Editor’s comment: I invited David Anthony, one of our selection panelists, to contribute a sonnet of his own fitting the reversals theme 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 David for “Talking to Lord Newborough” (which appears in his book of that title) and for the accompanying observations.
David Anthony is a British businessman and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. His second poetry collection, Talking to Lord Newborough, was published in the United States by Alsop Review Press in 2004. He is an administrator at Sonnet Central and his own website is at http://www.davidgwilymanthony.co.uk/ .
I’d perch beside your gravestone years ago,
a boy who thought you old at forty-three.
I knew you loved this quiet place, like me.
We’d gaze towards Maentwrog far below,
kindred spirits, and I’d talk to you.
Sometimes I asked what it was like to die —
were you afraid? You never did reply,
and silence rested lightly on us two.
These days the past is nearer, so I came
to our remembered refuge on the hill,
expecting change yet finding little there:
my village and the Moelwyns look the same,
Saint Michael’s Church commands the valley still —
but you, old friend, are younger than you were.
My initial selection from 14 by 14 candidates is done quickly. I prefer to have a distraction in the background — a television, perhaps, or a family altercation — since a good poem will insist on being heard. I sort the poems into three groups: like, dislike and not sure. The third group is always the largest and takes the most time on subsequent, more systematic re-readings.
What do I look for in a sonnet? First it has to interest me as a poem. I like lyricism, feeling, quirkiness, obliqueness, a different way of looking at things. I dislike obscurity and cleverness for its own sake. A sonnet should be self-contained: allusion is fine, but a poem that only makes sense by reference to something external and unfamiliar to the average reader (i.e., me) cannot in my opinion be successful. I expect good technique, of course: syntax has to be correct; rhymes, if employed, should not be careless or too predictable; metre should be used effectively. I don’t much care for metronomic regularity, but need to understand the reasons for metrical variation: often it is just sloppy writing.
Does the theme suit the form? Sometimes content is stretched or truncated to fit the space available: the Procrustean bed of sonnetry, as Ben Jonson called it. A sonnet should build to its conclusion, and the conclusion should not be merely a summary of what has gone before. Some of the best sonnets I know turn once at the sestet and again in the close.
(Lord Newborough was an “elderly” volunteer in the Great War. He died in London of an infection contracted in the Flanders trenches. My grandfather was the village carpenter in Ffestiniog. He brought Lord Newborough’s body home and arranged his burial in the place he had chosen, not far from the churchyard but alone. This is one of those poems that turned up needing relatively little conscious intervention, which is unusual for me.)