March 24, 2018KR BlogBlogEnthusiamsLiteratureReadingWriting

American Sonnets (Part XVII: An American Sonnet by Any Other Name)

[Continued from “American Sonnets (Part XVI: ‘What’s up ahead / which is resistance’)”]

In the “Brief Glossary of Forms and Other Terms” at the end of David Lehman’s Ecstatic Occasions, Expedient Forms: 85 Leading and Contemporary Poets Select and Comment on Their Poems, he notes:

[In] the sonnet [modern poets] confronted the full weight of the literary tradition. The sonnet therefore seemed a particularly inviting target for modern iconoclasts: the need to evade a daunting predecessor goes hand in hand with the temptation to draw a mustache on the Mona Lisa. Already in the nineteenth century, poets arbitrarily discarded or altered the standard conventions, with the effect that only the abstract idea of a sonnet was retained.

While I’m not sure I’m on the same page with “evade” and “arbitrarily,” I am definitely on board with the phrasing he uses to describe Rimbaud’s move in titling a prose paragraph “Sonnet”: “a certain provocative insistence.” Insistence is the word Gertrude Stein, well, insisted upon using to describe her repetitions. And I’ve been, perhaps perversely, insisting on including Gertrude Stein in a conversation on the American sonnet. Lehman’s inclusion of Rimbaud in this conversation is a healthy reminder that the urge to engage with a tradition through its subversion is certainly not a uniquely American phenomenon, though it has blossomed in America. He writes:

‘Shadow sonnets’ seems a good name for the unrhymed, unmetered, fourteen-line poems that have lately become a common feature on the literary landscape. And, of course, the fourteen-line rule of thumb continues to go by the boards on occasion.

Lehman puts “sonnets” in quotes to cite George Meredith’s sixteen line sonnets and Gerard Manley Hopkins’s twelve line sonnets. He then applies the term “shadow sonnets” to work by John Ashbery (see my two previous posts), notes John Hollander’s thirteen line (and thirteen syllable line) variation, as well as noting “inveterate sonneteers” who “continue to put the old form to dazzlingly elaborate uses”: Daryl Hines, Anthony Hecht, James Merrill, Kenneth Koch, Paul Muldoon, Vikram Seth. He mentions the possibility of innovating on the sonnet crown (series of linked sonnets) as well, using John Fuller as one who “added some desirable thorns to the Crown.”

Lehman’s volume was first published in 1987 and then in 1996, and its list of authors is commendably varied in its aesthetics. I don’t want to put too much pressure on a single moment in an intentionally “brief” glossary, but it seems worth noting (especially since I have seen other writers and teachers – particularly those who focus on traditional form, and thus might have Lehman’s volume close at hand on their bookshelf – using the term “shadow sonnets” to talk about Terrance Hayes’s forthcoming collection, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin) what Coleman’s American Sonnet brings to this (again, very very short) list of “shadow sonnets” – the voice of an African-American woman specifically engaging, in her own words, a “jazz” tradition. Does it matter whether we call  Hayes’s poems “shadow sonnets” or “American Sonnets” or “sonnets-in-quotes”? Sure it does, if we believe that a form is more than the sum of its rhyme and meter (or lack thereof), accruing meaning through its practitioners, its themes, and its cultural contexts. It may make sense to use Lehman’s term “shadow sonnets” as an umbrella term to cover all kinds of subversive sonnets, but I do think it’s relevant that it was Coleman’s take on this tradition that particularly inspired Hayes’s recent outpouring.

I began this investigation of Terrance Hayes’s American Sonnets by focusing on the example set by Wanda Coleman because Hayes himself keeps reminding his readers and listeners of his forebear, his friend, his formal interlocutor. As I mentioned earlier, Coleman conceived of her “American Sonnet” as a “jazz sonnet,” noting:

Since jazz is an open form with certain properties – progression, improvisation, mimicry, etc., I decided that likewise the jazz sonnet would be as open as possible, adhering only to the loosely followed dictate of number of lines . . . but to go absolutely bonkers within that constraint. I also give the sonnets a jazzified rhythm structure . . . I decided to have fun – to blow my soul.

The American Sonnet as she envisioned it is a specifically musical and African-American response to the form. But one more fruitful complication – one of her sonnets is “after Lowell”; if she was reading Lowell, I assume she was familiar with Lowell’s hundreds of unrhymed blank verse sonnets. Included in a subversive sonnet lineage from Rimbaud and Stein through Ashbery, we have branches that include Lowell, Coleman, Hayes. Are these all one “family tree”? Again: “Instead of saying ‘I don’t know who could be my brother,’ you can say ‘Anybody can be my brother,'” says Hayes.

[Continued in: “American Sonnets (Part XVIII: From the French For…)”]