The sonnet is a poem of fourteen lines (give or take a couple), usually rhymed, usually written in iambic pentameter; a song usurped by ideas.
A sonnet often presents an argument, perhaps a romantic plea in the guise of a legal brief. But it may also contain a description of a memorable scene, or a meditation, or a miniature story, or a portrait, or a list. The rhyme scheme and stanza breaks (if any) often determine the structure of the thoughts.
In English there are two principal kinds of sonnet: the Petrarchan and the Shakespearian. They are characterized by different rhyme schemes and different organizing principles. The Petrarchan sonnet has a two-part structure; the break between octave and sestet is called the volta (or turning point). In English this sonnet form is difficult because of the rhyming demands (four different a rhymes, four brhymes, and so on). The Shakespearian sonnet rhymes abab cdcd efef gg.
Many contemporary poets have tried out various rhyme combinations, line length and stanza breaks in their sonnets. The poet is really free to devise any sort of arrangement that works for a particular sonnet.
In Sonnet Mondal’s collection Twenty One Lines: Fusion Sonnets of 21st Century, the poet introduces a new poetic form for the sonnet. The book presents 70 sonnets from Sonnet 1 to Sonnet 70 together with a section of previously written fourteen line sonnets. The book is beautifully published and includes paintings by Andrzej Filipowicz.
Sonnet Mondal’s innovative form of the fusion sonnet is written in 21 lines; in which the 1st, 5th, 9th and 10th lines rhyme, while the same rhythm is found in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th lines and, also, in the 6th, 7th and 8th lines, followed by free verse in the 11th, 12th, 13th and 14th lines, reflecting an optimistic tone. Each sonnet is followed by a half sonnet of 7 lines beginning with the same 1st line and ending with the 5th line in the poem.
How do the sonnets emanating from such a thoughtful and thought-provoking poet read? Firstly, the sonnets are on diverse topics, such as creativity, nature, the plight of humanity, the destruction of the planet and the cynicism of many people. It is precisely this diversity that makes the book an enjoyable dipping experience though, I suspect, for most readers, a mixed one. The organization of the book does help readers to focus individually on each sonnet as they each occupy a separate page. A selection of 14 line sonnets, written by Mondal between 2007 and 2009, follow the fusion sonnets and a history of the sonnet by the poet, and an interview with him by Bombadil, Gyttorp, Sweden, takes place at the end of the collection.
The first group of sonnets produces some powerful pieces. In using the generic term “sonnet,” Mondal is acknowledging his debt not only to the traditional sonnets of Petrarch and Shakespeare, but also those of Milton, John Donne, George Herbert, Gerard Manley Hopkins and many other practioners of the form. Although Mondal’s sonnets differ from these poets’ forms, his sonnets do illustrate his own attempts to let the events of the mind lead the poem. Often it is possible to discern the internal shifts that mirror the argument, meditation and conclusion of the traditional form. The mind perceives one visible or mental perception; it shifts to another way of seeing or perceiving and concludes in a moment of qualified resolution, even revelation, as we see in Sonnet 1, which I cite in full:
The white clouds, in black theme;
Hidden daylight on the Eastern earth,
For Great Poets a dreadful dearth,
For the poetic vegetation to take birth;
The spotted moon shining upon its seam—
Without vitality, fragile against the agile clouds,
Heading towards it to spread the shroud,
No star in the scenery, no men to cry aloud;
Where’s the smile, where’s the gleam?
Where’s the hope where’s the dream?
The billows will fall as water vapours
Upon the wish of the Lord!
If not poetry will form itself in the dark-
Fighting to shape its form.
The white clouds in the black theme;
Perhaps the fault of the painter . . .
Colors spreading toward the subject tower;
A new shade to be brushed
To save it from being crushed;
Or a few drops upon the face with a pull on the edges will form –
The spotted moon, shining upon its seam.
The sonnet takes the reader from the opening line, “The white clouds, in black theme” to the final line – “The spotted moon, shining upon its seam” – in a gentle but vital manner. The sonnet encapsulates not only the beauty of daylight, but “Great Poets,” the landscape, the falling rain, spreading colours and the formation of poetry itself. There are hints of a restless quest for meaning in references to “the wish of the Lord,” but Mondal also reflects on the ubiquitous gap: that place of stillness, where the mind is silenced and “poetry will form itself in the dark.”
I next choose Sonnet 12 as an example for its keenly observed detail of the destruction of the land and the mundanity of the mentality of those “Unwanted, undesirable minds” who “moved their arms without perceiving thoughts.” The tension of the sonnet is brilliantly captured in its first four lines:
Tension crawled and prevailed over the creepers in the mangrove and vineyard-
The other day witnessed the death of the grasses;
The army with spades and machines moving in masses,
To trample upon herbs, chop down the mangrove without any traces.
The sonnet moves gradually through clear stages towards the carefully qualified final line: “Nature is silent perhaps dumb to see the greenery turning to a grey graveyard!” Behind its deceptive simplicity the poem displays a remarkable unity of voice, theme and setting. With piety, in tones both personal and universal, the sonnet creates that tension of belief in the silence of nature, while all around is chaos, that sums up the loss of our forests, and the destruction of animal habitats.
In another sonnet, 19, we witness the body, mind and soul of the hermit as he stands on one leg while a bonfire is lit beneath him:
With the toughness in figure, sanctity in intellect, clarity acquired over the days-
He stood on one leg as the stilted log, adamant in deep meditation,
Without food for a hundred days in the same condition;
Below his feet, woods have been stacked;
a fire-stick has been ignited under stipulation.
The sonnet ends with the lines:
The scene should have caused a shockwave
But all bowed with joined hands, fell to their knees but none dared to save.
Today I realize rationality has lost in religions, which forced the bold people stand as-
The hermit stood upon the fire; unshaken by the blaze!
Here, the poet speaks not only for himself but for all religious people, persecuted for their beliefs, thus he brings the ancient forms of torture to the forefront of readers’ imaginations.
In several sonnets, for example numbers 24 and 30, the poet discloses something of himself. In the first, he is “presented as an elocutioner for poetry recitation” and in the second he is waiting below a bridge to be reunited with his parents. At their best, the sonnets succeed in tracing a pattern or thought, sound and feeling in their well-composed lines, very often revealing depths of meaning. Mondal makes skilful use of rhyme, rhythm and assonance to create the energy of the piece in which mind and landscape must meet in the process of the poem.
Here is the ending of Sonnet 35, where the simple daisy is compared with “the girl and boy torn apart by the wind of same cast”:
The flighty Daisies winked and shook in the cold weather-
Like the girl and boy of same cast;
Still a handshake in the background of an atomic blast,
Pulling them apart without reason,A cold war undergoing fission.
They wont’ curse those hearts, but will wish goodwill from them . . .
They wanted to be released from being torn, to live together forever.
Scratch the surface of Mondal’s fusion sonnets and it becomes immediately evident that for all the Indian referents and local content, his poetry is as firmly a product of twentieth-century global culture as the work of many poets one might name. Everything he writes is fashioned and defined by the “terrible century” in which we find ourselves, where we have witnessed more profound change and upheaval than at any other period in human history.
Mondal’s sonnets emerge from the centre of the body of world writing and are connected in ways profound and subtle to the work of other major poets. His yearning for pre-lapsarian paradise, for example, aligns him with the Romantics; his inherent resistance to dehumanizing social structures merits comparison with Blake; his sensitivity to the numinous binds him to Hopkins; he empathises strongly with many poets writing sonnets in English. He has sought a mode of writing vitally related to Indian experience through thematic preoccupations with the land, honest depictions of a society afflicted by poverty, social problems and politics.
For example, in Sonnet 46, we see the way in which newspapers lures us into their sensational stories:
The newspapers cornered in the room –
The rulers would kill their rivals,
Stopping the flow of finance at all levels.
They are not prepared for greatness,
But for a secured life without busyness.
I can work out, there is still a willing mass; they have realized-
News those were stories are transformed now into news yet to bloom.
Mondal’s sonnets are, as the name suggests, “songs” with a particular emphasis on sonority. Many of them, however, are also mythic or historical, focusing on a particular or created character. Several have a conversational quality, humour and just the right amount of narrative tension to capture the reader’s imagination. At the same time it seems that Mondal might be the youthful standard bearer capable of assuring this new nationalist poetic an authentic future. His writing is strong in impulse and confident in invention, with qualities of youth in his verse which is lacking in many young writers.
While Mondal is a masterful technician when writing his innovative fusion sonnets, the 14 line sonnets in section two are in a more traditional vein, as we can see from this example:
My Western Friend
Far from the west came a man,
And me in the Indian Sands’,
Making a friendship tight –
It was Freddy who met me in the night.
The month of October, the weeks of November,
The bond flew more slender –
Thou left in the month of January;
They memories make me sorry!
Oh thy gossip cheered me all;
Like the beauty of an everlasting waterfall,
Thy music rings in my ears
Resulting in hot brimming tears.
Your memory is as fresh in my mind –
Giving me hope to remember thine!!
Here we see a base of traditionalism and a veneer of modernism which gives facility of expression and mood to the sonnet. Because poetry for Mondal is a type of conversation, in these more traditional sonnets his language seems more natural and colloquial, the verse seeming less structured and the ideas fresh off the top of his mind. It is remarkable how apt and exact his use of language is, how carefully metaphor is used or extended, and how subtly a complex idea can be expressed through the barest articulation of a concept or experience. Here for example, are some lines from “Why I write?”
I write upon so many themes
What’s right, what are wrong and even wayward dreams;
But among them only death is known
And all before and after misty and unknown!
Times and again I say, “I feel that I write”,
But nothing occurs as per us whatever it be, Love or fight.
“A Rose” is a much simpler version of a sonnet:
A voyage in and on-
From morn to dawn;
Searching a rose . . .
With silent toes!!!
Yielded out none-
In life long runs.
Will it ever open . . . .
Out within my ken???
I stay in a belief
To smell the ‘Rose’ . .
And cause jocose-
In my empty floor;
And perhaps then –
I’ll pen in heaven!!!!
If, at times, Mondal appears to evaluate Indian society harshly, his judgments are always from the perspective of one intimately involved in the social process. His criticisms of modern life and his ultimate decision to write about society in the form of the fusion sonnet seem to develop naturally from his preoccupations. Yet these preoccupations are, as a rule, neither negative nor despairing. Rather, the deliberate cast of his mind that underpins the poetry seeks to place the individual (and the nation) within a wider frame by directing attention towards universal elements of human experience. This is where Sonnet Mondal, Indian poet, becomes truly a poet of the world. Here is a man who writes of present-day urban global civilization – with its depersonalization, centralization and desecration – and finds it intolerable. But he can still find reason for hope in the hearts of people and in his readers.