by John Gibbs —
Introducing a new series of interviews, focused exclusively on craft, conducted by members ofSwitchback with the talented and accomplished faculty members of the University of San Francisco’s MFA in Writing program. For our first installment, we present this conversation with poet Bruce Snider on the role of the sonnet in contemporary poetry. Snider is the author of two poetry collections, Paradise, Indiana, winner of the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Poetry Prize, and The Year We Studied Women, winner of Felix Pollak Prize in Poetry. A former Wallace Stegner fellow and Jones Lecturer at Stanford University, he’s also the recipient of a James A. Michener fellowship from The University of Texas at Austin. To read more, you can head over to his website.
Switchback: The sonnet is steeped in literary tradition. Wyatt, Shakespeare, Spencer, and dozens of others have proven themselves masters of the form; it is the most recognized poetic form in all the English language. With so much attention and expectation naturally drawn toward it, where do you see the contemporary sonnet branching off from that tradition and trying on new clothes? Are there poems or poets you can point to who are radically altering the shape of the sonnet today?
Bruce Snider: That’s a tough question to answer succinctly, since there’s so much interesting work being done with the sonnet right now. But personally, I love what David Wojahn has been doing for the past few decades, particularly his sonnet sequence “Mystery Train,” which includes poems with titles like “Matins: James Brown and His Famous Flames Tour the South, 1958” and “The Assassination of John Lennon as Depicted by the Madame Tusssaud Wax Museum, Niagra Falls, Ontario, 1987.” These are narrative poems, which render important moments of rock ‘n roll history. And I admire them partly because Wojahn’s use of the sonnet form is never incidental. The ways he resists that form, the liberties he takes—roughening the meter, using inexact rhyme, using a more fractured “free verse” lineation—become a clear expression of the poems’ tensions and themes. A sonnet about rock ‘n roll history would necessarily express the anarchic nature of its subject in its form, bearing out Creeley and Oppen’s famous claim that “form is never more than extension of content.” Unfortunately, I don’t believe the rock ‘n roll sonnets are available on the web, but here’s another one of his sonnet series that I love called “White Lanterns.”
Aside from Wojahn, there’s also interesting stuff being done by young poets like Maria Hong, Ben Lerner, and D.A. Powell. Powell is especially interesting in poems like “corydon and alexis, redux” in which he’s obviously less interested in the sonnet’s formal limitations and more interested in its ability to gesture toward and locate itself within a very rich and complicated tradition. And, of course, that’s all just scratching the surface of what’s going on out there with the sonnet.
SWB: Technically speaking, what are the challenges of writing in the sonnet form? For the writer, what are the ultimate benefits of writing within the sonnet’s design?
BS: There is, of course, the iambic meter and rhyme scheme to negotiate in the traditional sonnet, but I often think its most challenging demand is its insistence on compression. The fourteen lines of pentameter create both horizontal and vertical pressures, which require an economy of language and a resulting compression of thought and feeling. This distillation of language and experience is what, I suspect, draws most of us to lyric poetry in the first place.
Also, the different kinds of sonnets—Petrarchan or Shakespearean—have their distinct challenges. The rhetorical division of the Petrarchan sonnet traditionally requires a precise organization of argument / thought; and the Shakespearean sonnet’s final couplet closes with such sonic neatness that, unless navigated skillfully, can invite a kind of summarizing or simplifying of a poem’s themes or tensions.
In other words, the form can be a compositional minefield. But when it works, wow, it really works.
SWB: In the classroom, do you find it instructive to have your students write sonnets? If so, are they generally receptive to such prompts? And what might you tell someone who is resistant to the form and thinks it too antiquated?
BS: Absolutely, I always teach the sonnet. Because it demands such economy, it makes a great training ground for young writers. Sometimes, particularly at first, a young poet’s language is made stilted or awkward by the form, but it also often gets more surprising. In general, closed forms can be good for young poets because they force them to make discoveries during the writing process. If students complain about the sonnet, it’s usually because the form won’t let them say exactly what they want to say. But I teach writing less as a tool of saying what you already know and more as a process through which you can discover something you didn’t know.
And generally, in my experience most young writers are game to experiment with almost anything. I usually try to head off any kind of resistance by showing them some very contemporary versions of the sonnet alongside traditional examples. I also frame our discussion of poetry from the outset with an understanding that poems are always a negotiation between possibility and limitation, a kind of dance the poet undertakes in which, at different moments, the poet both leads and follows, both resists limitation and surrenders to it. The notion of the “limitation” is essential to poetry. As Robert Hass has pointed out “the oldest Greek and Latin words for poetry were also the oldest words for law.” At some level, poetry is always about rules. As the poet begins to write, the only question is whether a poet decides to accept a series of limitations before she begins to compose or whether the limitations will be chosen while she composes. After all, free verse poems establish patterns of lineation, sound, image, etc. that limit the poet and must be negotiated to complete the poem. And these days, most poets feel pretty free to work in both closed and open forms. Acceptance of formal and aesthetic hybridity has gone pretty mainstream (at least as far as you can call anything about poetry mainstream).
SWB: If you had to choose, what formal element are you most drawn to within the structure of the sonnet? That is to say, where does the magic happen for you as a reader or writer (rhyme scheme, volta, meter, etc.)?
BS: At the risk of repeating myself, I’d say the compression. The sonnet is a diamond-maker. If navigated skillfully, it’s intense pressure can crystallize language, thought, and feeling, making the poem incredibly vivid, immediate, and surprising.