October 25, 2017KR BlogBlogCurrent EventsEnthusiamsReadingWriting

Hayes’s American Sonnets (Part II)

[Continued from “Hayes’s American Sonnets (Part I)”]

I trace Hayes’s “American Sonnet” impulse and form to Wanda Coleman, but Coleman and Hayes are certainly not alone in making the sonnet their own. Gwendolyn Brooks – though American, and a writer of sonnets, and a sure influence on Hayes (see his “Golden Shovel” form) – adheres to the received form of the sonnet tradition too closely for me to position her as the primary influence alongside Coleman in this context, but it is worth noting that her poems uniquely inhabit the American sonnet tradition as well. Her poem “the sonnet-ballad” echoes the Shakespearean rhyme scheme with its final couplet, though the insistence of her first and second rhyme (ABAB BCBC DEDE AA) and circular return to the first line’s lament as a refrain hybridize the form and make it her own. Her poem “the rites for Cousin Vit” echoes a Petrarchan rhyme scheme with its octave and sestet (ABBACDDC EFGGEF), though the slant rhyme of the final line (hiss / Is) inhabits the beautiful, unapologetic individuality of Cousin Vit herself, who “Slops the bad wine across her shantung, talks / Of pregnancy, guitars and bridgework.” This is not Petrarch’s idealized Laura, and the sonnet can’t hold her any more than the “stuff and satin” of the casket can, the form itself drawing attention to Cousin Vit’s uncontainable spirit. The sonnet isn’t the only form Brooks makes her own; the poem that inspires Hayes’s Golden Shovel form, “We Real Cool,” can be read as a poem within the greater ballad tradition, as Mark Strand and Eavan Boland do in The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms, focusing on Brooks’s poem in their “Close-Up of a Ballad,” writing:

As an African-American poet, Gwendolyn Brooks innovated styles and melodies to convey the . . . power of a poetry that was often political, often a vehicle of resistance. Her celebrated poem “We Real Cool” is an example. It has a striking number of characteristics in common with the ballad of tradition. With its suppressed narrative, concealed drama, and communal theme, it conveys the power of the ballad in a contemporary context, disguising a sharp and public tone with deceptively musical cadences.

Reflecting on this “sharp and public tone with deceptively musical cadences,” I am turned again to Hayes’s American Sonnets. Though Coleman is a more direct influence in this context, Brooks still echoes here as well.

Some readers may be familiar with the title American Sonnets from Gerald Stern’s National Book Award winning collection, but keep in mind that Stern’s book was published by Norton in 2002, when Coleman had already been writing and publishing hers for years. While one can clearly see the sonnet tradition in the rhyme and meter of Brooks’s poems, and one can still recognize the sonnet tradition in the length and musicality of Hayes’s and Coleman’s poems, Stern’s “American sonnets” stray even further – free-verse meditations that usually range to around 20 lines, often composed of a single sentence, focused on the everyday autobiographical. Stern discussed his American sonnets, and the sonnet tradition, with Jacki Lyden on NPR’s On Things Considered in 2002. Billy Collins also has a poem titled “American Sonnet” (first published in POETRY in 1989) – not a sonnet at all in its form, but a poem that compares the historical sonnet to today’s “picture postcard”: “a few square inches of where we have strayed / and a compression of what we feel.”

In its overview of the sonnet, The Academy of American Poets writes of the “Modern Sonnet”:

Stretched and teased formally and thematically, today’s sonnets can often only be identified by the ghost imprint that haunts it, recognizable by the presence of 14 lines or even by name only. Recent practitioners of this so-called “American” sonnet include Gerald Stern, Wanda Coleman, Ted Berrigan, and Karen Volkman.

Originally published in 1964, Berrigan’s The Sonnets doesn’t self-identify as “American,” but certainly feels like it’s part of a conversation about the American-ness of sonnets that shrug off the contraints that have defined them for so long; an annotated edition with an introduction by Alice Notley was published in 2000. Volkman’s more formally traditional (end-rhymed) sonnets comprise the 50 poem sequence of her third book, Nomina (BOA, 2008).

David Bromwich’s American Sonnets: an anthology, published by Library of America in the American Poets Project in 2007, tracks the “American sonnet” from John Quincy Adams onward, though he ends his chronology at Robert Mezey, born in 1935, and omits Gwendolyn Brooks altogether. Phillis Levin’s The Penguin Book of the Sonnet: 500 Years of a Classic Tradition in English thankfully doesn’t omit Gwendolyn Brooks, but it does omit Wanda Coleman, despite including both her contemporaries and younger generations (Coleman was born in 1946, and died in 2013). Stern’s American sonnets were perhaps not formally “sonnet-y” enough to make Levin’s cut, though Billy Collins’s “American Sonnet” did.

[Continued in “Hayes’s American Sonnets (Part III)”]