Editor’s comment: I invited Paul Stevens, who has been one of our selection panelists from the beginning, to contribute a sonnet of his own and to say a few words about what he looks for in assessing sonnets for 14 by 14. My thanks to Paul for the hitherto unpublished “Rock-a-bye” and the accompanying observations.
Paul Stevens was born in Yorkshire, but lives in Australia. He teaches Literature and Historiography. His recent poetry is in The Barefoot Muse, Worm, Lily, The Argotist, The New Formalist, The Centrifugal Eye, Shattercolors, Contemporary Sonnet, Sliptongue and Poemeleon. He edits The Shit Creek Review and The Chimaera Literary Miscellany.
A time was once, rocked in a matrixed cradle,
slung in a skew-tree, variously branched
through clouds of crow, to skies of fiery opal,
and down its roots gripped, deeper, till they reached
bone, where they grew mouths to sip the gravel's
juice, and therewith wove our grass and vetch.
Then young Clodhopper hopped his merry ramble —
big tooth, all goof, guffaw! His hands might catch
the butterfly of thought-threads through the tangle
of earth and air's laced rivalry, cross-hatched.
But you and I must nuzzle close, and huddle
from time, which sucks our brains (O hungry leech!),
that time which cries a “Happy ever after!”
until all is — and us, forever, fable.
When I’m helping to select sonnets for 14 by14, it’s easy to eliminate the ones I don’t like: many of the weaker sonnets use archaic language, especially syntactical inversion or obsolete diction; or they say something that has often been said before, using language and images that have often been used before. Or they start off well but sooner or later hit a false note that ruins what good work has been previously done: it’s particularly regrettable when this happens (as it often does) in the very last lines of an otherwise sound sonnet.
There are sonnets that jump out at me as obviously superb: they hit the right note straight away and go on with it unfalteringly. They seem to be alive, with their own particularity and authenticity. When you read such a sonnet you feel you’ve had an amazing experience, clear of any interference or distraction: the poet’s experience is channeled clear through the sonnet to the reader. This could be done in all sorts of ways: indeed the sonnet through which the experience is channeled will make up its own rules, even within parameters which are apparently traditional. Such a sonnet might be strictly conservative or wildly inventive within its form: it might punctiliously follow the traditional rules of octave, volta, sestet, or quatrains and couplet, or it might bend the sonnet form in all sorts of unexpected directions and shapes, playing with possibilities of rhyme, metre, organisation, strategy and concept. However they get there, these sonnets are rare, and there is no doubt that they deserve ten out of ten.
When I read the sonnets submitted, I start with a fixed point of what I think is “average”: a sonnet that is competent to a degree, but not brilliant, with the sonnet basics adequately managed, though flawed in some way or other. On the scale of 0 to 10 I score such sonnets as 4 or 5. “Below average” then scores 2 or 3, “seriously below average” scores 1, and “utterly hopeless” (what examiners would call a “non-attempt”) scores nil. Sonnets that seem to perform very well but don’t entirely bowl me over I class as “above average” — 6 or 7; those that I am seriously impressed by I score as 8 or 9. Ideally these scores would form a Bell Curve, but in reality they are well skewed towards the below-average/average part of the spectrum. In rating sonnets for the five issues to date, I’ve only scored one or two 10s, and not many 8s or 9s: so most of those that I like will be in the 5–7 range.
“Rock-a-bye” was written as the coda to a series of three other sonnets which speculate on time: the previous sonnets in the set are more serious in tone, while “Rock-a-bye” tries to be simultaneously playful and dark. It evokes nursery-rhyme and lullaby, with a riff on the fairy-tale formula of “Once upon a time... happily ever after.”