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Passion of the Sonnet
Savage Traditions and their Detectives

Passion of the Sonnet
  • Songs and Sonnets of the Earl of Surrey (by )
  • The Poetical Works of John Milton (by )
  • The Poetical Works of Sir Thomas Wyatt: ... (by )
  • The Sonnets of William Shakespeare (by )
  • The Poetry of Giacomo Da Lentino, Sicili... (by )
  • The poetry of Giacomo da Lentino, Sicili... (by )
  • Fifteen Sonnets of Petrarch (by )
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A look at the sonnet through The Savage Detectives.
In the late Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño’s novel, The Savage Detectives, one of the main protagonists Juan Garcia Madero asks his professor and poetry classmates if they know what a periphrasis is, or a nicharchean, tetrastich, or pentapody, and then explains to them all what a rispetto is: “A rispetto, professor, is a kind of lyrical verse, romantic to be precise, similar to the strambotto, with six or eight hendecasyllabic lines, the first four in the form of a serventesio and the following composed in rhyming couplets.”

They respond with anger and chagrin, and Madero goes off with two Visceral Realists who storm the classroom. Although they admit that they also don’t know what a rispetto is, it’s clear that Madero is drawn to their volatile and impassioned attitudes. 

Some may see Madero’s actions as pretense, intellectual hullabaloo, or negligible stepping-stones for the story. I like to see it as a reverence not unlike that of a contemporary fanboy knowing every little detail about his cultural idols. It is in this vein that I’d like to take the time to look at the sonnet.
The sonnet has remained one of the most vital forms of poetry since its creation back in the 13th century by Italian Giacomo da Lentini. It was shortly thereafter popularized and dubbed the Petrarchan sonnet. This consisted of two stanzas: an octave of eight lines, answered by a sestet of six lines, all written in iambic pentameter and following the rhyme scheme ABBA, ABBA, CDECDE or CDCDCD. The first stanza included an argument, question or charge, while the second stanza offered an answer or counterargument to the first. There is a turn between the eighth and ninth line known as the volta. Examples of this can be found in The Poetry of Giacomo da Lentini and Fifteen Sonnets of Petrarch

In the early 16th century, Thomas Wyatt introduced translations and recreations of the Petrarchan style sonnet in England. A man by the name of Henry Howard and the title of The Earl of Surrey, took the sonnet and created the new rhyme scheme ABAB, CDCD, EFEF, GG. Here, although many other English poets would dabble and diverge from this form, William Shakespeare was of course the most famous and successful among them. The Shakespearean sonnet was composed of 14 lines split into quatrains, and ended with a couplet that could be an affirmation, a complete refusal, or simple conclusion to the rest of the sonnet. 
There have been many other variations of the sonnet throughout history and even in recent years. It affords mentioning Milton’s sonnet here:

When I consider how my light is spent,
   Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
   And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
   My true account, lest He returning chide;
   “Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
   Either man’s work or His own gifts. Who best
   Bear His mild yoke, they serve Him best. His state
Is kingly: thousands at His bidding speed,
   And post o’er land and ocean without rest;
   They also serve who only stand and wait.”
This brief look at the sonnet is not a lens for understanding the complex characters and plots of Bolaño’s novel. It is much simpler: it is a snapshot of one character and one aspect of a singular author whose passion for poetry was about roots. The best I can surmise in this short space is that Madero, with all his factual knowledge represents the form and vehicle, the solid ground. His professor represents an opinionator (fine line between critic) and a purely effete, intellectual. And the Visceral Realists represent the passion and a near self-perpetuating muse. It is useless for any one of these three to stand alone; only the combination and friction of these traits could bring about the true nature of the sonnet. Furthermore, this crossing seems to be the crux of what it means to be human.

By Thad Higa

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