canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Hail: Word Sonnets
by Seymour Mayne
Concertina Press, 2003

Reviewed by Shane Neilson

A review isn’t supposed to be a class in English 1000, where sonnetry’s origins are decimated by deathless lecture-like lessons. I shall assume that even the most casual visitor to the Danforth forum knows the difference between Petrarchan and Elizabethan sonnets, for example. But a review should point out what makes a collection distinctive or unusual- and it’s ironic that, in this case, this distinction is found in form. Hail is a collection of 15 “word sonnets,” a technique or form purportedly developed by Augustus Young. In a –excuse the pun- formal ‘word sonnet,’ a poet uses 14 lines (as per tradition, but completely avoiding division into quatrain, sestet, octet, and the like) to execute his poetic. “Word sonnets” also have no rhyme or metrical requirement, unlike their traditional counterparts. Hence only the length of the word sonnet -14 lines- conjures to mind the traditional sonnet. The “word” component of the word sonnet comes by the fact that each line be comprised of one word only. Further formality or adherence to form is supplied by the lack of typographical pyrotechnics; the poems are left-justified just as a traditional poem would be. The effect of a word sonnet as practised by Mayne is to create a poetic that is almost epigrammatic; here is the first poem from Hail, titled “January:”
Which, when written out normally, looks like this:

After the third fall even the traffic trails away in the thick sinking snow.

But if presented as a “Line Sonnet” or other such nomer, we wouldn’t have a word sonnet-we’d have what’s known around these parts as a sentence, and in this case a 14-word sentence that clocks in with three articles, leaving 11 words to do the work of poetry! But this kind of criticism is too easy. (I could indicate in this review when I exceed the total word count of Hail; I could write this review as an epic series of word sonnets, forcing a reader to annoyingly scroll down the page. I won’t.) Inherent to the word sonnet is the epigrammatic quality mentioned earlier. Haiku-like, these poems possess a quotient of mysteriousness; episodic, they indicate a particular point in time while having no inclination to actually fix that point. “Vessels (i)” shows this nicely:


Again, form encourages the reader to imagine the dispersal of confetti at a domestic celebration- but the particular celebration is not named, the ‘festive tongues’ aren’t wagging. Mayne points us in a metaphorical direction and stops when his form dictates. If this ‘sonnet’ came within the context of a larger poem as a line, I’d savor it and think: nice line. I’m just not certain that the word sonnet is valid as a sonnet; I think it’s a case of borrowing far too much from poetry’s tradition and not giving enough back. There’s a visual element to this collection that pleases the eye and also makes a link to the title’s collection; Hail is a nice choice for a body of poems that consists of words –falling?- on top of one another. This aspect comes through in the choice of subjects of the poems- snow falling in the aforementioned example, or, in the case of “Vessels (ii):”
Thus Mayne enhances what could be a poetic joke (‘sonnets’ are made of ‘words’, stupid) with content: not only does he do a lot of work in the previous poem in terms of imagery, metaphor, and other devices, he’s also giving the reader a visceral sense of motion. And that, I think, justifies the form he’s chosen. In ‘Vessels (i)’, confetti was thrown. Throughout the book, ‘falling’ is a continuous theme, and in this fashion Hail becomes an interesting exercise. As a method of composition, I can well imagine it forces the poet to consider words carefully; the results certainly are on display in this tightly packed chapbook; there’s not an uninteresting poem included. But does this form deserve the sonnet name? Well, to discuss the relative merits of Mayne’s chosen form versus the standard would be to revisit those large lecture halls of undergraduate arts classes- and I won’t take you there. 

It’s interesting to note the frequency of sonnet collections appearing on the market these days; three anthologies exist on my local bookshop’s shelves (Bookmark on Halifax’s Spring Garden Road.) I also hear that Kate Braid and Sandy Shreve have an anthology of traditional forms in the pipeline. Thus I suggest that readers compare the word sonnets included in this review with these traditional forms. Are word sonnets worth the distinction of sonnet? In my estimation, no. But is it poetry? I believe it is, and I think Mayne has wrung as much as he could out of his chosen form, whatever the name of it is or turns out to be. And the publisher has gone far to produce a spare little chapbook that’s uncluttered and enhances the idea of words falling into place by allotting the word sonnets adequate amounts of bare space on the page.

Shane Neilson is a poetry editor with The Danforth Review.







TDR is produced in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 

All content is copyright of the person who created it and cannot be copied, printed, or downloaded without the consent of that person. 

See the masthead for editorial information. 

All views expressed are those of the writer only. 

TDR is archived with the Library and Archives Canada

ISSN 1494-6114. 


We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts. Nous remercions de son soutien le Conseil des Arts du Canada.