You Can’t Keep a Good Sonnet Down

American Sonnets

by Gerald Stern
Norton, 69 pp., $22.00
Charles Wright
Charles Wright; drawing by David Levine

“Seldom we find,” says Solomon Don Dunce
  “Half an idea in the profoundest sonnet.”

—Edgar Allan Poe, “An Enigma”1

No poem can be more delightful or more idiotic than a sonnet. For every memorable one, thousands of bad ones—and I’m being charitable in my estimate—have been written over the centuries. Some years ago I recall hearing of a professor who had composed a long sonnet cycle on the subject of Shakespeare’s sonnets. It made me laugh but didn’t really surprise me. Sonnets more than any other poems depend on precedent. Anyone writing one most probably has a sonnet he has admired in the back of his mind. At their most successful, they have an uncanny way of saying clever and serious things without sacrificing brevity. Nevertheless, with the ascendancy of free verse in the last hundred years and the modernist hope to make poems unlike any that came before, the sonnet appeared doomed and in danger of becoming extinct like some rare species of songbird. Happily, as a couple of recent anthologies and these three new collections of poetry show, the form is thriving. In fact, it is recovering some of its old vigor.

A thirteenth-century Italian, Giacomo da Lentini, a notary at the court of Frederick II, wrote the first sonnet, in local Sicilian dialect. It was a new kind of lyric poem, one not supposed to be sung and accompanied by a musical instrument, but meant to be read silently to oneself. It had only fourteen lines and was made up of two asymmetrical parts: a rhymed eight-line stanza and six additional lines with a different rhyme scheme. “Independence from musical performance freed the sonnet to exist as a self-sufficient microcosm, inviting a reader to follow its maze of meaning and sound at whatever pace one preferred,” writes Phillis Levin in the recently published Penguin Book of the Sonnet, which she also edited.2 Here then was a small box made of words for that psychological and metaphysical entity we call the self to lock itself in. Sonnets can be about many things, but they are inclined to be introspective. This self-consciousness is present in other lyric poems, but perhaps never to the degree found in a poem with so few lines in which to invent a subject and maneuver it to some sort of closure.

The sonnet craze spread from Italy to almost every other European literature. In the sixteenth century, Sir Thomas Wyatt brought it to the English court where subsequent poets tinkered with its form. Its popularity was due most certainly to its becoming the chief vehicle of love poetry, where argument and counterargument are usually the issue. I’m madly in love with you, a sonnet may complain, while you, for some inexplicable reason, do not care for me. In fact, you hate my guts, but, come to think of…

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