In preparing for a upcoming workshop on poetic form, it occurs to me to ask (and answer) the question: why should form matter to poets in the twenty-first century? After all, the majority of poems written in English today are written in free verse. Certainly it is important to have a grasp of form in academia, if one is studying verse written before the Second World War. Most poetry written in English, from Beowulf to Wilfred Owen, employed elements of form, and could rightly be called verse. But poets nowadays write poems which often seem to have little connection to the strictures of the past.
What, then, can poets writing today, in the vers libre form that has dominated the past sixty years of poetry, gain from studying English-language forms that moved in and out of fashion over the previous thousand years?
One answer is that the poet can gain a sense of connection to poetic lineage. Discovering that poets have been re-inventing our relationship to language for thousands of years can be deliciously humbling. Perhaps this is what Emerson meant when he said that poetry must be “as new as foam, and as old as the rock.” Even more than this important universal perspective, though, I feel that I have also gained personally as a poet through studying form.
Proofs & Theories is a remarkable collection of essays in which Glück speaks candidly about her experience and thoughts on writing. I want to read these notes on craft not so much because she is a great essayist or critic, but because I value illumination into the mind of such a remarkable poet. Most striking to me was her essay, “Against Sincerity” — the very title seemed designed to shock. After all, I found myself ruefully laughing along with Li-Young Lee in an interview he gave with Rattle when he said:
I heard a poet say to me, ‘Oh, I hate sincerity.’ And I thought, oh, what do you like? Insincerity? I don’t get it.
I didn’t get it either. Perhaps partly because the title is so iconoclastic, Glück begins by defining terms, equating her use of the word sincerity with “telling the truth.”
Clearly, the truth is not always interesting. Nor can a poet force a reader to like a poem simply because “it really happened.” This seems to be the single greatest mistake of poets engaged with the personal lyric in our time.
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.
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.
Read the poem
What is so great about this poem is that it makes excellent use of the momentum of the English sonnet form, culminating in a beautiful pair of lines that simultaneously do and do not make sense: