Sonnets, The Gritty Ones Especially

The soufflé cliché feels apt for sonnets, the cliché about them falling down a lot, and even though I’ve never made a soufflé, or even watched someone make one, and can’t remember the last time I ate one, I’m going to go with it.

So. The sonnet is just like the soufflé. All are made with the same ingredients, but only a few turn out right. Most collapse. It’s all in the technique and the quality of the ingredients. I’ve been working my way through The Making of a Sonnet (eds Hirsch and Boland), a pretty thorough anthology divided mostly by century (Sixteenth – Twentieth), with sections also for sonnets about sonnets (‘The Sonnet in the Mirror’) and sonnets of lengths other than 14 lines. And I don’t like most of them.

Which isn’t saying much — percentage-wise I probably don’t like most of any type of poetry. Like all the other arts, for every shining peak of a poem there’s a ginormous iceberg of crap poems waiting to sink you. And sonnets have been written around for 500 years now, so that’s a big iceberg.

However, the sonnets I like I tend to love. Broadly speaking I feel more strongly, I think, about the sonnets that I like, than, for instance, the ghazals that I like.

This post was prompted by both trying to write a sonnet myself, and by a friend’s comment that she doesn’t like sonnets, which made me stop to ask if/why I do. If I’d been more up on my sonnets before my friend said that, I might have cheekily quoted Wordsworth, (from “Scorn not the Sonnet; Critic, you have frowned“) “with this key / Shakespeare unlocked his heart; the melody / of this small lute gave ease to Petrarch’s wound [..].”

I don’t mind if a sonnet doesn’t hold strictly to the old rules, and that’s part of why I like the form (when the poem works) — there’s an expansiveness to what can be done with a sonnet, even though it’s a short form with many rules. You can ignore or bend them, and it’s still a sonnet, as long as it has that feeling of compactness, or bouncing off a limit, and some sort of argument, and, somewhere, a turn (of focus, idea, etc.). I don’t, as Billy Collins put it in “Sonnet,” “get Elizabethan / and insist the iambic bongos must be played.”

So. When I like a sonnet I really like it, and on this latest foray into sonnets I’ve noticed that the sonnets I like tend to be dark, and tend to be gritty.

Before I get to the grit, I’ll quickly mention Shakespeare, since I’m particularly fond of “When in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes,” (“Sonnet 29,”) and “Let me not to the marriage of true minds,” (“Sonnet 116“). “Sonnet 29” is the first Shakespeare I remember reading in school. (I will admit that I liked the line “And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries” so much better back when I thought ‘bootless’ meant ‘without shoes’ instead of just ‘useless.’ Bare feet kicking at the sky…)

I also really like William Matthews’ “Cheap Seats, the Cincinnati Gardens, Professional Basketball, 1959,” and “Kazoo” by David Biespiel, and Donne’s “Holy Sonnet 14” (“Batter my heart, three-personed God”) which is fabulous to read aloud, and worth the effort of sorting out the argument inside the archaic language. And I think I’ll save discussion of the more-amazing-than-I-expected-them-to-be Sonnets to Orpheus by Rainer Maria Rilke for a post of their own.

Since I can’t talk about them all, let’s shine the spotlight on two sonnets by Denis Johnson, “Heat” and “Passengers” to start. Reading Johnson’s short stories is for me just like watching films like A History of Violence and Eastern Promises — I finish them and think, ‘My god! That was so good! So well done! And I never want to have to watch it again, even though it stars Viggo Mortensen.’ Johnson’s poetry is also raw and can feature awful emotions, but is easier to return to, cut through with a different sort of sensibility than the protagonists of the Jesus’ Son stories, anyway.

“Heat” has two of my favorite lines in poetry (I should admit that my list of favorite lines is very, very long) — “Our Lady of Wet Glass Rings on the Album Cover” and the “are you serious” of “August, / you’re just an erotic hallucination, / just so much feverishly produced kazoo music, / are you serious?” I like the portrait of Susan, with the ice cubes falling against her teeth, I like the Rolling Stones’ music described as “terrible news.” The ‘argument’ in this sonnet is just the portrait of heat, how much heat sucks (a sonnet can make an argument about anything), and then the turn in the last two lines to the moon, “the bogus moon of tenderness and magic.”

“Passengers” begins with one of those totally vivid, totally gross images — “The world will burst like an intestine in the sun” (Edwin Denby’s sonnet “The Subway” also has a great first line, “The subway flatters like the dope habit”) — “Passengers” ends with an argument this is not the first poem to make, that because his life has been written down, the poet “will never die” (a sort of a flip side to Keats’ “When I have Fears that I may Cease to Be,” also a sonnet). It’s the tone of the images in this poem, the images chosen as representative of that life that will not die, that make that it an interesting argument to hear again, “intersections strewn with broken glass / among speechless women beating their little ones,” “definite jails of light in the sky,” and the final image of the past, “its face sparking like emery, / to open its grace and incredible harm / over my life, and I will never die.” Johnson’s speakers/characters might, but his work doesn’t, flinch.

Don’t head for the bourbon yet — I’ll close on a less depressing poem, though I will note the sonnet often works very well for large and difficult and depressing topics, like war (or love), because limitations are needed to handle such topics without drowning in them. If you haven’t read Wilfred Owen’s WWI sonnet “Dulce Et Decorum Est,” you must, though if the Johnson has depressed you too much you can do that later.

Barbara Hamby has a sonnet with a lovely, biting twist (twist more than a turn) at the end, titled “What Profit Is There in Being Marlene Dietrich,” which is also the first line, followed by “if you don’t rip the intestines out of some Dumkopf / who adores you?” The sonnet goes on to envy the clothes Dietrich wore in various movies, “Catherine the Great’s ermine / hat; the torn sailor’s pants and mannish suits in Witness / For the Prosecution” etcetera. The speaker wants a Dietrich doll, one “who’ll flout / Cossacks, British law, a cellar full of drunk GIs, / a real doll—” and here’s the last-word twist, “a real doll—one who drinks martinis, laughs, talks, and lies.” Ooh! I love it.

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