Maybe some people do want to be New Formalists after all. (I'm suddenly feeling better about the label myself!) At any rate everyone, it seems, has an opinion on form. And the poster child of form has to be the sonnet. We are in the midst of a sonnet explosion arguably on a par with the great 19th century revival. (The form had fallen into a rare desuetude during the previous century.) And yes, as in any age, there are slews of bad or boring or in-competent or merely-competent sonnets being written, but many that are exciting, powerful, new. I don’t mean 17-line free verse poems that title themselves Sonnet (that’s another discussion), but the garden 14-line variety, many of which even rhyme, sometimes, yes, even going ABBA or ABAB.
I have sometimes wondered whether dismissiveness towards the sonnet hasn’t had something—vague, slight?--to do with the sonnet’s being a form in which women have traditionally and conspicuously excelled. OK--that sounds paranoid, and I'm probably wrong. Nonetheless, calling someone a sonneteer is akin to calling someone a poetess. Before discussions went in another direction, I was going to respond to Christian Bök’s gleefully provocative remark:
She [Ange]wonders why the lyric "gets such a beating" from experimenters—and I might first respond by observing that she can only argue that the lyric is innately feminine if she deigns to forget that nearly all of its modern, formal characteristics originate in poems written by men of the Romantic era…
by pointing out that women—such as Charlotte Smith (a major influence on Wordsworth)—were instrumental to the sonnet revival and in setting the Romantic agenda generally. (There is an interesting book, A Century of Sonnets: The Romantic-Era Revival (1750-1850), that is eye-opening.) Women not only helped dust off the sonnet, which had “not been used by anyone of eminence since Milton," but returned it to its Petrarchan roots, the stricter Italian rhyme scheme (partly as a way to demonstrate their own mastery), and the gendered Petrarchan rhetorical landscape. (Rather than writing to a cold and distant mistress, she often wrote from that point of view, as Edna St. Vincent Millay would later.)
Maybe that all belongs in another post. What I just wanted to do here was share some contemporary sonnets that grab me, some traditional in form but experimental in sense, some experimental in form but in a very contemporary idiom.
Take this sonnet of Karen Volkman’s, from New American Writing (No 20, 2002), and forthcoming in her new book Nomina (has anyone else noticed the trend of one-word Latin or Greek book titles? I'm part of a trend!):
Blank bride of the hour, occluded thought
wed to waning like a sifting scent
of future flowers, retrograde intent
backwards blooming as a nascent naught
staining minutes, rumorous, uncaught.
You callow hollow of the efferent,
the apsis-axis of my implement,
ague body, unboundaried, portionless plot
no chart remarks. My paltry pretty, go
blanch your blossoms (the radix of a rot)
in some white wind some nightness stanches, stale
negative lumen of a spectral no.
What center cinches your orbit's knot,
the far aphelion of a darkest veil?
This is gorgeous and strange with diction far beyond the pale of the plain-spoken. But nothing could be more traditional than its strict-Petrarchan structure, even down to the apostrophe—direct address—of the beginning ("Thou still unravished bride of quietness, Thou foster-child of silence and slow time"), which almost begs for an O, and the rhetorical question it signs off with. (A friend thinks this is about, among other things, Night Blooming Cereus, which is weirdly plausible, but since the poem doesn’t present itself as a riddle, it doesn’t require a solution.)
Or take this jaunty double sonnet (one of my favourites after Dulce et Decorum Est) --here two sonnets forming a single poem, in this case two Shakespearean sonnets--by Craig Arnold, from the Yale Younger award-winning Shells:
Baffling flower, barely edible,
camouflaged in a GI’s olive drab
--out loud you wonder Who’s it trying to fool?
It is a nymph that some god tries to grab
And have his way with, I explain. She scorns
his lust, and when he sees he’s met his match,
he turns her into a flower, covered with thorns
to keep her other lovers out of reach.
You say You made that up. You say That’s sick.
You say The things men think of are so cruel.
Under the bamboo steamer there’s a slick
of emerald-green water. I watch you pull
the petals off, each with a warm knot
of paler flesh left hanging at the root.
A “loves me, loves me not” sort of endeavour,
I say, but you don’t laugh. It hasn’t been
so long since liking me for being clever
stopped being enough for you. Sly pangolin,
endearingly nearsighted, belly rolled
up in a spiky ball—that’s how I keep
my wits about me. I notice how you’ve polled
the petal-points an inch, how you scrape
each leaf with your incisors, the two
small grooves they leave. It makes me sick to watch.
You’re awfully quiet today. What’s wrong with you?
I want to tell you what . . . but there’s a catch
deep in my throat, that stops me, makes me choke
the words back, crack another pointless joke.
Whereas Volkman divides up her sonnet to make it clear she is hanging something new on the most traditional of frameworks, Arnold disguises the ABAB Shakespearean form with a few deftly-placed narrative breaks. Annie Finch suggests in the comment box that we tend to think of the New Formalist as a white male, and one who can use "I" without irony. I guess that is the case here, and there are nods to Ovid and maybe even to Moore's pangolin and Bishop's armadillo, which might threaten to make this a literary exercise; on the contrary, this is executed with freshness and directness and vernacular verve. It makes me jealous. I want to go write a double sonnet now.
One of my favourite new sonnets I’ve encountered this year is Natasha Tretheway’s “Graveyard Blues” from the Pulitzer-prize winning Native Guard (which also centers on an ambitious sonnet sequence):
It rained the whole time we were laying her down;
Rained from church to grave when we put her down.
The suck of mud at our feet was a hollow sound.
When the preacher called out I held up my hand;
When he called for a witness I raised my hand—
Death stops the body’s work; the soul’s a journeyman.
The sun came out when I turned to walk away,
Glared down on me as I turned and walked away—
My back to my mother, leaving her where she lay.
The road going home was pocked with holes,
The home-going road’s always full of holes;
Though we slow down, time’s wheel still rolls.
I wander now among names of the dead:
My mother’s name, stone pillow for my head.
I admire much about this poem—it’s spot-on approximation of spontaneity and folk variation, its deceptive simplicity, its paradoxically moving restraint, its line-to-die-for: “Death stops the body’s work. The soul’s a journeyman.” (This is presented as a quotation and maybe it is one—I don’t know, though I’m sure someone out there does!) The form is a brilliant hybrid and distillation of African American and European-Anglo tradition. Sonnets can divide up neatly into tercets with a couplet—it is one of its variations (for instance the terza rima sonnets of Shelley and Frost)—but here Tretheway uses the tercets for a blues stanza. Yet by indenting the final couplet (which I couldn't quite manage to format here) she alerts us that this is also a sonnet. (Iit has a turn, too, dividing its fourteen lines into an inverted six and eight instead of eight and six).
The concluding couplet thus does double duty, for it is at the same time a blues tercet missing its final line; the poem ends in an absence, in inconsolable silence.
A. E. (Alicia) Stallings studied classics in Athens, Georgia and has lived since 1999 in Athens, Greece. She has published three books of poetry, Archaic Smile (1999), which won the Richard Wilbur Award; Hapax (2000); and Olives (2012). Her new verse translation of Lucretius (in rhyming fourteeners!), The Nature of Things,...