David Bromwich, editor
American Sonnets: An Anthology.
Library of America, 197 pages, $20
Who was the wag who coined “American sonnet” as the impish moniker we now know it? Like it or not, it looks like we’re stuck with it now: the standard Italian and English models of the fourteen-line “little song” may have long sufficed to classify just about every spinoff on the original patent, but these days, heaven knows, anything goes. Where exactly that double-edged catchphrase leaves us, however, is ripe for debate. As tongue-in-cheek neologisms go, there’s a certain snappy aptness about it, bowing as it does in the general direction of venerable tradition while winking at the period fashion for playing loose and fast with the formal trappings that have streamlined the sonnet’s sound and sense for close to eight centuries. Yet taken as a sign of the times, it’s a trademark that can’t help but beg the question of whether we’re witnessing the inevitable historical evolution of the modus operandi or the end of the line.
Be all that as it may, David Bromwich is having none of it. Evidently a strict constructionist in such matters, the noted Yale critic has assembled a studious anthology that makes no concessions to the thieves’ argot implied in its title—so far as he’s concerned, American sonnets signify nothing more or less than sonnets written by Americans. Not that he’s oblivious to the sonnet’s checkered track record in the annals of modern American poetics: in his absorbing introductory essay he dutifully adduces Emerson’s dictum that it’s “not meters, but a meter-making argument that makes a poem” as symptomatic of the restless native bent for casting aside received forms in the name of unfettered self-expression, and he wryly cites Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “sonnet written in despair of sonnets” as an early case study in the American predisposition to what might be diagnosed as chronic sonnet fatigue syndrome. For all its starchy diction, Robinson’s octet has lost none of its bite:
Oh for a poet—for a beacon bright
To rift this changeless glimmer of dead gray;
To spirit back the Muses, long astray;
And flush Parnassus with a new light;
To put these little sonnet-men to flight
Who fashion, in a shrewd mechanical way
Songs without souls, that flicker for a day;
To vanish in irrevocable night.
So much for the sonnet, or so it would seem. Little songs—with or without souls—were all good and well for the Renaissance courtiers and English Romantics of yore, but American bards had bigger fish to fry. But of course the sonnet wasn’t about to go gently into that good night: Robinson himself went on to write no small number of sterling specimens that still give off a burnished gleam (Bromwich reprints a baker’s dozen of them), and even as vers libre took the country by storm, the sonnet’s circumscribed economy of scale continued to provide “brief solace,” as Wordsworth had decreed, for a good many souls who “felt the weight of too much liberty.” Better perhaps to say, then, that American poetry writ large has always had a classic love-hate relationship with the vintage Petrarchan and Shakespearean contraption, unwilling to write off the sonnet as a cobwebbed relic yet itching to place its own indelible stamp on the thing and incorrigibly incapable of leaving well enough alone.
Does that mean that the American sonnet, define it as you will, deserves to be hailed as a flourishing natural phenomenon in its own right? Bromwich is here to tell us just that: in his view, American poets didn’t merely prove to be able hands at the sonnet’s nuts and bolts, they breathed a whole new life into its ends and means. “When Americans turn to this form,” he declares, “they invest it with a glamour and intensity equal to anything they have to show in more flamboyant or new-minted frames.” That’s a whale of a claim, and it’s not altogether clear that he’s produced the best of all possible anthologies for making it stick. If there’s no quibbling with his operative notion that the “maverick experiment and enterprise” most readily associated with American poetry “has never excluded the singular purpose and compositional economy that belong properly to the sonnet,” it’s still a hazy generality that leaves room for the reasonable shadow of a doubt: a cornucopia of home-grown sonnets doesn’t necessarily a landmark national achievement make, and the prolific variety of artifacts on display here only goes part of the way toward clinching the case for the Amercan sonnet’s sovereign vitality.
The verdict, at best, is ambiguous. Although Bromwich seems convinced that not marble nor the gilded monuments of princes have outlived this powerful meme, his decision to stint on contemporary examples doesn’t exactly allay nagging suspicions that the sonnet’s best days may be behind it. Chances are the expediencies of the series format had something to do with the rather truncated feel of his compilation—the stock-in-trade of the estimable American Poets Project is the pocket treasury, not the doorstop edition—but one wishes he’d seen fit to gloss his editorial rationale for devoting fewer than forty of his 170 pages to poets dating after 1900 (and just one, Robert Mezey, born since the Twenties) and to hazard at least a guarded estimation of what the future might hold for the pro forma sonnet as a renewable resource. As it is, we’re left to speculate whether the scant handful of works here composed over the last half-century ought to be taken as circumstantial evidence that the sonnet’s mystique is running on fumes, or whether Bromwich has simply elected to draw the line at sonnets that are too newfangled or renegade to fit neatly into his curatorial paradigm. The prevailing impression, at any rate, is of being escorted through a kind of handsomely mounted Smithsonian exhibition of the American sonnet, a teeming gallery of shrewdly mechanical little songs that you can imagine finding just down the hall from the whalebone corsets and the buggywhips.
The tour kicks off with a couple of antiquarian curios: one ceremonious sonnet composed by a notable American statesman and another by a prominent American painter. John Quincy Adams’s “To the Sun-Dial” isn’t half-bad (said instrument reposed at the U.S. House of Representatives) while Washington Allston’s “On the Luxembourg Gallery” mostly confirms that his talents were confined to canvas, but together they illustrate how beholden the pre-Emersonian sonnet was to its Old World ancestry and how far it would have to go before its rhetorical devices and designs could be naturalized into the American idiom with any genuine conviction.
As Bromwich sees it, the American sonnet came into its own through the good offices of its two most industrious nineteenth-century practitioners, Jones Very (1813–1880) and Frederick Goddard Tuckerman (1821–1873), both of whom he plugs as “poets of the first rank” and accordingly awards space to in bulk. There’s something to be said for that scholarly judgment: it’s not just their brute productivity that qualifies as a watershed development but the way they seem to have seized onto the sonnet for dear life, doggedly bent on turning its constricting yoke into a consecrated medium for hard-earned introspection and emotion recollected in tranquility. Then again, take another look at their dates: Very and Tuckerman are nearly exact contemporaries of a pair of American poets named Whitman and Dickinson, and set beside those two supernovas who had no use whatsoever for the sonnet in any way, shape, or form, they begin to look like the very model of the little sonnet-men on automatic pilot that Robinson would decry as the root of all mediocrity at the turn of the century.
Robinson wasn’t alone. In his waspish 1917 pensée, “Reflections on Vers Libre,” T. S. Eliot brushed aside any suggestion that the epochal vogue for libertine poetic novelty was a sign that formal prosody was going the way of all flesh, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to rise in defense of the little song: “As for the sonnet, I am not so sure.” Bromwich duly notes Eliot’s skepticism at the tail-end of his introduction and allows that qualms over the form’s creeping senescence are nothing new under the sun, but he would have us believe that the abounding surplus of fine and proper American sonnets that fill out these pages amply demonstrates that Old Possum ought to have placed a little more confidence in the sonnet’s stubborn durability and perennial appeal.
Maybe, maybe not. Bromwich is an incisive exegete of individual sonnets, acutely attuned to their intricate acoustics and kinetics, and there is no arguing with his lionizing of Robert Frost as “the author of the best sonnets in English written by anyone who was not Shakespeare.” Even so, isn’t Frost’s mastery too sui generis to exemplify some booming revival movement or crowning arc of development? Read again here against the groundbeat of so much regimented sentiment and facile boilerplate, Frost’s lapidary sonnets chiefly stand out as imperishable poems that happen to be cast in sonnet form—autonomous vernacular marvels that are greater than the sum of their diecast moving parts by orders of magnitude. And because Bromwich takes only a spotty interest in the evolutionary mutations of the genre and shows little inclination to come to grips with the bedevilments of its diminishing returns, thumbing through his inventory is liable to leave the agnostic reader on the fence, suitably impressed by the sonnet’s staying power yet still not so sure about what all its rote closed-circuitry adds up to at the end of the day.
Suffice it to say, different ears will draw differing conclusions. Some might come away persuaded that Yankee moxie sparked a full-blown sonnet renaissance, while others might hold that our native guild merely granted the franchise a marginal reprieve as a nostalgic cottage industry. Still others might detect more than a whiff of desperation in all this bustling effort to give the little song a new lease on life in the American grain, whether by jazzing it up with local color and flashy lingo or by retrofitting it with faddish social attitudes and idiosyncratic appurtenances. Those with a healthy regard for telltale historical irony, meanwhile, may well find it instructive that the most totemic sonnet produced on American soil is virtually unrecognizeable as a sonnet at all: schoolchildren everywhere can rattle off Emma Lazarus’s storied inscription engraved on the base of Lady Liberty, but it’s a safe bet that only whiz kids can properly identify those ringing words as the closing lines of her promotional Petrarchan sonnet, “The New Colossus.”
All the more reason, then, why any rounded appraisal of the American sonnet’s fortunes would seem to hinge on the mettle of those latter-day poets who took to it with an inveterate alacrity or prodigiality, tackling the daunting challenge of reinventing the wheel with all the headlong compulsiveness that’s fueled the form’s regeneration down through its epic history. Bromwich makes much of Cummings and Millay as pivotal figures in this respect, saluting the former’s “anti-Petrarchan sonnets” as touchstones of rambunctious American iconoclasm and extolling the latter’s bluestocking opus maximus, Fatal Interview, as “one of the few full-length sequences of the modern period that succeed almost throughout.” That sounds just about right on both scores, but it also lends credence to the conjecture that by coming so late to the game, modern American adepts had little recourse but to submit themselves to the sonnet’s lockstep protocols or to force their hand by pressing its prescribed strictures to the breaking point.
Bromwich’s selections from Cummings and Millay take up a fair chunk of real estate well past the midpoint of the volume, and, if this retrospective were all you had to go on, you might be pardoned for surmising that right around here you were observing something akin to the American sonnet’s last stand. Most readers with any sporting interest in all this know better: chalk it up to a cultish fetish or an evergreen affinity, the sonnet has never been lacking for American votaries, never mind that those who treat it as a kind of windup toy or parlor trick will probably always outnumber those who cherish it as an exquisite instrument for concentrating the mind wonderfully.
That being so, it’s puzzling that Bromwich barely gives the time of day to that formidable duo from the so-called Middle Generation, Berryman and Lowell, and has nothing to say about how their rampant ambition to jumpstart the sonnet each in their own obsessive fashion figures into the protean state of the art. Apparently they are not to his taste—there is just one entry here from Berryman’s bravura sonnet sequence and two well-wrought early sonnets of Lowell’s—but whatever you make of their exertions on the merits, it scarcely seems kosher to take stock of the sonnet as a cultural patrimony without reckoning with their all-out campaigns to reclaim the form as the consummate acid test of lyric virtuosity and ingenuity. Indeed, Berryman’s full-tilt priapic saga in the throwback courtly style (“Let boys & girls with these old songs have holiday / If they feel like it”) and Lowell’s damburst of eclectic blank-verse sonnets in Notebook, History, and The Dolphin (“Even with this license, I fear I have failed to avoid the themes and gigantism of the sonnet”) together seem to embody everything that’s peculiarly self-conscious and manifestly contradictory about our democratic stance on the little song—an open-door policy alternatively heroic and quixotic, earnest and arch, reverent and dissident.
One closes Bromwich’s anthology none the wiser as to the secret of the sonnet’s stamina, except perhaps for a stronger hunch that American poets have done more than their bit to certify that age cannot wither nor custom stale its infinite variety. Given that Bromwich seems content to let the sonnet rest on its laurels, however, contemporary enthusiasts might do well to consult the redoubtable Renaissance historian Jacob Burckhardt, who took a longer view on its dynastic glories and follies than Bromwich’s assignment called for. “Here the human spirit took a mighty step toward the consciousness of its own secret life,” Burckhardt asserted, singling out the apotheosis of the sonnet in the “new sweet style” of Dante and his stilnovisti brethren as a milestone of Humanism. Now more than ever, though, his cautionary note on its occupational hazards ought to give pause to American sonneteers hoping to make the cut for an updated edition of Bromwich’s cavalcade:
Later Italian writers complain, half-jestingly, half-resentfully, of this inevitable mold, this fourteen-line Procrustean bed to which they were compelled to make their thoughts and feelings fit. Others were, and still are, quite satisfied with this particular form of verse, which they freely use to express any personal reminiscence or idle sing-song without necessity or serious purpose. For which reason there are many more bad or insignificant sonnets than good ones.