Carol Shields: The little sound

Hopefully I am literate, but I am not expert in literature. Nonetheless I admire good writing and enjoy finely crafted short stories and essays. I have been enjoying the Collected stories (London and New York: Fourth Estate, 2004) of Carol Shields CC, FRSC (1935-2003), which I discovered recently. (The collection seems to have had an odd publishing history. The Fourth Estate edition is defunct and it the collection is now out in a different cover with an introduction by Margaret Atwood.)

“Segue”, the first story in the collection, is Shield’s last work, not previously published. Its narrator and main character is a 67 year old poet who is married to a novelist, the other main character. She is a ‘sonnet maker’, whose discipline is to write a new sonnet every two weeks. I enjoyed the story and read it twice before going on to the next one. Though not the main point of “Segue”, in passing I learned from it some things about the sonnet. (I also enjoy accessible poetry.)

“Sonnet writing […] no longer confines itself to the professing and withdrawing of courtly love, although I insisted that a nod to such love is always hovering, or rather nudging. Is this notion true or just part of my fussy exegetic self?”

“A novel is about everything it touches upon, and so is a sonnet.” “[S]onnet means ‘little sound.'” “Sonnets are taken so strenuously, so literally, when taught at school, or at least they used to be, and the definition fourteen lines of rhymed iambic pentameter-hardens and ends up gesturing toward an artifact, an object one might construct from a kit. But if you picture the sonnet, instead, as a little sound, a ping in the great wide silent world, you make visible a sudden fluidity to the form, a splash of noise, but a carefully measured splash that’s saved from preciosity by the fact that it comes from within the body’s own borders, one voice, one small note extended, and then bent; the bending is everything, the volta, the turn, and also important is where it occurs within the sonnet’s “scanty plot of ground,” to quote old Wordsworth. From there the “little sound” sparks and then forms itself out of the dramatic contrasts of private light and darkness.”

“Forget all that business about fourteen lines of rhymed iambic pentameter, think of Leonard and his sage wisdom: Art breathes from containment and suffers from freedom.” Or the problems that accrue from the “weight of too much liberty” (Wordsworth). Down out the noise of rhyme and rhythm. Think only of the small dramatic argument that’s being brought into being – a handball court or a courtroom itself, hard, demanding thick stone walls – between perseverance and its asymmetrical smash of opposition. […] Or think of the shape of a human life, which, like it or not, is limited. […] Every species has a probable life span, and this observation offers me a verification of sorts for my fourteen line creation.”

“A sonnet […] comes with its coat of varnish. As Flaubert says, the words are like hair; they shine with combing. We can do what we want with a sonnet. It is a container ever reusable, ever willing to refurbished, retouched, regilded and reobjectified.”