Form, Conformity and Deformity: Thoughts on the Sonnet

Image by Doug Jackson
Image by Doug Jackson

by Doug Jackson

William Wordsworth wrote (to my knowledge) two sonnets about sonnets. In one, “Nuns Fret Not At Their Convent’s Narrow Room,” he compares the fourteen-by-five poetic rubric to a monastery, a contemplative’s cell, a library, a machine, and a flower. In each case, the poet argues, boundaries channel energy to feed art. The sonnet is for those “who have felt the weight of too much liberty.” In the other, “Scorn Not The Sonnet,” the great Romantic likens the famous pattern to a series of musical instruments played by various poets who find it a source of their own healing.

The interesting thing to me is that Wordsworth offers the strict form of sonnet as a source of formation and healing to the poet, not just the reader. In the current issue of Christianity and Literature, Armond J. Boudreaux of East Georgia State College argues that for C. S. Lewis “form is important to literature in the same way ritual is essential to religious observance:” form takes the raw material of our lives – experiences – and uplinks them to the higher, universal realities. Thus the more concrete a poem is, both in its imagery and its structure, the more it achieves abstraction and speaks to others. Lack of form, on this view, is not freedom but, literally, de-formity as experience renders experience a random monism. Presence of form, on the other hand, is con-formity in the sense that events rise to the level of truths.

Not long ago I watched the neighborhood sparrows scarfing down seed I’d stashed in a church-shaped feeder on my back porch: actual, specific birds doing bird-things in the real world. I thought something more might be going on as well, but needed something to help me grasp it. So I wrote a sonnet, literally in order to see what I could see. The result, a product of a couple of weeks of morning walks with my dog and quiet moments at my desk, may not be a great sonnet, but is at least an example of how the “narrow room” of form could become the tube of a microscope (or telescope!) to show me what I would otherwise miss.

Behold the fowls of the air; for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. – Matthew 6.26

Thick cluttered quarrel quilts the ledge to feed
Upon the seed that trickles to the tray.
Quick flustered bustle shoulders. Hustled greed
Shoves clustered need aside, forces its way.
Frail limbs akimbo clench the guttered ledge,
The edge where husks flow from the central store.
Shrill peeps, sharp beaks, pert peeks keep place to kedge
The pledge that bribes the tribe, and gobble more.
I’ve filled this church-shaped feeder to its brim,
From deep within heaped for this flock I host,
Splashed, slashed in dun-white-gray-black Sunday trim,
A cache sufficient for both least and most.
Great Host, a moral hides here on both sides:
Let me feed deep, nor quarrel with my tribe.


Doug Jackson is a preacher/professor/poet who after a quarter-century in the pastorate now teaches spiritual formation, pastoral ministry, and Greek for the Logsdon Seminary program at the South Texas School of Christian Studies in Corpus Christi. His collection of poetry, Nothing There is Not More from Finishing Line Press, will be published in February 2014 and is available for preorder now.


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