May 2007

Willis Barnstone


Willis Barnstone Willis Barnstone's recent books are The Secret Reader: 501 Sonnets (University Press of New England, 1996), Life Watch (BOA Editions, Ltd., 2003), a translation, Sweetbitter Love: Poems of Sappho and The Gnostic Bible (Shambhala, 2006), and The Restored New Testament: Newly Translated from Greek and Informed by Semitic Sources is due out by W. W. Norton this year. His work has appeared in American Poetry Review, the Times Literary Review, the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, and Paris Review.

The Sonnet

Sonnet comes from Latin sonus (little sound). The form was probably invented by Provençal troubadours as sonet, but is first found as sonetto in Giacomo da Lentini of the Sicilian school of Frederick II. In seventeenth-century English poetry, sonnet could mean an English version of the Petrarchan sonnet, and also signify a little song or short lyric poem. In this latter sense we have the young John Donne's Songs and Sonnets in which there is no sonnet as we now define it. The later Donne was to compose his "Holy Sonnets," where he followed the traditional Petrarchan prosody.

It seems ungrateful to the young Donne of those beautiful, complex, and outrageous poems to insinuate that the traditional sonnet has a dimension not apparent in his Song and Sonnets. I call that dimension the event. The event poem may be personal, historical, religious, political, and go virtually anywhere, always with the compact narrative qualities of the short story. In each of Jorge Luis Borges's some 140 sonnets resides an event with every narrative trick in it. Borges used to say that the difference between prose and poetry is purely typographical—wise words for a blind man, who also knew that there was no fundamental difference between his sonnets and his tales. That the narrative is always lurking under the chamber-music performance of the sonnet is just one of the sonnet's many contradictions and circular paradoxes.

As for sonnet's physical dimensions, I see no reason why the marvel and magic of the sonnet must have fourteen lines. In his amazing sequence Modern Love, George Meredith's sonnets have sixteen lines, and Gerald Stern, in his unparalleled American Sonnets, usually writes his story in twenty or so lines. Whatever the length or meter, however complex or songlike, the sonnet turns on one central event.

Among its gifts, the sonnet permits finality while encouraging flexibility. When you have finished playing with your version, you have finished. Of course you can tinker again. But no other form, free or formal verse, even the villanelle, offers such a steel-tight finality once the form is set. Yet there are so many ways of varying the mold. My Secret Reader contains octosyllabic and hexasyllabic sonnets, some tetrameters and trimiters, and two sonnets consisting of one-word in each line, that is, two fourteen-word fourteen-liners. I wonder whether any other form can support that extreme but pleasant romp into minimalism. Unrhyming, slant-rhyme and off-rhyme sonnets I leave to others to address. As with any work of art, the quality should be judged not by its mode, but by achievement. It is good or bad. Many years ago the critic I.A. Richards made the distinction between descriptive and intrinsic worth. His words hold up. In French there is a cunning way of judging the moment. The phrase when I was a student in Paris was: "Everything is new except the avant-garde, which everyone knows."

These matters of propriety of form are especially pertinent now, since, until its resurgence in the last few years, the sonnet in English had sunk below the earth in prestige, despite the fact that much of the enduring poetry in the twentieth century is in sonnet form.. We have audacious Lorca, Rilke, the great Russians, Auden, and ee cummings. And who in the nineteenth century changed twentieth-century idiom and experiment more than Arthur Rimbaud and Gerard Manley Hopkins in their extraordinary sonnets? I suspect the p atient is alive and well.

This heady form caught me one morning when I was a student in Louise Bogan's class at Columbia. She commanded us to write one. Years passed and one night, while driving north in Indiana, I dictated two sonnets into a tiny recorder. The recording was so low I could hardly make it out. But the sweet madness began and lasted seventeen years. After I published The Secret Reader: 501 Sonnets (University Press of New England, 1996), I had to get desonnetized. Today I'm not free of it, having just completed a sequel, A Rose in Hell. There is no liberation from the drug of the sonetto. Cavafy, whose only sonnets were juvenilia, understood the futility of promises and resolutions. Irresolution is a gift. I'm happy to succumb to the event poem.




Willis Barnstone: Essay
Copyright ©2007 The Cortland Review Issue 35The Cortland Review