When it comes to literature, individual stylistic preferences can differ radically. Some people like long, flowery, detailed pieces of elaborate writing, while others prefer short and simple ones. As a poet himself, Billy Collins is at times quite blunt about his tastes. In “Sonnet “, Collins presents his dislike of sonnets through satire that is based on his diction, allusions, and disregard for typical sonnet form.
Collins presents the poem with a very casual choice of words and creates a sense of friendly conversation within his first line, in how he starts out with “All we need is fourteen lines, well, thirteen now”. By initiating his poem with “we” he creates a sense of inclusion, making it seem as though the reader is a close friend with whom he is engaging in small talk. The subsequent “well” also provides this sense by making a quick turn in what the reader was just saying. This adds to the casual feeling by making it appear as though the author is offhandedly changing his mind—as though this is not a published poem. He later contributes to this sense of casualness in line nine when he says “but hang on here while we make the turn”. This is a common attention grabber that someone will use in modern conversation when the listener seems to be drifting off. It helps the listener return to focus, and it informs them that something important is soon to happen. Thus, this line adds to the conversational aspect of the poem. This contributes to the satirical tone because it mocks the popular idea that poetry is supposed to be beautiful, dramatic, and well thought out, and it contrasts with the stereotypical, difficult-to-understand idea that most people have of poetry. By writing a poem in layman’s terms it makes it seem as though sonnets are nothing special.
This diction also proves his dislike for sonnets. He blatantly states “how easily it goes” to write a sonnet. By saying how easy it is, he derides the art of poetry by saying it is something that anyone could do. He follows this by mocking the style it is commonly written in by quickly shifting with “unless you get Elizabethan and insist the iambic bongos must be played and rhymes positioned at the ends of lines”. This criticizes the form sonnets, and it portrays them as ridiculous with the comparison to bongos.
Moreover, Collins uses allusions to discredit their importance. For example, in line three he alludes to a Shakespearean sonnet to demonstrate how an entire story cannot fit into fourteen lines. Then, in line 8 he makes a biblical allusion to the fourteen Stations of the Cross. This once again brings up the number of lines, emphasizing how short of a poem it is. And finally at the end he alludes to Laura, the woman to whom Petrarch addressed his love sonnets. These first two examples emphasize the number of lines in the sonnet. This is done to satirize the short length of the poem and how it is not sufficient enough to encompass the entirety of the story. Contrariwise, the final allusion is used to display the authors dislike for this type of poetry, rather than mock it. He says “Laura will tell Petrarch to put down his pen”, implying that Laura does not appreciate his sonnets, finds them annoying, and wants him to stop writing them. The last two lines reinforced this idea, as she tells him to “take off those crazy medieval tights, blow out the lights, and come at last to bed”. This suggests that she is tired of having to listen to Petrarch express his love through ludicrous sonnets, when he could spend that time instead taking action and physically showing her his love. Thus it mocks the action of writing sonnets when it would be more beneficial to act out one’s feelings than write them down.
Finally, his ridiculous disregard for traditional sonnet form reflects his uncaring attitude towards the form of poetry. Sonnets have very few rules as they only call for certain rhythm patterns, rhyme schemes, line numbers, and specify a specific line for the shift (volta). Collins illustrates his disregard for this pattern by only following the latter two rules mentioned. However, he only utilizes these two elements to make the poem recognizable as a sonnet, in order to mock it. He follows no specific rhyme scheme, as he only has various random rhymes, such as the internal rhyme in the final two lines. He also strays from the typical iambic pentameter, instead opting for no standard rhythm. By doing this, he discredits the sonnet by disregarding the importance of certain elements typically present in one. He eliminates these two elements from his sonnet to make a point to the reader that they are not necessary to this type of poetry.
Billy Collins, through his word choice and individualistic style, as well as through his reference to influential people, effectively expresses his disagreements and criticisms of the sonnet. He contradicts common elegance typically found in this type of writing, opting instead to express his opinions in common, every day language. He also mocks well known figures to make the point that sonnets are ludicrous, and disregards their common elements in order to establish the idea these factors are unnecessary in the identification of a poem as a sonnet. He portrays his personal displeasure for this type of poem by explaining why it is a useless and ineffective form of literature.