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This review is taken from PN Review 196, Volume 37 Number 2, November - December 2010.

TRADITION OVER EXPERIMENT STEPHEN BURT and DAVID MIKICS, The Art of the Sonnet (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press) £25.95

Few poetic forms have proved more versatile or more enduring than the sonnet. Imported from Italy in the sixteenth century, the form suited private meditation, tortured introspection, and unrequited love, and after Milton, whose ‘On the Late Massacre in Piedmont’ records the slaughter of the Protestant Waldensians by Piedmontese soldiers in April 1655, came to be used increasingly to give verdicts on public events. Stephen Burt and David Mikics’ The Art of the Sonnet collects together one hundred exemplary sonnets from Thomas Wyatt to Paul Muldoon, placing alongside each a short essay on their inner workings. Historical, biographical and political contexts often shed unexpected light on familiar and unfamiliar poems alike, and there are memorable readings here of Hopkins, Wordsworth, Elizabeth Barrett-Browning, Keats, Shelley and Ted Berrigan: it is interesting to learn that Keats saw the Elgin Marbles long before they were on open display to the public thanks to his close friend Benjamin Robert Haydon; and Berrigan’s work is illuminated by placing it in the context of contemporary New York collage artists such as Robert Rauschenberg. Often essays don’t just clarify the individual poem, but help explain sonnet form in general, poetic traditions ranging well beyond the sonnet, or the particular oeuvre of the poet in question. The discussion of Heaney’s first Glanmore sonnet, for example, from Field Work, not only luminously places the poem in the tradition of Virgilian pastoral, but points out how the sequence of poems marks a sonnet-like turning point or volta in relation to Heaney’s previous volumes, turning away from the darkness of the troubles explored in early collections such as Death of a Naturalist and North, to find peace and renewal in the countryside. As Heaney puts it in ‘Harvest Bow’, a poem later in the same volume: ‘The end of art is peace.’

The editors seem to have the entire Western canon at their fingertips, rarely missing an echo: they tease out the influence of Hopkins on the poetry of Forrest-Gander and Les Murray, trace Petrarchan echoes across a range of writers from Mary Robertson to Christina Rossetti, and painstakingly uncover the mythic and biblical stories which underpin the work of Edgar Bowers, A.K. Ramanujan and New Zealand poet Michele Leggott, whose ‘in winter’ comes into focus once we see the myth it describes, that of Demeter and the abduction of her daughter Persephone by Hades, god of the underworld:

she was playing in a meadow I could not see
and fell miraculously past jeopardy and speech
everything was lost      we stepped off the railway
into an extension of the great landscape preparing
to forget our existence      the world was nothing
but planes and mirrors that link and space

Whether you are a newcomer to the sonnet or a connoisseur of the form, this book will hold your attention, and is likely to offer you something new. It is at once a rigorous introduction to the sonnet, containing many classic examples of the form, and a reassessment of the terrain, which includes a number of surprises. Among the revelations is the work of Lady Mary Wroth, the niece of Sir Philip Sidney, who fell in love with a cousin, William Herbert, and recorded her tortured experience in a sequence of sonnets, Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, told exclusively from the woman’s point of view. Less immediately engaging are some of the sonnets unearthed by the editors from the period falling between Romanticism and modernism – a period which in sonnet terms is something of a desert – among them Henry Timrod’s ‘I know not why, but all this weary day’, a piece which gets drearier the more it goes on, and which would perhaps best have been left gathering dust in the stacks.

The sonnets and individual essays are supplemented by a detailed introduction which explores with luminosity the history of the form, its beginnings in Italy with Petrarch and Dante, its development and adaptation to religious and political themes in Herbert and Milton, and its fundamental elasticity, well illustrated by the example of George Meredith who, in 1862, published fifty sixteen-line sonnets about his failed marriage. The editors eventually trace this history of experiment through modernism and into the present, suggesting that ‘Contemporary poets – after Berrigan, after Williams – pursue limit-cases, expanding the range of the form, but they also understand (as Keats did) that the form is something inherited…’ Disappointingly, the editors’ example of a ‘limit-case’ is an unrhymed sonnet by Robert Lowell, and this is one sign of an intermittent conservatism which haunts this selection, and which causes the editors to favour tradition over experiment. What about Raymond Queneau, whose A Thousand Billion Sonnets, where each line of ten sonnets can be combined with any other lines from the sonnets in the sequence, takes to its logical conclusion Berrigan’s discovery that lines of poetry can be used more than once? Good as this collection is, it never really gets to grips with the recent history of the linguistically innovative sonnet. For this, and to experience the often exhilarating work of many contemporary poets not represented here – Tim Atkins, Sean Bonney, Clark Coolidge, Lyn Hejinian, Peter Manson, Steve McCaffery, Ron Padgett, Tom Raworth, Stephen Rodefer – the reader should complement the current volume with the most innovative sonnet anthology of recent years, perhaps of all time, Jeff Hilson’s The Reality Street Book of Sonnets, a book full of poets who have understood with composers such as Pierre Boulez the important lesson that no tradition can be pushed forward without first tearing it up.


This review is taken from PN Review 196, Volume 37 Number 2, November - December 2010.

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