Sonnets are supposed to follow rules. A sonnet should have 14 lines. There's a two-line couplet at the end in some schemes. In its originating form it is expected to use elaborate language and to involve romantic love. The sonnet is also supposed to be sensual and to be somewhat about its own metaphorical process, so that the imaginative energy of art becomes gloriously entangled in the imaginative energy of sex.

William Carlos Williams managed to do all of that in a poem that also mocks the very idea of a sonnet:

Sonnets in Search of an Author

Nude bodies like peeled logs

sometimes give off a sweetest

odor, man and woman

under the trees in full excess

matching the cushion of

aromatic pine-drift fallen

threaded with trailing woodbine

a sonnet might be made of it

Might be made of it! odor of excess

odor of pine needles, odor of

peeled logs, odor of no odor

other than trailing woodbine that

has no odor, odor of a nude woman

sometimes, odor of a man.

Even the ecstatic repetitions, like the rhyme of "other/odor," fulfill traditional expectation in a way that also gives the expectation a kind of exploding cigar. And Williams gets 14 lines not by adding eight to six, or three fours to a couplet, but in asymmetrical stanzas of three, two, three, four and two. He even has his own version of the traditional "turn": the words "Might be made of it."

In his recent book American Sonnets, Gerald Stern gives the form another kind of affectionate dismantling. The "Stern sonnet" is deliberately overgrown to "twenty lines or so" -- "Who's counting?" as the old expression goes. Stern's subject is often memoir, treated in a way that implicitly asks, as Williams also asks, what the Muse of Poetry might be up to in an American setting. For example, what is sonnet-like about personal memories of a fierce winter on the "wrong side of the Alleghenies"? --

The Hammer

What did a foot of snow matter when I

Was upstairs with my hammer banging against

the radiators; and what good was my threadbare

camel's hair coat and white silk scarf inside

that freezing office I paid seven dollars a month

for, including heat; and what did it matter that I

grew up on the wrong side of the Alleghenies

and got the news from New York, oh five, ten years

too late, and was the hammer well balanced or not?

And did I wear my coat when I read and did I

wear the scarf like a babushka or wasn't there

a green beret somewhere, and what did my moustache

have to do with it, and wasn't it fine,

that waiting, and wasn't the floor covered with paper

the way a floor should be, a perfect record of

a year or so in that ruined mountain city

where I spoke out on my side of the burned-over slag heap?

The rhetorical questions, like Williams's keeping to 14 lines, are in their way a rowdy yet respectful nod to old ways of talking and writing. (William Carlos Williams's poem "Sonnet in Search of an Author" can be found in "The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Vol. 2," edited by Christopher MacGowan. New Directions. Copyright © 1944, 1962 by William Carlos Williams. Gerald Stern's poem "The Hammer" is from his book "American Sonnets." Norton. Copyright © 2002 by Gerald Stern.)