My favorite book of sonnets

Why Petrarch is Rolling in His Grave:
A Review of Judith Goldhaber’s Sonnets from Aesop

You have to love the sensationalist title my editor stuck me with-okay, so he merely suggested it strongly. On the other hand, what’s not to like about Aesop? Isn’t it time someone found an innovative way to revive love for and interest in this lion of the literary age of classics? How brilliant an idea is it to kill both proverbial birds with one stone and do the reintroduction via poetry? Brilliant! Petrarch is rolling in his grave because he didn’t think to do it in the sonnet-it was someone’s else genius.

With that introduction, I suppose you’re ready to hear that the sonnets in Goldhaber’s book are primarily Petrarchan. They are not. Well, unless you’re much more lenient than Clement Wood, whose crash course in verse opens Random House’s Complete Rhyming Dictionary. Purists have much to roll in their graves over, or merely roll their eyes at, and those of us in the Pope school smile, chortling inside, and herald a new addition to the American, if not the Western, Canon. These poems are primarily a common variation of the Petrarchan with a rhyme scheme of A-B-B-A-A-B-B-A-C-D-D-C-E-E sans stanza breaks-effectively creating a stichic verse of what many consider a stanzaic classical form. One could classify the verse in this collection as a Neo Classic deviation from the Petrarchan sonnet, or at least the majority of the verses that carry the above stated rhyme scheme. There are numerous other schema, but let’s skip the dry Constructionist rhetoric and get on with the review. . .

Revivalist efforts are somewhat an academic standard-mimesis demands that we model our craft after the masters of the past. But still, there seems to be a dearth of recent projects with true merit as far as I have seen. Ms. Goldhaber’s project, though, strikes me as a masterpiece concept-a once in a lifetime stroke of genius.

This of course raises the question of whether the book lives up to the brilliance of its concept. Does it? Well . . . perhaps it would be disrespectful of me to offer a conclusion on the matter, so I’ll deal here with the evidence and let the jury decide. We’ll start by pointing out some of the parts of the work that could be touched up to polish the collection into Greek marble perfection. Then I’ll deal with the perfections already extant, and point out some of the flaws that mark Sonnets from Aesop as a masterpiece.

In a world that eschews rigidity in its poetic forms, what does it take to make a sonnet? I vacillate, personally, between quasi-rigid adherence to the sonnet as outlined in The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics and a sort of 14-line free-for-all sonnet conception (opposing ‘form’ or ‘formula’). In the neoclassic vein, I pretty much decide if a verse is a sonnet by whether it works as a sonnet. By that stricture, I have serious reservations considering some of the verses in this collection as sonnets. Goldhaber in at least 14 instances has more than fourteen lines.

Most noticeable is “The Man, the Boy, and the Donkey,” which finishes out the collection with an 18-line verse. Ironically (hysterically funny as well), this poem serves, via its moral of “please all, please none,” as a sort of warning against this very activity of criticism, or at least warns the critic that the poet has no need to heed such criticism. I am also a bit disappointed, more poignantly as well, that Goldhaber’s treatment of “The Fox and the Crane” carries an extra line. How can all these guests going hungry half the time gain another seven percent body mass? [footnote: one-fourteenth is approx. seven percent and the poem carries one too many lines to qualify as a sonnet.]

Use of syntax, the arrangement of sentence elements, and use of diction, the choice of which words to use, are two of the most common performance standards for the modern poet. How does Goldhaber treat syntax and diction? For the most part very naturally; however, there are instances in which each seems strained either by the demands of the form or to enslave, or enslaved serve, the rhyme. This is the exception overall to her mastery of the form; Judith Goldhaber is beyond a doubt triumphant over the sonnet. Unfortunately, that very skillfulness tends to call greater attention to those verses within the collection that fall short of her ability.

Examples of some of the diction I consider strained are somewhat, admittedly, picking at nits. Most of the examples have to do with using French words that are less common in regional usage in the Midwest at least. In “The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing,” page 20, she uses “ragout” as a synonym for stew to rhyme with “who.” I would be more comfortable with burgoo, but-c’est la vie. Another frenchism is the use of “lavaliere” in “Belling the Cat,” page 4, to rhyme with volunteer. Somehow, I can see the cat using the word, but mice seem a bit rustic for calling a belled collar a lavaliere. Were there more justification within the poem itself, this would escape notice; however, it seems as arbitrary as the end rhyme and forced into it for the sake of a rhyme with volunteer. What if she rhymed “tinkling lei” with “Friday” (re: Robinson Crusoe). My least favorite diction faux pas is the jolting use of “sybarite” in page 126’s “The Ant and the Grasshopper.” [Footnote: consider that this represents three syllables in a work of well over 14000-one three-beat cord in an opera as it were.]

Strained syntax is a rarity in this collection, but it is there to find. In page sixteen’s “Androcles and the Lion,” the first line strains with “Fleeing from his master’s bondage cruel,” which is obtrusively archaic in sound. Add to this the twelfth line’s “to pieces he’d be torn” and the sonnet’s closing “leaving the slave eschewed,” and the entire sonnet becomes a wart on the Galatea which is Sonnets from Aesop. The word “eschewed” itself is strained in its usage and is likely too ‘cute’ as one of my college professors put it, but one truly must appreciate the pun intended.

It is rather rare in today’s poetry world to find poets with a gift for, or honed skill of, rhyme. What a delight it is to find a collection of 100 poems with actual rhyme schemes! Poems that recall Donne rather than Seuss! Somewhere in the neighborhood of 70-75 percent of the poems use the rhyme scheme earlier discussed: A-B-B-A-A-B-B-A-C-D-D-C-E-E. Every poem here begins with the same octave, but what follows the octave varies in several. The following sonnet is exemplary for the form, as well as somehow apropos of current international politics:

The Dog in the Manger

The yellow straw that filled the Oxen’s manger

looked like a comfy pillow to a Dog.

She stretched out fro a snooze, happy to hog

the bed. The Oxen, sensing there’d be danger

when she awoke, and hoping they might change her

attitude (since they were all agog

with fear and hunger) tried a dialogue,

offering to share their dinner with the stranger.

The Dog, though, being wakened from her sleep,

became enraged, and chased the helpless cattle

out of the barn-a most unseemly battle

since dogs would rather dine on pigs or sheep

than straw! But dogs, like men, will oft destroy

the pleasures they themselves cannot enjoy.

     Page 28

More important than the rhyme scheme, is the author’s grace of execution in those rhymes. Considering that there are over 500 rhymes in this hundred-poem codicil, it becomes quite clear that the few strained rhymes are quite insignificant to the work as a whole. What I find most fascinating is the use of rhymes that are neither perfect nor imperfect enough to classify, in my mind, as rhyme versus slant rhyme or sprung rhyme or near rhyme, etc. I advocate calling them slip-rhymes. The best example is, page 96, the rhyming of “affairs” with “prayers.” Also notable: beast / leashed (98), voyeur / that fur (98), elementary / gentry (170). This is even more fascinating given the fact that regional pronunciation makes such a difference in how distinct the slight difference in sounds.

Further proof of the poet’s skill at rhyme exhibits itself in the wonderful mix of feminine (double-syllable rhyme) and masculine rhymes throughout. She uses feminine rhyme exceptionally well and judiciously, especially in her octaves. One might take her to task on stretching things too far in her few exceptions of stretching the rhymes such as in “The Rabbit and the Frog,” with galvanic rhyming volcanic; it might work better if they were not concurrent line ends. But Goldhaber otherwise executes in Olympic excellence. Take for instance:

“I would,” the Fox cried, as he started running

“but sometimes I’m outfoxed by my own cunning.”

     -“The Fox, the Cock and the Dog” (2)

of heather, grass, and other vegetation

around her forest home, a timid Hare

was spotted by a Hound. At once the pair

took up the chase. Propelled by desperation,

her legs the only ticket to salvation,

     -“The Hare and the Hound” (92)

Thus did a Serpent, frustrated and furious,

unleash his fury on an iron File.

But wise Athena told him, “Save your bile;

nothing you say or do can be injurious

     -“The Serpent and the File” (104) [Note: I opine that the finishing couplet could be better polished as it strikes my ear with more dissonance than any file rubs my skin.]

It truly is a sign of great talent that any poet could carry such consistently tight and well-rhythmed verse through a project as momentous as Sonnets from Aesop. Note also in the above examples the poet’s aptitude with enjambment. True proficiency! Judith Goldhaber uses her colors well in painting verse. She knows very well how to shade and highlight, when to blend and when contrast, whether to brush or dab her hues; she demonstrates masterfully throughout the collection the various skills she has learned. What’s more, there’s a spirit of fun here that begs one to believe the poet was crafting with as much love as skill. The few exceptions to excellence in singular poems seems to me a sign of fatigue or distraction and never, having read now at least 110 of her sonnets, would I believe any to be a case of lapsed skill.

Would I be a scoundrel if I were to ignore the illustrations by Gerson Goldhaber? Of course! It was the illustrations that carried the book over the finish line at the 2006 Independent Publisher awards as a the Outstanding Book of the Year for design. Without the illustrations, the poetry holds its own; with them, this is the most marketable poetry publication since shock-dada went out with the Beats! Great work!

Need I mention Aesop in all this? He was very well respected by the poet’s treatment. The few questionable shortfalls are only worth mentioning by way of fair treatment-reporting the ill with the great. As it stands, Sonnets from Aesop is one of the most exciting works I’ve seen-the Neo Classicist in me is building an Arc de Triomphe, figuratively, even now. Bottom line: buy this book. Buy one for your kids. Buy one for your neighbors’ kids. Buy one for your nephews and nieces. Buy one for your public library-and the libraries of your local schools.

Petrarch’s Sour Grapes

For Judith Goldhaber

Somewhere in Elysium, over wine

of course, poets gather to chat about their craft-

who’s penning what, what’s finished, what’s in draft,

and the usual parlor banter of fine

fellows gathered to gossip, talk and dine.

“Are you keeping up?” “Oh, you must be daft!

I gave it up when rhyme went out and laughed

at their simplistic thought,” is Petrarch’s line.

Erato dances in: “My sons, have you

considered my servant Judith?” “Why no,”

Aesop laughs, “By Job, we’ve not. Is it true

she steals my lines?” “In as much as the crow

steals its feast!” she sings. “Where your blossoms grew,

she plucks well.” Petrarch growls, “To hell she can go!”

Footnote: Upon reading Judith Goldhaber’s Sonnets from Aesop and contrasting her rhyme scheme to Clement Wood’s rather rigid definition of a sonnet. Petrarch is portrayed as a formalist, Aesop as a Romantic of sorts. Erato is of course the muse of sonneteers for the most part, though some may credit Terpsichore-which is far too risky as the syllable count for her name alone contraindicates its use in the sonnet or any verse form rigidly pentametric.

R David Skinner

November 2006


3 thoughts on “My favorite book of sonnets

  1. I am pleased to see my recent PLUTONIC SONNETS appearing here as an automatic hit. While there clearly is ample wit in Goldhaber’s sonnets, I admit to being mystified whenever a poet writing English sonnets–particularly a cycle of sonnets–prefers a Petrarchan rather than “Shakespearean” (Surrian) scheme.

    • Rob: thanks for stopping in and leaving a comment.
      Goldhaber does not write in English; she writes American poems. American poets owe homage, but no allegiance to English forms. I myself quite prefer the Petrarchan over the Shakespearean form because I prefer its meter and prosody. I also find that Shakespearean sonnets are much more easily written with trite rhymes and tend toward sing-song in the hands of many poets of both great and lesser skills. Either way, I am always thrilled to find a good sonnet in English whether Shakespearean, Petrarchan, or Blank.
      Write well,

  2. I think it is partly that some of the Petrarchan sestet rhymes get a bit far apart for my ear (esp. cdecde); but more than that (and contrariwise): the use of adjacent rhyme all over the place in the two quatrains seems to me decidedly inferior to saving it for a dramatic final punch. Therein lies the immortal genius of Henry Howard.

    Not to deny entirely the greatness of individual sonnets along Petrarchan lines. How can one not admire Keats’ “On First Looking,” or Shelley’s “Ozymandias”? I even admire–not without grudge–Wordsworths’ “The World Is Too Much”

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