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on 26 February 2003
"Poets write sonnets because it makes poems easier to write. Readers read them because it makes their lives easier to bear"
That's how Don Paterson concludes his crash course on the sonnet which forms the introduction to this little jewel box of a book. Master of the aphorism, he carries his elegantly succinct style into the notes on each one, deftly throwing open even the least inviting and initially inaccessible poems of the collection.
There are many classics here, from all the undisputed experts. Even Shakespeare is allowed only one entry though, leaving plenty of room for newer and less familiar writers. But why do the editors of these collections never feel able to slip in one of their own works? An acclaimed sonneteer himself, Don Paterson is ideal as editor but surely he should qualify as one of the 101 too?
You don't need to know one end of a sonnet from another to get a lot out of this collection. If he'd called it 101 poems with rather a pleasing shape, which each takes up about two thirds of a small page, and most of which will kick you in the stomach, I'd still have carried the book around for weeks, and would still be reaching for it when heading for the bus stop. I'm not sure it's made my life easier to bear, but it's certainly made an English February easier to endure.
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If you love poetry you will adore this book. It begins with an introduction which explains the sonnet form as being fourteen lines - the optimum at which human attention is easily held, and also goes into some of the forms varied incarnations and history. But a poem can be a sonnet with thirteen lines too - perfectly properly. Poetry is extremely flexible as it has had to be in order to service human nature. These damned poets can scarcely make their minds up about anything to do with definition. But it doesn't matter. Opening with Robert Frost's The Silken Tent, which is perhaps sublime and delicate beyond any other poem here, this collection has a large number of other delights.

The thing with poetry is that you cannot get enough, once hooked. There are the usual suspects: Wordsworth's The world is too much with us, John Donne's Batter my heart three-personed God, William Blake's To the evening star, and Carol Ann Duffy's Prayer along with Simon Armitage's Poem, and W B Yeats' Leda and the Swan. Here is one I hadn't come across before and especially loved, by Robert Hayden: Those Winter Sundays

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labour in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house.

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?
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I was seduced into buying this delicious little book by Eileen Shaw's review - she helpfully gives a full example of one of the probably less well known sonnets, and then (in comments, in reply to a question,) gives another

So if you want examples of some pretty damn stunning sonnets which may not be in your existing poetry collections - read her review for a couple of tasty samples.

The foreword to this collection is vivid and muscular, the least dry explanation of the evolution of the sonnet out there. Paterson's own visceral response to poetry is palpable and infectious.

The sonnets are ordered not by alphabetical author progressions, or by date; instead there is almost the sense of each sonnet, leading onto the next as part of a larger ordering of themes, so that the subject matters of the poems slowly progress - sonnets devoted to sexual love and praise of the beloved, sonnets which are almost physically sensuous in their devotion to praising the divine (nice juxtapositions of sonnets lingeringly describing kissing the beloved, to the first poem in 'the divine' series, a sonnet by Wilfred Owen describing kissing the Cross. And on.

This very subtle, personal but unexplained, un spelt out (by Paterson) ordering of the sonnets is itself a delight and revelation, so that one can have a very modern sonnet cheek by jowl with one of the very well known ones, and the progression of subject and neighbouring sonnets slightly change the way one reads the familiar sonnet - it becomes 'as though for the first time' once more

As another reviewer also notes, the 5 or 6 line notes on each sonnet right at the end of the book are excellent and illuminating - but utterly unobtrusive. Paterson trusts the sonnets, and the reader's personal experience of those sonnets properly, and does not forcefully insert his own interpretation of them onto yours. You have your own relationship with each poem, and can then choose to see, not a dissection of the poem, but the recounting of someone else's experience of it. He doesn't break the lovely thing apart, he leaves it whole, but maybe encourages the reader to look afresh or through different eyes.
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on 4 August 2010
just the introduction is worth buying the book for - a masterclass in sonnet writing; followed by an eclectic collection of sonnets and near-sonnets through the ages. Fabulous. The sections at the back - the descriptions of the sonnets themselves; and the descriptions of the poets - are fascinating and helpful.
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on 1 February 2009
I used to think the sonnet form was stylish but static. Don Paterson's choices, and his excellent introduction, was an eye-opener. I'd recommend this collection to anyone who likes poetry, and anyone who thinks they don't.
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on 9 April 2012
Poetry has been to me somewhat of a closed art form, as I have always felt I didn't really "get" poems. But in 2011, luckily, I attended several poetry events at the Edinburgh Book Festival, with writers such as Don Paterson, not to mention Carol Ann Duffy, the Poet Laureate, and Ben Okri. Poetry as performance art. Then I booked in to a Scottish Poetry Library course on poetry...and I found that not only could I read poetry aloud, I could even contribute to the discussion! I learned that intellectual understanding of poems is only one aspect, and arguably not the most important one. This collection of sonnets was brought to our attention on the course. It was first put together in 1999 by Don Paterson and recently re-issued in paperback. 101 sonnets by 101 poets from the 16th to the 20th centuries. Don Paterson, among many other strings to his bow, is Professor of Poetry at St Andrews University. The book entranced me from the first words of the Introduction, explaining what a sonnet is and what it is not, with humour and some irreverence, much like his speaking style. To quote from near the beginning of the Introduction: "statistical studies tell us that, for example, 'in a random sample of 7,000 sonnets, 32 per cent had the ABBAABBA CDCDCD rhyme scheme. It might be more useful if they said 'In a random sample of 7,000 sonnets, 6,878 were found to be terrible'. And the Introduction ends with "Poets write sonnets because it makes poems easier to write. Readers read them because it makes their lives easier to bear". This reader is very much enjoying finding poems that sing to me, and there are many in this book. Highly recommended.
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on 14 March 2015
I’m not any kind of big poetry aficionado but I really enjoyed this collection of sonnets, selected and introduced by Don Paterson. His choice of one sonnet to a page is both attractive and inviting. Paterson himself describes how “the visual appeal of an approximately square field of black text on a sheet of white paper [is] impossible to resist… [it is] a mandala that invites our meditation.”

The sonnets themselves are prefaced by a nicely sized preamble in which Paterson eulogises about the form. In seventeen swift pages he summarises the sonnet’s main structural points: the length, the metre, the turn, and the differing rhyme-schemes developed in English.

The selection itself covers sonnets written in early English (translation of key-words provided) through to modern ones published in the 1990’s. I think Seamus Heaney’s ’98 sonnet, The Skylight, may be the most recent. Everyone will have their own favourites, mine was Wallace Steven’ The Poem that Took the Place of a Mountain, which surprised me given how I remember feeling pretty stumped when looking through a copy of Harmonium.

Anyway, for a book that works as both an accessible route into sonnets and also a hundred and one different poets, £7.50 makes for a bargain. In fact, I reckon you could buy two and send the other to someone you like. They’ll love it.
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on 10 May 2016
Interesting but difficult to get through. A bit like swimming in toffee.
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on 11 October 2011
I bought this for two reasons!

Firstly - I am enjoying Don's Shakespeare Sonnets Book immensely. It is just BRILLIANT. And has led me on to buy Stephen Booth (Great Stuff!) and Helen Vendler (Wow - hard work, but rewarding)

Secondly thanks to Eileen's wonderful Review! I was not disappointed. It is a real Treasure. Thanks, Eileen!
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on 1 December 2014
Great selection - love it
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