The Trouble with Sonnets

I have been reading The Penguin Book of the Sonnet, edited by Phillis Levin. I skimmed through the introduction and read the first sixty pages to reacquaint myself with old friends from my undergraduate days at UC Berkeley: Petrarch, Sidney, Spencer, Wyatt, Dante. It occurs to me just how wildly popular this form remained, largely unaltered, well after Shakespeare wrote into being some of the highest realizations of the English Renaissance sonnet form. Sonnets were a showpiece in courtier times, a means to political mobility as much as artistic merit. The lack of innovation on the form, up until the Romantics, reminds me of the current saturation of our modern poetry “marketplace” with the same cookie-cutter forms of sentimental personal lyric.

Both forms lend themselves naturally to turns of rhetoric and reflection upon a personal subject (be it love or the death of a loved one), and both forms, done badly, often seem to repay the author’s narcissism far more than the reader’s interest. The challenge with the personal lyric is to overcome the limitations of the deeply personal to reach some unique and universal truth. The challenge of the sonnet, especially in modern times, is to overcome the stringent limitations of the form to approach something transcendent. Far too often, it seems poets are content to write lyric poems that simply matter to themselves and their friends or, as with the sonnet, to simply plough through the form, capitalizing on all its traditional advantages and enduring its limitations.

I was therefore particularly interested in skipping ahead to poems from Elizabeth Bishop onward, to see how exemplary Modern and contemporary poets wrangle such a necessarily introspective form–how they might do more than simply settle for a decent sonnet, resting on the laurels of tradition. However here, too, I was struck by how many remarkable poets wrote mediocre sonnets. Many of the poems feel like early works, devoid of the unique flourishes that define the characteristic voices of Plath, Hall, Taylor, Stafford, or Dunn. Why is this sonnet business so hard for even great poets to pull off?

In a recent workshop, Marvin Bell pointed out that there is verse (meter/rhyme) and then there’s poetry, and that while he knows a lot about the former, he teaches and writes the latter. Furthermore, he pointed out how strongly contemporary poetry can often rest on interesting syntax. In a sense, syntax revives the unique literary interest of poetry in an analogous way to how verse charges language with meter and rhyme. The problem with the sonnet, of course, is that unusual syntax in service to landing on the appropriate meter or rhyme sounds deeply artificial to our modern ear.

Furthermore, because of the constraint on word choice, it seems to me that sonnets naturally tend toward more rhetorical speech (instead of concrete, imagistic plain speech)–because words are somehow more readily available in the realm of the abstract. Yet this can quickly add up to a lofty, philosophical tone, reminiscent of all the old devices of Renaissance sonneteers and their courtly ambitions. In short, it is awfully hard for a contemporary reader to trust the bombastic marching-band iambs and voltas of a contemporary sonnet, with its perilous temptations toward elevated diction, artificial syntax, and abstract, philosophical themes. It is the stuff of verse, not poetry.

Continue To Part Two: “Tactics For Contemporary Sonnets”