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This report is taken from PN Review 187, Volume 35 Number 5, May - June 2009.

Archive Corner 13: ‘Wild for to hold’: Liberating the Sonnet from All the Corners of the Archive Stella Halkyard
Liberating the Sonnet from All the Corners of the Archive

At the turn of the last century, Simon Armitage imagined a new poetry for the coming millennium the composition of which would ‘take into account the actual craft of producing [the] poem, be it handwritten, typed, painted, carved, installed, recorded, or whatever … [to] remain in the public consciousness as a picture containing words, not simply as a text’. Yearning for a time when poems could be wrested from the deviant clutches of introverted, bookish people, and liberated from all the corners of the archive, where they had been held in solitary confinement, he envisioned a future in which poetry would become a ‘front-line art form … [as] millions would pass through the turnstiles of the National Poetry Gallery each year, standing wide-eyed before the latest sonnets’.1 Indulging him in his fantasy, the curators at the John Rylands Library have taken Armitage at his word by displaying a selection of poems in a public exhibition devoted to the form of the sonnet entitled ‘A Small Eternity: The Shape of the Sonnet Through Time’.

Persistently, the sonnet has beguiled the imaginations of poets with its mysterious and enervating power. In his opening address at the exhibition’s preview, John McAuliffe explained how his ‘first instinct as a poet is always to check whether my drafts can be stretched or shrunk to fourteen lines … [since] the sonnet presides over other poetic forms like a benevolent god’.2 Using lavishly illuminated ...

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