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The Sonnet’s Malice

By Ange Mlinko

I didn’t think I had anything to say about the sonnetfest here on Harriet. But then a friend sent me an article about Edwin Denby: great American ballet critic, friend of Frank O’Hara’s circle, poet who wrote many, many sonnets. I had studied them years ago, and then put the book away (sonnets not being my cup of tea). I opened Collected Poems again this week, and have been unable to put it down since.
THE SUBWAY
The subway flatters like a dope habit,
For a nickel extending peculiar space:
You dive from the street, holing like a rabbit,
Roar up a sewer with a millionaire’s face.
Squatting in the full glare of the locked express
Imprisoned, rocked, like a man by a friend’s death,
O how the immense investment soothes distress,
Credit laps you like a huge religious myth.
It’s a sound effect. The trouble is seeing
(So anaesthetized) a square of bare throat
Or the fold at the crotch of a clothed human being:
You’ll want to nuzzle it, crop at it like a goat.
That’s not in the buy. The company between stops
Offers you security, and free rides to cops.


Ordinarily I like a wildness of form; reading Edwin Denby, though, makes me wonder if the reason I dislike sonnets is that, far from being rigid, most of them are not rigid enough. I was shocked, perusing these poems, to discover a kind of cruelty there that must have escaped me on earlier readings. The cruelty and rigidity may have something to do with the orthographic grid of Denby’s beloved Manhattan streets; it may have to do with his affinity with ballet. In any event. nobody quite writes lines as ruthless as:
The shoulder of a man is shaped like a baby pig.
It terrifies and bores the observer, the shoulder.
The Greeks, who had slaves, were able to hitch back and rig
The shoulder, so the eye is flattered and feels bolder.
But that’s not the case in New York, where a roomer
Stands around day and night stupified with his clothes on
The shoulder, hung from his neck (half orchid, half tumor)
Hangs publicly with a metabolism of its own.

(“The Shoulder”)
I thought of copying out one of Denby’s Christmas poems, then thought better of it. The poem is studded with malice, but isn’t to be trivialized; its subject—the persistence of Hell even after Christ’s birth—is about our own indelible malice.
Coincidentally, I finally cracked open that Chicago Review essay by Allan Grossman on Hart Crane’s “The Broken Tower.” Steve originally recommended it, piquing our interest in Hesiod’s description of the Muses as “mean girls.” Signifying what? Grossman explains:

Let’s remember: the muses (the archetypal cruel girls, as in Hesiod) are never kind. Why? Because of the violence inherent in the “making” (poesis) which they sponsor and the entailed equivocality of their truth-promises. I have already given a name, in this talk about “making,” to the violence inherent in making (the breaking required to turn the unmade into the made) which even the god fears. (It’s the second commandment: Thou shalt not make unto me…)

Again, Denby was both an aficionado of Manhattan and a devotee of ballet; the sonnets that erupted from this sensibility have a cruelty analogous to those other architectonic wonders. I myself have felt suffocatingly oppressed by the Manhattan street grid; I have also thrilled to the rigid pliancy of ballet, which must remain faithful to a set of positions and steps that have descended to us from court dances, and which have all the limits and freedom of an alphabet. Maybe it’s no coincidence that Denby’s most generous sonnets—Mediterranean Cities—shed the iciness and suavity of his Manhattan sonnets as the grid gives way to the labyrinthine medieval and ancient plans…
RAVENNA
A governing and rouged nun, she lifts the cubed
Jewels, garlanded heavy on hair, shoulders
Breasts, on hands and feet, the drak-blue the cell-roomed
Splendor’s fountain lifts sunken to Him Who holds her;
But the emperor is running to his pet hens
Cackling like a hermit, and his foolish smile
Alone on the vacancy of noon-glazed fens
Haunts a blossoming water-capital’s guile;
Holy placidity of lilylike throats
Ravenna of fleets, silent above the cows
A turnip plain and stagnant houses floats
Exultance of sailor hymns, virginal vows;
In a church’s tiered and April-green alcoves
Joy rises laughing at ease to love God’s loves

I don’t know about that one—individual phrases leap out but Denby seems better served by the marriage of sonnet and Manhattan. Few poets feel comfortable shedding the social niceties that make us, well, nice, even in the imaginative space of the poem, where anything goes. The cruelty of making, in Grossman’s concept, is beautifully encoded in the sonnet. Denby makes full use of it. And maybe what impresses me most is his clarity. Clarity, as actresses and ballerinas know from their intimacy with lighting and mirrors, is cruel.
(More on Denby here.)

Comments (18)

  • On December 21, 2007 at 11:24 am Daniel wrote:

    There is a Sonnet Journal coming out soon called 66: The Journal of Sonnet Studies. If you’re interested in the form and where it stands today, it is definitely worth picking up.

  • On December 21, 2007 at 11:35 am Aaron Fagan wrote:

    Edwin Denby poems in POETRY:
    Winter (June 1926)
    During Music (June 1926)
    Wind Song (June 1926)

  • On December 21, 2007 at 12:51 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    Cruelty is always in fashion, and I too, admit to watching bad movies and reading cheap thrillers ever & anon. But I don’t buy the idea that cruelty is inherent in artistic making. That’s another (fashionable) way of jazzing up the existential situation and the agon of the artist…
    life is inescapably painful but not necessarily cruel. Cruelty is a choice. Making, on the other hand, is conceptually creative & involves a lot of loving attention to detail and nuance. Cruelty is a diversion or a gimmick, an emotional tic.

  • On December 21, 2007 at 1:36 pm Steve wrote:

    There is also a book called The Making of a Sonnet coming out in March that would be of interest to anyone wanting to gain a better understanding of the sonnet form.

  • On December 21, 2007 at 3:03 pm Ange wrote:

    Henry, I see you’ve been taking lessons from “Jane” on how to read posts through the lenses of your own preoccupations. Denby is the opposite of fashionable; even more so is Allan Grossman. (Alas: Commenting on texts one hasn’t read never goes out of fashion.)
    Read a ballet memoir or two. Toni Bentley in A Winter Season remembered seeing Raging Bull for the first time and, though a young girl, identified with the older, male boxers: their agon, their pathos. Of course, the end-product of her art appears all grace and charm… But why do I bother? I see that, like the Marxists, you already have your worldview figured out.

  • On December 21, 2007 at 8:26 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    Pardon me, Ange, but I read most of the sonnets of Edwin Denby in the late 60s, when you were still in diapers, if born. Allen Grossman & I attended the same high school (Blake School, Hopkins, MN), and I’ve read a great deal of his work, including Mark Halliday’s interviews (I went to college with Mark Halliday; he published my first poems out of high school).
    I’m still figuring out my worldview. One of the things it includes (my worldview) is : happy occasions for sharp debate – which is why I like this website, and your entries.
    Cruelty, of course, is hard to avoid these days, or any days… but my view is that poetry -including dramatic, tragic, Greek, Hebraic poetry – is, fundamentally, about healing. Art comprehends & challenges cruelty, and, in a way (on a conceptual level, anyway), DEFEATS it (by shedding light on its motivational roots).
    But I’m referring to really serious, great & genial art – not Denby’s kind of tough-guy stuff (Raymond-Chandleresque), which alleviates pain by indulging in petty malice.

  • On December 22, 2007 at 2:23 am Alicia (AE) wrote:

    I think you’ve hit on something here:
    far from being rigid, most of them are not rigid enough
    (It reminds me of something Turner Cassity used to say, which was that the problem with most free verse is that it isn’t free enough… it sounds like failed formal verse.)
    “Subway” is terrific –thanks for posting this–and I’ll be sure to check out the Denby sonnets. I teach a sonnet class over the summer and am always on the lookout for poems that will push people’s ideas of what the sonnet is, can do, or can “contain.” There are way too many sonnets out there with beautiful wrought iron bars and moats and electric security fences holding in nothing fiercer than a pussy cat. What is the point of a cage without wild animals?
    I do think strict adherence to a from should be freeing… that is, should free you from all kinds of other conventions… a rhyme or line that fits the form perfectly might flash through your head, and you might actually hesitate to use it because it startles you with… cruelty or clarity… but the form grants you “permission” as it were–the surprise that the sort of free-association of rhyme or rhythm can set off. George Meredith’s Modern Love sequence startles with just such cruel-clarity. And I find this Weldon Kees’ one hard to beat:
    FOR MY DAUGHTER
    Looking into my daughter’s eyes I read
    Beneath the innocence of morning flesh
    Concealed, hintings of death she does not heed.
    Coldest of winds have blown this hair, and mesh
    Of seaweed snarled these miniatures of hands;
    The night’s slow poison, tolerant and bland,
    Has moved her blood. Parched years that I have seen
    That may be hers appear: foul, lingering
    Death in certain war, the slim legs green.
    Or, fed on hate, she relishes the sting
    Of others’ agony; perhaps the cruel
    Bride of a syphilitic or a fool.
    These speculations sour in the sun.
    I have no daughter. I desire none.

  • On December 22, 2007 at 9:54 am myshkin2 wrote:

    Let’s not forget the myth of Marsyas & Apollo–and M’s the flayed body nailed to a tree, singing:
    “the victor departs
    wondering
    whether out of Marsyas’ howling
    there will not some day arise
    a new kind
    of art…”
    Zbygniew Herbert
    And speaking of Toni Bentley–Ange had the good sense to not bring up her latest memoir. Although it certainly would have enlivened the comments!) The Surrender, which is less about the violence and pain necessary for one’s art, and more about that same nexis in terms of a very specific pleasure.
    Thanks for recalling Denby.

  • On December 22, 2007 at 6:56 pm Ange wrote:

    Believe it or not, Bentley was young & chaste once! I haven’t read her, um, recent work. Thanks for bringing up Marsyas. In Grossman’s The Long Schoolroom, Orpheus and Philomena provide the two main types of suffering poet. (Henry, your disclaimers aside, it still rings false to call Grossman fashionable or Denby — gay ballet critic, for god’s sake — Chandleresque. And, you know, I hate Quentin Tarantino, so you can’t accuse me of Pulp Fiction aesthetics.)
    Big thanks to Alicia for bringing up George Meredith, whose “Lucifer in Starlight” I memorized in high school.
    Aaron Fagan brings up the Denby sonnets published in Poetry in 1926. My first thought was: wow, the very year O’Hara was born! And then I read today that that very issue preceded the one in which Hart Crane’s poems first appeared in Poetry. The connection to Crane (via Whitman, via Manhattan) is strong, as was O’Hara’s connection to Crane. (Denby was a mentor to O’Hara, who returned the favor by championing the sonnets.)
    And finally, it’s a good day when I find vindication in a quote by James Schuyler: “[Denby's] harsh prosody I find a relief.”

  • On December 22, 2007 at 9:33 pm Don Share wrote:

    Seems like a good place to mention O’Hara’s sonnet, “Lines Written in A Raw Youth” – A Raw Youth being the “Russian novel” by Dostoyevsky in the pages of which the poem was apparently written. Since we don’t have the copyright to reproduce the whole poem, here’s the ending:
    Further out my heart’s yielding up its food
    to fishes hunting coastward with the foam
    and as the tents of jellyfish do brood
    so brood I on my brutal cold black home.
    I plunge again against the pow’rful sea
    of my desires and win and force them free.
    The “brutal” sonnet!

  • On December 26, 2007 at 7:44 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    There’s a distinction to be made between suffering and cruelty as agents for art.
    I read the excerpt from Herbert, quoted by Myshkin2, as something of an ironic comment on the theory of art’s inherent cruelty. The inhuman and inhumane aesthete Apollo, speculating on artistic innovation, seems, here, to be only one (satirized) facet of a poetic mini-tragedy, which illustrates art’s roots in suffering.
    Ange, I never called either Grossman or Denby fashionable. I called cruelty fashionable. I was specifically criticizing Grossman’s formulation, that some kind of cruelty is inherent in the process of artistic making. Grossman, at least from the brief passage you quoted, appears to be setting up a characterization of art which is based on the Biblical prohibition against divine images. Now this is a very ancient debate (see the iconoclasm controversy in Byzantium). I have problems with the statement in itself, but even more serious problems with applying it (in order to provide some sort of authorization or cachet) to the weary cynicism reflected in Denby’s sonnets.
    Cruelty and sadism are fashionable in movies, pop songs, etc. But a more comprehensive art challenges such thoughtless, complacent brutality.

  • On December 27, 2007 at 6:18 pm john wrote:

    The “cruelty” of art-making refers to the discipline required to make it happen. “Cruelty towards oneself” was Grotowski’s formulation from Artaud, for his theater.
    A sculptor’s view of the block of wood or marble must be cruel: To hack or pound or chip away the unwanted, the undesired, the obstructing material.
    A Taoist might point out that the poet’s relationship with her vocabulary — or a composer’s with the audible world — is no different than the sculptor’s toward her medium. Pound, hack, chip away the dross.
    Maybe “cruel” is sentimental in this context.

  • On December 27, 2007 at 10:10 pm Ange wrote:

    Hm, John, maybe you’re right that it’s sentimental. At any rate, you’re correct that I mean cruelty in terms of discipline.
    There’s the oft-quoted “Poetry Is a Destructive Force” by Stevens:
    The lion sleeps in the sun.
    Its nose is on its paws.
    It can kill a man.
    There is a lot to say on this subject — cruelty and suffering and discipline all being crucial (or excruciating) to religion as well as art. This is just a brief gloss. But I suppose I do think that American poetry is so concerned with being healing and therapeutic that it loses its own bracing rigor/raison d’etre in the bargain. (At the risk of sounding like St. Sebasti-ange.)

  • On December 28, 2007 at 9:48 am Matt wrote:

    Henry, sounds like you’re not listening to the right pop songs. (Yeah, being forced to listen to Britney Spears might be cruel and sadistic, but that doesn’t mean her songs are. [Of course they might be, for all I know. But I wouldn't know. Because I don't listen to her.]) You should check out Death Cab for Cutie instead, or The Magnetic Fields, or The New Pornographers, or Sufjan Stevens, or Feist, or about 40 million other bands that write good non-sadistic pop songs.

  • On December 28, 2007 at 9:04 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    Why is it that when I hear “cruelty as artistic discipline” or “artistic discipline as cruelty” I think of the Nazis?
    We’re defending the notion of artistic “cruelty” (now it’s a Taoist approach), and at the same time we’re applying Grossman’s ironic-iconoclastic characterization (which may actually be a logic – a logic which you find also in Celan – by which he distinguishes HIS poetry from art/poetry in general). Can one really do both?

  • On January 9, 2008 at 9:29 am Don Share wrote:

    Contemporary sonnet buffs might like to check out Christian Hawkey’s new sonnets.
    Students of the modernist legacy may be interested to learn, as A. David Moody describes it in his new biography of Ezra Pound, that EP wrote to Harriet Monroe’s assistant editor, Alice Corbin Henderson, with a list of his qualifications which included the assertion that he’d written and discarded 400 sonnets!

  • On January 9, 2008 at 12:04 pm Don Share wrote:

    Here’s the link to Hawkey’s sonnets!

  • On February 1, 2008 at 11:09 am Mary Maxwell wrote:

    The Denby article I believe Ange refers to is “Edwin Denby’s New York School.” It appeared in Yale Review Vol.95 Issue 4 (October 2007) pp. 64-96. It can also be accessed as a PDF online for free at htttp://www.blackwell-synergy.com/toc/yrev/95/4. Since on the second page of the essay I write, “In 1926, the year of O’Hara’s birth, three of Denby’s poems were published in an issue of Poetry that exactly preceded the one in which Hart Crane’s work first appeared there,” I feel it is not unreasonable to infer that Ange’s comments of 12/22 (in response to Aaron Fagan’s listing of Denby’s poems in Poetry) refer to my Yale Review piece. My note of this bit of Poetry history is followed by an observation (echoed by Ange): “As Lincoln Kirstein has sensitively described Denby’s poetry in relation to Crane’s, Denby ‘shares Crane’s quirkiness in implosive short circuits of dense, awkwardly precise rhetoric, odd broken rhymes, reckless rhythm, sharpness of physical imagery and incandescent metaphor.’ And while In Public, in Private’s mid-centruy opening salvo, ‘ I myself like the climate of New York,’ claims a kinship reaching back to Crane (as well as Walt Whitman), it also declares an affinity projecting forward to Denby’s even younger New York School compatriots at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project.”
    I never knew Denby myself, but I have never heard anyone before speak of him or his writing as either cruel or malicious.
    Mary Maxwell


Posted in Uncategorized on Friday, December 21st, 2007 by Ange Mlinko.