High Wire Acts
Speaking of Sonnets with Sandra Simonds, Michael Robbins, and Noelle Kocot
Apr 10, 2015
16 Min read time
Why sonnets now? Conversation about the perennial popularity and adaptability of the sonnet quickly starts to sound circular: the sonnet entices and endures because it entices and endures, includes anything because it includes anything. In an email exchange over the course of a month, I bounced questions and answers back and forth among three poets who often take up the sonnet form—Sandra Simonds, whose volume The Sonnets appeared from Bloof Books in 2014; Noelle Kocot, whose 2013 collection Soul in Space includes 21 sonnets; and Michael Robbins, whose “Sonnets to Edward Snowden” are a fulcrum in his 2014 The Second Sex.
BK Fischer: I’m interested in the sonnet as a choreographic or athletic space. Phillis Levin, in her introduction to the Penguin anthology of the sonnet, talks about the form as both room and stage, space of interiority and performance:
People are drawn to watching an Olympic athlete going through a certain set of motions known in advance, but executed differently each time.… and the difference between the performances of two individuals can be dramatic. But when it comes to poetry, people are often surprised to discover the extraordinary range of difference in the treatment of a particular form. As with any established pattern—from figure skating to break dancing—the results can be tedious or sublime.
In one of your sonnets, Sandra, you have this line—“the worst part of me did a somersault on the balance beam”—which is wonderfully wry and self-reflexive. How do you relate to this figure of the sonneteer as verbal acrobat? Is virtuosity something you value per se? Is it a guilty pleasure? What are its hazards?
Sandra Simonds: An athletic space—I think that’s absolutely right. From a craft perspective, a slavish fidelity to trying to write a sonnet in some very traditional way is just bound to fail from the outset, at least in my experience. Instead, I think what I tried to do was to internalize the moves of the sonnet, if you will. I know that’s vague, but sonnets are variations on a kind of musical fourteen-line arc. So really variations on that arc, variations on those moves, almost like “riffing” on the formal template, worked for me as a poet. I had to read a ton of sonnets to really start to internalize the template before I could riff. Both reading and riffing had to happen in order to inject a sense of momentum into the poems. So, why sonnets now? I would say that there’s no reason to write them now and there’s no reason not to write them now. It’s really what you do with the form that gives it meaning in the first place.
BKF: This is the third time recently I’ve heard the term “moves,” as in dance moves, come up in conversation about what people are doing in poetry now. It’s an analogy less to choreographed dance than to get-out-on-the-dance-floor-and-bust-some-moves dance, which is improvisatory, occasional, and spontaneous. I’m curious what you think some of the sonnet’s moves are. What are its characteristic gestures? Are they stunts or are they style?
SS: Is the sonnet the Roger Rabbit? The Running Man? The Macarena? I don’t know! I am a terrible dancer. No, I think that the sonnet is more athletic, less goofy, emphasizes technique over the “anything goes” of the disco ball. Once, when I was in college at UCLA, I was on a Stairmaster at the university gym, and I realized that the person on the Stairmaster next to me was Kerri Strug. I think that the sonnet is more like Kerri Strug on that vault in 1996 with a hurt ankle. The Macarena is fun. Zumba is fun. I imagine that the vault ain’t that much fun, but it sure looks good. The vault is daunting—it’s about nailing something down in a very precise way. I feel like my Kerri metaphor works because her Olympic win sort of also nails down a moment in time and history and this is also what sonnets are good at—they chart history because the variations of the moves are social, historical, political. The technical moves are always the same—you probably learned them in high school. Setting up a problem, solving it by the end, either in four easy steps (quatrains) and a double-step (couplet), or three steps (octave, the volta, sestet). I’ve dumbed it down a little bit, but I think that’s all you need to know. If you read about 100 sonnets, trust me, you’ll get the picture mighty quickly. I will add that a failed sonnet is typically a complete failure. See? Like the vault again! I think it’s an all or nothing kind of game. It works or it doesn’t.
BKF: No one who reads three lines into your work, Sandra, or into Noelle’s or Michael’s work, would persist in the notion that sonneteering is intrinsically reactionary, but why work with this form? Are most contemporary sonnets just “quatorzains,” dispensing with meter, and why would we say “just”? In theory or in practice, how do we know a sonnet is a sonnet, or becoming a sonnet, when the flint is sparked and one is in the process of being made?
SS: To make the sonnet work, you can’t really write the sonnet how everyone wrote it before—so in a sense, the form works and moves forward through innovation in the form.
It’s innovative sonnets that I find most compelling to read since they give the form new meaning, or inject vitality and new life into it, or say something politically radical. I think Claude McKay’s sonnet “If We Must Die” about race riots is a great example of a really political, energetic sonnet that makes us not only rethink the form, but speaks directly to a shared social experience. When he writes, “if we must die, let it not be like hogs,” in the first line, he just hooks you right away, and I think that though that sonnet was written in 1919, the political nature of it is completely relevant to current political situations like Ferguson. The poem is very powerful and therefore gives the sonnet form power.
Is the sonnet the Roger Rabbit? The Running Man? The Macarena? I don’t know! I am a terrible dancer.
Noelle Kocot: Sonnets, to me, seem particularly well suited to this contemporary moment, the early twenty-first century, maybe even more so than other periods. They are short enough so that information, in this Information Age, tends to get compacted, blurred, yet sharp and clear. I feel balanced, cool, when I write sonnets. They are saying things that I could not possibly say in any other medium, any other form. They express my inner longings and the weird workings of my mercurial mind. They really are the space of interiority, the space of performance. Because that is what I do when I write a sonnet—I move so far inward then perform it for everyone to see, as I write to communicate. I love the sonnet, and I have my own idea of form when I write them. They are not traditional form, not anymore anyway. They are my own creations, my own thing. I have an idea of exactly how I want the sonnet to move, and then I just do the opposite as I’m writing. I never know where they will wind up. For me, the hazard of virtuosity is going a little crazy.
You might ask twenty different poets what their idea of a sonnet is nowadays, and you might get twenty different responses. I think Foucault’s idea of the “specific intellectual” applies here. Sonnets are no longer based necessarily on adherence to certain formal constraints, but they are based upon similitude.
BKF: I love your idea of doing exactly the opposite of what you intend—a paradoxical exertion of intent against intent. Can you say more about the tipping point between the idea and the process of its undoing in the act of writing? Or about the form and madness?
NK: I have very conscious ideas of what I want in a sonnet when I begin, sort of like I want to be Shakespeare and write poems, as Robert Bly calls them, of “steady light.” But then, my unconscious takes over, and alas, I am not Shakespeare, but only a seedling writing specific forms of discourse in poetry that do not adhere to a grand model but issue from my heart and head, which, for me, work in complete tandem. I find myself squarely in the twenty-first century, in an age where information dominates, and I take it from there. Thoughts are written down at lightning speed, so much so that I can’t even keep up with them on a keyboard really, and associative leaps spiral almost out of control. Then I realize, no, I am writing a sonnet, so all of this madness is contained in my idea of the form. I am exhausted when I finish. I’ve been writing exclusively sonnets again, and I sometimes write eight a day, and it’s really taking its toll.
Michael Robbins: Of course I think of Keats’s “misers of sound and syllable” and D. G. Rossetti’s “moment’s monument,” which suggest that it is the tension of the form that attracts poets—miserly and momentary yet monumental and garlanded. From Thomas Wyatt to Bernadette Mayer, the sonnet in English has almost no fixed rules, just tendencies. Think of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s curtal sonnets or the not-quite-sonnets of The Dream Songs or Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets. The sonnet is as adaptable as capitalism. As for whether it has a particular politics, you can get graduate students to believe anything, but no. However, I should note that Anahid Nersessian, in her recent Utopia, Limited, has a fascinating reading of Wordsworth’s sonnets, whose “scanty plot of ground” frees him from “the weight of too much liberty.” She argues they mirror our own political and ecological situation in their play of constraint and liberation—it is precisely through constraint (on production, on consumption) that we must now seek liberation.
BKF: It’s fascinating, and maybe heartening, to think of a poetic form as an ethical heuristic, as a model for how to keep unruly energies in check. But I’m going to take the bait on capitalism and pursue the idea of the sonnet as a mass-produced cultural product itself: where’s the profit motive, what are the interchangeable parts, what drives demand? Or: how do you account for the fact that those tendencies persist, continue to be produced and reproduced and consumed? Both Keats and Rossetti seem drawn to the sonnet as if against their better judgment. If sonnets have an economics, not a politics, what are the market forces at work, at play?
MR: I was being cheeky—the relationship between political economy and poetic form, while real, is not one of direct correspondence, where the artifact simply reflects class relations. My point was that to say that a form like the sonnet yields to historicist analysis is not the same as saying it possesses an intrinsic political value.
BKF: I’m curious about how a poetic “economy” might be construed, though. Maybe you want to say something about the form’s inutility, or poetry’s inutility?
MR: Well, you know, you can read Jameson on the “ideology of form.” Marx and Freud both stressed the social import of form—what matters in the commodity and in the dream is not the content. And I’m interested in my critical work in the ways in which poetic negotiations with form become allegories for larger social and moral problems. But I’m not convinced that a sonnet is like a dream or a commodity, at least not in an ideological sense. The sonnet must mean something different in our time than in Shakespeare’s or Keats’s, and it must be related in some way to social reality. But I’m trying not to have to say what that is. I believe, with Kant, that art is formally autonomous, and, with Adorno, that that autonomy, while real, is also in important respects illusory. None of this means that poetry is useless, by the way. It has all sorts of uses. But they might not be the ones we would wish.
SS: I agree. I think it’s interesting to undertake a form like the sonnet, have fairly good knowledge of what the sonnet is historically, culturally, socially etc., and then you write a book of sonnets and you think you are doing one thing and you know really that you don’t have the complete understanding of what you are doing—what the sonnet means in the present—I mean this is true of all art, I think—there’s always that incomplete picture of how art fits into the unfolding of the world, and what resonances, if any, the art will have in the future. We do our best, but even for the most savvy and strategic artist, the most logical-minded, it’s a guessing game more intuitive than anything else.
Poetry has all sorts of uses. But they might not be the ones we would wish.
Another way of thinking about this (for me) is to say I believe that this is the right form for my form. I think that this is the right form for my content. I think that this is the right content for my form. I don't exactly know, but I have a kind of faith or belief that it is the right thing for what I think that I am doing.
BKF: That seems right to me, the idea of working with an “incomplete picture of how art fits into the unfolding of the world.” The sonnet always seems to be half a step ahead of our understanding. And the sonnet seems to make us question that idea of formal “rightness” itself, even as it relies on it—rightness of content in relation to form, rightness (or wrongness) of the world’s assumptions. I recently came across this sonnet by Ann Lauterbach, from Under the Sign, and I am struck by how it dovetails with aspects of this conversation—the sonnet’s putative politics or non-politics, the sonnet’s incomplete-in-completion mechanism of uncertainty.
UGLY SONNETShame vanquishes the old school.Truck stop rape. A or the womenfalls or falls under the wheelsof chatter around truck stop rape.Besieged by glare; the untidyaperture of historical accounting fortruck stop rape. Flare of paper in wind.Some sirens, some typing on smallhandheld instruments. Minimaldelay but very little inclusion beyondtruck stop rape. Everywhere she saweyes looking back into the harborwhere there had been an accident andno chance to escape the truck. Stop rape.
NK: I think it is astounding!
SS: A lot of things are interesting about this sonnet but a few things stand out—it’s working against the traditional sonnet in that it unfolds in an almost mechanical way so the title “Ugly Sonnet” makes sense, but also the subject matter is ugly—rape and even more ugly, truck-stop rape. What seems particularly interesting to me is the way that the poem ends on the command “stop rape,” which is a variation on the repetition that we see throughout the poem. It reads like a slogan or something so you feel its sad lack of power. “Stop rape” sounds almost thrown in at the end of the sonnet, even though it has been said all along. The way that the repetition is working in this sonnet is unusual and novel for the form, and the kind of flat affect of this ugly sonnet shows us the violence of rape, how it is used in some sense as a tool of patriarchy to maintain patriarchy and the social order, and how that social order can be rendered in a form so devoted to the structures of romantic love.
BKF: “Shame vanquishes the old school,” but the poem seems to belie that opening assertion. The wavering in that second line, the contingency of that article preceding “women”—is the victim (or victims) a “the” or an “a”?—is chilling. She is singular and plural, a general instance and a particular case, and in both she’s doomed to “fall.” That last gasp is closure, and the form demands it, but not closure that could liberate her from “the untidy / aperture of historical accounting.” Lauterbach somehow lets the sonnet be the cage and the cry from the cage.
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April 10, 2015
16 Min read time