By Sharon Kilarski | Originally Published in The Epoch Times

A sonnet by Betsy Hughes offers unmistakable relief; you can actually understand what you are reading. Words in glistening, clear images form ideas, which gather together unostentatiously to draw you toward satisfaction. For this poet, who champions accessible language and the classic form of the sonnet, the classics have the power to fortify us.

Classical poetry survives because it still communicates to us, said Hughes in a phone interview last month. It does so because its language is clear and its themes universal.

Much of the poetry written today “is so esoteric that its meaning is muffled, its messages incomprehensible,” she later wrote in a later email exchange.

Hughes attributes these failings to the idea that today artists seem to be intent on expressing themselves. Self-expression may be their sole purpose. Although their poems may appeal to an in-group who are driven by fads, this type of poetry “violates art’s purpose to communicate universal truths.”

By communicating universal truths, the classics can strengthen us, Hughes says, because they remind us of qualities that endure in all times despite the threats from within—such as our mortality—and from without, due to political pressures and contemporary crises.

Put another way, and considering classical poetry in particular, it fortifies us through consolation and wisdom, offering consolation for those threats from within us and wisdom to deal with the threats that come from without.

The Sonnet

Hughes came to appreciate the sonnet in her studies, her teachings, and her pursuits. You might say that it was love from afar for most of her life.

As an undergraduate at Vassar, Hughes became acquainted with the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, an alumna known for her sonnets. She—her spirit—was almost a presence on campus, Hughes said.

However much we struggle, disdain, or despair over current events and urgencies, we may retreat to the wisdom of a classical poem to clear our eyes.

After graduation, Hughes taught middle school and high school English for 34 years and introduced poetry into every course possible.

But it was not until Hughes retired that she had the time to devote herself to the form. She felt “an overpowering urge” to write, and an outpouring of sonnets resulted.

Hughes, in fact, wrote a Petrarchan sonnet about her relationship with the form:

At Sea With the Sonnet

The moon commands:  Now take a midnight swim,
just dive right in and feel yourself immerse!
And so I plunge and pray for safe traverse
in lyrics undulating at the brim.
Where is the muse?  Where are the seraphim?
What compass guides across this universe?
Afloat, can I convey my thoughts in verse,
can I transform ideas into a hymn?
The moon commands:  Swim to the current’s time,
take measured strokes and feel yourself flex strong!
And so I sense the rhythm, sense the rhyme;
syllabic heartbeats with my words belong
to nature’s pattern, nature’s paradigm.
I am iambic as I swim my song.

Hughes believes she was drawn to the sonnet because it allowed her a great deal of freedom within its classical structure. But the structure offers her its own pleasures: “I love the sonnet’s sound qualities due to its rhyme scheme and its rhythm qualities due to its natural iambic pentameter.”

The sonnet is a structured poem with roots that go back to medieval Italy. In English, however, it is typically written in 14 lines of iambic pentameter.

Think of an iamb as a steady heartbeat, da DA—a set consisting of an unstressed and stressed syllable. String five of these together to make the pentameter.

In the English sonnet (as opposed to the rhyming scheme of the Petrarchan type), the poet usually arranges lines in alternating end rhymes, which change per stanza, and the whole poem ends with a couplet—a pair of lines, the ends of which rhyme with one another.

Arranging syllables to keep this rhythm while making sense requires a good deal of verbal gymnastics. Doing it so that the language does not sound awkward or artificial, and, in fact, has a certain tunefulness requires a master linguist. Add to that images, allusions, metaphors—ideas, basically—that reveal a truth of our condition, and you have the ingredients that make a sonnet worthy of its name.

Hughes’s book of sonnets, “Breaking Weather,” won the 2013 Stevens Poetry Manuscript Competition, and her second, “Indigo Macaw,” not yet published, has been recently shortlisted in a manuscript competition. Although she named the latter for a painting of a bird that struck her, she now thinks the macaw, an endangered species, is as an apt metaphor for classical poetry.

Offering Us Wisdom

We could learn a lot from 19th century English poets and some of the 20th century American poets, too, Hughes believes. “These sonneteers zero in on the important universal verities in nature and human relationships, and they warn against forces inimical to those truths,” she explained.

Hughes cites, for example, contemporary politics as a reason to look to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias.” It describes a “colossal wreck” of a monument, buried in the sands of antiquity. Here are a few lines:

“And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

However much the emperor might sneer at or boast to his enemies, or to his progeny, for that matter, he and his kingdom are no more. Those today who build monuments, engage in war, scurry for greed, will also succumb to time and dust.

Thus, however much we struggle, disdain, or despair over current events and urgencies, we may retreat to the wisdom of a classical poem to clear our eyes.

The Classical Arts as Consolation

If the poetry offers us a means to step back and, through a new perspective, gain wisdom, the classical arts as a whole may also offer us consolation through connection.

Before the interview, Hughes had just listened to a 24-hour public radio broadcast and heard Beethoven’s “Pathétique,” her mother’s favorite piece. She felt strengthened listening to it, better equipped to deal with the challenges of the present. She felt buttressed.

The title for Betsy Hughes’s second book of sonnets, as yet unpublished, came from her seeing artist Isabella Kirkland’s painting “Trade,” which had the image of an Indigo Macaw. This famous illustration of the bird is by 19th century artist Edward Lear (1812–88).

The title for Betsy Hughes second book of sonnets, as yet unpublished, came from her seeing artist Isabella Kirkland's painting "Trade," which had the image of an Indigo Macaw. This famous illustration of the bird is by 19th century artist Edward Lear (1812–88). (Public Domain)

Both of Hughes’s parents loved classical music, her daughter studied ballet, and her son classical guitar and voice. “There is familial legacy, a reassuring sense of continuity through generations of music appreciation,” Hughes said.

Classical music, poetry, and ballet link people through time. These arts allow us to see that we do not differ that much from our ancestors: We still love, grieve, face our own deaths. In facing threats from within, we are not alone.

But the consolation we receive from the arts can be more than just personal. In the act of writing sonnets, Hughes sees herself as participating in a line of poets that goes back centuries.

We can take comfort in the fact the generations preceding us have faced these same issues, and have worked in these same traditions. Modern art such as modern poetry lacks that lineage. In this sense, the classics are an antidote to loneliness.


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5 Responses

  1. Sale James

    This is a wonderful review and I think so right in its central contentions about classical poetry, and what it does, and what it’s for, and what it is not. Of course, it’s difficult to write, and requires a lifetime’s dedication till one can achieve anything like fluency; that is why it is so unpopular in the C20th and more so in the C21st: generally, people want instant gratification and their 15 minutes of fame for simply being there, as opposed to actually achieving anything. I admire Betsy Hughes and her commitment – great article – I shall look out for her work: the sonnet is my favourite form.

    • 绿山从 From Green Mountain (Cong Lu Shan)

      I have been a professional writer for as long as I can remember. The only people I found who love writing, authentic writing have been bums on streets. I was so disheartened by this I wanted to give up.

      In fact, Ms. Hughes is an inspiration to young writers in that there is nothing counter-culture about it. It is the art of the Ancient Greeks and of Shakespeare, and Wu Cheng’en and Li Bai.

      It encompasses everything. From poetry, to science, to art.

      It is the most immediate art form other than speaking. Only one stepped removed from our biology, the voice.

      It is absolutely conservative, proper, and authentic. In other words. It is tradition and classical art.

      Only depending on the genuine refinement of one’s character to be able to produce genuine art.

      Unlike classical music, which can be played with immense technique with comprehension of its inner-meanings. I believe it is hard to produce good writing without an understanding of its inner-meaning.

      The layman is easy to fool! But mastery of writing is hard to come by while being an ignorant. Simply because the art for is so immediate that unlike art or music, it can only be gained through life-experience. Even the technical aspect comes more from reading than practice. In my belief. Although practice cannot be replaced in any form of discipline.

      Thank you James.

      • james sale

        Thank you. I agree with many of your comments and sentiments, although I am sad that the only people you could find who like authentic writing were ‘bums on streets’ – but I accept a genuine passion for writing is rare. So many are preoccupied with the status it seems to give, either as a writer or name-dropper of writers who are ‘in’. We obviously live far apart, but you should have met me many years ago: I have been loving poetry for 50 years – indeed have just come back from a spiritual retreat studying the work of Dante last weekend, which was fabulous – and there seems no end to this love: the further, the deeper, one is into the writing, the more there is, because the connections become more visible and intense. I guess this is just like the universe: bounded but infinite.

      • Lu Shan

        no, i should not have said that. it was my own selfish nature that caused me to sink into that atmosphere. Yourself, Ms. Hughes, the being I aspire to be, that is a poet’s world. Thank you.

  2. Reid McGrath

    I thank you so much for this Interview with a fine practitioner of the sonnet who ought to be better known. “I am iambic as I swim my song” is delightful poetry, active and sensory, a rock-solid ending as well as a clean and sparse line, without losing any of the metaphoric, esoteric beauty. This is the type of poetry I would expect to be produced if one were to put Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman in a blender and then subsequently have a contemporary writer turn them into a sonnet. Hughes is that writer. She is as smooth as a smoothie. And unique in her own way. She may not beat Millay at her best (as she seems less crazy), but her language and diction is less stale and more singular than Millay during her more mediocre meditations, when she was trying to sound like Shakespeare three hundred years removed, which never, ever works, albeit Millay probably did it better than anybody in the twentieth century.


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