04/25/2014 02:56 pm ET Updated Jun 25, 2014

Ode to the Sonnet

April is National Poetry Month -- or maybe you hadn't noticed? Don't worry; you're probably not alone. Poetry, as I've remarked before, occupies only a small corner of the literary world these days. Part of this problem, perhaps, is that poetry in English lacks definition today. Theoretically, the triumph of free verse opened it to everyone, but practically, throwing all the rules away may have contributed to poetry's absorption by prose as much as anything else.

Certainly, there are not many fixed forms -- poems that follow established frameworks -- that get a lot of attention from either poets or readers these days. The limerick remains a perennial favorite of bathroom stalls and stand-up shows, but its jaunty rhythms remain too strongly associated with crude jokes about bodily functions to be taken seriously. The haiku can still be a thing of beauty, but generations of North American children have perhaps permanently marred its graceful concision with grade-school meditations on grilled-cheese sandwiches and bug bites. Most of the other fixed forms -- villanelles, triolets, rondeaus, sestinas -- were never common enough to go out of style in the first place.

But one fixed poetic form clearly stands the test of time: the sonnet. Even if you don't read poetry regularly, you probably know the basics: the average sonnet contains only 14 lines, and each line should be written in the same meter. That meter, moreover, is almost always iambic pentameter, meaning that each line contains five "feet" -- iambs -- each made up of an unstressed and stressed syllable:

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? / Thou art more lovely and more temperate.

The world is too much with us; late and soon, / Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why / I have forgotten, and what arms have lain / Under my head till morning. . . .

You may or may not recognize these opening lines - by William Shakespeare, William Wordsworth, and Edna St. Vincent Millay, respectively -- but with a little practice, it's easy to recognize their characteristic look and feel as the first lines of sonnets. Some critics have suggested that iambic pentameter is a particularly powerful and compelling meter because it echoes the beating of our own hearts (bu-bum, bu-bum, bu-bum).

I would add that it works well because 10 syllables are simultaneously few enough to force poets to focus their thoughts and numerous enough to allow them to express complicated ones. Such complications can be extended when poets use a technique called "enjambment" and decline to pause at the end of a line. In the final example above, for example, Millay makes us read over the edge of "arms have lain" and directly into "Under my head till morning" to understand what she is saying -- these partners have lingered in her bed all night. A bold admission for an unmarried woman in 1923!

Traditionally, the sonnet has come in two basic forms dictated by the poet's rhyme scheme: the English sonnet, in which three quatrains (4-line stanzas) are topped off by a final rhyming couplet; and the Italian sonnet, which pairs an octave (8-line stanza) with a sestet (six-line stanza). Really talented poets, of course, frequently combine elements of both, for example by embedding Italianate features -- especially the "volta" (turn) that often appears at the start of the 9th line to indicate the start of the sonnet's resolution -- within larger English structures, thus getting the best of both worlds.

More broadly, the sonnet survives and even thrives today because it combines the best of both worlds, metaphorically speaking. From its origins in the Italian Renaissance, through the brilliance of the Elizabethans, to its Romantic-era revival and beyond, the sonnet form has been used by poets and prized by readers thanks to its unparalleled combination of rigor and flexibility. When combined with a first-person narrator, it provides an unusually clear window onto the thoughts and feelings of the speaker. Even centuries later, for example, Ben Jonson's "On My First Son" still communicates his grief as intensely as when it was originally written, despite its antiquated language:

Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sin was too much hope of thee, lov'd boy.
Seven years tho' wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
O, could I lose all father now! For why
Will man lament the state he should envy?
To have so soon 'scap'd world's and flesh's rage,
And if no other misery, yet age?
Rest in soft peace, and, ask'd, say, "Here doth lie
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry."
For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such,
As what he loves may never like too much.

Anyone who is a parent and has lost a child, or even just feared losing one (and what parent hasn't?) would be hard-pressed to read this poem and not find it as powerful a statement of loss and regret as anything produced today.

Fortunately, sonnets don't have to be serious all the time, nor do they have to be hundreds of years old to be enjoyed. Although not as given to silliness as limericks, this most versatile of fixed forms has long lent itself to verses that reflect on the very challenges of setting one's thoughts into its relatively unforgiving mold. Along these lines (pun intended!), the first quatrain of Billy Collins' aptly titled "Sonnet" provides a wonderful example:

All we need is fourteen lines, well, thirteen now,
and after this one just a dozen
to launch a little ship on love's storm-tossed seas,
then only ten more left like rows of beans.

Want to know how Collins' sonnet ends? You can find it -- and hundreds more -- on the website of The Poetry Foundation. Go on, you deserve to know, and the sonnet form deserves to keep being read for another 500 years at least. Happy National Poetry Month!