American Sonnets (Part IV: As American As…)

Dora Malech
November 27, 2017
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[Continued from “Hayes’s American Sonnets (Part III: Hayes and The Confidence of Influence”]

When I first decided to write about Terrance Hayes’s new “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin” poems here at The Kenyon Review blog, I imagined mostly close readings of the poems themselves. Now I imagine I’ll get there, but somehow, I still haven’t gotten past those first two words: American. Sonnet.

I’ve found myself obsessively searching sonnet anthologies, needing to know which poets and which poems make their way into the story of “our” sonnet, dwelling on Wanda Coleman’s absence. Since Hayes has explicitly connected his American Sonnets to hers, I thought establishing the significance of her American Sonnets in a broader context would be straightforward, but it wasn’t. I was hopeful I’d find Wanda Coleman’s American Sonnets in Edward Hirsch and Eavan Boland’s The Making of a Sonnet: A Norton Anthology, published in 2008, but no. Like Levin’s Penguin Book of the Sonnet, Coleman’s missing there. Unlike Levin’s anthology, this one devotes pages to the experimental sonnet in a section titled “The Sonnet Goes to Different Lengths,” including two of Ted Berrigan’s unconventional sonnets – and Billy Collins’s “American Sonnet,” again. But no Coleman. Coleman’s “American Sonnet 10does appear in Jay Parini’s 2005 The Wadsworth Anthology of Poetry in its sonnet section, which made me feel vindicated. I hadn’t realized that I was starting to succumb to that persistent and pernicious paradigm: with no affirmation that someone or something belongs, one can start to lack the courage of one’s convictions.

I’d like to take a moment here for Wanda Coleman, in her own words, to explain why her American Sonnets, which clearly spoke to Hayes, should have a place in our sonnet anthologies as well – why they are sonnets not in name only, but rather, in formal conversation with “the tradition.” In a 2008 e-mail interview with Paul E Nelson (“Subject: American Sonnets”), Coleman traced the origins of her take on the form to a kind of initial response in the early 70s to a literary magazine’s editor who told her she was writing “jazz poetry.” This commentary came as “negative criticism / rejection,” a kind of marginalization of her work, rather than a celebration of it. “At the time I had no idea what he meant,” she wrote. She set the response to her work aside, but something of it was at work in her “deep consciousness,” and:

a decade later the first sonnet appeared unbidden . . . Some time in the late 80s I reread all of Shakespeare’s sonnets, sonnets by Melville and others . . . All that was left was to work out my criteria . . . 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. I decided on 14 to 16 and to not exceed that, but to go absolutely bonkers within that constraint. I also give the sonnets a jazzified rhythm structure, akin to platter patter and/or scat and tones like certain Beat writers . . . I decided to have fun – to blow my soul.

Nelson ends the interview by asking, “How would you give the assignment to write an American Sonnet,” and Coleman responds:

First I would explain my process. Then I would invite my students to try it, overlaying their specific 1) issues (what the sonnet is about) 2) rhythms (places and devices often have them) 3) tones (shadings of attitude) 4) musical taste/preference (rock, classical, blues, etc.) – how to develop the minimal language to simultaneously encapsulate and signal each.

Keeping in mind that the word “sonnet” comes from the Italian “sonetto” (little song), with roots in Latin “sonus” (sound), Coleman’s focus on the influence of music, and of jazz in particular, highlights some assumptions about the incompatibility of poetry for the page versus poetry for the stage in our contemporary context – assumptions that I think can (not all the time, but sometimes) harbor a kind of implicit bias.

Part of my surprise in not finding Coleman in these anthologies is that I’ve been reading her for years – since high school, even. I wasn’t the most well read high school student, and search engines were barely beginning to be a thing when I was a teenager, so how did find Wanda Coleman’s work? The answer is: an anthology. I realize now that I first encountered her work in ALOUD: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, edited by Miguel Algarín and Bob Holman, published in August 1994 (I was turning 13 that September). I know I found the book just a year or two later, as I entered high school and got excited about spoken word and slam poetry. If I hadn’t been interested in page and stage, I might have missed Coleman until much later. This is partly why I’ve taken this tangent into thinking about anthologies: they have a kind of reach, particularly for young people, that individual volumes don’t always have.

Will Hayes’s American Sonnets make it into our future sonnet anthologies? I certainly hope so. And I hope to see them there alongside Coleman’s.

[Continued in “American Sonnets: Part V (Hayes in His Own Words)”]

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