Tactics for Contemporary Sonnets

Contemporary sonnets are not easy to write.

Yet some have done it surprisingly well. Of the poems I liked best toward the latter half of this anthology, there seemed to be three general types of poems that employed either dense music to drown out the form; an “absurd” subject matter juxtaposed against the intricate, labyrinthine turns of the form; or a very faint adherence to the form, giving a vague echo or nod to the tradition while also breaking free.

An excellent and very early example of “dense music” can be heard in the sonnets of Gerard Manley Hopkins. I mention him in the context of contemporary poets (though he falls chronologically in the middle of the book) because his associative leaps are as bold as any Wallace Stevens poem and his strange sprung rhythms are characteristically his own. The musicality in such classic poems as “God’s Grandeur” or “The Windhover” completely subsumes the sonnet form, making each poem uniquely Hopkins.

Another, more modern example of dense music drowning out the all-too-familiar cadences of the sonnet are poems by Seamus Heaney. His lugubrious, rich, full relationship to language, darkly overshadowed by his Irish accent, drown out the ending rhymes such that we focus more on the dense internal rhymes and lush linguistic rhythms. To a lesser, and different extent, Paul Muldoon’s sonnets are likewise dense with internal music, although they are not as tightly controlled or as obsessed with the sounds and rhythms of words. Muldoon peppers his sonnets with idea-surprises (consider “October 1950”) that go equally as far as music in distracting us from, and transcending, the form.

Besides drowning out the form, another option is to succumb to it–but with a subject so iconoclastic to the witty volta that it adds energy through tension. An excellent example of this approach are the poems from Marilyn Hacker’s Cancer Winter that are included in this anthology. The intense experience of a full single mastectomy and resulting physical and psychological recovery are pitted against the quip-like chiming of a the classic Italian sonnet form. The Italian form reveals its “device” even more than the English form, since the kissing rhyme places rhymed lines right next to each other–something that sounds more contrived in English than it does in Italian, where rhyme-able word combinations abound. The intense disparity between form and subject reflect the speaker’s dissociative experience of loss.

Equally awkward and compelling are J.D. McClatchy’s series of poems about his male mammogram, discovery of excess estrogen in his body, and resulting musing about his androgyny. Again, by pitting an embarrassingly personal and awkward, intimate situation with the rigid sonnet form, he draws out the difference between the glib, hyper-professional medical staff and the uncomfortably intimate subjects they probe and examine. But “absurd” subjects need not be deeply personal–our world is rife with examples of the ironic and surreal.

In Charles Martin’s “Easter Sunday, 1985” the absurdity of Guatemala’s president confronting the notion that desaparecidos (political dissidents who disappeared under his totalitarian regime) could resurrect is carefully explored in the first two stanzas. Then, in the volta of the last two stanzas, he compares this kind of resurrection to the resurrection of Christ, ending on the compelling image of Jesus “Broken and killed, flung into some ravine / With his arms safely wired up behind him.” Martin resists abstraction and rhetoric and, by taking the absurd seriously and pouring it into a modified Italian sonnet form, he renders a compelling disparity between totalitarian rhetoric and its underlying brutality.

A third option for contemporary sonneteer-ing I have identified through this text is to exhibit only a faint adherence to the form. I was surprised to see a poem by Louise Glück in the collection, adhering to her characteristic form and clearly “breaking” the rules of classic sonnets. On further examination, the turns involved in this (and many) of her poems exhibit a kind of faint adherence to the spirit of the sonnet’s volta. Another example of muting some of the more intractable difficulties of the sonnet form by only vaguely adhering to the tradition is Dana Gioia’s “Sunday Night In Santa Rosa.” Gioia uses subtle, slant rhyme and refuses to rhyme the ending couplet–instead relying on a compelling image of a clown peeling away his face as a kind of comparable “ta-da” to the traditional couplet.

Another example of faint adherence to sonnet form is Henri Cole’s series “Chiffon Morning.” Here Cole pursues the somewhat awkward and personal subject of his mother’s final days but, rather than creating dissonance by employing a strict Italian form, Cole employs the English form and mutes the flourishes of this form using slant rhyme and strange, disorienting associations within the lines. This represents a kind of amalgam of the above techniques of taking liberties, exploring a compelling theme, and drowning the form out with other interesting intellectual and musical goings-on within the middles of lines.

These three tactics of dense music, absurd subject and faint adherence represent my own taxonomy derived from reading selections of the Penguin anthology. Obviously, there are other techniques I have not spotted, and clearly the three I have outlined interweave and interplay with each other as contemporary poets continue to attempted to mitigate the difficulties and capitalize on the assets of this timeless form.