Troubling Forms

Jenny Johnson

Jenny Johnson

In a sense, we are already in trouble when we confront the task of writing within a traditional form. As I’ve found, some forms are rooted in traditions, which I may or may not identify with or feel emboldened to start a conversation beside. And yet, I have also found that there is value in getting into this kind of trouble, in making the effort to work through the tensions I bump up against when I begin to work inside a received frame and feel its particular rules, past lives, and evolutions. For fixed forms are always simultaneously personal and historical as we work inside them. Struggling with a form that troubles you can be one way of troubling back, as you make space for your voice and bring your own intimate contemporary sensibilities to a given shape.

That said, I’d like to share a few of the ways in which Gerard Manley Hopkins innovated or, dare I say, troubled the sonnet, and then I’ll speak to how his reinventions sparked my own. A key to such rule breaking is a generous understanding of the technical qualities of the form you are subverting. In his Preface to Poems (1876-1879), Hopkins went so far as to offer a mathematical equation to justify his desire for a shortened variation on the Petrarchan sonnet, what he called a curtal sonnet:

Nos. 13 and 22 are Curtal Sonnets, that is they are constructed in proportion resembling those of the sonnet proper, namely, 6 + 4 instead of 8 + 6, with however a halfline tailpiece (so that the equation is rather 12/2 + 9/2 = 21/2 = 10 1/2).

Hopkins, who wasn’t satisfied with how the sonnet had been reinvented into English and much preferred the Italian version, experimented with both lengthening and shortening a form known for its 14 lines. Obsessed with proportions, Hopkins explained that the curtal sonnet was basically ¾ of a sonnet proper in that the original form has an octave and a sestet (8 + 6), whereas his evolution of the form has a sestet and a quatrain (6 +4 + what he called a little “halfline tailpiece”). Also, in case you’re wondering about the equation with fractions 12/2 (which equals 6) + 9/2 (which equals 4.5); these numbers are just another way that Hopkins is displaying his proportions, how he arrived at a sonnet variation that is exactly 10.5 lines.

I realize I said I’d be discussing poetic innovations and not math equations. So, let’s look closely at “Pied Beauty,” one of Hopkin’s famed curtal sonnets, and consider the effects of his experiments.

Pied Beauty

Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

One of the reasons that Hopkins cared about the sonnet’s proportions is because he cared about the form’s rhetorical structure, typically an opening statement in the octave that is resolved in the sestet. So, when I look at “Pied Beauty,” his reduced version of the same scheme, when I consider how form engages content, the first question I have to ask myself is: What is Hopkin’s argument in this poem? In the opening stanza, the speaker invites us via a catalogue to celebrate God’s unique ever-changing designs. He celebrates shared patterns, like the way the “couple-colours” in the skies are like that of a spotted cow, as well as patterns distinct within a species, like finches’ wings or the stipplings on a trout’s skin. Even humans are honored here, for their imprints, while working the land and various other trades. By the second stanza, Hopkins prepares us for a pivot, observing that though these many different things are gorgeously in flux, ever-changing, one thing that doesn’t change, that’s “past change,” is the creator. Such a lovely claim for a sonneteer and a Jesuit priest like Hopkins to make! But why not say the same thing in 14 lines? Why reinvent the sonnet’s proportions?

Gerard Manly Hopkins  (1844-1889)

For Hopkins, the compressed sonnet allows for an elevated intensity; it allows for the making of a poem that’s more akin to a hymn. With fewer lines to praise God and to praise the world with, the poet is more urgently required to embody the varied energies he’s aiming to describe, one where many sentient beings sing, clash, and move beside one another. Notice such sonic collisions within the highly alliterative “fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls,” a hyphenated compound description of a falling chestnut. Or notice the contrasting sensations made parallel via semi-colons in the line: “With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim.” Finally, Hopkins’ ode to that which is “counter, original, spare, strange” is further expressed by this abridged form, because the uncharacteristically odd number of lines in a curtal sonnet generates an asymmetrical (dare I call it dappled?) rhyme scheme: abcbc/dbcdc.

Flash forward to 2014. I had been reading Hopkins alongside a critical biology textbook entitled Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity by Bruce Bagemihl, a book which taught me about all sorts of unsung courting practices, erotic habits, and gender non-conforming rituals in the animal kingdom, a book which also begs the question: What’s ever been “natural” or “normal” about the “natural world”? Rereading “Pied Beauty,” written in 1877, I began to wonder: What might it mean to celebrate difference, to celebrate “all things counter, original, spare, strange,” now, from my position, with what information I have for reading the world, and how might I go about writing a queer ecological response to Hopkins?

Soon, I realized that one sonnet alone couldn’t answer these questions. While I wished to work inside the elevated space of the curtal sonnet with its sonic excesses and asymmetrical rhyme scheme, it occurred to me that I’d need to write a sequence. Another departure I had to take was that, while “Pied Beauty” praises, I wanted to reckon ethically with the loss of biological diversity alongside a joy for what’s still here. And so I set off to write a poem that would be both an ode and an elegy. I decided to title it, “Dappled Things.”

Daunted at first, I gave myself an exercise. I worked to memorize a poem by Hopkins that I loved. And so, I learned “The Windhover” by heart. Many afternoons, on my way home from teaching, I’d hop off the bus a few stops early, so that as I walked home, the whir of rush hour traffic would muffle every sound but my own voice, trilling and tripping over Hopkin’s sprung rhythms, “I caught this morning morning’s minion, kingdom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding….”

Once I started writing, I struggled with address. Who was I speaking to? I wanted to talk back to Hopkins, sure, but I also wanted to write a poem that spoke to my moment, to my lover, to my friends, and to the natural world—animal to animal, acknowledging the mark that I, too, leave, the resources that I take, the role that I play as a consumer in so much disappearance.

Another quandary: I wanted to suggest a likely queer lineage between Hopkins and myself without over-determining his sexuality. Hopkins’ private writings suggest his erotic urges towards men, his shame about these impulses, and his self-punishing discipline. So I decided it best to simply wink affectionately back, addressing Hopkins as “Gentle Hop,” a nickname given to him by his Jesuit peers.

Most profound in the writing process was what being in conversation with Hopkins taught me about sight and sound. I am not sure if, for me, this is a spiritual belief exactly, but I do believe in what Hopkins calls “inscape,” the singular essence of things in the natural world leaving a mark on our senses when we attend closely. In other words, I believe in the reciprocal powers of close looking. I love a phrase from Hopkin’s journal in March 1871 after he’s scribbled a drawing of clouds; right before he goes on to talk about the instress in the inscape of things, Hopkins says quite plainly: “What you look hard at seems to look hard at you.” And so, when writing, “Dappled Things,” I took walks, I paid attention to what I might otherwise miss—the dirt on the unwashed lettuce, the freckles on my lover’s cheek, the midges that were about to burst out the undersides of leaves on an old grapevine. I tried to let my senses lead.

Sonically, I learned from Hopkins that what seemed like too much could be remarkably right for this poem, and so, I gave myself over to consonances, slant rhymes, alliterative choices that I might have previously feared were too lush, too pleasurable, or too odd. Reading further about his process, I came to deeply admire Hopkins’ abiding faith in his own particular sense of rhythm. That rhythm he dubbed “sprung.” A rhythm that I found I couldn’t meaningfully mimic, and so why should I? From Meredith Martin’s The Rise and Fall of Meter, I learned that Hopkins painstakingly scored the metrical stresses in many of his poems with blue chalk. It seems that Hopkins feared during his lifetime that no one, not editors or friends, would hear his poems as he heard them without his markings—as if his poems were musical compositions too strange or too original for others to know how to sing. And so, most profoundly, Hopkins taught me to trust my own ear, however counter, however troublesome, however strange—his innovations, his departures offered me radical permission.

Excerpt from “Dappled Things”

Thank you day for dappled things—
For ambrosia beetles streaking skylines inside a maple
For pansies speckled as a painter’s sleeve
For russet-crusted sidewalks of lichen, airy springs
of fiery-structured fringe For pink corpuscles
making midges soon to burst out the undersides of leaves

Thank you for all that’s still somehow
counter, original, spare, and strange
For the brightening swell of a honeybee’s sting
For the alien markings on my girlfriend’s cheek and how
they form a perfect triangle


Thank you for the risen stars on the skin of an apple,

which I slice into fine, thin crescents
For dapple is a word derived from apple
and apple once meant any fruit at all
born from a tree: lemon, fig, persimmon
Thank you road apple, finger apple, earth apple

for all that apple was before apple acquired
a stigma for being forbidden—
Marked, dappled, shadowed grappling,
stamped juice, controlled smudging of
what twinkles unthinkably


And because I’m minion this morning to gay old music
Thanks Gentle Hop for this this-ness, for teaching attention
How to mark hard word-bodies with stress,
acute glyphs, blue scores For reckoning the risks
in discipline’s rod—between sheets of loose-leafed linen—
You knew few might hear your coded address

Do I look hard enough to receive?
I am not moved by God, but I am moved by this
To experience the largesse: What you look hard at seems
to look hard at you O to be marked reciprocally, yes please
Across, above, below and with



Excerpt from “Dappled Things” by Jenny Johnson, from In Full Velvet (Sarabande Press ©2017). Reprinted by permission of the author.

Jenny Johnson

Jenny Johnson is the author of In Full Velvet (Sarabande Books, 2017). Her honors include a Whiting Award, a Hodder Fellowship at Princeton University, and a NEA Fellowship. She has also received awards and scholarships from the Blue Mountain Center, Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and Yaddo. Her poems have appeared in The New York Times, New England Review, Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics, and elsewhere. After earning a BA/MT in English Education from the University of Virginia, she taught public school for several years in San Francisco, and she spent ten summers on the staff of the UVA Young Writer’s Workshop. She earned an MFA in Poetry from Warren Wilson College. She is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at West Virginia University, and she is on the faculty of the Rainier Writing Workshop, Pacific Lutheran University’s low-residency MFA program.