Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Jeff Hilson’s new anthology, The Reality Street Book of Sonnets, is flat out the best book of its kind I have ever seen. It is easily – too easily, alas – the finest collection of contemporary sonnets ever put together. And it’s one of those books – not unlike Donald Allen’s anthology, The New American Poetry, or Jerry Rothenberg’s first ventures into the field, with Shaking the Pumpkin & Revolution of the Word, that make you realize that just how important and powerful a truly good anthologist can be. And what a force for good. Hilson, by gathering together the very best that has been done in the name of the sonnet, along with his contributors, from Edwin Denby & Ted Berrigan & John Clarke to Laynie Browne, Juliana Spahr & Jay MillAr – called here Jay Millar – may just have rescued this venerable genre from the necrotic clutches of nostalgia, the formalist side of the School of Quietude.

If the new (and old) formalists have claimed the sonnet as their own turf for far too long, it’s part of a larger program of bitter disappointment that the present is not the 19th, or perhaps the 16th, century. For those poets, the sonnet represents an ideal to which one can aspire, although perhaps “long for” is a more accurate verb phrase. What separates that approach from the 84 poets Hilson gathers, a roster that is simply stunning from Robert Adamson & Tim Atkins to John Welch & Geoffrey Young, is that contemporary poets – starting no doubt with Ted Berrigan (tho he is not the first, and obviously took permission from Edwin Denby in ways that would be worth discussing) – have seen in the sonnet precisely the dynamics of constraint that elsewhere drives Oulipo toward its amazing proliferation of forms. The point of the sonnet therefore is not to put oneself up against the likes of Shakespeare or Ben Jonson, but rather to see the sonnet for our time as a series of powerful literary devices that can open the present up completely.

Hilson’s collection is not perfect – notable absences include the sonnets of Zukofsky’s “A” -7, Robert Duncan’s “Domestic Scenes,” John Tranter’s Crying in Early Infancy, & there are some names missing I expected to see, including John Ashbery, Joe Ceravolo, Jack Spicer, Lee Ann Brown, David Schubert, Duncan McNaughton, Frank O’Hara & Tom Clark (tho Thomas A. is here)¹ – but this book is as close to perfect as we have yet had or are likely ever to get. Some of the important innovative poets who have worked in this form & are gathered into these pages include Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Christian Bök, Ebbe Borregaard, Jonathan Brannen, Pam Browne, Adrian Clarke, Bob Cobbing, Clark Coolidge, Bev Dahlen, Ken Edwards, Allen Fisher, Kathleen Fraser, William Fuller, Bill Griffiths, Alan Halsey, Anselm Hollo, Lyn Hejinian, Lisa Jarnot, Justin Katko, John Kinsella, Michele Leggott, Tony Lopez, Steve McCaffery, Jackson Mac Low, David Miller, Geraldine Monk, Harryette Mullen, Alice Notley, Ron Padgett, Bern Porter, Tom Raworth, Peter Riley, Stephen Rodefer, Robert Sheppard, Aaron Shurin, Eléni Sikélianòs, Mary Ellen Solt & Lawrence Upton. That list is simply stunning.

The sonnet began to morph from the rigid backward-looking template of the SoQ as early as the 19th century – many of Baudelaire’s first poems in prose are 14 sentences long. But for the English speaking world, it would require some key poets making the form their own & showing others that it could be taken not as a limit, but as a baseline from which to move forward. Edwin Denby was the first, but as or more important, at least in the United States, have been Berrigan, John Clarke & Bernadette Mayer. All are amply included here. Clarke’s inclusion strikes me as  the best test of this book, since he never received the accolades his level of accomplishment warranted & if you didn’t have pretty direct access to the Buffalo scene you might not realize that he was nearly as influential on the young poets coming out of that town as were Charles Olson or Robert Creeley.

In choosing to present the poets here in order of birth year – Denby, born in 1903, goes first, Sophie Robinson, born in 1985 (after both Denby & Berrigan have died) is the youngest – Hilson gently suggests patterns of influence, as well as foregrounding an interesting set of poets. The first ten include, in this order, Denby, Bern Porter, Mary Ellen Solt, Jackson Mac Low, Ebbe Borregaard, Clarke, Berrigan, Anselm Hollo, Bev Dahlen & Kathleen Fraser, every one of whom can be read as influencing a good part of what comes after. Thus Denby & Berrigan are vital for Bernadette Mayer, while Dahlen & Fraser lead us to both DuPlessis & Shurin further on. Etc. And, as Hilson makes clear in his introduction, Shakespeare is never that far from many of these pieces.

No doubt, of course, this anthology will prove to have been the weakest with the youngest generation represented. For one thing, until poets are in their 40s, there doesn’t seem to be much parity of access to print, so there could be a lot of good work by younger writers that just hasn’t gotten around yet. And many younger writers no doubt still have their work in this form still in front of them. It’s worth realizing that poets like Hilson, Sikélianòs, Bök, Spahr, Jarnot, Laynie Browne – some of whom feel like they’ve been around forever – are just now entering their 40s.² But Jackson Mac Low didn’t have his fourth book until he was 48 & didn’t really become widely known until he was in his 50s. We’ll no doubt see that same sequence replicated again.

As valuable as putting his contributors into chronological order is the decision to include poets from five nations: the U.K., U.S., Canada, Australia & New Zealand. This more accurately captures the world of poetry in the age of networks – not the situation in letters 30 years ago, but certainly the one we face today (and which will only become more, not less, international in the coming century). This in particular acknowledges the degree to which American poetry influenced its peers worldwide in the 20th century, while recognizing that, thanks to technology, we are now in a position where the link between location & influence is flexible, if not broken altogether. You need not live anymore on St. Marks Place or in San Francisco’s Mission District to have a global impact on poetry.

Donald Allen was fortunate (and also unfortunate³) in having the assistance of Robert Duncan in formulating his anthology roughly 50 years ago. While he was an active reader, it’s almost certainly true that he could never have come up with such a good selection of 44 poets entirely on his own. Hilson, in contrast, shows us that he did not have to rely on luck in putting together his collection, with an introduction that is considerably better than the brief one Allen was able to mount. You can download a PDF of Hilson’s here. It’s a good short discussion of the recent history of the sonnet and exemplary as an act of positioning for an anthology.

Shakespeare’s own sonnets were themselves written as an act of contestation – the “unlettered” writer from the sticks, better known for his work with a “low” form, theater, demonstrating that he could fashion a cycle of verse as well as any of the so-called University wits, as the School of Quietude was then known. Much of what makes this book great is that same sense of engagement – Berrigan’s sheer joy of composing sonnets “out of school,” so to speak, resuscitating a pattern that William Carlos Williams once dismissed as moribund & that Pound thought simply a “mistake.” Or Tim Atkins’ “Sonnet 20”:


in jet-streams, jet-streams


Certainly a sonnet is possible in which these words fall in these places. Yet is not clear if anything, in fact, is missing. As such, the text stands mute, ironic, self-amused all at once. Its use of reiteration & of slang, the mystery of the capital at the left-hand margin. Another poet who uses erasure is Jen Bervin, who grays out all but a handful of words in Shakespearean sonnets to fashion new ones that may be as simple as: “sluttish / wasteful war // you // wear this world out.” These words appear on lines 4, 5, 10 & 12 of Shakespeare’s 55th sonnet. Simple proximity pairs them into two two-line assertions. Each, it turns out, is five syllables long, the first breaking out into a two / three pattern focused on two-syllable words, the last into a one/four pattern, every word a single syllable. The force is palpable and one doesn’t mind at all the ways in which the poem has mined Ronald Johnson’s process with Milton’s Paradise Lost that resulted in Radi Os.

Poem after poem here offers new delights, like watching 84 brilliant physicists attack the same theoretical problem (or, conversely, 84 choreographers compose for the same score). Of the major forms in poetry, the sonnet is unique in not being predicated in some fashion upon prime numbers, the way we speak of iambic pentameter rather than the 10-syllable line, or how classic haiku uses three lines of 5, 7 & 5 (a sum of 17) syllables. Yet the sonnet’s 14 lines can be taken as double sevens, as three quatrains & a couplet, as multiple combinations adding up to an eight & a six, without even once challenging this strange conception I can only call 14ness. David Miller’s visual sonnets are paintings of 14 brushstrokes each. And we see poets here working in prose, in shorter forms or even, as in Allen Fisher’s excerpts from The Apocalyptic Sonnets, with a 28-line form (seven quatrains) that manages never to lose sight of its point of origin. Or Maurice Scully’s “Sonnet” that uses 14 stanzas, from two to nine lines each. Instead of stanza breaks, Scully’s shift their indentation.

So this book is a wonder. In addition to showing all the ways in which the sonnet might yet have a rich post-avant history, it is also a terrific demonstration of serious thinking about form as such. Nothing I’ve seen in the past decade, certainly, does a better job of showing just what that might be in practice, in contrast say to the use of pattern by so-called new formalism, which is a sham formalism at best. If, going forward, a poet takes the sonnet seriously, this book is where they will begin.


¹ One suspects that some of these absences can be traced directly back to questions of getting permission from persnickety estates, and the costs associated therewith.

² When I attended the 1965 Berkeley Poetry Conference, really my first attempt at getting involved in the world of poetry, both of my own parents were 38. Anyone that age seemed self-evidently ancient.

³ Because some of the obvious omissions of the anthology – say Diane di Prima – can be traced back to Duncan’s hand. Plus Robert went around for decades telling everyone that he’d picked the poets who were included in the book, ultimately an overstatement.