The Technology of the American Sonnet

by: Brian Brodeur

If a poem, as William Carlos Williams claimed, is a machine made out of words, the sonnet can be viewed as a particularly compressed, dynamic, and efficient little gizmo, one that poets have been tinkering with since the 12th century. These tinkerers, of course, have included some of the most foundational poets of Western literature—from Dante and Petrarch through Hopkins and Frost—all of whom have used one variation or another to perform what Phillis Levin classifies as “a mode of introspection, a crystallization of the process of thought.”

But what explains this form’s endurance, indeed its ubiquity across cultures, geographies, and time periods? I hope to posit a small explanation: that the technology of the sonnet affords the poet unique opportunities inherent within the form itself, and that these opportunities allow the poet to embody or even resolve certain essential contradictions, which include: 1) to contain seemingly uncontainable content within a discreet vessel, 2) to subvert tradition through embracing it, and 3) to combine the often conflicting lyric impulses of thought and feeling, argument and song.

Though poets achieve these ends in other forms, the sonnet is uniquely suited to accommodating the “pressure and release,” as Paul Fussell puts it, which “seems to accord with much emotional experience.” Whether Italian or English, the sonnet is remarkably flexible for such an abridged and stringent form, somehow able to integrate a whole range of tones and intentions from the playful and ecstatic to the analytical and satiric. Certain recent examples come to mind. In the titular sequence of Tom Thompson in Purgatory (2006), Troy Jollimore employs the form like a latter-day John Berryman to amplify his hapless, brash, and bewildered alter-ego. Moira Egan’s Hot Flash Sonnets (2013) pushes this historically male form to explore, bemoan, celebrate, and lament the tribulations of menopause. And Earnest Hilbert, in two remarkable book-length sequences, Sixty Sonnets (2009) and All of You on the Good Earth (2013), invents his own variation on the form, achieving a kind of early 21st century upgrade. My contention here is that the technological advantages of the sonnet are too expedient for American poets to resist, particularly when they are confronted with the typical metaphysical obstacles of the sonneteer: time, love, death, and the imagination.

First, though, I should define what it is that this little gizmo does. The sonnet enacts a certain structure of human thought which Don Paterson describes as “This, that, so: this!” The form is a kind of compound machine in which the relatively simple mechanisms of line, stanza, rhyme, and turn combine to support the larger system, the way a pair of scissors use a fulcrum, lever, and wedge to slice an expired credit card, or an IED combines fuse, switch, container, and charge for its own explosive ends.

Some examples are more volatile than others. In American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin (2018), Terrance Hayes presents seventy-five fourteen- liners, each titled “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin,” plus five “Sonnet Index” poems. Hayes composes these latter poems entirely out of first-lines from his own book, an achievement that in and of itself confirms the poet’s formal virtuosity. Writing with outrage, tenderness, humor, and wit, Hayes bends the form to breaking, and while none of these “sonnets” uses meter, stanza, or rhyme scheme, Hayes manages to sound like no one else in the sonnet’s long tradition (though I’m tempted to speculate that he had Hopkins in mind when he wrote this poem):

The umpteenth thump on the rump of a badunkadunk
Stumps us. The lunk, the chump, the hunk of plunder.
The umpteenth horny, honky stump speech pumps
A funky rumble over air. The umpteenth slump
In our humming democracy, a bumble bureaucracy
With teeny tiny wings too small for its rumpled,
Dumpling of a body. Humpty-Dumpty. Frumpy
Suit. The umpteenth honk of hollow thunder.
The umpteenth Believe me. The umpteenth grumpy,
Jumpy retort. Chump change, casino game, tuxedo,
Teeth bleach, stump speech. Junk science. Junk bond.
Junk country, stump speech. The umpteenth boast
Stumps our toe. The umpteenth falsehood stumps
Our elbows & eyeballs, our Nos, Whoahs, wows, woes.

This poem presents a series of mono-rhyme variations on the ump and uh sounds that have dominated the chatter of the news cycle since the 2016 presidential election. Booming with anti–Trump acerbity, this poem manages to avoid slipping into the polemics, euphemisms, and sermonizing that often cause overtly political poems to falter. Instead, Hayes blusters with gusto, performing a kind of hip- hop baroque that makes the eardrums pound. Both enticing and deafening with its verbal excesses (“rump of a badunkadunk”!), this poem harrumphs through a gauntlet of assonance, innuendos, and puns.

As part of a larger sequence, the poem delights, providing one of several crescendos in the book, thud-thudding like the driving-base line we find in House music or voices at a rally chanting the president’s name. When isolated from the sequence, however, the poem loses some of its appeal. I start to wonder, for example, if the poem does enough. It rants, it sings, it thumps, but are these elements sufficient? Can the poem stand on its own? Does the poem live up to the sonnet form’s potential?

Perhaps. But absent here is the precarious alliance between feeling and thought that has come to define the sonnet, that tension between irony and impassioned speech which dominates examples by Shakespeare and Milton, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Millay. In his essay “Fourteen Fragments in Lieu of a Review,” Christian Wiman describes this tension by pointing out the unique way that the form “manages an emotional urgency by means of an intellectual distance.” Hayes’s poem does offer the former, displaying emotions ranging from disgust, anger, and despair, to astonishment and whimsy, each of which appear in the poem’s final clause: “our Nos, Whoahs, wows, woes.” But the poem seems less interested in the intellectual distancing that meter, stanza, volta, and rhyme-scheme might afford.

Which is not to devalue the poem as a successful work of art, only to point out that his choices raise some pesky questions about form: should all fourteen- line poems be considered sonnets, if we simply qualify them as “American”? What is an American sonnet anyways? Is it so amorphous as to resist definition? If so, why define it as such? Is this the point? What sort of license does such amorphousness grant the American sonnet? If we strip, for example, handle, bed, and tire, do we still have a wheelbarrow? Or have we made something else? What does a sonnet lose by circumventing most of the historical form’s fundamental technical (technological) requirements? Is this circumventing, repurposing impulse fundamentally American? Finally, to what degree should reader, writer, scholar, and critic care?

I propose that we should care, if only enough to answer or at least acknowledge such questions, especially when there are still so many American poets working with rather than against the technology of this form, and often to astonishing results. Hayes, though, seems suspicious of the sonnet’s machinery. One “American sonnet” that directly references form offers a clue as to why. In this poem, Hayes curses an unnamed “you” (assassin) to a series of nightmarish, purgatorial fates. These fates become technological metaphors for the sonnet itself, which Hayes playfully treats as a kind of torture device in which he might “lock” an adversary: prison, panic closet, meat grinder. Hayes also compares the sonnet to a music box and “a box of darkness with a bird in its heart,” which might be interpreted as a black box: sonnet as flight recorder recovered after an aviation disaster, still chirping from the wreckage to be heard.

This ambiguity, even ambivalence toward the sonnet reveals Hayes’s essential mistrust of the form, which runs so deep that the poet compares the “laws” of the sonnet to those of the Jim Crow era: “I make you both gym and crow here.” This analogy, of course, would more than justify Hayes’s constant breaking of such restrictions as meter and Petrarchan turn. But the analogy, which Hayes leaves dangling as a pun, seems too convenient, allowing the poet to dismiss traditional elements as merely restrictive rather than liberating forces. This limiting view of form is problematic, especially when we keep in mind Don Paterson’s assertion that “a great sonnet [. . .] will often surprise you by doing at least one thing it’s not supposed to do.” Though Hayes’s poems often surprise and enliven the language they employ, they do so, I think, in spite of their sonnet-ness.

A poet less suspicious of the sonnet’s machinery is Joshua Mehigan. Accepting the Disaster (2013), Mehigan’s second book, includes five sonnets alongside ballads, rhyming quatrains, heroic couplets, blank-verse meditations, triolets, and other forms, all handled with the same flexibility and panache. These poems, though, are understated in their virtuosity, updating and extending the forms they master by observing the classical ideal of the plain style. Mehigan’s work values the “careful negligence” Cicero recommends in his Orator in that the poems achieve a leanness of utterance, looseness within restraints, and conciseness that still manages to contain multitudes.

“Here” brings these qualities into a 21st century, American context:

Nothing has changed. They have a welcome sign,
a hill with cows and a white house on top,
a mall and grocery store where people shop,
a diner where some people go to dine.
It is the same no matter where you go,
and downtown you will find no big surprises.
Each fall the dew point falls until it rises.
White snow, green buds, green lawn, red leaves, white snow.
This is all right. This is their hope. And yet,
though what you see is never what you get,
it does feel somehow changed from what it was.
Is it the people? Houses? Fields? The weather?
Is it the streets? Is it these things together?
Nothing here ever changes, till it does.

“Here” remains unnamed, eerily homogenous, everywhere and nowhere, going about its business quietly. The dispassionate, almost throw-away quality of the poem’s diction combines with mostly monosyllabic full-rhymes to enact a certain formal blasé, a collective “ho-hum” that belies the rigor of Mehigan’s handling of the Petrarchan form.

The line “White snow, green buds, green lawn, red leaves, white snow,” for example, summarizes in ten syllables the passage of an entire year, which is also, given the poem’s context, the passage of every year. The uneventfulness of these years is worth noting; the lawns turn green, the red leaves fall, the snow arrives—wash, rinse, repeat.

An example of just how efficient the technology of iambic pentameter can be, this line embodies the tone of nonchalance, even boredom, with which the poem’s octave sighs itself to sleep. Mehigan uses these metronomic monosyllables to tick- tock the reader through the seasons. Given the book’s title, the utter efficiency of this move has some terrifying implications; in this community, anything, even “disaster,” is “all right.” This seen-it-all-before tone plays a suggestively mimetic role in that it imitates a larger cultural malaise. The inhabitants of “Here” seem to regard this malaise, when they regard it at all, as a kind of birthright or gold- standard (“their hope”), the way Alsatians might view the perfect wintertime meal as a bottle of Gewürztraminer and a hearty choucroute. None of this could be suggested or shown so effectively without Mehigan’s tightly calibrated use of iambic pentameter.

The poem’s sestet, however, signals a reversal or revision of the idea that “Nothing has changed.” This reversal invites a fundamental reconsideration of this opening sentence. Conflating “Nothing” with the abstract concept of “nothingness,” the narrator seems to be arguing that nothingness itself “has changed.” By reminding us that the only way “Nothing” can change is for it to become its opposite, something, the narrator implies with delicious irony that once nothing becomes something it no longer exists.

The sonnet, which demands such careful scrutiny by writer and reader, becomes the agent of this extinction. In its sparseness, a sonnet can be about absence and nothingness, entertaining those big ideas we associate with phenomenological ontology while embodying the slight, the thin, the nearly nil. Yet this technology also has the power to negate that absence through the intricacy of its schematic rules, but only if the poet is willing to play. It’s as if the sonnet has become a kind of nothing-machine engaged in a constant, teasing sleight-of-hand in which it urges, “Don’t look at me, I’m nothing. Nothing! See?”

In Mehigan’s poem, the irony only deepens. If we equate “Here” with “Nothing,” as if the name of this place were Nowhere, this town loses its everywhere-ness, becoming somewhere instead. Because “Nothing” in the last line “ever changes” (i.e. changes constantly “here”), the poem suggests that such a place never existed. Given the clichés often associated with American consumer culture—anonymous strip-mall sprawl replacing authentic agrarian individualism—Mehigan seems to be arguing that this stereotypical “Here” has no basis in reality, except within the collective imagination of those who buy into the cliché. So “Here” never exists “until it does,” until it is created by those who perpetuate these dismal dismissals, these lies that never quite “get” (understand, apprehend, characterize) what they purport to “see.”

Considering the tightness of its constraints (fourteen lines of rhymed iambic pentameter), certain content would seem beyond the sonnet’s narrow reach. Love, death, god, politics—surely these subjects would burn through the crankshafts and pistons of the sonnet’s tiny engine. Yet this content constitutes the fuel by which the sonnet has chugged along for eight-hundred years, guzzling into the present century on such combustible materials as racism, poverty, madness, addiction, consumerism, and climate change.

What an unlikely fate for the Italian sonneto, this “little song.” Then again, once we recall the sonnet’s origin as a kind of legal brief invented by medieval Sicilian lawyers to sum up a complex argument as concisely and passionately as possible, we move closer to understanding some of the form’s inherent contradictions and attractions, as well as why this efficient, punchy, well-tuned technology endures.


Brian Brodeur is the author of five poetry collections, including Every Hour Is Late (2019) and the chapbook Local Fauna (2015). Recent poems and essays have appeared in Hopkins Review, The Gettysburg Review, Kenyon Review, Times Literary Supplement, and The Writer’s Chronicle. Brodeur teaches at Indiana University East.

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