Although the forms of the classical 14 line Petrarchan and English sonnets were written in stone, time marches on and with that onward march comes change. The post modern movement brought with it poetic license and artistic freedom that has also brought innovative changes to the old art form of sonnet writing. So modern sonnet writers have been experimenting and bringing certain fresh new changes to the form; howbeit all poems that can be called sonnets must still contain fourteen lines to qualify as a sonnet.
Contemporary poets are now changing the trochees, meters and rhyme schemes to fit the spirit of the poem and the creative bent of the poet,. Now poets are using eight syllable lines instead of the traditional 10, reversing the accent marks in a metric foot, varying the rhyme schemes apart from the traditional Shakespearean and Spenserian sonnets as discussed in a previous blog post, and even writing these tight ‘little songs’ in blank verse, not rhyming them at all. And one common new rhyme scheme employed by poets today consists of four quatrains of AABB CCDD EEFF GG. Thus igt seems that the only requirements to call a poem a sonnet is that it be fourteen line long and contain any kind of rhyme scheme and meter that floats a poets boat. For instance in Maya Angelou’s expertly done sonnet “Harlem Hopscotch” the poetess employs this new rhyme scheme of AABB CCDD EEFF GG and puts the accent on each first syllable instead of Shakespeare’s tradition of using iambic pentameter with the soft syllable first in a metric foot. A metric foot is simply a unit of two syllable sounds with the accent being on either the second or the first, as in Angelou’s poem. This new meter appears to work well in American English rather than the language of Shakespeare’s and Spenser’s lifetimes.
BY MAYA ANGELOU
One foot down, then hop! It’s hot.
Good things for the ones that’s got.
Another jump, now to the left.
Everybody for hisself.
In the air, now both feet down.
Since you black, don’t stick around.
Food is gone, the rent is due,
Curse and cry and then jump two.
All the people out of work,
Hold for three, then twist and jerk.
Cross the line, they count you out.
That’s what hopping’s all about.
Both feet flat, the game is done.
They think I lost. I think I won.
Notice here that Angelou not only moves away here from the traditional themes of romantic love and lofty intangibles such as waiting on God or time itself to the more timely subject of racism in America through the eyes of a black child. Now the lofty sonnet has come down to earth and can be pretty much what the poet can fit into a mere fourteen lines. So have fun, poet.
Next week we will look at the life and work of Elizabeth Browning, a lady master of traditional sonnet form.