Poetry News

Sandra Simonds on the Sonnet as Fascist Form?

By Harriet Staff

Sandra Simonds looks at the sonnet as a potentially fascist form for Best American Poetry. "Somewhere, supposedly, William Carlos Williams calls the sonnet 'a Fascist form.' Can someone tell me if this is true?" Just in time for the new Telephone Books English-to-English Shakespeare sonnet translations! (Though excited about Kasey Mohammad's Shakespeare sonnet reworkings, she doesn't mention the new compendium.) What Simonds does mention, however, is Bernadette Mayer's incredible Sonnets...

Bernadette Mayer’s sonnets are captivating for all of the wrong reasons. Most of her sonnets aren’t even sonnets. In an essay posted on Jacket, Juliana Spahr writes that “one of Mayer's sonnets has a long prose note attached to it on landlords and rent. Another has eight lines. Another twenty-seven. Some rhyme in doggerel. Some in more elaborate patterns. Some have regular rhythm. Some not. The grammar continually violates the conventional regularities of the sonnet. Lines are split, are jammed; they spill over. Metaphors mix. The book as whole serves almost as an encyclopedia of the sonnet's possible violations while still remaining a sonnet.” Despite all of the formal deviations in Mayer’s book that Spahr notes, the poems seem to come together to point back to some imaginary Ur-sonnet. Someone tell me what makes up the Ur-sonnet!

Last fall, while staying with the poet Nada Gordon, I finally got to read a copy of Mayer’s book, simply titled Sonnets. In an email, I asked Nada to tell me what she thought about Mayer’s sonnets and she responded by saying, “What I love is how they are at once formally disciplined and also fabulously casual. This was the beauty, I think of much of first generation New York School writing as well, and she inherited that touch. I think that sonnets in general are powerful because they speak to our (Western, at least) expectations about how ideas should unfold and convince.” Here’s one of my favorites from the book:

You jerk you didn’t call me up

I haven’t seen you in so long

You probably have a fucking tan

& besides that instead of making love tonight

You’re drinking your parents to the airport

I’m through with you bourgeois boys

All you ever do is go back to ancestral comforts

Only money can get—even Catullus was rich but

Nowadays you guys settle for a couch

By a soporific color cable t.v. set

Instead of any arc of love, no wonder

The G.I. Joe team blows it every other time

Wake up! It’s the middle of the night

You can either make love or die at the hands of

the Cobra Commander

* * *

To make love, turn to Page 32.

To die, turn to Page 110.

And while we're on the topic, did you know that Robert Wilson made an opera called Shakespeare's Sonnets? With music by Rufus Wainright, it premiered April 2009 at the Berliner Ensemble, and will be performed at the Watermill Center next Sunday, 12/16.

Originally Published: December 7th, 2012