The Sonnet's Malice
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 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.
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…
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.)
Ange Mlinko was born in Philadelphia and earned her BA from St. John's College and MFA from Brown University. She is the author of five books of poetry: Distant Mandate (2017); Marvelous Things Overheard (2013), which was selected by both the New Yorker and the Boston Globe as a best book of...