Editor’s comment: The sonnet republished on this page won the prestigious Howard Nemerov Sonnet Award in 2006 and was first published in Measure. It appears here because I invited Robert Crawford, one of our selection panelists, to contribute a sonnet of his own and to say a few words about it and/or about what he looks for in assessing sonnets for 14 by 14. My thanks to Robert for agreeing to republication of “The Empty Chair” here and for providing the accompanying observations.
Robert W. Crawford is a New England poet who has read at the Frost Farm. He has worked in National Security Policy Studies and in and around the Pentagon. He now lives with his family in Chester, New Hampshire, where he teaches poetry at Chester College. He is the author of a poetry collection, Too Much Explanation Can Ruin A Man (David Robert Books, 2005). His personal website is at http://www.robertwcrawford.com/.
Out on the rocky point there stands a white
And isolated Adirondack chair.
The tourists take a snapshot of the sight —
But only if nobody’s sitting there.
I guess they know, without fine arts degrees,
The standard first-term lesson, “less is more.”
It’s all about the possibilities
And the importance of the metaphor.
The focus isn’t on the lovely ring
Of blue in which the empty chair is framed —
Where ocean meets the sky — it’s on the thing
That in an artful picture can’t be named:
They save a central place for what might be —
A certain absence, looking out to sea.
I’ll begin by stating the obvious: evaluating poetry is subjective. It’s me, alone, at the kitchen table or by the woodstove that the poet has to impress. My likes and dislikes determine how I react to a poem — with one important exception: I try very hard not to let the poet’s choice of subject matter influence my reaction.
In evaluating sonnets I first look at the sonnet’s construction, its form. I lean towards a conservative definition of the sonnet: 14 lines of rhyming iambic pentameter organized in the tradition of Petrarch, Shakespeare, and, to a much lesser extent, Spenser. There is nothing wrong with nonce forms, but there is also nothing inherently “radical” or “refreshing” about them either. Nonce forms have to try harder to impress — and when they do they can be stunning — for the simple fact is that the tradition is the tradition because it works. Nonce forms are far too frequently used to escape the exacting demands that the sonnet places on the poet.
What do I mean by “works”? That is the second thing I look for in a sonnet: that it develop, in its narrow room, a way of looking at, or resolving, an experience, not a mere description of the experience itself (no matter how powerful, a couplet cannot turn what is essentially a narrative into a sonnet). Here are a few questions I ask myself: How does the poet use the quatrains to set up the couplet (does he or she even appear to care)? How does the poet balance the octave and the sestet so the octave is not bloated with repetition (does it look like the poet was aware of the distinction between the presentation of the octave and the resolution of the sestet)?
After development, I tend to evaluate the nuts and bolts of the sonnet: rhyme and meter. Does the poet show a mastery of these elements? For example: Is the rhyming of an accented syllable with an unaccented one, or the use of frequent substitutions (particularly anapests), an indication that the poet wants me to pay attention to something in the development of the poem, or is it just sloppiness? The consistency with which the poet establishes and disappoints expectations is an important factor here.
Last, I look for how the poet uses language (meaning and sound) to heighten or lessen the intensity of the experience. I like poets who take risks and are not overly afraid of being cliché. I much prefer language that runs along, but not over, the cliff of cliché than language that plays it safe in the smooth desert far away from the coast.
All this in the few minutes I have with each of a hundred sonnets — which only demonstrates what I said above about the subjective and imperfect nature of evaluating poetry for publication.
A few words about my sonnet “The Empty Chair” that appears in this issue of 14by14. At the risk of doing exactly what the poem warns poets not to do — fill the empty chair — I’ll describe how the sonnet came about. While staying at The Driftwood Inn on Bailey’s Island, Maine, I noticed that guests were drawn to take photos of two white Adirondack chairs that were placed on a rocky point overlooking the Atlantic, but they would always insist on taking the pictures while the chair was empty — no Uncle Alfred ruining the artistic shot! When I got back home, during a poetry tutorial, I used this observation to make a point about the importance of leaving room for the reader in a poem — how an Uncle Alfred, in all his specificity, really would wreck the composition. We were outside on a beautiful August afternoon and I remember becoming quite animated about the whole thing. It was there that the poem came into existence, though it wasn't until two months later that the “certain absence” was added to the last line actually finishing the sonnet — the word “certain” being crucial.