He Is Mad Which Makes Two


“He Is Mad Which Makes Two”: A Sonnet Project

Some years ago it came to me that I should write a sonnet a day for a year.  Why I had  this revelation I’m not sure.  I had, for some years, been experimenting with a variety of forms, including sestinas (I once planned to write 39 of them, all interlocked–I made it to 12),  villanelles, pantoums, ballades, canzones, and sonnets, while continuing to think of myself,  nevertheless, as essentially a free-verse poet. Although I had been informed by one of my college professsors in the 1960s that “real” poets had to pay their dues by writing a hundred sonnets  before they could expect to write anything good, I had ignored him.

When, in the early 1970s, I started writing seriously, very few poets wrote in traditional form, and form itself was considered in many ways to be “the enemy.”  I dissuaded my first  undergraduate students at Wisconsin from attempting rhyme and meter, and did everything I could  to squelch their Wordsworthian tendencies.  A bad free verse poem, I thought, was always preferable to a bad formal poem, and much more difficult to dismiss as bad.  Having myself abandoned the  rhyme and meter I favored in childhood and adolescence (the music of echo and repetition and  harmony that originally drew me to poetry via nursery rhyme, nonsense verse, popular music,  religious responses, and product jingles), I would have been incredulous had someone told me that thirty years later I would be enamoured of forms in general and sonnets in particular.  All that was old-fashioned, tired, fustian, and boring.

However, had I looked more closely and objectively at my own “free verse” and that of many other young (and old) poets I admired, I might  have noticed how close to formal verse it really was.  Most free verse poets of the 60s and 70s were not writing the kind of raggedy poetry that  characterized a Williams or a Creeley.  Most free verse at the time was blocky on the page, with  lines and stanzas of approximately equal length, a considerable amount of internal rhyme, and a  fairly regular trimeter or tetrameter cadence.  In fact, many of my own “free verse” poems, as  well as those of the established poets I was reading, looked and sounded a lot like sonnets–approximately 12-20 lines, with regular line lengths; a heavy use of assonance and consonance; a thematic  tension created by opposites and contrasts that appeared approximately two-thirds of the way  through, or near the end of, the poem.

So, in retrospect, it should not have seemed odd to me to think that I might one day be  writing in forms, or even writing a sonnet a day for a year.  And when the idea did come to me,  it came with the force of an epiphany–I had been moving toward this project all of my life.   With melodramatic fervor, I knew I had to do it, and I knew I would do it, no matter the consequences.

My first thought was that I would write the sonnets merely as exercises, little sketches  with which to begin the day.  They would in no way conflict with whatever more serious writing I  might be doing.  I resolved to get up an hour or two earlier each morning and write the sonnet in a period when I would otherwise just have been sleeping.  The sonnet would be out of the way  before my “real” work day began.  I wouldn’t worry about writing “good” sonnets; quantity would  be more important than quality, and I would try, as much as possible, to let the sonnets write  themselves–I wouldn’t exert too much effort to make them conform to my usual standards.

A quip from William Stafford proved useful in this respect.  When asked how he managed to  be so prolific, Stafford replied, “Every day I get up and look out the window, and something  occurs to me, something always occurs to me.  And if it doesn’t, I just lower my standards.”  I  figured that even if I had to lower my standards 90% of the time, even if just ten percent of the sonnets were “good,” at the end of the year I’d have close to a book’s worth.  And, of course, I’d also have the other “real” poems I’d be writing during the rest of the day.

I quickly learned, however, that the plan wouldn’t work quite as I’d imagined it.  Once I’d written my day’s sonnet, whether it was good or bad, I found that I had satisfied my urge to  write.  I had, after all, done some work that day, and I consequently felt none of the guilt that usually accompanied dry periods.  I felt no psychological need to write more than the sonnet.

I also discovered that it wasn’t as easy coming up with a new topic each day as Stafford’s  quip suggested. I found myself spending every free moment looking for subjects.  On the one hand  this was frustrating and exhausting.  I became so obsessed with finding an idea for a new sonnet  that I could think about nothing else–certainly not other poems.  I was, in effect, “working”  from 5:30 or so in the morning (when I’d get up to write the sonnet) until 10:30 or 11:00 in the  evening when I’d go to bed, and then sometimes I’d dream about subjects, or lie, half-asleep,  searching my unconscious for inspiration.

On the other hand, it was exhilarating; I had never felt so much like a writer.  Students often ask me how they will know if they are “real” writers.  A writer, I tell them, is someone  who writes.  Despite my glib response, I know it’s not so simple.  Even though I have published  over 500 poems in magazines, five books and four chapbooks of poetry, two dozen short stories,  three critical books, and a couple of dozen articles and reviews, I don’t feel like a writer  unless I am at that moment writing, and writing well.  Whenever someone asks me if “I’m writing,” unless I have written something that day I equivocate, or I look ashamed and admit that no, I’m  sort of blocked.  Whenever I finish something, and have no idea of what I might turn to next, I  fear that I’ll never write again.  Mark Strand has written that “most poets dry up by fifty,” and I am already fifty-one.  I try to assure myself that I always have written, and will probably  write again, and that other writers report the same difficulties, but that doesn’t prevent me  from worrying.  Still, the standard reply–a writer is one who writes–is not a bad one.  Donald  Hall defines “contentment” as “work so engrossing that you do not know that you are working,” and when I’m working as a writer I’m content.

Writing a sonnet a day, even a bad sonnet, was engrossing work.  It is one thing to  “write” every day (which many writers do); it is another thing actually to finish a complete  draft of a work every day and immediately go on to another the next.  I found myself doing what  I had always assumed other writers did, and always instructed my student writers to do, but had  never consciously done myself in any systematic way, which was to pay a special attention to the  world, to be, as Henry James insisted, “one on whom nothing is lost.”

I was intensely attentive all day, listening to people talk, seeing things in new ways,  meditating on anything that caught my fancy.  Everything became interesting again; I sought out  experiences, even painful ones, because they might provide material. I put myself in uncomfortable situations, struck up conversations with strangers, took risks that I would have assiduously  avoided before.

Several months into the project I began to feel like I was running a marathon.  As a  runner I always found the first few miles exhilarating–the feeling of power and energy and  health–and then the side stitch would hit, or the legs would get wobbly, and I’d want to quit,  but I’d keep running, and eventually get that second wind, or the third, running through pain and discomfort.  The sonnets were like mile markers ticking off:  Could I keep up my energy?  Would I run out of breath?  Would my feet fail me?

But running wasn’t just a metaphor for my project; literal running was one of my major  sources of inspiration.  Early in the year, when I was most concerned about how I would find 365  new subjects, I discovered that the hypnotic trance I’d get into during my daily run was very  productive of ideas.  Along about mile two, when the breathing had become deep and regular, and  the rhythm of feet on pave established its own insistent metric, and Lake Mendota stretched out  wide and open on either side of the narrow isthmus of Picnic Point as the state capitol building  rose in the distance, lines would come to me.  I could hold on to four or five, or maybe six or  seven, before I was in danger of losing them, and I’d keep repeating them and refining them until I got home and could scrawl them on my yellow legal pad where they blurred with my sweat as I  bent over the page which curled and puckered under my damp hand.

Later, in the shower, I’d find that the flow of water would stimulate additional material.  So I often had at least some lines to start the next morning’s work with.  Later in the year,  when I was less worried about finding subjects and more content just to let ideas come as they  would each morning, I found that my early morning shower generated lines as well.  Donald Hall  once said that when he wanted to write a poem he would go to sleep.  The realm between sleep and  waking was a fertile one for tapping into the unconscious.  Thus, showering before I was fully  awake, allowing whatever thoughts arose to flow, I found that new and unexpected ideas would  almost effortlessly overtake me.

Some days I’d get several ideas and write two or three or even four sonnets, but I held  to my rule that I couldn’t “bank” them up.  If I wrote four sonnets one day, I still had to write one the next, and the next.  I looked to the seasons for help–the tall prairie grasses of fall, the snows and below zeroes of winter, the wet promise of spring–sometimes anticipating changes  weeks before they occurred, sometimes recalling past seasons, sometimes startled anew.  If cliches came my way, I welcomed them–what the hell, it was just one poem out of 365.

I watched the news in a new way, hungering after events and stories, attuning myself to  the human rhythms of birth, death, marriage, sex, love, loss, divorce, disaster.  When I traveled to Florida or the Virgin Islands, I wrote about travelling.  When I was sick with the flu, I  wrote about the flu.  When a friend experienced something interesting, I wrote about the friend.  Occasionally I felt almost ghoulish in my pursuit of material, recalling a possibly apocryphal  story about Henry James.  Once when a friend saw him lurking on the periphery of a funeral and  remarked, “Henry, I didn’t know that you were acquainted with the deceased,” James is supposed  to have replied, “I’m not; but where emotion goes, there go I.”

It wasn’t just subject matter, however, that presented difficulties; I had to teach myself to write in iambic pentameter.  From the outset I had decided that my sonnets would be fairly  conventional.  I would not write the “minimalist sonnets” that Mona Van Duyn practiced (although I have great admiration for them); I would not use the basically trimeter or tetrameter line of  much of my early poetry and much of what has been called “the workshop poem,” (although I think  that tetrameter may be a more “natural” cadence for American speech).  I wanted a sonnet that was recognizably a sonnet, in the great historical tradition of the sonnet.

For the first few months, the iambic pentameter was a strain; counted out on my fingers, it seemed stiff and forced.  But gradually it began to feel completely natural.  I had heard  Marilyn Hacker at the AWP convention in Tempe say that she told her students that if they  listened to their own speech they’d be amazed at how much of it was in iambic pentameter.  Her  examples were:  “My sister doesn’t like to clean her room; a double burger and a side of fries;  I think, my friend, that you are full of shit.”  Phil Dacey, in his wonderful anthology Strong  Measures extends the range of iambic pentameter beyond speech to biology, recalling that the  heart beats in iambs and approximately five times for every breath one takes.  Three months into  my project I was hearing iambic pentameter everywhere.

I had pretty much settled on the formal requirements of my sonnets.  The meter would be  fairly precise–fourteen more or less decasyllabic lines with liberal substitutions to capture  speech rhythms; a volta, or turn, for thematic tension; a rhyme scheme that varied from poem to  poem, and rhyme words that relied heavily on near rhyme or eye rhyme or slant rhyme.  As I look  back at some of the sonnets now, I wonder how I thought certain lines were in iambic pentameter,  or certain words rhymed (twelve/hell; horrors/stories; gibbets/infants; kowabonga/longer), but at the time I was convinced they were and did.

For some weeks I experimented with a rhyme scheme that I fantasized might be added to the  Shakespearian, the Petrarchan, the Spenserian– would we call it a Wallacean?–a kind of envelope structure: AABCBCAA DEFEFD.  But after several weeks the advantages of the Shakespearian and  Petrarchan forms became clear to me.  My new rhyme scheme was nicely symmetrical, but the rhyme  words, particularly in the sestet, were too far apart to provide a satisfying sense of closure;  that all-important echo of sound at the end was missing.

I gravitated to a hybrid, drawing on the English or Italian form or some variant depending on the particular poem.  I decided to set the poem visually as an octave and a sestet, even when  the “sense” didn’t necessarily decree it, even when the turn was elsewhere, in order to provide a shadow of the tradition.  When the sense of the poem might have suggested a division after the  seventh or ninth line, for example, the physical appearance on the page would push it toward the  conventional division and the disparity would create an additional tension in the poem, the shape on the page holding its ground while the language and subject struggled against it, stretching  it this way and that.  I found this freedom within the form, the variety within the fixity, to be aesthetically appealing although I realized that I would offend some purist critics.

In fact, I constantly found myself mentally debating with critics.  I knew that my sonnets were too “free” to please the more rigorous of the New Formalists who insisted on the necessity  of rigidity; but I also knew that my sonnets were too formal to please strong proponents of free verse who would find the rhyme and meter restrictive.  It could very well be, I thought, that  these sonnets would have no audience anywhere.  But it didn’t matter; I was committed, and  increasingly excited about the project, because, as it turned out, more of the sonnets were better than I could have hoped.

Originally, I planned to write for a year, without revising or even rereading any of the  poems.  At the end of the year I would spend another year sifting and winnowing, selecting the  few that were worth seriously working on.  But because I was writing nothing else, and because  the sonnets had so taken over my life, I soon altered my plan.  I established a rhythm whereby  I would write for a week, reserving every Thursday for revision of the past week’s poems that  seemed worth saving.  Every Thursday (after writing my daily sonnet), I would revisit the week’s  production and salvage what could be salvaged.  Most days during the week, I finished my sonnet  and slipped it into my folder with the thought that it was junk.  I’d then go on about my day  looking for something better for the next one.

But each Thursday, reading back over the week’s work, I was surprised at how many of the  sonnets seemed worth working on.  It was as if the sonnet form itself was smarter than I was;  that it, in fact, helped me to write better than I could have written alone.  All forms, perhaps, do this–push you in directions you might not otherwise take. John Ashbery once said that he  liked the sestina because, like an old-fashioned bicycle whose pedals keep pushing your feet,  the form pushed him in directions he wouldn’t have taken himself.  So the sonnets pushed me into  new territories.  Technique was, as is often said, discovery.

Which may suggest why the sonnet has been such an enduring and resilient form over the  past 600 years.  It’s the one poetic form that even people who “hate” poetry, or are indifferent  to it, can recognize. And most literate readers probably know at least something of its history:  how it was invented by Giacomo da Lentino or Guittone di Arezzo or Pier delle Vigne (there is  disagreement on this issue) in the first half of the thirteenth century in Italy, and became  popular in the court of the Emperor Frederick II of Sicily; how the possible origin of the name  itself, from the Italian suono (sound) or sonnetto (a little sound), is a bit misleading since  the first true sonnets (at least those of Giacomo da Lentino, the most likely inventer) were not  intended for music or oral performance, but for silent reading, and were finally more dramatic  than lyric; how the form was given theological depth, and established as a serious literary  endeavor, by Dante in his Vita Nuova; how it was popularized by Petrarch who fixed its connection with the sentiments of courtly love in his famous sequence to Laura; how it spread to England  with Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey by way of Tottel’s Miscellany (1557) which helped establish the English form of three quatrains and a concluding couplet (ostensibly to  make the form more amenable to the fewer exact rhymes possible in English) and how it was  reintroduced 25 years later via France through Ronsard and Descartes; how English translations of Petrarch, and Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella (1591), were widely imitated; how the  English form was so perfected by Shakespeare that it took his name; how Donne and Herbert  embraced its fixity for their religious convictions, and its tensions for their accompanying  doubts; how Milton and the great Romantic poets exploited it for their own purposes, enlarging  the traditional themes and content; how Victorian and modern practioners like Hopkins and  Meredith and Frost and Cummings exploded some of its strictures; how even T.S. Eliot embedded it  in lines 235-48 of “The Wasteland,” and Berryman and Lowell turned to it almost exclusively late  in their careers; and how it has enjoyed a resurgence among contemporary poets who have, by  loosening the demands of rhyme and meter and diction and length, stretched the form, in some  cases, almost beyond recognition in poems that retain only a shadow, an echo, of the original.

For all its popularity and resilience, the sonnet has not been without its detractors,  even among its best practitioners.  John Donne insisted, “He is a fool which cannot make one  sonnet, and he is mad which makes two.”  Samuel Johnson, in his 1775 A Dictionary of the English  Language, impugned, “It is not very suitable to the English language, and has not been used by  any man of eminence since Milton.”  Wordsworth, in a letter to Walter Savage Landor in April 1802 , confesses, “I used to think [the sonnet] egregiously absurd.”  Ezra Pound complained in his Literary Essays about the “monotony of the fourteen even lines.”  And William Carlos Williams  quipped in The Wedge, “To me all sonnets say the same thing of no importance.”

Of course, Donne, Pound, and Wordsworth all wrote their own sonnets, and even Williams  eventually retracted his position.  In an “Afterword” to the selected sonnets of Merrill Moore  (probably the most prolific sonnetteer of all time, having written upwards of 50,000 sonnets;  Marvin Bell has said that Moore could write a sonnet in the time that a traffic light turned  from red to green) Williams admitted:  “For years I have been stating that the sonnet form is  impossible to us, but Moore, by destroying the rigidities of the old form and rescuing the form  itself intact . . . has succeeded in completely altering my opinion.”

Although the sonnet is under fire from various critics–some New Formalist poets feel  that with the infiltration of slant rhyme and speech rhythms and the general hybridization of the form (what Phil Dacey has called the “grafting of free verse onto forms”) the form has been  devalued and trivialized in “pseudo-formalism” (although it was Milton, and not Van Duyn or Rita  Dove or Ted Kooser who rhymed “tetrachordon” with “what-a-word-on”); and some free verse poets  continue to see a return to formal verse as “a dangerous nostalgia,” suggesting that the very use of a traditional form is somehow elitist or politically reactionary (the magazine Sparrow,  edited by Felix Stefanile and featuring only sonnets, boasts of itself as “a politically  incorrect verse magazine”)–many of our best contemporary poets continue to write sonnets.

In addition to Van Duyn and Dove and Kooser one immediately thinks of Marilyn Hacker and  Marilyn Nelson Waniek (whose poems with lesbian and African-American themes certainly cannot be  considered reactionary); but a multitude of others, including David Wojahn, Michael Heffernan,  Brad Leithauser, Ellen Bryant Voigt, Kelly Cherry, and Phil Levine come to mind.  It has been  calculated that some 200,000 sonnets were written between 1530 and 1650 by 3,000 sonnetteers in  Italy, France, Germany, and Britain.  Although I have not done a count, I suspect that a  comparable number have been written over the past fifty years in America alone, where nearly  every serious poet has at least flirted with the sonnet.

But what, exactly, qualifies as a sonnet?  Given the liberties contemporary poets have  taken with the form, there is less agreement today than there has been in the past.  Leigh Hunt,  in his 1867 “An Essay on the Cultivation, History, and Varieties of the Species of Poem Called  the Sonnet” which provides thirteen “rules” (including one against using “long words”), and  T.W.H. Crosland in his 1917 “Sonnet Legislation” which offers twenty-one “rules,” agree that a  kind of morality is involved in sonnet production.  For Crosland, “the legislation is fixed,  established, stable, and unassailable,” including the familiar restriction to fourteen lines of  iambic pentameter with a fixed scheme of exact rhymes (for the Italian:  ABBAABBA CDECDE or  CDCDCD; for the English:  ABABCDCDEFEF GG) with an emphasis on the “volta” or “turn” that follows the octave or precedes the couplet.   Crosland goes so far as to insist that couplets are not  permissable at all (unless you are Shakespeare), and that rhyme words which sound too much like  other rhyme words are forbidden (thus, although “wedge” and “sedge,” and “lodge” and “dodge,” are permitted separately, the pairings must not occur in the same poem).  And he forbids “slang,  cant, and foreign words and phrases, Americanisms, dialect, Greek, Latin, Romany, uncouth  place-names; technical and scientific nomenclature, and names with unpoetic associations, such  as ‘gramaphone,’ ‘telephone,’ ‘cinematograph.'”

It is rare today to find a sonnet which adheres to such legislation.  Slant rhyme and  metrical variation abound, and in some cases the form is so approximate it may seem that the only thing that makes the poem a sonnet is the poet’s say-so.  This is not merely a contemporary  affectation, of course; Samuel Taylor Coleridge embraced a similar open-mindedness in his 1797  “Introduction to the Sonnets.”  Coleridge writes that the sonnet “is confined to fourteen lines,  because as some particular number is necessary, and that particular number must be a small one,  it may as well be fourteen as any other number.”  Coleridge continues, “Respecting the metre of  the Sonnet, the Writer should consult his own convenience–Rhymes, many or few, or no rhyme at  all–whatever the chastity of his ear may prefer, whatever rapid expression of his feelings will permit.”

Although I would argue that a sonnet can be any poem of approximately fourteen lines that, in its attention to meter and rhyme and structure, acknowledges its Italian and English heritage (which is to say, a poem that has the merest shadow of a traditional sonnet behind it qualifies for me as a sonnet), I did retain the somewhat more rigid requirements for my own sonnets, as I  noted earlier.  They are all fourteen lines; they approximate iambic pentameter; they all “rhyme”; they all contain a volta, or turn, usually somewhere around the ninth line; they all exploit the essential nature of the form to reveal (and sometimes resolve) emotional, intellectual, and  spiritual contradictions.

So why call such poems sonnets at all?  Perhaps they are just fourteen-line poems that  flirt with rhyme and meter?  I would suggest that the classification of a poem is, in fact, very  important, focussing the effect and meaning of that poem for the reader.  In his Validity in  Interpretation, E.D. Hirsch insists that a reader’s “preliminary generic conception of a text is  constitutive of everything he subsequently understands, and . . . this remains the case unless  and until that generic conception is altered.”  A reader approaching a sonnet has certain generic expectations that effect its reading. The whole history of the sonnet pulses behind it,  energizing and empowering it.  The ways in which the poem reflects and departs from that  tradition become part of the meaning of the poem.  By calling her fragmentary fourteen line  poems “minimalist sonnets” (as with Hopkins’ thirteen line “curtal sonnets”), Mona Van Duyn  invests them with meanings they would not otherwise have.  The poem’s participation in the  tradition affects how we read it, what it “means,” how it “feels.”

At the end of my year, I had over four hundred sonnets.  Of these, 108 (the number in  Sydney’s Astrophel & Stella, which occasioned other sonnetteers of Sydney’s day to restrict their own sequences to that number) seemed good enough to collect into a book.  I debated about the  structure.  I knew that there was critical disagreement about whether to call Shakespeare’s  sonnets “a sequence;” they have often been read, of course, as a kind a narrative involving a  “fair youth” and a “dark lady.”  But the status of Shakespeare’s sonnets as a true “sequence” is  in some doubt, since it is not clear that Shakespeare himself placed them in the order in which we have them.  The structuring was quite possibly done by his printer, Thomas Thorpe.

Although I had not written the sonnets with a particular sequence in mind, I had found  myself over the year returning to certain subjects and themes, many of them the traditional  themes of sonnets:  love (sacred and profane), death, the changing of the seasons, marriage,  divorce, childhood, sex, religion, art, birth, the natural world, illness.  Once again, William  Stafford came to mind; I recalled that he once said that the way he structured a book was to lay  all the poems down on the floor and then pick them up in the right order.  I laid the 108 poems  down, and, using chronological (the book moves from childhood through adolescence, middle age,  and death) and thematic considerations, I shuffled them into place.  The fact that I wrote the  poems in such a condensed period of time (my five previous books all drew poems from a four to  eight year period) helped ensure that they would be fairly tightly unified, each individual  sonnet drawing meaning and power from its place in the context of the whole.

By May 29, 1995, the 365th day of my project, the act of writing a sonnet a day had  become so familiar it was something of an addiction. I even considered continuing for another  year, but decided that that way lay madness.  I didn’t want to become Merrill Moore, who, for all the praise of W.C. Williams, and for all his world-record 50,000 sonnets, is an-all-but-forgotten figure in American poetry.  I didn’t want further to preclude the possibility of actually writing another kind of poem, which is what writing the sonnets had done.  I forced myself to quit,  which was both a relief (I could sleep in in the mornings; I could stop obsessing over topics for the next day’s poem) and a concern.  I felt something like John Updike must have felt when he  announced some years ago that he thought he “had unpacked his bags when it came to poetry.”  I  had written, in sonnet form, everything I knew.  I had explored every childhood experience, every thought, every emotion, every spiritual crisis.  There seemed to be nothing I hadn’t exhausted.  Without the form to push me onward, perhaps I would write nothing.

And for a year I found myself blocked, writing bad free verse, trying to repress the  iambic pentameter which seemed to infuse every line I concocted.  Although I haven’t yet completely recovered, I think I eventually will.

Was it all worthwhile?   Did I waste a whole year in what might have been a mere novelty?  During the year, as I revised sonnets, I began sending them to magazines for consideration.   I found that some editors who had always supported my work were bemused.  Grace Schulman at The  Nation found them “interesting,” but didn’t take any.  Peter Makuck at Tar River Poetry wrote,  “I liked you better before Count Formalism sunk his teeth in your neck” (three of the sonnets  were eventually published in the magazine, in an issue compiled by a visiting editor).  David  Wagoner, who has been one of my most important supporters over the past twenty years, at Poetry  Northwest published two of them but rejected many more with the comment that he was unpersuaded  by my use of iambic pentameter.  When I sent a few to Peter Davison at The Atlantic, which had  published my work some years ago, and noted in a cover letter that I hoped I hadn’t wasted a year, he returned them with the ominous fragment, “I hate to say it . . .”

On the other hand, many magazines, some of which I’d never had any luck with before,  enthusiastically accepted them.  One advantage of a sonnet is, of course, that it’s short, and  doesn’t take up much space in a magazine–thus an editor always has room to slip a good one in.   To date, I’ve published nearly 150 of the 400 in such magazines as Poetry, Southern Review, Gettysburg Review, Prairie Schooner, Shenandoah, Yale Review, Christian Science Monitor, New Letters, Yankee, The New Criterion, The Formalist (where one was a finalist in the 1996 Howard Nemerov Sonnet competition), and others.  The book,  containing 100, titled The Uses of Adversity (after the line from As You Like It:  “Sweet are the uses of adversity”) was published in 1998 by the University of Pittsburgh Press, where Ed Ochester has been my supportive editor for many years.

But, even had the book, or the individual poems, not been published, the project would have  been worth it.  I felt like a writer  every day for a year; I mastered a form; I wrote poems and explored subjects I never could have  explored without the aid of that form; I participated in a tradition that has been going on for  700 years and will go on, I predict, as long as there are poets and there is poetry.  I am  convinced that Williams had it wrong; to me, all sonnets have said, and will continue to say,  different things, and of some importance.  Still, I sometimes do wonder:  If, as Donne insisted, “he is mad which makes two” sonnets, what is he which makes 400?

The Bad Sonnet

It stayed up late, refused to go to bed,
and when it did it sang loud songs instead
of sleeping, disturbing its siblings–couplets, quatrains
in their small rooms, began caterwauling–
and soon the whole neighborhood was awake.
Sometimes it got in trouble with the law,
shoplifting any little thing it saw
that caught its fancy:  happiness and heartache

slipped neatly in its pocket.  It joined a gang
that forged currency, bombed conventions, and finally
tried to bump off all its competition.
Through a sequence of events, luckily
it was caught, hand-cuffed, and taken off to jail
where it would not keep quiet in its cell.

“He is Mad Which Makes Two: A Sonnet Project” was originally published in the AWP Chronicle.

The Uses of Adversity was published by the  University of Pittsburgh Press.  For information on ordering The Uses of Adversity, please choose Publisher Information.