Thursday, February 09, 2017

Teaching Sonnets

When I teach sonnets in a poetry course or in Shakespeare, it's pretty easy to spend a fair bit of time, and that means I can tease out how English Sonnets and Italian Sonnets work, slightly differently.  (I don't usually teach Spenserian sonnets.)

But in my intro to lit course, I'm not teaching a lot of sonnets, and the one I really love to teach for this course is Countee Cullen's "Yet Do I Marvel."

I doubt not God is good, well-meaning, kind,
And did He stoop to quibble could tell why
The little buried mole continues blind,
Why flesh that mirrors Him must some day die,
Make plain the reason tortured Tantalus
Is baited by the fickle fruit, declare
If merely brute caprice dooms Sisyphus
To struggle up a never-ending stair.
Inscrutable His ways are, and immune
To catechism by a mind too strewn
With petty cares to slightly understand
What awful brain compels His awful hand.
Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:
To make a poet black, and bid him sing!

The thing is, if you work out the rhyme and big punctuation, here's what you get:


(I put the big punctuation, periods, colons, semi-colons in, because they help you get a really quick sense of how the sentences work.)

Punctuation-wise, it first looks like a variation on an Italian sonnet.

And the change in rhyme scheme sort of supports that.

But the rhyme scheme also feels more like an English sonnet, and the volta to me comes more with the couplet.

If I were taking several days to look at sonnets, then I'd play with some obvious Italian and English sonnets, and then use Cullen (though even Shakespeare does the mix thing in terms of playing with the volta placement), and my students would get a better sense of how darned amazing Cullen is.

The question of the day is: how do you get all that across with just Cullen?

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