Editor’s comment: I invited former selection panelist Rose Kelleher to contribute a sonnet of her own and to say a few words about what she looks for in modern sonnets. My thanks to Rose for “Neanderthal Bone Flute” and the accompanying observations.
Rose Kelleher lives in Maryland. Her first book of poems, Bundle o’ Tinder, was selected by Richard Wilbur for the 2007 Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize, and will be published by Waywiser Press in November this year. Rose’s poems have appeared in many online and print journals, including Anon, Anti-, The Dark Horse, and The Chimaera. Her website is here: http://www.ramblingrose.com.
Let it be a flute. Let some young man,
perhaps red-haired, have carved it just for fun.
Or better yet, to serenade someone:
one of the jut-chinned girls, not of his clan,
a stranger from the east. And let his genes
thrive still in solitary types, the shy
who fidget when you look them in the eye,
the tongue-tied, who must woo by other means.
Ignore the new genetic tests that say
the girl rejected him, that winter came
and spear could not compete with bow and arrow;
that want, or slaughter, whittled him away
because his ways and ours were not the same.
Let bone be flute, the music in our marrow.
Sonnets are poems. As obvious as that sounds, it’s all too easy for a sonnet enthusiast to forget that. We’re so busy discussing what makes a poem a sonnet — volta, line count, rhyme scheme — that if we’re not careful, we can neglect the things that make a sonnet a poem.
When working in a traditional form, originality is more important than ever. There’s a certain predictability built in: you know when the rhymes are coming, and you know when the poem’s going to end. The last thing you want to add to that is predictable content. Sonnets that excite me are unique. They show me something I’ve never seen, or make me see something familiar in a new light, or bend language in pleasing ways. Above all, they’re poems.
This May I had the fun-but-daunting opportunity to host the Sonnet Bake-off at Eratosphere. Between that and my stint on the selection panel of 14 by 14, I’ve read a lot of good and bad contemporary sonnets. The usual guidelines aside, I’ve found I have some pretty subjective preferences. I’m not a big fan of breakup sonnets, sonnetized jokes, or restful sonnets about nature. On the other hand, I’m a sucker for certain rhetorical and sonic devices (antimetabole, anaphora, alliteration, assonance), and words with more than one meaning. In Rhina Espaillat’s “Bittersweet”, for example, notice how the word “rank,” in addition to its primary meaning of “utter or absolute,” suggests an army, or a compost heap, and all three of those meanings are relevant. Using words in this way, so that they contribute as much as possible to the poem, is different from punning for its own sake, and more difficult.
The subject of secondary meanings came up when I workshopped “Neanderthal Bone Flute.” It was funny to watch people with PhDs in English Literature debating whether the title was too suggestive, and if so, of what. I had to make a judgement call, and decided to risk it. Those three words were the bare bones of the poem. I liked their simple heft.
When I wrote Line 2, a current theory was that red hair in humans was a trait inherited from Neanderthals. These days the consensus seems to be that Neanderthals were a separate species that did not contribute to our genetic makeup, but DNA samples suggest that at least some of them had red hair and fair skin, traits they evolved on their own.