Archives For Sonnet

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s gift to high school social studies teachers is Hamilton, his Pulitzer and Tony award winning play.  Using musical theatre, he rescued history from the mind-numbing facts listed in textbooks and gave students an alternative narrative, a hip-hop lens to view the tumult of America’s creation.

His gift to English teachers came on Sunday, June 12, during the Tony Award Ceremony in NYC. These awards were held the night after a mass killing in an Orlando, Florida, nightclub, and throughout the broadcast actors and actresses paid tributes to the victims.

When Miranda’s name was called for Musical Best Score, he bounded on the stage. He began this acceptance speech (the first of 11) with an apology, “I’m not going to free-style” (note: he is famous for his free styling poems) ….”I’m too old (note: he is 36)…”

He opened a folded paper:

“I wrote you a sonnet instead.”

A sonnet!

One can imagine the heads of English teachers nationwide snapping to attention.

A sonnet!??

That 14-line poem with a variable rhyme scheme that originated in 14th Century in Italy? (Yes!)

Sonnet? As in...Shakespeare? (Yes!)

Miranda began to read:

“My wife’s the reason anything gets done
She nudges me towards promise by degrees
She is a perfect symphony of one
Our son is her most beautiful reprise.
We chase the melodies that seem to find us
Until they’re finished songs and start to play
When senseless acts of tragedy remind us
That nothing here is promised, not one day.
This show is proof that history remembers
We lived through times when hate and fear seemed stronger;
We rise and fall and light from dying embers,
remembrances that hope and love last longer
And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love cannot be killed or swept aside.
I sing Vanessa’s symphony, Eliza tells her story
Now fill the world with music, love and pride.”

Of course the sonnet was his choice to connect the joy of winning a Tony Award to his love and inspiration, his wife Vanessa. The sonnet was his poetic choice to contrast the heartbreaking tragedy of a massacre in a gay nightclub with the more powerful forces of music and love.

Why the sonnet?

Here’s a quick refresher on the sonnet:

  • it has 14 lines (could be stretched to 16 lines…and this sonnet was s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d)
  • it is written in iambic pentameter (a rhythm that sounds like 5 “heartbeats”)
  • it has a rhyme scheme:
    • Italian (Petrarchan): ABBA ABBA CDECDE or ABBA ABBA CDCDCD 
    • Shakespearean: ABAB CDCD EFEF GG (note: this sonnet is more Shakespearean)
    • The word sonnet means “little song.”
    • A sonnet traditionally settles upon a single sentiment (love, anguish, friendship, etc)
    • A sonnet has a “turn” (also known as the volta) where the question or problem posed in the first part of the poem is answered or solved in the concluding lines.

Miranda’s Sonnet

Like most poems, Miranda’s sonnet was filled with word play: allusions, metaphors, figurative language. Contained in the first quatrain of the sonnet was a musical conceit (extended metaphor), consistent with an award for “Best Score”; his wife and son are the “symphony” and “reprise” in this “little song.”

The next quatrain directly referenced to the Orlando shootings and the arbitrary violence, or “senseless acts of tragedy” that can happen at any moment.

Miranda then cited his play Hamilton as “proof that history remembers,” claiming that “hope and love last longer.” He then launched into eight (8) successive “love is,” an emotional refrain  (rhetorically, an epizeuxis: repetition without any words in between). He “sings” this symphony, just as the character Eliza Schuyler Hamilton tells the story of Alexander Hamilton.

And then came the volta or turn; the reason he “wrote you a sonnet, instead.” In the last line Miranda offers his answer, his solution to tragedy. His last line is a command, a command given to his audience watching the awards “to fill the world with music, love and pride.”

A Sonnet Instead

Tickets for the musical Hamilton will probably still be at a premium this coming fall, but this sonnet by Miranda is available-(and free!)- now.

English teachers can take this opportunity to share with their students these three points:

  1. That a poet who excels in free style rap chose a sonnet, instead;
  2. That a lyricist who reimagined American history through hip-hop chose a sonnet, instead;
  3. That an actor trained to gain an audience’s empathy through prose chose a sonnet, instead.

In making a choice in art to combat tragedy, the playwright Manuel Lin Miranda chose a sonnet, instead.

The poems of Seamus Heaney get a great deal of attention in mid-March probably because everything Irish gets attention around St. Patrick’s Day (March 17). Heaney is well represented in our curriculum; we read his Beowulf translation in grade 10. This Nobel prize-winning interpreter,, playwright and poet passed away in September 2013, leaving a legacy he described as one of “…words as bearers of history and mystery.”

Screenshot 2014-03-14 07.32.13I taught his Sonnet, In Memoriam M.K.H., 1911-1984 to my Advanced Placement English Literature class this week. They listened first to hear him read the poem: (NOTE: be sure and listen to the little comment about “x’s and o’s” he makes at the end)

The cool that came off the sheets just off the line

Made me think the damp must still be in them

But when I took my corners of the linen

And pulled against her, first straight down the hem

And then diagonally, then flapped and shook

The fabric like a sail in a cross-wind,

They made a dried-out undulating thwack.       (sonnet continues…..)

“Is this about death?” asked my 4th period class. They were curious.
“This is about sex,” stated my 1st period class. They were emphatic.
Ultimately, they came to agree that the “thwack” could be either.

This past week has been “Sonnet Hell Week” where I teach my students to read, analyze, and then respond in draft form about a selected sonnet in preparation for the exam this coming May. This kind of exercise has the potential to poison anyone’s love for poetry, and they had written several essays before getting to this poem.
Despite the danger, I was confident that 
Heaney’s poem could withstand even the most jaded 2nd semester senior’s interpretation.

“I like it,” was the collective sentiment. These lines from a few of their quick draft essays reflect their appreciation:

Heaney uses comparisons to tell the reader that folding sheets makes him feel like his wife is still around, as the two end up “hand to hand” just from folding alone.

He describes their romance in moves when he was “x and she was o”…XOXO commonly represents hugs and kisses, creating the heartfelt connection.

This touching and pulling away symbolizes her physical existence on earth and her abrupt departure through the onomotopoeic “thwack.”

Just like the finality of the chore of folding sheets that they used to do together will never stop being a chore, she is forever present. She is in every fiber sewn in the sheets, every old flour sack used.

He must face the perils of household chores without help, endure his worst fears without his best friend. He must make his bed and sleep in it too.

The New York Times ran a wonderful opinion-documentary (Op-doc) on Heaney in December 2013. Watch and listen (yes, listen!) to the lovely tribute to Ireland’s great literary talent:

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