"the rose-hip persistence of the truth hid therein from me
-- Robert Duncan, "Sonnet 4"
What is it about sonnets that gets poets riled up these days? (Examples here, here, here, and many other places on and off the web.)
Until recently, I never imagined there was anything controversial about them at all. Poets and poetasters having been churning them out for generations, in dozens of languages and on every imaginable subject - and nobody seemed to mind very much. But lately it seems to have become an almost genetic marker of one's literary pedigree ("quietness"), or even political stance. I don't get how writing a good or bad sonnet is significantly different from writing any other sort of good or bad poem, so obviously it's the form itself that gets people going (unlike, say, the pantoum or ghazal, which remain popular and uncontroversial). In fact, when I weighed in on one of the linked threads above, Joshua Clover wrote me to say, mysteriously, I thought, that he was going to write a sonnet himself, as if laying down the gauntlet! Yet I spend almost no time at all thinking about sonnets, unless I stumble upon a poem I like that turns out to be one. I realize that "the sonnet" has come to stand for something dead and gone and awful, but surely there's something more than having fourteen lines or so in a poem that lies behind any deadness and goneness and awfulness in poetry.
One factor in the stirring of the pot must be the recent appearance of at least a half-dozen anthologies of "the sonnet;" to name a few: Phyllis Levin's Penguin Book of the Sonnet, David Bromwich's American Sonnets, John Fuller's Oxford Book of Sonnets, and now Edward Hirsch and Eavan Boland's The Making of a Sonnet, whose telling subtitle is "A Norton Anthology." These are all clearly trade books, aimed at the general reader and, in some cases (certainly the Hirsch and Boland book), students. No harm in that, one might suppose, though I have mixed feelings about anthologies in general, which I have already expressed. As Delmore Schwartz put it, "to place all the emphasis of judgment upon particular poems is the distortion of the anthologist." Nobody learns what a "life's work" (if there is such a thing) can be or mean from an anthology, and popular books such as those mentioned here, no matter how diligently edited, give a distorted view of what poets do and think about: there's more (or maybe less) to each poet anthologized in such a book than sonneteering.
Such reservations aside, it is not only entirely possible but virtually inevitable that a reader can pick up The Making of a Sonnet, get a spinach-like vitamin boost from - or develop an aversion to - the usual samplings of Sidney, Shakespeare, and Spencer... and then... Well, who knows? A reader will find Robert Duncan, Bernadette Mayer, Ted Berrigan, Bill Knott (whose poem includes his own note that he is not a poet but a "poet-biscuit"), Alice Notley, and others along with the usual suspects, hacks, and friends or proteges of the editors. And something might spring to life for that reader in the work of these poets, if not in the old standbys.
Ron Silliman has suggested that the inclusion of just one or two poems by those pioneering the "formal resurrection of the genre" underscores a "lack of seriousness" or "incompetence" in the editors of the Norton book - that two or three poems (insert sarcasm) "makes all the difference in the world dot dot dot" - "or else it underscores exactly" what he was suggesting. And I actually agree with him about this, for what it's worth - but more on the grounds that it is the anthologizing itself which is to blame. As I commented on his blog:
"I think [that including one or two poems by Mayer, Berrigan, and Duncan] does underscore what you were suggesting, but again - there's only one sonnet by Wilbur, one by Merwin, one by Wordsworth, and, indeed, only one each by any number of SoQ poets. What this means for me is that the idea of an anthology consisting solely of sonnets is the real problem, and perhaps paying for permissions to compile such a big 'blockbuster' sort of title blurs the difference between a sonnet by one poet and one by another. Instead of considering individual poems by individual poets we get catch-alls (and there are a number of other anthologies of the sonnet I presume this book is trying to displace in the 'market').
Still, the students and general readers for whom such a book is probably intended will now possibly see and be transformed by those 3 or so poems. So if not all the difference in the world... maybe some difference, somewhere." And I have to believe this is what the editors intended, among other things.
Kent Johnson added, very sensibly:
"Maybe there is such a book and I missed it (I know Lehman's Ecstatic Occasions, an initial gesture), but one useful book someone should certainly edit (Ron?) is an anthology (post New American Poetry) of poems that make innovative/transgressive use of traditional forms."
Ron has declined, but it's a great idea waiting to happen; marketable, too. I hope somebody gives it a try. Meanwhile... Joshua, if you've finished that sonnet, I'd love to see it!
Those folks who argue that the English-language sonnet is dead and gone may not realize that it was also supposed to have died off way back in the late 16th-century. The Elizabethan sonnet-writing craze ended about a decade or two before the famous year 1609. What happened in that year, you ask? The publication (authorized or not) of Shakespeare's sonnets! As Barbara Everett says in her essay, "Shakespeare and the Elizabethan Sonnet," that to remove, as Shakespeare did, "the sonnet from the social, the historically dateable and nameable, without depending on a communal language of shared belief is an extraordinary task..."