Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Rumours of the sonnet's death...and revival

Are greatly exaggerated. The form has been part of poetry fairly consistently since its arrival on the scene--though I would be interested in work around its peaks and valleys. Barbara Carey points out the backward looking anthology recently published in Canada. What I think Carey is responding to is the sameness of the selection. I applaud the impulse for such a collection, and the effort put in (it's a beautiful book), but does it really represent either Canadian poetry or contemporary sonnets? The dynamic range of voices Canada offers in the sonnet form as other forms and formal investigations? Fine to edit an anthology of poems of any kind, but "Canadian sonnets" conjures up a nationalistic gesture where clearly there isn't one. In the end it's an argument (one you can appreciate or not), rather than a resource. Unless one wants to teach only one way of looking at a sonnet.

Over the past few weeks my students and I have looked at a number of sonnets (from traditional to concrete) as we do in every introduction to poetry class. It's still an exciting form, open to endless innovation, and as we see over at Silliman's today, it's constantly being explored reinvented, reinvigorated. The latest anthology, edited by Jeff Hilson and published by Reality Street in England, looks promising enough. To be fair, I should do a reading of the recent Canadian one, the latest Norton, and perhaps this new one--along with Phillis Levins' anthology. But I suspect that what I'm looking for doesn't exist. At least not yet. What is wanted, and what would be extremely useful, is a secular anthology of sonnets focused on the form itself and how the form has been used/misused, grown, and changed over time. Not a singular argument for it one way or another, but a selection of sonnets over time from a variety of sources and inclinations...that's what I'm looking for. Better if it had some readings of the sonnets as well (as the Canadian anthology does offer), and some descriptions of the constraints and procedures. I guess that's why I keep having to use course packets rather than actual texts.

Currently working with Kate Braid & Sandy Shreve's In Fine Form, which for a bare-bones foundation isn't bad so far. It isn't as thorough as Lewis Turco's or Ron Padgett's Handbook of Poetic Forms, but it is Canadian and has at least two departures on the sonnet in an otherwise musty selection (where are the youngsters? where is McCaffery or bp Nichol?). But I love this book if for nothing other than introducing me to Seymour Mayne's Word Sonnets:
Hail

Hail
peppered
the
air
like
seed
as
you
were
lowered
below
the
frost
line.

And what is the connection between the number of very fine palindromes crafted in Canada and our sense of poetics? Hard to find palindromes being written elsewhere and here we have several great ones including offerings from Fiona Tinwei Lam, Joe Denham and Elizabeth Bachinsky.

In terms of forms in general, that's a different question--and one finds that books either focus on Langpo, or formal poetry, and usually don't let them mix. In that sense, one might be hard pressed to find a text better than the one Annie Finch edited, which offers incredible diversity. I could of course go on to list many many books of poetry and poetics formal and otherwise...would that be useful?

(Note: a wee thorn attached itself to this post below. The editor of Jailbreaks, the anthology of sonnets mentioned briefly above, apparently doesn't like it when anyone else has opinions...there's room for everyone...isn't there?)

1 comment:

Bill Knott said...

probably not avant enough for you,
but can i mention my four volumes
of quatorzains,

which can be downloaded from Lulu.com

in pdf for FREE (yah get what you pay for)?