Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Anti Anti-Sonnet

I recently finished an interesting anti-sonnet rant by Chris Jennings in the latest issue of Arc. In a mode simultaneously defensive and offensive, he declaims that this will be unlike the paternal “because I said so” rationale, that he will, indeed, provide reasons for his antipathy to the popular, ancient poetic form.

I couldn’t find any.

Jennings complains that the elements that typically -- or at least often -- go into the making of a sonnet can be found in other forms. Metaphor, rhyme, metrical patterning, imagery, development: these and other technical usages are not unique to the sonnet. As far as this goes, it is, of course, correct. A sonnet, like a lover, may be similar to any other form/object of desire in that it has a nose, two hands, and a voice. But discrimination (in the reader/lover) and unique thrill (in the loved one/poem) is all. Jennings’ statement can find no corollary, and his superficial manoeuvering reminds me of a Boethius characterizing Cicero’s works by arranging the contents of minor treatises into a dry categorical model instead of wrestling with the latter’s complex and anguished studies of ethics, aesthetics, and rhetorical imprint. Jennings, here, compares the “strophe, antistrophe, and epode” of the ode with the proposition and “solution” of the sonnet. (“Solution” is a trying and simplistic word to use here. Even “resolution” falls short. And it’s no defense that it’s just relating the dictionary definition.) But an ode, however much some of its surface strategies may be seen to mirror those of a sonnet, is a different kettle of coho. Though odes have undergone perhaps even greater transformations and variations, in technical understanding, than have sonnets, the predominant mode of the former -- notwithstanding the medial antistrophe or Horace’s satirical efforts -- has been one of praise. The mode of the sonnet, however, has been by turns (no pun) cool, epideictic, stately, whispery, and much else besides.

This last contrast is ironic since Jennings stumbles through his own antistrophe beginning just to conclude that the only thing that distinguishes a sonnet from any other poetic form is its fourteen lines (while I acknowledge his noting of exceptions and variants). It’s a puzzlingly simplistic statement, and it asks one to consider what goes on in Jennings’ mind when first chancing upon a sonnet. Is the experience wrecked only retroactively when numbering the lines? And if history is any indication, the sonnet has developed (not in the sense of “progressed”) into a beast as unlike a family member one to another as any other form one’d care to name. I’d suggest reading Lowell’s “Rats” immediately after Petrarch’s “Qual Donna Attende a Gloriosa Fama”, but other pairs or score-series, while not as plentiful as Wershler-Henry’s sonnet-bot, are certainly just as appropriate as the one I‘ve mentioned, and far more illuminating than the meta-commentary mocking postmodernists or the can’t-see-the-trees-for-the-forest reactionaries.

On to the next breezy snit (of Jennings). Sonnets are thought to be overpraised in that their brevity allows anthologizers to stuff more examples into the covers of a teaching artifact so that pedagogical ease is introduced as a kind of quick-read-and-parse bureaucratic panacea. This is a qualitative post hoc fallacy. It’s not a sonnet’s (or all sonnets’) fault that expediency trumps value. If Jennings’ argument is that other forms (the epic?) are as worthy or worthier, surely it can be better employed in an arena other than competing interests in university syllabi. Undergrad students aren’t the defining arbiter of canon construction. And in any event, exposure to one good sonnet is just as likely to send them on a mission to excavate The Iliad than it is to have them juiced to mimic a Shakespearian final couplet. Yes, I realize his argument, such as it is, has to do with the supposed prevalence of sonnet publication. But I don’t see a plethora of sonneteering tomes on display. I do, however, note many other culturally- or politically-driven theme anthologies -- none of them sonnet-crafted -- available to both the academic and wider public for perusal.

Jennings gives no examples to corroborate his holus-bolus denunciation. Misguided generalities don’t make up for a determined avoidance of the sonnet’s exquisite meshing of rhetoric and dialectic. And neither does his twice-intoned (the first emphasis wasn’t strong enough on its own?) and ripped-off-from-Steven-Beattie (without the back-up argument) “fuck sonnets”.

The impetus to write this response didn’t come from a rush to defend the form. I don’t hate or love sonnets. I hate or love poems. There are diamonds and poop in any one form and in all of them. It’s patronizing -- and embarrassing -- to describe the urge to write sonnets as coming from a need to measure up to past masters. I would think the greatest impetus is one of creative enjoyment. And by the way, though Bishop said that the writing of sestinas was a "stunt" (I don't get the damning parallel here, and I don't know the context or tone of her statement), she wrote a poem called "Sestina". And Pound didn’t bury all his sonnets, Mr Jennings. Even he took his own words -- "make it new" -- to heart.