Michael Gushue

Introduction to the Sonnet Issue

Volume 16:1, Winter 2015

“Sonnet is about movement in a form.”
? Seamus Heaney

“A sonnet might look dinky, but it was somehow big enough to accommodate love, war, death, and O.J. Simpson. You could fit the whole world in there if you shoved hard enough.”
? Anne Fadiman, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader

The sonnet was first introduced into English by Thomas Wyatt in the 1530s. Since then the form has survived through periods of enthusiasm and periods of ridicule. It had its first big blossoming in the late Elizabethan period. Its stock went down during the Restoration, up again with the Romantics, down with the advent of Modernism, and now up again. Never entirely disappearing, it is a bright, taut thread that weaves itself through our poetry and its history.

The sonnet’s remarkable durability is a little mysterious, but here are some reasons that come to mind.

First, its relatively short length makes it an excellent laboratory—or test tube—for a poet to try out an idea, image, or conceit. The sonnet forms a container. It holds only so much, neither more or less. So the poet knows where she will have to start and end, and what the rules are on how to get from one to the other. As William Hazlitt says, “The great object of the Sonnet seems to be, to express in musical numbers, and as it were with undivided breath, some occasional thought or personal feeling, ‘some fee-grief due to the poet’s breast.’ It is a sigh uttered from the fullness of the heart…” This pretty much sums it up.

Second, the sonnet’s structure and length lend itself to English syntax, grammar, and vocabulary. Of course, the sonnet was borrowed from the Italian, so I can’t argue that is uniquely English, unlike, say, Anglo-Saxon accentual meter. But it does seem to fit what we can say, and how we say it, when setting out a complete “thought” in English.

Third, its versatility. It would be hard to tell a straight narrative using the pantoum. Haiku is ill-suited to confessional poetry. But the sonnet is just long enough and just short enough to handle almost any mode or subject the poet cares to play with. If sonnets started as poems illustrating the turmoil over a lover for his beloved, then for the last five centuries it has shown that successful sonnets can be written about religion (John Donne), politics (John Milton) and almost any other subject or idea. From war to O. J. Simpson.

Finally, its longevity and pedigree. Poets mostly love to try themselves against the achievements of past. It’s part of the fun of writing. Just as musicians play pieces that other musicians and sometimes better musicians have played, whether a Chopin Nocturne or “Stormy Weather,” a sonnet can be considered part of our poetry’s repertoire. It is difficult to write, but not too difficult. It’s short enough to take in all at once, but not too short. You don’t have to write one, but the challenge of doing so makes it enticing.

To zoom in closer to what you’ll find here, the sonnet and the writing of sonnets has been part of the DC poetry scene at least since 1848 (see Anne Lynch Botta’s The Bee). Although they are not all represented here, it looks like a majority of poets from this region have written a sonnet of one sort or another, and have been influenced by this form in one way or another.

This is the largest issue Beltway Poetry Quarterly has ever put out. We received 449 poems from 155 poets to look at, read, consider and from which to choose. Out of this we’ve put together an issue of some 70 poems by 66 authors, 32 of whom have never been published in Beltway Poetry before. Considering the strength of the submissions, the issue could have been twice as large. Thank you to everyone who submitted. We were, however, limited by our stamina and eyestrain, and both co-editors had to agree on each submission. By my count, we exchanged 375 emails about sonnets in general and submissions in particular over a four-month period.

This is also only the second special issue out of Beltway Poetry’s 15-year history devoted to a particular form. The other was the Prose Poem Issue in the fall of 2013, edited by Abigail Beckel (of Rose Metal Press). Think of these two issues as bookends with the prose poem representing one of the newest forms in English poetry and the sonnet one of the oldest.

What kind of sonnets will you find in this issue?

There are poems here in traditional sonnet forms, in variations and hybrids of those traditional forms, in free verse, and from traditional subject to innovative approaches. In choosing free verse sonnets, I’ve used the provisional definition that the poem had to be good, fourteen lines long, and feel, in some way, “sonnet-y.” This meant, depending on the poem, there was some kind of turn (volta), or definite sense of closure, or a sense of a single movement from A to B within a containing form of the fourteen lines.

I’ve arranged the issue into eight sections along loosely thematic lines, all representing aspects of the sonnet’s reach:

The first section is “The Beloved,” and is the closest to the traditional “light conceits of lovers” of the form’s origins, talking about the object/subject of the more or less beloved of the poet.

The poems in the next section, “The Body,” meditate on the flesh, from its fragility to its bodaciousness.

“The Heart” takes us back to romantic—or anti-romantic (the other side of the coin)—concerns.

“The Body Politic” group proceeds from the model of John Milton’s political poems (such as “To The Lord General Fairfax, At The Siege Of Colchester”) through Paul Lawrence Dunbar to the present day.

“Pop Culture” is self-explanatory, so I’ll just say these poems foreground the exuberant and/or noisy popular culture in a more non-political way.

“Conservations With Myself” are just that, the poet mirroring her thinking or meditating “with undivided breath.”

The poems in “À La Recherche Du Temps Perdu” also meditate, but on the “snows of yesteryear.”

The “Outdoors” poems reflect on nature and her charges.

Finally, “Art And Its Boundaries” traces the sonnet’s trajectory from tradition to innovation.

From the impressive selection in this issue, I’ve learned much about the versatility I mentioned above, that what the sonnet can absorb and reveal extends through the full spectrum of human experience: desire (Katherine E. Young, “For My Beloved”), ferocity (Holly Karapetkova, “The Cult of True Womanhood”), humor (Doug Lang, “Ougadougou Sonnet”), anger (Kyle G. Dargan, “Failed Sonnet After The Verdict”), soul searching (Liam Rector, “Old Coat”), and transcendence (Diana Smith Bolton, “Constellations”).

Last and best, like a well-told story, a joke, a sonata, a sculpture, or good meal, a sonnet gives pleasure. Its wit, its focus, and its brightness are a delight to the mind. Enjoy.

 

Michael Gushue is co-founder with Dan Vera of Poetry Mutual and Poetry Mutual Press. He co-curates the intermittent racing series Poetry at the Watergate with Deborah Ager. His chapbooks are Pachinko Mouth (Plan B Press, 2013), Conrad (Souvenir Spoon Books, 2010), and Gathering Down Women (Pudding House Press, 2007). To read more by this author: Michael Gushue: Fall 2005 Michael Gushue: DC Places Issue Michael Gushue: Audio Issue Michael Gushue on Anthony Hecht: US Poets Laureate Issue