“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 it…. It’s this back and forth leading up to some new insight that is typical of the sonnet. There’s a turn in logic and the accompanying shift in tone, mood, and voice. All short poems employ this strategy to various degrees, since without a reversal of some sort and the surprise that comes with it there can be neither emotion nor meaning for the reader.
Gerald Stern is the least likely candidate to be writing a sonnet. The poems in his twelve previous collections sprawl cheerfully over the page. His sense of form is more grounded in narrative than in the elliptical ways of the short lyric poem. He is a monologist who loves to digress, but the kind we forgive because he’s entertaining us. There are poets who pare down until they find a bit of language they can play with. With Stern it’s the opposite, a wish to be expansive and include everything. “The tale I have to tell” is how he begins a poem in the new book. He tells us about the places where he’s lived, friends and lovers he has had, books he’s read, meals he’s eaten, records he’s listened to. It’s a talking voice, friendly and often rambling. His freedom to go wherever his imagination happens to take him gives his poems a feel of adventure that is hard to resist. An extraordinary number of them start with the first-person pronoun and yet what often sounds like a straight confession is clearly a literary ploy. As much as Whitman and Ginsberg, Stern wants to create a persona recognizable from poem to poem.
Son of Jewish immigrant parents, he was born in Pittsburgh in 1925. “I had absolutely no mentors. I came from nowhere,” he said in a NewsHour interview. The poems give the impression of an unsettled life. His love of poetry kept him spiritually afloat while he went on making a modest living as a teacher. He was almost fifty when he published his first book of poems. “I remember Galileo describing the mind/ as a piece of paper blown around by the wind,” Stern says in an early poem. His poems have that quality of unpredictability, of skipping from subject to subject. He is a poet of both large cities and small-town America who is as much at home in a truck stop diner as he is in the local library. He knows life is tough for most people. In the course of telling us about himself he recounts bits of their stories or he imagines them. Stern has a fondness for visionary states. He savors moments when we step out of our solitude and come together with one another. He wants us to share with him that experience, as in this short poem from The Red Coal (1981):
Today I am sitting outside the Dutch Castle
on Route 30 near Bird in Hand and Blue Ball,
watching the Amish snap their suspenders at the sunglasses.
I am dreaming of my black suit again
and the store in Paradise where I will be fitted out for life.
A small girl and I recognize each other
from our former life together in Córdoba.
We weep over the plastic tote bags, the apple combs and the laughing harmonicas,
and fall down on the hot carpet
remembering the marble forest
of the Great Mosque
and the milky walls
of the Jewish quarter.
I will see her again in 800 years
when all this is sorted out.
I give it that much time,
based on the slack mind,
the dirty drinking water and the slow decay.
I give it at least that much time
before we lie down again in the tiny lilacs
and paper love houses of the next age.
“I’m quintessentially explaining myself to myself,” he says in that same interview, and that is an indispensable trait when it comes to sonnet writing. There are fifty-nine of them in American Sonnets. I have no idea if the inspiration for the book came from Billy Collins’s poem “American Sonnet,” but he would undoubtedly agree with its definition of what we have here. “We do not speak like Petrarch or wear a hat like Spenser/and it is not fourteen lines,” Collins writes. Our sonnet, he goes on to say, resembles a picture postcard. On one side there may be a waterfall or a lake and on the other side the space where we condense our impressions and sentiments in a few measured phrases. If compression of feeling and conciseness of vision matter—and they certainly do—the temptation will always be there to write a sonnet. Even Stern, who is ordinarily such a discursive poet, seems happy to place himself under constraints in his new book. His own sonnets range between sixteen and twenty-three lines. Here’s what they sound like:
As far as the clocks—and it is time to think of them—
I have one on my kitchen shelf and it is
flat, with a machine-made flair, a perfect
machine from 1948, at the latest,
and made of shining plastic with the numbers
sharp and clear and slightly magnified in
that heartbreaking postwar style, the cord
too short, though what does it matter, since the mechanism
is broken and it sits unplugged alongside a
cheap ceramic rooster, his head insanely
small and yet his tiny brain alert for
he is the one who will crow and not that broken
buzzing relic, though time is different now
and dawn is different too, you were up all night
and it is dark when he crows and you are waiting
to see what direction you should face and if
you were born in time or was it wasted and what
the day looks like and is the rooster loyal.
The clock is broken, but the imagination works and so the ceramic rooster will crow. It’s a nice poem, but is it really a sonnet? As Levin’s Penguin anthology demonstrates, there are sonnets missing the required number of lines or having additional ones, skinny sonnets lacking the traditional line length, or having no rhymes at all. What makes them sonnets, I suppose, is the way they impersonate some aspect of the original mode. Fourteen lines is not an arbitrary number. It’s near impossible to engage in argument and arrive at a conclusion in ten or twelve lines and make it sound convincing. A different problem occurs when one adds extra lines. The pithiness, which is the soul of a sonnet, is missing and its absence is hard to cover up.
Stern is much too interested in autobiography and narrative to let the tensions between formal restrictions and verbal play configure the meaning on their own. The less space one allows oneself, the more the words on the page take over the poem. The sonnet is more concerned with following its own logic of images and metaphors than with obeying the author’s first wishes. That said, the new book has a number of splendid poems. I like “Savel Kliatchko,” “Studebaker,” “Samaritans,” “Spider,” and “Sam and Morris.” They all do what Stern knows how to do well, and that is make poetry out of good stories.
April Bernard is more interested in prosody and language than Stern is, so her sonnets sound more like the real thing. Accordingly, she’s less concerned with what is said than in how it is said. Wit and lightness of touch are her virtues. In Swan Electric, her third book of poems, she has ten sonnets and a number of near sonnets, since short poems are her specialty. Affairs of the heart are the concern in several of them, although at times I have no idea who is speaking and about whom—and I don’t especially care. The pleasures of her poems lie in details, surprising images, and turns of phrase, each of which has been carefully wrought. Here’s an example of what I mean:
ENGLISH AS A SECOND LANGUAGE
That voice—from the tv—that voice,
thick smoky cheese, or, no—
dark as burnt flan, sweet,
venison-sweet in the heavy smoke
of a tavern hearth, and hot as brandy.
I served that voice for months,
in a theater on 13th near Third
where losers are the ones who crack first.
I gave you azured hours, nights,
and you placed your soul,
pretty as a dead mouse, at my feet.
Gutturals, the candles guttering backstage.
Your voice went everywhere
you dared not put your hands.
Any poet who can use “azured” and get away with it deserves our admiration. Bernard is primarily a satirist. Her poems may start in the autobiographical mode, but it doesn’t take her long before she starts poking fun at herself. “Against Biography” is the title of a poem in her first book. Blurting out confessions is not what she is after. The “I” in Swan Electric is a comic persona, a worldly heroine of picaresque urban adventures. There’s nothing of a recluse about her and yet Dickinson taught her how to prepare her spare cuisine of beguiling and delectable verbal combinations. With all that lushness of language her poems can at times be hermetic. The sonnets in her new book are in my view far less successful than the memoir sequence about the East Village and New York in the 1980s called “Song of Yes and No.” It’s the title of a song from Threepenny Opera. This turns out to be somewhat misleading. With its erotic and lyric mixture and its assortment of colorful characters, this sequence of fourteen poems partakes more of the spirit of Mozart, whom it evokes repeatedly, than Brecht:
7. Cosi fan tutte
Colossus from a rockabilly float,
piled blonde, plaid blouse cinched into cutoffs,
wiggles, “I need a man, I need a man,
I need a man.” Like the old song goes.
Knitting Factory bouncer, House O’Love spy,
double-bottle brunette, cartoon caveman with a jaw like a trout,
wolf long as a limo, and don’t forget
the ibis that says she’s somebody’s mother.
You dance close to the tourist whose shaved albino neck
smells of the beer garden, and you realize he’s your type.
So maybe you like the scare yourself, de temps en temps.
Some pepper on that?
Fwup, fwup, fwup, shouts the copter
bulging blue head in the inky sky; and lululu,
warbles the auteur. Oh, night is the permeable membrane,
the terrible present tense.
Bernard’s poetry can be a lot of fun. Even when she copes with disappointments in love and other daily hassles, she doesn’t lose her sense of humor. If a poet is condemned—life being what it is—to say what has already been said thousands of times, then a bit of mischief helps. “I don’t know about you, but I’ve been looking/for a narrative in which suffering makes sense” is how she describes her predicament in one poem. She finds it in a poetic equivalent of a comic opera. I’m happy she does because it inspires her most felicitous flights of imagination. Even with an occasional unevenness, Swan Electric is an original and thoroughly enjoyable book of poems by a fine poet.
Charles Wright, too, has a group of sonnets in A Short History of the Shadow. As far as I can tell, not since Bloodlines (1975) has he written any, although most of the poems in his eight intervening collections tend to run between ten and twenty lines. The unusual aspect of all his poems, long and short, is that they are interconnected and an integral part of a larger body of work, which includes almost everything he has written. In other words, Wright’s ambition includes both the individual lyric and a long poem. I’d like to marry Emily and Walt, he has said on a couple of occasions, and he has certainly tried to do so. Whatever the offspring of that union eventually looks like, here, in the meantime, is one of his free verse sonnets from the new book employing his characteristic two-step line:
Moonlight blank newsprint across the lawn,
Three-quarters moon, give or take,
empty notebook, no wind.
When it’s over it’s over,
Cloud crossing moon, half-clear sky, then
Well, that’s a couple of miles down the road,
he said to himself,
Watching the moonlight lacquer and mat.
Surely a mile and then some,
Watching the clouds come and the clouds go.
Citronella against the tiny ones, the biters,
Sky pewter-colored and suddenly indistinct now—
Sweet smell of citronella,
beautiful, endless youth.
The book of moonlight has two pages and this one’s the first one.
Forsake me not utterly,
and make me marvellous
in your eyes.
Wright was born in Pickwick Dam, Tennessee, in 1935 and spent his formative years in rural North Carolina and eastern Tennessee, where his father was a civil engineer for the TVA. The US Army sent him to Italy, to which he returned afterward frequently, often for extended visits. Surprisingly perhaps, there are no Southern poets among his mentors. He’s not, as is typical of that tradition, interested in telling stories. Neither history nor the Southern Agrarian myth of a lost rural culture is his subject. From Ezra Pound he learned how to use images, juxtapose fragments, and quote copiously in his poems. Dante gave him the idea of making an epic out of a string of lyric poems. The old Chinese poets taught him not to forget to include in each poem that day’s weather report. Wallace Stevens showed him how to read the metaphysics of the natural world and the Surrealists how to trust his imagination and go for broke when making metaphors. “At the heart of every poem is a journey of discovery. Something is being found out,” he writes.
True enough, except what is odd about Wright is that the range of his subject matter is exceedingly narrow. This is even truer of his last three books. He is a bit like the Italian painter Morandi, who for most of his life tried to render the same four objects: two olive oil tins, one wine bottle, and one flower vase. For Wright, the trees in his backyard, light and shadow, stars, mountains, the sun and the moon—first in Laguna Beach and now for some twenty years in Charlottesville, Virginia—have served the same function. He pays close attention to them, letting their daily variations in appearance jump-start a poem. One would expect this obsessive single-mindedness to weary the reader after a while, but strangely that is not the case. All things that are the same are also different, Wright proves over and over again. When it comes to describing nature, he is endlessly inventive. “Winter blue moon, light like a wax-thin slice of finnochio,/So grainy, so white” comes from “Night Rider” in the new book. There are hundreds of such images throughout his work, risky and often seemingly far-fetched, that turn out to be amazingly precise if we keep our eyes open.
“The poem is a self-portrait/always, no matter what mask/You take off and put back on,” he has also said. Pound tried to construct the whole history of the world in his Cantos and could not make it cohere. Wright stayed “narrow,” but only in the sense that someone like Dickinson or Pascal is narrow. To get a full sense of the complexity of his vision one has to read a lot of his poetry. “There are three things, basically, that I write about—language, landscape, and the idea of God,” he has written, only to contradict himself elsewhere by insisting that for him poems are “aesthetic possibilities, objects of beauty and contemplation.” Actually, both make sense since Wright’s idea of language, landscape, and divinity are not what one would ordinarily expect:
Even so, I think it’s all incomprehensible
Everything that we look at.
Much easier, I think, to imagine the abyss, just there,
The other side of the hedge,
than to conjure the hedge,
The trees, and time like a puddle of water and not a stream.
When Auden called Van Gogh a “Religious Realist,” he could have had Wright in mind. The Dutch painter was a realist, according to him, because he attached supreme importance to incessant study of nature; religious because he regarded nature as the sacramental visible sign of spiritual grace, which it was the artist’s aim to reveal to others. Except when it comes to Wright, it gets even more complicated:
I used to think the power of words was inexhaustible,
That how we said the world
was how it was, and
how it would be.
I used to imagine that word-sway and word-thunder
Would silence the Silence and all that,
That words were the Word,
That language could lead us inexplicably to grace,
As though it were geographical.
I used to think these things when I was young.
I still do.
The philosophical quandary for someone like Wright is that he believes in transcendence, but not necessarily in God. How can that be, you ask? To claim mystical states, doesn’t one need to believe in the world beyond appearances? Yes and no, as Wright’s example shows. Divinity for him resides in the eternal and unsayable reality of the world. His hell, purgatory, and paradiso are all to be found in living and accepting that contradiction. Truth is not stable; it has to be rediscovered and renamed continuously in the light of our experience. Accordingly, the subject of most of his poems is the clock. Time is both the villain and a friend since it gives definition to every moment of our lives. “A moment’s monument/Memorial from the Soul’s eternity/To one dead deathless hour” is what Dante Gabriel Rossetti called the sonnet. The mind in the act of finding what will suffice in the face of one’s own mortality is Wright’s inexhaustible theme.
Short History of the Shadow together with Appalachia (1998), Black Zodiac (1997), and Chickamauga (1995) contain some of Wright’s very best poems. Country Music, his selected early poems, and still another selection of poems from 1980 to 1990 called The World of the Ten Thousand Things are equally impressive. More than any of his contemporaries I can think of, Wright is capable of saying things memorably. He can write lyrics of great beauty that achieve a level of eloquence where the reader says to himself, if this is not wisdom, I don’t know what is. The new book has a number of interesting longer poems, however. With the current strength of the sonnet in mind, I’ll conclude with one of his:
ON HEAVEN CONSIDERED AS WHAT WILL COVER US AND STONY COMFORTER
The longed-for is tiny, and tenuous as a syllable.
In this it resembles us.
In this it resembles what we’ve passed on and shucked off.
Interminable as black water,
Irreparable as dirt,
It shadows our going forth and finds us,
and then finds us out.
Horizon line like a basted
slipstitch that shines back,
Seasonal underwork, seasonal blueprint and burn.
Last stop. End of the end. No exit.
Autumn in override,
everyone long gone from the garden,
No footprints, wings furled, swords sheathed.
No gears, no wheels. A silence unimaginable.
Saint Sunday, leaves in free-fall,
A little light in the west, a night light,
to harry us home.
Reading these three poets, I’m impressed by the resiliency of the sonnet. Even when the poet sets out to break most of its traditional requirements, its presence lingers. That resilience is no mystery. There’s nothing comparable to a sonnet in the rest of literature. To write one is to attempt to put into practice the notion that everything that needs saying can be said in a few words. The sonnet is a literary equivalent of an endgame in chess. It is about a series of quick-witted and unforeseen moves within the confines of rigorous rules against an unknown opponent who can be anything or anyone from God to a case of unrequited love. Because we are at our best as poets and philosophers when we are cornered, sonnets continue to be written. In the sonnet’s difficulty and downright impossibility lies the secret of its appeal and its hope. A place where one right word or image may take our breath away.
September 26, 2002