Thursday, January 11, 2007

The Great Sonnet Contest

I'm finishing up my Shakespeare syllabus, and choosing the opening sonnets. I'll be coming back to sonnets for a couple days after the midterm, too.

So here's the contest: which Shakespeare sonnets should I start with, and which come back to after the midterm, and why?

The winner gets acknowledged on the syllabus or something if you want!


I'm also setting up a short section of my poetry class to look at how poems imagine men's and women's bodies. I'm thinking of pairing Herrick's "The Vine" with his "Delight in Disorder." But because students seem to think we should read things from after 1700, I was also looking for some other ideas. Maybe Sharon Olds' "The Pope's Penis"?

(I'm also thinking of the one about cutting off body parts, but I'll have to wait until I wake up at 2am with the author and title. /sigh)

I'd be happy to entertain other suggestions, especially poems written in the past 50 years or so.

I have to admit, one of the fun things about teaching a poetry class is that every day is a favorite poems day. But it's so hard to choose!


  1. "Let me not to the marriage of true minds...."

    Because of the use of the word "ADMIT" - which entranced me as an undergraduate and which continues to entrance me now that I'm a jaded professor.

    (Basically, it's my favorite of the sonnets. I know that's not enough reason to win a contest, but there you have it :) )

  2. I am partial to Sonnet 42 because it is a great way to introduce the nuances that Shakespeare was able to tease out of complicated relationships.

    I am a tad jealous of your students. I could never tire of reading and analyzing the Bard's works. My Shakes. classes have been my favorite literature classes in both high school and undergrad.

  3. Bardiac,
    Thank you for your kind comments at my place. At a time like this, they mean a lot.

    The CP

  4. If it's not too late, I vote for Sonnet 30 ("When I to the sessions of sweet silent thought / Summon up remembrance of things past..."). I used it on my first day of Shakespeare this week and it worked really well. Here's why:

    - No hard words or turns of phrase, so students don't need to spend time looking at footnotes. "Sessions" is really the only one with connotations they wouldn't recognize right away and you can explain that after talking about the rest of it later (and that gives you a chance to talk about implicit metaphors, too)

    - It's about death, loss, grief, regret (well, and perhaps also about renewal and life in the couplet) and that's a suprising subject for a sonnet -- it sets the stage for the ways WS plays with convention. It's also pretty much (imho) the *only* experience that's really, truly universal and, yet, not (since we can only anticipate death or mourn the death of others, not recount it).

    - It's got great "mouth feel" (your words) and rhythms to point out, all of which pair up with the content and meaning (the sighing 's' sounds, those great moaning lines in which the speaker can "from woe to woe tell o'er / The sad account of fore-bemoaned moans," the ponderous spondees of "with old woes new wail," etc.).

    - And I used it as a manifesto for why dead poets and the study of the past -- the remembrance of things past -- are important to us now. Basically I revamped my "speaking for the dead" post, about how we will all die (as this sonnet recognizes) and so the past is our future. I actually did that on the spur of the moment -- I had no intention of giving a rallying speech on the importance of the humanities to humanity that day! -- but the damn sonnet just roused me to do it! *That's* how powerful it is!

    So that's my vote.

    Then again, you might really, really bum some of your students out if you, like me, dramatically repeat the statement that "We will ALL die one day."

  5. I like the "marriage of true minds" sonnet (117?) since it was my wedding vow, but that's hardly a pedagogical reason. I also like the sexy ones...

    As for body poems, I have a lot of success teaching Yeats' "Leda and the Swan" against images in art of the Leda myth, which always cast the rape in idyllic terms. Leda's "terrified, vague fingers" hit home so powerfully when contrasted to the chaste kisses between naked woman and waterfowl in the Caravaggio depiction.

    I also find that WWI poems do really interesting things with bodies in pain--look at Wilfred Owens's "Dulce et...," and "Disabled" or Sigfried Sassoon's "They." These are all 100 years old, but also quite accessible to undergrads.

  6. Sonnet 29, 'When in disgrace...' not just because it's beutiful to read and inspiring in its conteent, but becaause it is a perfect example of the classic sonnet. The piling up of woes in a long sentence, up to the traditional 'yet' and a climactic use of enjambement.
    Also the final couplet is strong, when, if we're honest, they often aren't.