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By A.E. Stallings

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):
Graveyard Blues
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.

Comments (10)

  • On December 8, 2007 at 12:19 pm bill knott wrote:

    . . .
    may i dare mention the four volumes
    of quatorzains
    (many of which are rhymed)
    posted on my blog?

  • On December 8, 2007 at 12:29 pm bill knott wrote:

    . . .
    Poetry – MSN Encarta
    … E. E. Cummings, John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Seamus Heaney, Marilyn Hacker, and Bill Knott have experimented with the possibilities of the sonnet, …
    encarta.msn.com/encyclopedia_761568296_3/Poetry.html – 57

    if anybody is interested in how I “have experimented with the possibilities of the sonnet,”
    to quote the MSN Encarta Encyclopedia (is it a reliable source?),
    please see the four voumes of quatorzains posted
    on my blog . . .

  • On December 8, 2007 at 8:16 pm Steve wrote:

    Here is a link to Bill Knott’s blog.
    Is Knott the first poet with a series of much-admired books from “proper” publishers to go this far into the open-access, Web-based self-publishing route?
    Charlotte Smith is historically very important, but my nominee for neglected pre-modernist, post-Jacobean writer of lots of very good sonnets is still Frederick Goddard Tuckerman.
    I’ll have more to say about sonnets next week, I suspect, but for now it’s worth a pointer to the very fannish, non-academic, neat-to-know-about, and perhaps rather New Formalist sonnets-dot-org.

  • On December 9, 2007 at 11:54 pm Mary Meriam wrote:

    “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.”
    This got me thinking about the invention of the Shakespearean sonnet – how Philip Sidney and his highly inventive sister, Mary Sidney, worked together. Then I started thinking maybe there’s something inherently female about the sonnet form itself – womb-like. It was the sonnet that drew me into formalism. It was an English woman poet who doesn’t write sonnets, who mysteriously inspired me to start writing sonnets. I’ve even been called a sonneteer – but it didn’t feel anything like an insult, just sort of playful. It’s hard for me to imagine the sonnet as oppressive, when it’s been so inspiring to me. Anyhow, thanks for posting these three delicious poems (and the olives look delicious, too!).

  • On December 10, 2007 at 9:03 am Annie FInch wrote:

    Thanks for a good post, Alicia, with some nice examples.
    I think you make an interesting point about the sonnet being devalued when it began to be seen as a female form Millay was called the greatest sonneteer since Shakespeare by Edmund Wilson, just before the form went under and began to become the accepted signifier for everything trivial and outdated about poetry.
    In response to Christian Bok’s comment that men played the key part in developing the Romantic lyric, of course that doesn’t mean anything about the later history of the form as regards women. Like the profession of secretary and the color pink, things that were originally associated with males have had, in the past at least, a tradition of tosing cultural value when they became associated with females.
    I assume Ange was not claiming the lyric or anything else as an “innately” female form; it seems commonly accepted now, as it should be with so many centuries of experience in poetry to learn from, that even the associations between particular forms or meters and particular moods–let alone between particular forms or meters and particular kinds of people–are cultural and shifting.

  • On December 10, 2007 at 10:06 am Ange wrote:

    Steve and Alicia read me correctly when they chimed in to defend me in Bok’s comment thread. There’s a difference between pointing out (as I do) that historically critics have tended to characterize some modes as more-or-less “masculine” or “feminine” and asserting (which I don’t) that individuals can’t partake of both modes, regardless of gender.
    I do have a couple of caveats, though. One is that, a posteriori, women aren’t pioneering mechanical modes of poetry production a la Bok, and (so far) seem less interested in removing the content of their experience from their writing. Decades after the first wave of feminist writing about motherhood, for instance, my generation acts as though it is still groundbreaking to “talk about” it. It’s one thing to theorize about what women and men can or can’t write; it’s another to actually look at what they do and don’t write.
    The other is that the most rewarded women in the avant-garde have indeed been the ones that “restored” the lyricism that Langpo excised: Barbara Guest and her Kelsey St. Press epigones; Ann Lauterbach; Susan Howe; Fanny Howe; even Rae Armantrout. The exception that proves the rule is Hejinian.
    Gender aside, the lyric is still seen as the “real” poetry. I wish I had a penny for every time I heard: “Yeah, everybody’s talking about [fill in blank with Langpo] but [fill in blank with Palmer, Mackey, Howe…] is the real poet.” It still goes on: “Yeah, flarf is funny, but X is a real poet.” “Real” poetry equated with lyric; “ephemeral experimentation” equated with theory buffs and mild autism. And yet, the avant-garde is continually configured as that which strains against this move back toward lyricism; you know that joke about Dada and MoMA.
    By the way, I don’t think of New Formalists as male: Mary Jo Salter, anyone? I do however think of them as domestic(ized), creating family photographs in verse, whereas I follow along the lines of O’Hara’s “I first recognized art/as wildness, and it seemed right,/I mean rite, to me” …. That is, finally, a matter of sensibility; it’s not a contest.

  • On December 10, 2007 at 12:59 pm Simon DeDeo wrote:

    I feel sort of challenged — given my dismissal of ABBA in a previous post to A.E. — to read this work and “report back.” I’ll just deal with Karen’s work (I couldn’t get past the “edible / trying-to-fool” rhyme in Craig’s work, but I may just be in a crappy mood, it could be good.)
    Karen’s work reads like a computer-generated Donne. I don’t necessarily mean that in a bad way, just that any kind of sense slides right off the edges like raw egg on teflon. There is no argument as there is in the real John, just the apparatus, like bits and pieces of construction material without a building behind it. The diction — feels like one is reading in the nouns and verbs from a jumbled concordance of the metaphysicals.
    I think there are some infelicities (that end-stop at the start of the second quatrain sounds a little hard — and stumbly), but at the same time I would call it a “successful” work in the sense that I don’t feel cheated of my life-force after reading it. apsis-axis sounds quite wonderful.
    The rapid jangling of end-rhymes — especially at the beginning, the enjambments are rough going, full of pauses — reminds me of these little toy train-trucks I had as a child, with magnets on each end that allowed you to snap them together. Snap! Snap! Go the lines. Which is very different from how the sonnet goes when it’s written “at the time” — when it is not a recovery project.
    In a sense, then, I’d call it an experimental work, avanty gardy, in as much as it is concerned with foregrounding structures and syntax and less about the “meaning-generating” instant or the desire to make a speakable moment. Perhaps that’s the point at which the formalists and the Oulipons meet?

  • On December 11, 2007 at 4:14 pm Annie Finch wrote:

    Perhaps that’s the point at which the formalists and the Oulipons meet?
    Simon, yes, except that as a formalist-most-of the-time-lately, it seems to me that the best formalist work (e.g. Donne) provides both experiences at once–fregrounding structures and syntax AND lsimultaneously making a speakable moment. That’s what I try to do in my poems, anyway. The trick is to strike just the right balance, for one’s own time, between the strangeness of the foregrounded syntax, a strangeness which keeps the reader’s heart open, and the speakable moment which can then speak to that heart.
    This is not an avant-garde prescription, but, oddly enough, it seems to me necessary to absorb some avant-garde influence in order to achieve the necessary strangeness for it to work.
    Totally off thread, and going to check out Bill Knott’s blog,

  • On December 11, 2007 at 4:16 pm Don Share wrote:

    How ’bout the seven rhymed sonnets in Zukofsky’s “A”?
    As LZ wrote in A Test of Poetry, “The Sonnet Form is not a matter of 14 lines, set rhyme scheme, 10 syllables to a line, alternating ascending accents, as the rhetoric books have it. Sonnet literally implies the form of the short tune, to which certain Italian poets – Dante, Cavalcanti, and others – wrote words; the form involved the statement of a subject, its development, and resolution. Dissociated from music, the sonnet became merely the poor versification of amateurs, without emotion or sense of the relation of the parts of a composition to the whole.”

  • On December 12, 2007 at 7:52 am Alicia (AE) wrote:

    Thanks, Simon, for your continued interest and Devil’s advocacy! I guess I am just not one of those people who think that rhymes, like obedient Victorian children, should be seen but not heard. I don’t consider that “jangling”, especially when it is skillfully done as here. Nor can I hear anything wrong with rhyming “edible” and “fool”–even in “pure” rhyme rhyming with a schwa like that is perfectly traditional or acceptible or whatever you want to call it (not that rhymes need be any of these things!)–take Yeats rhyming “school” with “beautiful” in “Adam’s Curse.”
    The difficulty of the Volkman sonnet does not strike me as glib–as “computer generated” might suggest. Sure, it is easy to shrug and walk away and say “I don’t understand it, so it doesn’t mean anything.” But the poem does reward re-reading, at least to me (whereas glib difficulty does not); and while I do not think the poet wants us to take this as a riddle–ah! the moon! A flower! Mortality! There is the feeling that something “real”, about which the poet has thougths, feelings, meditations–is at the heart of this web of language, that this is not a hollow exercise. Maybe that is a trick of the syntax and the similes, I don’t know, but I do not feel this poem is a mockery of sonnets, rather a deeply engaged one.
    As for Zukofsky–hmmm. I don’t buy that sonnets need to be wedded to music. Sure, sonnets are not just 14-lined, rhymed-a-certain-way, iambic pentameter poems. That’s one aspect of the sonnet, but I think there is a deeper form behind that superficial form. I would consider 16-lined Meredithian sonnets in the tradition. Some of the earliest sonnets in English were unrhymed. Some sonnets repeat words rather than rhyme them (also an ancient tradition). Nonce rhyme schemes are common. And even Shakespeare has a sonnet in another meter (tetrameter). I think sonnetude is more about proportion and rhetorical structure, about certain kinds of arguments. And about thinking of itself as a sonnet.

Posted in Uncategorized on Saturday, December 8th, 2007 by A.E. Stallings.