sonnet that actually makes sense and works as poetry is like juggling five balls while riding a unicycle, drinking hot coffee and reading the paper. Not only must you attend to meter and rhyme, but you've got to thread the poem with consistent imagery and satisfy the content demands of the octave and sestet. It's like laying the proverbial overly-large carpet in a too small room.

But Millay makes it look effortless. Here's an example,

So she came back into the house again
And watched beside the bed until he died,
Loving him not at all. The winter rain
Splashed in the painted butter-tub outside,
Where once her red geraniums had stood,
Where still their rotted stocks were to be seen;
The thin log snapped; and she went out for wood,
Bareheaded, running the few steps between
The house and the shed; there from the sodden eaves
Blown back and forth on ragged ends of twine,
Saw the dejected, creeping jenny-vine,
(And one, big-aproned, blithe, with blue sleeves
Rolled to the shoulder that warm day in spring,
Who planted seeds, musing ahead to their far blossoming).

Keep in mind that she is writing a sonnet sequence--literally narrating a story arc through a series of sonnets. This sonnet (the first in the series) presents us with a woman taking the first step back toward life after her vigil over death. The subsequent sonnets will chart her journey. So this sonnet has to fulfill its internal demands, but also the demands of the overarching design for the entire series. In other words, Millay's juggling, riding a unicycle, drinking hot coffee, reading the paper, and telling you a story.

All Ted Williams had to do was keep his eye on the ball and swing.

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