American Sonnets (Part IX: Concept and Impact)

Dora Malech
December 23, 2017
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[Continued from “American Sonnets (Part VIII: A Tale of Two Sonnets)”]

In my last post, I returned to sonnets (traditional and conceptual) in Terrance Hayes’s first two books of poems, Muscular Music and Hip Logic, in an attempt to lay out a kind of “sonnet spectrum.” Of course, to create a poetic spectrum from “formal” to “experimental” is to create a false dichotomy – poems can be both at the same time, and even to turn one’s back on a conversation or slam the door on a conversation is a kind of participation or response to that conversation. Hayes, too, returns to the sonnet or revisits some conversation with the form again and again – in addition to “HOWYOUBEENS” in Muscular Music and “Sonnet” in Hip Logic, poems that read explicitly as sonnets or bear some resemblance in their 14-line visage in Hayes’s oeuvre include “Mr. T–,” “For Robert Hayden,” “Blues Procession,” and “Ode to Stone” (all also in Hip Logic); the opening and closing poems of his 2006 collection Wind in a Box, “God is an American” (on the more “traditional” end of the perhaps misleading spectrum) in 2010’s Lighthead, and “A. Machine” and “American Sonnet for Wanda C.” in 2015’s How to Be Drawn. And soon, the whole collection of American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin.

Some of the poems I cite from earlier collections, I admit, may “just” be 14-line poems, divorced from any impulse toward sonnet-ness. In the context of Hayes’s body of work though, I doubt it. That said, the question of what is “just” a 14-line poem, as opposed to a sonnet, hovers around this whole conversation. In writing these posts, I sometimes imagine a reader more exclusively aesthetically inclined toward received form and traditional prosody shaking their head in disagreement with the whole rhetorical warrant of my discourse and that of the titles of Wanda Coleman and Terrance Hayes’s “sonnets” (or Gerald Stern’s, Bernadette Mayer’s, Ted Berrigan’s, et al.). If it doesn’t have iambic pentameter and a fixed end-rhyme scheme, how and why should anyone call it a sonnet? If it doesn’t even have fourteen lines, what kind of sonnet can it possibly be? It may be a good poem, but it’s not that kind of good poem. Why not just call it something else? In a way, one hopes these titles can still provoke questioning (different from outright dismissal or indignation); one hopes that the conceptual move of problematizing our assumptions still turns some heads. Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 urinal was titled Fountain. “Ceci ne’est pas une pipe” (This is not a pipe), wrote René Magritte beneath his 1929 painting of a pipe, titled La trahison des images (The Treason of Images).

Some might argue that a conceptual “move” is always that just – a singular move – a one-trick pony, a one-note song. (Ironically, others might make this same argument about poems written in a received form – as Williams did when he wrote, “To me all sonnets say the same thing of no importance.”) But Hayes’s poem “Sonnet” (the 14-line repetition of “We sliced the watermelon into smiles” discussed in my last post) pushes against that assumption, and it pushes even more so when contrasted with another poem that makes that same conceptual move. Here’s Hayes’s “Sonnet”:

We sliced the watermelon into smiles.
We sliced the watermelon into smiles.
We sliced the watermelon into smiles.
We sliced the watermelon into smiles.
We sliced the watermelon into smiles.
We sliced the watermelon into smiles.
We sliced the watermelon into smiles.
We sliced the watermelon into smiles.
We sliced the watermelon into smiles.
We sliced the watermelon into smiles.
We sliced the watermelon into smiles.
We sliced the watermelon into smiles.
We sliced the watermelon into smiles.
We sliced the watermelon into smiles.

Now consider Ron Padgett’s 1990 poem “Nothing in that Drawer” from Great Balls of Fire:

Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.

If you really read these two poems in “real time” to yourself, I hope you’ll find that the same “move” has a different, if related, impact. Of Padgett’s poem, Sandra Simonds writes:

I love Padgett’s simultaneous reverence and irreverence towards the sonnet expressed through the play between content and form. As Stephen Burt and David Mikics write in the introduction to The Art of the Sonnet, the sonnet is a form of, “rapturous praise, bitter exclamation, step-by-step reasoning” but this example turns all of these notions upside-down. Even as the poem takes on the quality of a joke, the joke isn’t shallow or without a deep understanding of the sonnet’s history of posing a problem that it seeks to, if not solve, explore. I love that the empty drawers, line by line, come together to build a chest of emptiness. The take home message seems to be that every time you write a really good sonnet, it’s kind of creepy like building a piece of furniture with the ghosts of history. One day someone is going to open one of Padgett’s drawers and some monster is going to pop out and scare the crap out of the reader.

Hayes’s “Sonnet,” too, has a relationship with the “ghosts of history,” but though there are fourteen forced “smiles” in his poem, there is little to no laughter (except perhaps nervous laughter) if one understands its potential context of American stereotype and minstrelsy. Both poems use their form to ask us to interrogate our relationship with tradition in a literary sense, but Hayes’s also asks us to interrogate a particularly American past (that is still present) – one of pain that repeats itself. If fourteen lines of repetition feels interminable, try a lifetime. Then another. Then –

In Hayes’s very American “Sonnet,” then, the “turn” we come to expect in a sonnet is, perhaps, the pain of the seemingly intractable – death by a thousand cuts (“slow slicing”), a poem (or society, or culture, or system) in which what seemingly must change still does not change.

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