Sunday, March 30, 2008

The rose-hip persistence of the truth

"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..."


Sam said...

Reality Street Editions ( are bringing out a 'radical' sonnet anthology this spring.

Don Share said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Don Share said...

Any opinions on Hugo Claus's sonnet sequence? There were a few adverse, no pun intended, reactions in the blogosphere prior to C.'s death. I'm unable to read the sonnets in the original, I'm sorry to say...

noraglossia said...

What a fantastic post. Thank you for all the information on sonnet anthologies. It may be worthwhile to note that if you haven't already received it in the post, you will soon be receiving the first issue Sixty-Six, a new journal of sonnets and sonnet studies (online at

Incidentally, I am a Dutch-English translator and am waiting to get my hands on a copy of Claus' collection of sonnets (to read and translate). The Dutch poet Martinus Nijhoff was also quite a prolific writer of sonnets--some well worth translating!

Don Share said...

I really appreciate this comment, Nora: thank you. Can't wait to see Sixty-Six, and would love to hear more about Dutch poetry in translation. I know Nijhoff's work, also only in translation, and have seen the tiny handful of recent anthologies, but would adore to know more...

Meanwhile, it's great to have you here.

Best, - Don

Zachariah Wells said...

At the risk of immodesty (which is in my country widely accounted a cardinal sin), I'd like to point out the recent publication of a new anthology, Jailbreaks: 99 Canadian Sonnets, which I've edited.

Very interesting comments about the anthologist's warping effect. I certainly feel that my anthology is more an eccentric arrangement than an authoritative pronouncement. My fingerprints are all over the thing and I think the way I've framed it makes that plain. And for what it's worth, I often feel, pace Schwartz, that there's too much emphasis placed on "a life's work" and not enough on the individual, more-or-less isolate poem. At any rate, as you suggest each individual encounter potentially opens the door for a reader to the wider realms of a poet's oeuvre.

Ken Edwards said...

Our forthcoming sonnet anthology features 84 poets from Edwin Denby, Jackson Mac Low, Ted Berrigan, Lyn Hejinian, Bernadette Mayer, Alice Notley, Tom Raworth, Peter Riley, through to younger poets such as Peter Jaeger, Carol Watts, Eleni Sikelianos, Piers Hugill, Sophie Robinson. They are mostly from the UK, US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The introduction by Jeff Hilson engages with many of the points you justly make, and the book may go part way to fulfilling the brief for a book of innovative poetry starting from a traditional form. Go to
Ken Edwards

bakkenpoet said...

Did you ever receive your copy of 66, Don?

Don Share said...

No, I never did, sorry to say.

Don Share said...

Via Peter Quartermain on the POETICS list, here's a link to Chris Goode's review of the Reality Street Book of Sonnets mentioned above.