The Indigo Book of Modern Australian Sonnets

By Johnston, Emily | Antipodes, December 2007 | Go to article overview

The Indigo Book of Modern Australian Sonnets


Johnston, Emily, Antipodes


POETRY Australian poets rekindle traditional form with humor and surprise Geoff Page, ed. The Indigo Book of Modem Australian Sonnets. Charnwood: Ginninderra P, 2003. 112 pp. A$20.00. ISBN 1-74027-218-8

When I first began writing, a mentor told me that I should convert my jumble of lines and stanzas into a sonnet every time I got poet's block. "See what emerges," he suggested. According to him, the sonnet was (and is) the most honest of forms, as the requisite Volta forced poems to reveal truths about life that we humans could not (or did not want to) see amidst our fumbling lives.

At first I begged to differ, arguing that a poem creates meaning without being restricted by form, as the poet furiously scribbles every thought onto paper until the words come out right. However, contemporary poetry continues to prove that although unencumbered free verse still has its place, the sonnet is among the most readily used, flexible, and surprising forms still alive today.

The traditional sonnet is a highly recognizable form, with its fourteen lines, iambic pentameter, and patterned rhyme scheme. Yet poets have increasingly experimented with the form, making it flexible enough to grapple wirh human nature, within recognizable boundaries. We can appreciate those boundaries because they are familiar while giving us free rein. Once used primarily to express romantic devotion, sonnets now deal with subjects extending far beyond love. As is evident in the anthology, The Indigo Book of Modem Australian Sonnets, edited by Geoff Page, sonnets do, in fact, bring truth to the surface; and they do so through a vast range of subject matter.

Page's collection contains sonnets dating as far back as 1945 and represents such internationally acclaimed poets as Les Murray and Gwen Harwood, as well as lesser-known gems. Each poet-in his or her mastery of the craft-puts Australian sonneteers on the map alongside other European and American writers. John Forbes details the symmetry of human faces in his poem "The Classical Head"; his words resonate with Rilke's exploration of "The Archaic Torso of Apollo" almost a century ago. Rilke's poem instructs readers to change their lives, whereas Forbes' piece employs humor. Indeed, the closing couplet reads "A man is ten faces tall & assuming one leaves out/ the head, the genitals mark his centre exactly"-the poem's Volta (104). How can we escape this timeless truth that men are led not by their minds, but by lust? Forbes-whether knowingly or not-provides readers wirh an intriguing new light with which to read Rilke's instruction.

What pleasures readers can expect to indulge in while reading rhrough this collection! Not only do many of the poems contain humor, but also they confront topics sonnets have always explored-light and dark-as well as new ones. The collection spans many imaginable topics, from lust and genitalia to women reclaiming their virginity; from (metaphorically) nursing on rhe breast of one's homeland to watching the blood of one's comrades seep into it during war. …

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