Editor’s comment: I invited Michael Juster to contribute this sonnet and to say a few words on the subect of the annual Howard Nemerov Sonnet Award. My thanks to Michael for “So You Want to Win a Nemerov?” and the essay that follows.
A.M. Juster is a three-time winner of the Howard Nemerov Sonnet Award. His third book, a translation of Horace’s Satires in heroic couplets, has just been released by the University of Pennsylvania Press.
The closing date for 2008 Nemerov entries is November 15 (postmark) and the final judge is Timothy Steele. See the sidebar of our About page for more details and a link. To read past winners, see http://theformalist.evansville.edu/nemerovwinners.htm.
OK, you lust for gold: a Nemerov.
Tip 1: Avoid lines forced for rhyme, such as:
“I was so mad I told the lemur off!”
or “Since Marceau would never mime much jazz.”
Tip 2: They loveth not the words of yore.
It is four hundred years since Shakespeare wrote;
don’t make his ghost return. Tip 3: Don’t bore
the judge, which means it’s hopeless to devote
your fourteen lines to end-stopped platitudes.
Tip 4: your sestet needs a “turn.”
Tip 5: Forget the turn! Their attitudes
about such things can be…indefinite.
Tips 6 & 7: Rewrite it if it sucks
and don’t forget each entry costs three bucks.
Today’s budding formal poet can benefit from many resources. Two popular online workshops focus on producing literary quality formal poetry — Eratosphere and Sonnet Central — and other sites, such as the Alsop Review’s Gazebo, welcome formal poets. These sites have helped to create a large and growing community of poets passionate about traditional craft.
The annual West Chester University Conference on Form and Narrative began in 1995 and has mushroomed into what may be the largest poetry conference in the world. Without too much quibbling about definitions, most poets would agree that there are at least twenty formal-friendly journals. Each year brings several dozen new books of formal poetry and translation.
Two decades ago, when Bill and Mona Baer were planning the first issue of The Formalist, the world looked different. Leslie Mellichamp was editing the venerable journal, The Lyric, but that was pretty much it. Some great poets — Wilbur, Hecht, Merrill and Kennedy — continued to write in form, although just a few young poets, such as Timothy Steele, Rachel Hadas and Dana Gioia, were following in their footsteps.
The first issue of The Formalist in 1990 began to change everything. The Baers’ commitment to quality — from content to layout — legitimized the revival of formalism and gave thousands of aspiring poets a standard of excellence for their own work. The addition of the Howard Nemerov Sonnet Award in 1994 raised the bar again and introduced a healthy dose of competition. The $1,000 prize raised eyebrows because it was (and still is) a lot of money for fourteen lines. The identity of the first judge, Richard Wilbur, gave the new award instant stature.
Before long the Nemerov Award received 3,000 entries each year, a remarkable number given 1994’s conventional academic wisdom that postmodernism had already consigned the sonnet to the dustbin of history. While one can only imagine some of the poems the poor Baers screened for the judge, the quality of the winners and finalists gave the award considerable prestige.
As with any successful venture, a certain amount of sour grapes emerged. However, if you actually go back and read the dozen Nemerov poems published each year (something I recommend), it is hard to identify much of a Nemerov template. While many of the Nemerov sonnets are Petrarchan or Shakespearean, the contest has recognized many newer forms, such as the Stefanile sonnet, as well as nonce sonnets.
Some critics claim the contest is restrictive as to meter and rhyme, but again that suggestion is untrue. For instance, in 1996 Anthony Hecht selected Timothy Murphy’s moving “The Track of a Storm” for the Nemerov. Half of the fourteen lines are irregular metrically, but Murphy’s metrical substitutions are beautifully done, particularly the crushing opening trochees in lines 4 and 11:
stripped of their crowns by the unruly winds
chainsawing limbs from corpses of the damned.
Most significantly, the closing couplet returns to flawless regularity as the sonnet moves from jarring memories to insight.
The Nemerov Award is also hardly rigid about rhyme. In addition to using off-rhyme, finalists have also used assonance. For example, in 1998 Angelika Hough’s “What Leaves, What Stays” includes these rhymes; home/own; sheets/reluctantly; and meet/me. That same year Carol Frith, who has been a finalist four times, rhymed “step” and “reflect.” In 2000 Willis Barnstone broke all kinds of “rules,” including rhyming stressed and unstressed syllables, with these lines from “Borges Lonely until the Last Days”:
Thirty years blind. Finally he couldn’t write
by hand. He signed Borges on books as a
yet undeciphered cuneiform, and light
entered his brain as dimness and Sunday
never gave sun.
As for content, The Formalist was never big on graphic sex or violence. Bruce Bennett’s hysterically funny and subtly kinky “To a Dental Hygienist” was about as far as The Formalist would go, but otherwise most subjects and viewpoints seem to be fair game. This same pattern has held for the Nemerov even after its seamless handoff to Measure once The Formalist ceased publication in 2005. Imitations of Keats and Shakespeare don’t win, but superb sonnets referencing Hank Williams (A.E. Stallings, “Long Gone Lonesome Blues,” 2004) and Jerry Springer (Bob McKenty, “Chain Poem” 1998) do.