"Sonnet for Bonnie"
from Nicholodeon
by Darren Wershler-Henry
Coach House Books, 1997

"Sonnet for Bonnie" is a provocative brand of occasional verse—a love-poem that comments upon the vaunted history of the love-poem itself. Wershler-Henry has written a kind of encoded message to a girlfriend named Bonnie, but he has revealed his feelings without resorting to the tropes of standard lyricism because, for him, the act of writing a sonnet in our contemporary, technological milieu must seem all too sentimentally anachronistic. His poem often causes my students much bewilderment when they first encounter it, and I go on to tell them that I always enjoy teaching this poem because, in my opinion, it represents one of the great limit-cases of sonnetry, since the poem is almost a miracle of concision, distilling all the traits of Petrarchan expression into a hieroglyph of four symbols.
Petrarch, of course, writes his sonnets in two parts: an octave and a sestet—in which the first eight lines pose a problem that the remaining six lines attempt to resolve. If we define poetry as a kind of economical, expressive form, in which a poet must strive to speak as abundantly and as eloquently as possible, using as few words as possible, then this sonnet does constitute an efficient, if not essential, mode of expression. If the lover does in fact express his love via a sonnet, then the octave (represented here by the interrogative symbol raised to the eighth power) might encode the query: "Who do I love?"—to which the sestet (represented here by the letter U raised to the sixth power) might encode the reply: "You!"
Love itself almost constitutes a kind of puzzle or enigma, which two lovers might have to resolve in the course of experiencing it. The cryptic quality of the poem itself suggests the degree to which any communication between two lovers begins to take on the character of an intimate language, too private or too illicit for others to understand. In the courtly context of earlier sonnets by Petrarch, for example, such a love-poem as this one functions almost as kind of "postcard," perused by many deliverers en route to its recipient, so the poet must find ways to build an obscure element of privacy into an otherwise overheard epistle.
Even though this poem might represent a published statement of affection, it nevertheless preserves for itself a relatively enigmatic message, one that remains illegible to any uninformed readership—and thus I might suggest that, despite the fact that this poem, at first glance, appears very cryptic and austere, it is in fact a delicate, precious object, free from much of the sappiness that often plagues a rhapsodic outpouring of affection.

Originally Published: October 26th, 2007

Christian Bök is the author of Crystallography (Coach House Press, 1994), a pataphysical encyclopedia nominated for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, and of Eunoia (Coach House Books, 2001), a bestselling work of experimental literature, which has gone on to win the Griffin Prize for Poetic Excellence. Bök has created artificial...

  1. October 26, 2007

    Well, it's not sappy.
    It does, though, raise the question of how much is "in the poem" and how much is in the ideas the poem generates in readers, and the related question of whether it even makes sense to say that anything is "in" the poem. (How much of the music on a CD is "in" the CD, and how much of it is "in" your player?)
    I'd say that the division above, though not perhaps analytically rigorous, makes a kind of phenomenological sense-- it speaks to my experience as a reader: I'd rather read Christian's explanation of Wershler-Henry's sonnet than read the sonnet six times, but I'd rather reread Yeats than read even the best Yeats criticism, given the either-or choice.
    For another neat limit case, check out Terrance Hayes' "Sonnet."

  2. October 28, 2007
     Vivek Narayanan

    A very charming and -- hate to use this word again still -- lovely poem, worth gazing at repeatedly. But there something nagging at me here, an issue in the internal economy of the sonnet.
    Seems to me the key thing about a sonnet is that
    a) the first "half" is longer, in other words bigger, than the second "half" and
    b) in a successful sonnet, what the writer tries for, the content of the second "half" is concentrated via an excess of insight, feeling, sheer radiance, whatever, such that despite being physically smaller, the second "half" actually feels a little bigger than the first "half".
    This mysterious productive contradiction of imbalances was the key innovation of the sonnet that (if I remember correctly) elevated it above the 16-line form it was born out of in the 13th century and is probably part of the reason why the sonnet has remained such an enduring and mesmerising transhistorical / translinguistic form.
    And yet (this is subjective, of course) that resolution of imbalances doesn't quite come through for me in "Sonnet for Bonnie". Not only does the question mark feel as important as the answer but, more, it actually feels more important because of the superscript "8", which is larger than the second part's "6". Or is it just me? And yet I can't shake this feeling.
    What if, for instance, the font size of the second part of "Sonnet for Bonnie" were made slightly larger?
    Just a thought.