The Art of the Sonnet by Stephen Burt and David Mikics. The Belknap Press, 2010.
Eternal glory to the inventor of the sonnet. However, although so many beautiful sonnets have been written, the most beautiful is still to be done.
–Paul Valéry “A Poet’s Notebook”
If you were paying attention this summer, you know that for most of the world, football is a game in which players kick the ball strategically around a large grassy area and ultimately into a goal at one end of the field. In America, football is a sport in which the foot rarely touches the ball. And when it does, we see this action as a failure to accomplish more. There are so many varieties of the game, spectators need to know the context to be sure of the rules: professional, college, Canadian, arena, and so forth. Ask those who play or watch these versions of the sport, and they will detail for you the aesthetic beauty and strengths of each. But the fact remains that the foot does not often touch the ball. This does not necessarily make football inferior, of course. But we Americans like to think we’re different. We call soccer what most of the world knows as football.
So it goes with the sonnet in America, and elsewhere: eighteen-line sonnets, dream songs, twelve-line truncations, fourteen-line blank verse poems, all the way to free verse prose poems that the author entitles “Sonnet” or declares a sonnet because it “feels like a sonnet.” Gerald Stern’s American Sonnets appeared a few years back to boldly declare that all you needed was a turn somewhere in a one page poem to declare it a sonnet. (Doesn’t nearly every poem have a turn, anyway? This is why we call it verse.)
A few years back, some poet was writing “disheveled” sonnets. The word disheveled sounds much more distinguished than incompetent or ham-fisted. Actually, “incompetent sonnets” might be useful. This way, you could blame any verbal failure on the poem instead of the poet. Readers of poetry know that sonnet, in the simplest etymological sense, means only “little song.” Even so, most sonnets are rigorously structured. While recent experimentation with the form enlarges our poetry and while playful reactions to older and stricter forms open up new possibilities for our poetics, poets should wonder about the name of the game.
Stephen Burt and David Mikics have compiled a remarkable anthology of one hundred sonnets with cogent three to six page explications following each poem. The Art of the Sonnet contains some of the most essential sonnets in our language. There are even a few translations of sonnets that allow an insight into how the sonnet form bridges the divide of languages. The introduction gives a brief history of the sonnet and the apparatus by which the poems were chosen, briefly detailing the how, when, where and what of sonnet development over nearly a millennium.
The introduction and the explications following each sonnet neither talk down to us nor expect that we are completely familiar with poetic terminology. Close readings reveal formal complexities while thorough research and scholarly citations detail political intrigue, manuscript revisions, and interesting allusion after allusion. No sonnet exists in a vacuum. Not only do the sonnets touch on Biblical verses and stories, mythology and ancient history, but also they rely on and refer to the long line of sonnets that came before them.
Burt and Mikics reveal formal craft we might otherwise miss. In Robinson’s “Firelight,” for instance, they notice how the poem begins with the word “together” and begins its final line with “apart.” In “Leda and the Swan,” we are shown how the synizesis works to formal effect. In Donne’s “At the round earth’s imagined corners, blow,” the editors illustrate how the combination of Petrarchan octave and Shakespearean sestet creates a poem whose opening is “virtuosic” and who conclusion is “emphatic.” While their explications of the sonnets are not exhaustive, they are intense, smart and passionate, and rarely wrong. I found myself having a delightful conversation with the anthology, deepening my understanding of how the sonnet functions.
Most often a sonnet can be identified by shape. Its familiar form is often, visually, the shape of a piece of paper or a handkerchief, most of the time slightly longer than it is wide. If the poem has a break between octave and sestet, it often resembles the visual weight in many Rothko color fields, one larger block floating above or under another. The word line comes from the Latin linea, or thread. The word text is clearly at the root of textile, which is a plurality of these horizontal threads (lines) interwoven as one moves down the page by vertical threads of sound, meaning, rhyme, grammar, and syntax. The colorful patterns formed in the sonnet as a result of these interweavings may reveal the personality, style, and the formal manners of each poet.
From the Renaissance until the 20th century, the theme of the sonnet most often concerned erotic love. While many of the poems in this collection treat eros as their theme, the others are elegiac, religious, political, mythical, and familial. This anthology shows us how not only the structures, but the subject matter of the sonnet has expanded, and the metaphors consist of far more than stars and eyes.
The first sentence of the introduction argues that these poems “repay sustained attention”. While this is true of most of the examples here up until the 1960s, many of the later poems chosen by the editors are not nearly up to par with the re-readability of the sonnets of Wyatt, Sidney, Shakespeare, Milton, or Auden. The introduction also claims that the essay following will “explain what each sonnet does as an arrangement of language, an event in literary history, and embodiment of human emotion, an exploration of form, a work of art.” The essays (and the sonnets) are best when they stick to these guidelines. But the explications of the weaker contemporary sonnets do not offer us these same pleasures.
Shouldn’t a reader expect poems in a sonnet anthology to adhere to the basic formal requirements of an English-language sonnet? When the anthology begins to depart from that pattern, the editors owe the reader a convincing explanation for why and how the poem is still a sonnet. For the first half of the anthology, Burt and Mikics give excellent close readings of the poems. It is not until the second half of the book where the glosses begin to rely on more personal history of the poet, replacing the interest of language with an interest in social minorities or personal struggle that has little to do with what makes a great sonnet.
Unless one is told (unfortunately, we are told), the minority status of the poets probably wouldn’t be recognized if one were presented the poems without the added information in the gloss. There is nothing in William Meredith’s stunning sonnet, “The Illiterate,” that leads us to believe the speaker is gay or is in any way exploring his identity as a gay man. As a matter of fact, the poem refers to “the dark girl changed and want him for beloved.” Yet the editors allow half the explication of the poem to dwell on the inconsequential fact of sexual preference. Inconsequential to the poem, I should say. “The Illiterate” is such a uniquely formal sonnet, it is unfortunate that these paragraphs neglect to show how the structure works (as they do in most of the anthology) rather than dwelling on some external, personal matter. Better to show how the rime riche enforces the difficulty of the poem, complicates the emotional richness, and how the tropes are folded and folded in on each other until they finally turn and blossom in the last line.
It’s nice to know they write sonnets in New Zealand, Newfoundland, and Australia and other English speaking places, but does one include these for postcolonial purposes? There is little doubt that Les Murray or Paul Muldoon (probably more American than Irish, at this point) can write a sonnet, but some of the others? Even novelists (marginalized?!) need to be included just because one wrote a sonnet: George Eliot gets two sonnets, both loaded with forced rhymes, the dullest description and, after all that, very little happens. If you have to include a novelist, then Julia Alvarez is the one who would have better represented the anthology. Her sequence “33” employs an interesting narrative arc, and a few of her poems stand alone as very pertinent examples of how the sonnet continues to shift with a changing vernacular.
Sometimes the editors just plain misread a poem. Martha Serpas’s so-called sonnet, “Psalm at High Tide,” neither rhyming nor pentameter nor iambic is identified as having iambic resonance in its first four lines: “Rain on the river’s vinyl surface: / water that glitters, / water that hardly moves, / its branches witness to trees.” Clearly, the editor wishes this “iambic resonance” could nudge the poem closer to a sonnet. It isn’t even a good poem, but at least we know from the gloss that Serpas is from Louisiana, so this poem is about…Katrina! Without that being told to us, we couldn’t know it. Identity politics does not a sonnet make.
The editors claim, without showing, that Mary Dalton’s “poem of lust and longing in Newfoundland dialect can rival the vigor of love poems anywhere.” No reader who has experienced the first half of this anthology believes that. Not with these ridiculous last three harebrained alliterative lines: “Now he’d be the one to have in / for a feed of fresh flippers, / A taste of my fine figgy cake.” It’s a mere dirty joke. The editors might consider that they owe the sonnet everything and Newfoundland nothing.
Amy Clampitt’s “The Cormorant in its Element,” despite its competent enjambments, is nothing more than a weak imitation of Marianne Moore’s better beast fables, but without Moore’s control, her economy of language, and constant surprise. Sloppy rhymes, clichés, mixed metaphors, the poem here is wasted space.
When the editors forget their own words, they fail the sonnet and the reader: “Delight in language, and unusual skill in arranging it, separates the poets whose poems we remember.” I only want to forget that they pretend Tony Lopez’s “Radial Symmetry 3” is a sonnet. This Ashberyan fourteener is, in its own elliptical words just an “information dump” or maybe a “backdrop.”
In the editors’ defense, they have attempted to give a greater representation of contemporary sonnets than other recent sonnet anthologies. One has to admit that the sonnet is truly a form for the underdog: the sestet in a good sonnet always equals or outdoes the octave that came before it. In Shakespeare’s case, the couplet trumps each quatrain or, perhaps, all twelve lines coming before. Maybe this structure at the foundation of the form lends itself to the next one being written, trying to outdo the next. The sonnet is, in fact, the preeminent traditional form. We won’t have, any time soon, comparable pantoum, villanelle, or sestina anthologies.
Several poets get more than one poem in the anthology. While both Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poems and the glosses are extraordinary, one wishes that Hopkins’ curtal sonnet (one of the finest variations on the sonnet ever accomplished) could have been represented. Robert Frost has two poems: “Mowing” and “Never Again Would Birds’ Song Be the Same.” The second is a decent enough poem but not nearly as good as “Mowing.” Here, we would have been better served by having one of E. E. Cummings’ better sonnets or one of Robert Lowell’s earlier, stricter sonnets to show the shifts in his own style.
Anyone besides the editor of any given anthology will always be able to cite poems that were passed over, poems that should have been included because they are better than the weaker poems presented. So it is true of this anthology, and this is the greatest weakness of The Art of the Sonnet. While E. E. Cummings, Marilyn Hacker, and John Berryman are mentioned in the introduction as three of the more identifiable 20th-century sonneteers, the anthology fails to include them. While Cummings wrote a lot of treacly, wacky, sentimental verse, and many of Berryman’s egocentric and splendid syntactical ruminations are a mere assemblage of inside jokes, some of their sonnets (and dream songs) are the keenest and more interesting examples that could have been given from the 20th century when discussing experimentation and the progression of the sonnet form.
Interestingly enough, many of the best poets who work in traditional forms do not have sonnets among their best poems. No one doubts that Derek Walcott is a great poet, but “The Morning Moon” is merely a passive, emotional trifle in comparison with most of his work. James Merrill (“Marsyas”), Elizabeth Bishop (“Sonnet”) and Richard Wilbur (not included) are examples, as well. Philip Larkin is another left out of this anthology, and while his sonnets are not his greatest poems, “Autobiography at an Air Station” should have been included. It captures the tender dissatisfaction, the resignation to fate and failure that we know as Philip Larkin. The editors mention the quatorzain in section III of “The Waste Land” but not the actual perfectly measured Shakespearean sonnet (though only a vowel rhyme—kiss/unlit— in the final couplet) a little earlier in the same section of Eliot’s masterpiece. A pity to have missed that, as it is a depiction of a rape, quite a turn from Dante, Petrarch, and Shakespeare or even Wordsworth. It is a fierce moment of experimentation in one of the greatest 20th-century poems, and it is a sonnet. Why not include it?
If experimentation is the name of the game, it would have been interesting to see a sonnet by Frank O’Hara. One of our most unruly and best free verse poets, he has several rough approximations of sonnets. One called “Sonnet,” describes the form in clever emotional terms: “you were there I was here you were here I was there where are you I miss you/ (that was an example of the ‘sonnet’ ‘form’)”.
More contemporary examples of the unjustly excluded include Greg Williamson, A.E. Stallings, Annie Finch, and Karen Volkman. Three of these poets are women, which would help balance the early history’s male dominance of the sonnet, to show that traditional forms are neither masculine nor feminine. Greg Williamson’s table of contents in A Most Marvelous Piece of Luck shows more formal intelligence than most books of poetry published last year. Williamson’s sonnets have their faults: commas and appositives overwhelm his sonnets with a glut of stops and starts, and the grammar is constantly propped up on these crutches. But when he gets it right, he might not have a contemporary equal. Alicia Stallings’ “Explaining an Affinity for Bats” is one of my favorites. She makes the Italian form seem effortless. Karen Volkman’s experimentation with the form is highly stylized and worth exploring. If we wish to examine formal traditions and feminism, Annie Finch would be an obvious choice for the anthology. Julia Alvarez has asked, “Why can’t we women write our own sonnets and sound like ourselves and not just be in sonnets as romantic decoration?” Fair enough.
Of course, one sees why these poets may have been excluded: they strictly adhere to the four generally accepted rules of the sonnet: (1) fourteen lines of (2) rhyming (3) iambic (4) pentameter. Just about anybody at the West Chester Poetry Conference would make some allowance for slant rhyme, rhythmic substitutions for variety of emphasis, tone and feeling, and here and there a line one foot too long or short. But the anthology, after proving that the sonnet’s greatest strength is its formal power, veers away from this identity. According to the editors, this shift must have been most prominent in the Sixties. A sort of free love of the sonnet. It might be an attempt by the editors to create a cultural parallel, but it’s a dishonest move. In the history of sonnet-writing, without interruption, poets have continued to write in the strictest formal lines with great success. To think that in the Age of Aquarius we suddenly have an experimental edge on the sonnet is quixotic.
Wallace Stevens’ poem “Nomad Exquisite” is actually the first example within The Art of the Sonnet to depart radically from the traditional sonnet form. An interesting choice by the editors, the poem is explicated deftly. But the editors do not come close to explaining how this poem is a sonnet. I could argue more forcefully that “Earthy Anecdote,” one of Stevens’ earlier poems, is a sonnet due to a structural quality in its turns. Since Stevens is one of the Modern masters of the iambic pentameter line, a better choice might be a fifteen-line section from a poem like “Sunday Morning” which shows what he could do with this aspect of his craft.
The iambic pentameter measure is often essential to the success of the sonnet because it is one of the most natural elements in English poetry. The steady rise and fall of syllables. The prior fragment is a good example (or this very sentence before the parentheses, with a feminine ending). The earliest English poetry, and much of what we have decided to keep, or canonize, is written in iambic pentameter. The line is natural to how we speak. For the opposite reason rhyme is important, as it is more artificial to our speech. In comparison with romance languages, English is rhyme-deficient. To be sure, our vast lexicon gives us some added possibilities, but we often depend on slant rhymes for a rhyme scheme which continues more than a few lines. Or, as Shakespeare shows, we can choose a greater variety of rhyming pairs within the same poem. The tension between these two natural and artificial elements (horizontal vs. vertical) makes for a challenging conflict of language.
I suppose this is my suggestion to writers and editors to consider their hasty departure from the iambic line. In the end, when we see what spiritual matters and verbal density Hopkins can compress into a sonnet (and then crush almost the same intensity into a curtal sonnet), why should we settle for a full-length sonnet that fails even one line or ignores its metrical and musical potential?
Despite the shortcomings, Burt and Mikics should be praised for their work in The Art of the Sonnet. While I have argued that the inclusion of social minorities probably caused lesser poems to be included, a thorough and diverse group of poets here strengthened the anthology more than it weakened it. The inclusion of poems by D.A. Powell, Louise Bogan, Countee Cullen, and the often overlooked Alice Meynell and Mary Robinson, among many others, gives us the best perspective of any sonnet anthology published to date.
Paul Valéry wrote, “Sonnets must be written. It is astonishing how much one learns by writing sonnets and poems in set form.” Every poem in this collection uses its own particular dynamic of syntax, diction, tone, subject matter, and vernacular to exploit the potential of its form. Without being too romantic about it, one can see that the sonnet can be quite a democratic form. The form holds multitudes. This anthology gives us greater access to the sonnet’s complex lineage. That poets can still hold to its strict measures and succeed so often is testimony to its singularity among standard poetic forms.