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Sport 24: Summer 2000

Graham Bishop — Why Do Sonnets Have 14 Lines?

page 154

Graham Bishop

Why Do Sonnets Have 14 Lines?

Once I wrote a poem called ‘Soot’. It was a sonnet, and was ‘highly recommended’ by the judges of a national poetry competition. What made it a special poem, however, although I didn't know it at the time, was it was the last poem I was to write for 500 days. I had been ‘cured’ and my poetry production centre had been decommissioned.

Thirty-seven patients died when Seacliff burned
destroying the evidence of their tortured brains
and leaving only soot
At Wakari fifty years on it's much the same, just a more sophisticated game
of uppers and downers except they forget to tell you
which is so easy when they all look the same
They lock you in and set fire to your mind
so you sabotage your life
with arrowed words and hopeless dreams and deeds bizarre
or let you roam wide and far
unable to see or tell left from right, hoping the end will come by bus or car
It doesn't matter if it hurts or you sleep night and day, too sick to eat,
wasted and weak
but these ignorati know not the power of poetry and words and numbers
Of the hypotenuse and Ozymandias
or the binary code of Coleridge and Janet Frame
So help me God
Will I too soon be soot?

For the next 18 months I lived in a creative desert, until the following year, when fortunately the southern spring came early. On the 13th of August a daffodil in a windowbox was on the verge of unfurling. That day was also notable for an animated evening discussion when page 155 DEHIBERNATION was born. Water had come to the desert.

We talked about tomatoes and skeletons
sea urchins and smut
the subject was symmetry
but the conversation wandered
as conversations do
exploring the boundaries of
easy places, like moa bones and
coloured stones and rabbit habits
words to put in poems
the difference between smooth and spiky mountains
When I went to bed
a million or two neurons held hands and
in the morning I woke and wrote

a daffodil and I agreed
after a winter of a thousand nights
the 14th day of August was the first of Spring.

My first poem for a year and a half. Strangely enough it was another sonnet—well at least it had 14 lines (I call them liberal sonnets)—but that was nothing to the fact I was back in production again. Five hundred days seems a peculiar period to be sterile, but at the time it felt twice as long.

The flood gates opened. I wrote 5 poems in the next two weeks; 10 in the next month; and now I average 8 a month and have done for nearly a year. Many of these poems have been sonnets, and of those that weren't, many were 7 lines (half sonnets) or 28 lines (double sonnets). In fact of 624 lines of poetry, half have been in poems with either 7, or a multiple of 7, lines.

There were stranger things to come. I began to sense a regularity about the production line. Fortunately I normally date my poems so I set up a spreadsheet and plotted them on it.

Initially it looked like it had been hit by a shotgun, except there was a distinct peak in production about the beginning and end of every month. The calendar date didn't seem a very likely control, but page 156 then I had a brain wave—and plotted on the start and end of the 28-day lunar month. Then I asked a statistician to look at it, and suddenly all was revealed.

During the first quarter of every month I don't write any poetry at all. However, during the second quarter my production climbs to 2.7 poems a week. As the full moon begins to wane, it slips back to 1.5, but then skyrockets up to 2.8 poems a week in the last quarter.

Clearly my production of poetry is somehow based on a sevenday cycle. A week has seven days, and our bodies are driven by Circadian rhythms—the day/night cycle that acts on the hypothalamus—the most deeply buried part of the brain. My hypothesis is that the hypothalamus is the region of the brain where poetry is assembled, and that poetry is a powerful response to the celestial forces acing upon us.

But that's not all. What about other poets? I turned to another source of dated poetry. Again there was no mistaking the pattern, but in this case the productive and sterile periods are shifted with respect to the phases of the moon. One of the great mysteries of life had been resolved—I had finally discovered the difference between men and women. Women write poems on the new moon, men write them on the full moon.

That still doesn't quite resolve the question of why do sonnets have 14 lines? Well think of the brain being one of those clocks with ball-bearings that run down inclined ramps. Imagine that each ball-bearing is a blank line so that every 24 hours, or day-night cycle, a new blank line is created and added to a brain-file called NEXT SONNET. We all know that a week is not long enough for anything, which is why the poetic week is actually a fortnight. At the end of it there are 14 blank lines waiting in my hypothalamus, and countless images and memories from a lifetime of living stored elsewhere in my brain. Suddenly something triggers ‘copy/paste’, and behold the 14 blanks fill up with ordered images like a computer screen and another sonnet is born.

Some of my poems are only two lines long, because I don't have many ball-bearings. People who write long poems on the other hand have so many ball-bearings that they rattle when they walk.