ANYONE LOOKING AT POETRY published in Canada over the last 40 years or so might conclude that free verse is the default mode. As the anthology Jailbreaks: 99 Canadian Sonnets shows, a great many Canadian poets have also been busy writing in that most traditional form, the sonnet – or at least using the form as an organizing template.
The attractions of the sonnet are many. As editor Zachariah Wells writes in his introduction, “…its deceptively ample cargo space can accommodate…pithy wit and irony, intellectual investigations and sincere feeling.” Limitations can bring freedoms; the sonnet structure enforces both emotional concentration and an intricate musicality.
Jailbreaks offers an array of excellent sonnets ranging from Confederation poet Archibald Lampman to young contemporary writers. The selection tilts heavily towards living writers, reflecting in part a renewed interest in fixed form. (The 2005 anthology, In Fine Form: The Canadian Book of Form Poetry edited by Kate Braid and Sandy Shreve, is another manifestation of that interest.) A number of poets show extraordinary mastery of strict (or fairly strict) sonnet forms, among them Barbara Nickel, Robyn Sarah, and Eric Ormsby.
Others, including Don Coles, Milton Acorn, and Elizabeth Bachinsky, play fast and loose with the rules, varying line lengths and rhyme schemes, or doing away with rhyme altogether, to meld the conversational play of free verse with the formal limits of the sonnet. Still others – notably Peter Van Toorn and P.K. Page – evolve their own idiosyncratic variations on strict form and succeed in creating fresh and surprising expressions within constraints. Not a single line of this collection shows the hallmarks of bad formal verse: the stilted word choice or quaint gentility that prompted famed free-verser Charles Bukowski to write, “As the spirit wanes, the form appears.” Interestingly, instead of providing biographies of the poets, Wells wrote notes about the poems, what he appreciated about them and their salient features.
Wells’ notes are for the most part pleasantly informal and astute; some are downright educational. A number of the poems – those broken into two line stanzas or lines of varying lengths – could scarcely be recognized as sonnets. In all but one or two cases, his commentary convinces. Wells’ selections were made not just from the most prominent poets, including Irving Layton, Leonard Cohen, Margaret Avison, and Don McKay. He also chose fine poems from literary magazines and out-of-print books by poets long consigned to obscurity. These he wove together into a thematically blended sequence, itself an intriguing series of juxtapositions. Many of the poems are so good, they aroused my curiosity about their authors; indeed, the only thing I missed were brief bios providing information on when and where those writers live or lived, etc. Judging, however, by the bibliography and Wells’ notes, Canadian poets have been writing sonnets throughout this so-called free verse era, weaving intricate webs like spiders in the dark.
Brian Campbell’s second collection, Field of Gems (prose poems) will be coming out with Signature Editions in the spring. He has never attempted a sonnet, although some of his poems could be tweaked to resemble one.