Editor’s comment: The sonnet on this page is a new and previously unpublished poem by Anna Evans, one of our selection panelists. It appears here because I invited Anna to contribute a sonnet of her own and to say a few words about it and/or about what she looks for in assessing sonnets for 14 by 14. My thanks to Anna for “The Turn” and the accompanying observations.
Anna Evans is a British citizen but permanent resident of NJ, where she is raising two daughters. She has had over 100 poems published in journals including The Formalist, The Evansville Review, Measure and e-zines such as Verse Libre Quarterly. She has been nominated three times for a Pushcart Prize and was a finalist in the Howard Nemerov Sonnet Award for 2005 and again for 2007. She is editor of the formal poetry e-zine The Barefoot Muse . Her first chapbook Swimming was published in March 2006 by Maverick Duck Press.
I found myself, after I nearly died,
playing more silly games, complaining less,
kissing my kids each morning though they shied
away, resisting urges to confess
a few small sins, not to some distant God
(I’d seen no tunnel, no white blinding light)
but to my husband. Life was a little odd
for a while: I slept all day, not much at night.
After a week I ventured to the gym,
seeing the same routine a different way
like an October morning, when through dim
mists that signal fall has come in a day
the trees in red shrouds covenant their health
to future springs. I ask that for myself.
The genesis of this particular sonnet is widely available on my blog, and will eventually, I hope, be available in book form as my non-fiction memoir Letters from the Body. So, here I want to concentrate on my own personal taste when I’m rating sonnet submissions for 14 by 14.
I am a traditionalist, which means I am very unlikely to give high marks to a sonnet that isn’t in meter, typically iambic pentameter, although a rhyme scheme is not required. However, I prefer my traditional sonnets in contemporary language and covering modern subjects — archaicisms such as “oft”, “thou” and any verb construction involving the word “did” are sure-fire ways to lose my interest.
The sonneteer has approximately 140 syllables to create a miniature world, a little like a snow globe, for the reader to peer into. Many sonnets fail because of inherent flaws that jolt the reader out of this imagined world — amateurish mistakes like inversions, forced rhyme, and syntax mangled for the sake of meter or rhyme.
Better-constructed sonnets fail because the imagined world is uninteresting, incoherent or resembles a thousand others that have gone before. In other words, the strategy of the sonnet is weak, or the sonnet contains too many syllables that are not advancing the strategy. Over-modification — the overuse of adjectives and adverbs — is often responsible for flabby sonnets. I’ve seen far too many pieces where you could eliminate one two-syllable modifier per line and turn the piece into a much tighter poem in tetrameter!
The strategy of the sonnet can be narrative or lyric in focus and anywhere between the representative and the surreal. In terms of subject matter, I think almost anything can make an interesting sonnet. It’s difficult to write a love sonnet these days and make it really new, but it can be achieved. I don’t mind vulgarity if it’s done well (but it can be too easy to slide into sonnet porn).
One thing I look for in any successful poem, not just in sonnets, is some form of reversal or pivotal point. Traditionally this is the “turn,” which occurs between the octave and sestet of a sonnet, but I’ve seen successful sonnets turn much later, even in the last line. Although the sonnet can be compared to a snow globe, in the interaction between reader and sonnet it is the reader’s emotions that should be shaken up, and the turn is critical in this. Furthermore, the same reaction should re-occur every time the sonnet is read, with no diminishment. Achieving this requires the strategic deployment of every one of those 140 syllables.