Sentences in Sonnets

I recently had a great assignment–read a bunch of sonnets! This I did, having previously gotten through a discussion of Robert Frost’s syntactically fiendish “The Silken Tent”–it’s one sonnet, where all fourteen lines are just one grammatical sentence. This is not the only one of its type, although most sonnets break it up a little bit. So I made a graph of how many sentences they had.

Four sentences is the mode and median, and the mean is 3.95. This makes sense in the case of a Shakespearean sonnet, say (three quatrains and a final couplet), if each of those sections spaced out on the page happened to be an independent sentence. In this sample of 42 different poems, only one hit double-digits in sentence count (“Delirium in Vera Cruz,” by Malcolm Lowry.) I’m defining “sentence” as “thing ended by a period, question mark, or exclamation point, so something like “Oh!” (Wordsworth’s “London, 1802” counts).

On the other hand…you have me trying to write sonnets.

I glanced through 94 of my sonnets, written over parts of nine years, from five different sets; my Lipogram! Scorecard! output (2009-present), a bunch of lipograms on different letters (2004), some vaguely-related ones that it’d be a long story to explain (2005-2007, and one from 2011), Humbug Journal poems and comments (2004-2009), and some ones I wrote about Chicago (2011). The results are, um…a little different.

Er, so, nine of my 24 Lipogram! Scorecard! sonnets are 11 sentences (and/or fragments!) long. Four are longer than that. I’ve gotten down to two twice, in 2004, and one of those poems was written two days after the other. (One was about baseball. The other was about a spelling bee.) At the upper limit, I got to twenty in 2004 (it was a dialogue thing so it was just two people going back and forth at each other; “Really? Do you think?” counts for two sentences and is only half of a line). The mean, overall, is 8.67, and the median is 9, with modes at 8 and 11.

Three of the nine Chicago poems fit four sentences into the closing couplet.



2 thoughts on “Sentences in Sonnets

  1. Interesting. Wonder if it actually means anything — if there’s a correlation between poetic quality and sentence length, or if it’s just that you have a different style. Do you think your poems with fewer sentences are better?

  2. Just considering the timespan, I guess I’d like to think that I’ve improved some since 2006 but maybe not… 😉

    I think there’s something to be said for /variation/ in sentence length. Some of my better-received ones have been many sentences, but the sonnet on this blog with the second-fewest (six) ends with a complete sentence in the final line that comes after a five-line sentence. I think the abrupt jump helps, although there’s a tonal switch too that makes it work somewhat. (Whereas when I’m doing twenty “sentences” of dialogue I kind of have to keep the same humorous tone throughout.) Another well-received ending was also a complete sentence in the final line that came after a one-word “sentence.”

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