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Side by Side by Sonnet

by Neal Whitman, Poetry Prof

Not to worry. You are spared a lecture on the sonnet as a form. Petrarchan! Shakespearean! Spenserian! But, I will point out that one of its elements is to put two different things side by side in order to create interest. Examples go on and on and … let me count the ways. Ah, you see where I am going! Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Sonnet 43.

How do I love thee?
Let me count the ways.

In this sonnet, Browning puts romantic love side by side with Christian faith. Earth and Heaven: juxtaposed!

Juxtapostion! A good Latinate word, eh?

iutxa = close by

to juxtapose = to place two things side by side especially for comparison or contrast

A wonderful poet, Mark Doty, tell us that he likes juxtaposition that puts together one thing that is natural and one that is man-made. In The Art of Description: World into Word, Doty offers this example:

On the edge of the bay, a tangle of washed-up eelgrass for all the world looks like the narrow tape spewed from some maddening marine cassette. I like this simile because of its juxtaposition of the natural and the artificial, which somehow has an inherent comic aspect to it.

I like Doty’s “juxtaposition of the natural and the artificial” in the song, Moonlight in Vermont, not for its “comic aspect,” but because I find it poignant:

Pennies in a stream
Falling leaves, a sycamore
Moonlight in Vermont

When I “see” pennies and leaves juxtaposed, Walt Whitman comes to mind in his monumental, Leaves of Grass, whereby grass is like the handkerchief of the Lord. The lyricist of Moonlight in Vermont, John Blackburn, a bit of a poet, used no rhyme in this 1943 pop standard, but each verse is sort of like the shortest of poems, haiku. Haiku poets love to debate what is and is not haiku, but many of us aim to put side by side two images that somehow do and do not go together. Sometimes the effect of this juxtaposition is spoken of as “resonance” or “reverberation.” In this approach to haiku, the poet offers two images separated by a pause.

Here is an example with one image in one line and, after a pause, a second image in two lines.

autumn wind
rain blowing into
the young catcher’s facemask

  • Edward J. Reilly

And, here is a two-line image and, after a pause, a one-line image.

autumn leaves
scatter across the infield
the pitcher blows on his fingers

  • Cor van den Heuvel

Both these haiku appear in a delightful book edited by Cor van den Heuvel and Nanae Mamure, Baseball Haiku: The Best Haiku Ever Written about the Game.

This month I profess delight in the tool of juxtaposition in the hands of poets who know how to craft verse of any length. Sonnet. Epic. Haiku. The long and short of it is that, side by side, two images together pay interest – simple or compound.

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