With the acceptance of visual poetry, hybrid genres, and other interesting experiments offered by small presses, the appearance of traditional forms is increasingly uncommon. While some contemporary poets might chafe at the restrictions of traditional forms, there are others who enjoy the challenge. Of the many traditional forms in poetry, one of the most recognizable to readers is the sonnet, which is identified by the number of lines, at least. While traditional sonnets have a rhyme scheme that will determine whether the poem is intended to be Petrarchan or Shakespearean, or some other, lesser known but traditionally accepted rhyme scheme, some modern sonnets have no rhyme to the lines at all.
Rhyming language can be a tempestuous terrain: rhyming poems can be a cringe read when the thesis of the poem seems to be more rhyme than topic. Thus, an experienced reader might see modern use of traditional forms as a skill test, both for the writer and for the reader
A presentation of an entire chapbook of sonnets ought to be acknowledged for its rare occurrence, and here we have such an entity in Paul Brookes’ These Random Acts of Wildness
(Glass Head Press, 2023, but undated), which presents 38 sonnets—this personal copy here has an additional sonnet, written by hand, inside the back cover. While such dedication to what-might-be an anachronistic art form may not excite all readers, those with an appreciation for tradition ought to have an eye for honoring historical significance.
The book itself is an unassuming center stapled volume on heavy gloss paper. There is a title page, but no academic acknowledgements; this becomes especially interesting when it’s usually institutional support that brings us both poetry in general, and endeavors in traditional forms. Instead, Brookes presents a sonnet on mowing the lawn. The reader enters the book with an immediate awareness of the two dominant aspects to the work, of that of the requirements of the form in a nice polarity with the ordinary life of the author’s community.
The text itself, over its arc, seems deliberately ordinary; the tension between the form and the carefully curated imagery of chores makes for some lovely lines, such as “I inhale your decay. It spins around/inside me. I am your switched on cleaner” (no page, “My Vacuuming”). The work starts to shift in structural topic with a sonnet about moping a mess, “Life Is”, to the climatic “Intimacy Shy”. Structured in perfect Shakespearean rhyme, the sonnet’s plot involves the lifelong effect of seeing mother in undergarments. For those with a sweet tooth for fun phrases, Brookes’ British use of the colloquial “mam’ for mother, use of the internal rhyme of “smelt, felt” to echo the earlier use of “wept” in one line and “undressed” as the stanza’s internal assonance, gives the poem a substantial heft. Five sonnets further in the text, there’s the text’s volta, a sonnet where the title and first line are in enjambment, a kind of experimental couplet: “The Quiet Presence/ of the dead I miss. They are too lively”. The text’s resolution is eight sonnets that take place apparently in a cemetery; however, there’s a chipper tone here as the sonnets catalogue various tombstones and their inscriptions. For those with that language sweet tooth, “Struck Mr Kay” ought to offer some satisfaction with lines such as, “surprised us watta comin’ dahn” and “Not five minutes/when we were all skittled”. Brookes’ ear is fluid, as his use of metrical structure, and interesting appearance of a molossus –go either way stress—which seems both attention to craft and the differences in sound to an American ear.
Brookes, himself, is no poetry neophyte. A Tweetspeek article covers an extensive career, calling Brookes a “Poetry Champion”. While American poetry sometimes stands under the accusation of being insular, and traditional poetry might sometimes be viewed as the smoke-free realm of the staunchly academic, Brookes is British and this book conforms to neither. What These Random Acts of Wildness does confirm is that the sonnet does not have to be the occasional toy of a writer out for a stretch, nor does a work of traditional poetry need to be only from a house thus dedicated. The book is both adept and readable, charming or occasionally silly, and well-crafted. Those with a serious interest in contemporary poetry would be well wised to become familiarized with Mr Brookes, a clever fellow, indeed.
Su Zi is a 2023 Zoeglossia Fellow. She has been writing life-long, with publications in poetry, fiction, essay and interview/essay form, both in literary periodicals and special interest publications for equestrian life. She's a maker of art in a variety of forms, including painting, printmaking, artistbooks, and pottery, and publisher of an artist-made, eco-feminist, chapbook series called Red Mare. Her latest book is from Hysterical Books.