The high vaulted ceiling and dark wood of Muskie Archives gives it a formal look, perfectly fitting for a talk on sonnets, one of the most rigid forms of poetry. However, the dread of academic gravitas was immediately lifted by the colorful, passionate and engaging presenter, poet Dr. Stephen Burt.
Burt is a Harvard professor, poetry critic and poet. He has authored a number of books including a collection of essays, Close Calls With Nonsense, and his own books of poetry, including Popular Music. He also co-authored The Art of the Sonnet with David Mikics, a book that Bates students got a taste of on March 2.
From Shakespeare (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day”) to our own American Emma Lazarus (“Give me your tired, your poor”) the sonnet as a poetic form comes to readers laden with associations and expectations. In the beginning, Burt read a passage from fantasy author Catherynne M. Valente’s book, The Girl who Soared over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two, demonstrating how sonnets are traditionally viewed as valentines written in pentameter. According to him, the sonnet is often associated with not only love, but also the intimacy of daily life and a sense of historical tradition.
But what about modern sonnets? Yes, sonnets are still being written today in all sorts of forms and topics. Within this rigid framework the poet can perform “acrobatics,” as Burt calls it, playing tricks not only with the language but also by subverting readers’ expectations. Not unlike the imposing Muskie room, sonnets are a solid house for all types of play.
This is one of the reasons he proposes for why sonnets are still a popular form of poetry today. Anyone who never quite clicked with the ancient love sonnets in high school English classes would be surprised to know that sonnets today can cover topics from Batman to the history of Glasgow. Not only are they freed from romantic themes, but they also sometimes break rules of structure by throwing aside pentameter and experimenting with rhyme schemes.
Modern takes on the sonnet emphasize games and tricks in a form of “formal play.” They are also usually presented in a sequence, giving the sense of dailyness. Sonnets are not isolated; they not only come in groups but are often connected to the long line of historical literary tradition.
The presence of history inherent in the sonnet is a large enough expectation for the poet to play in its own. On one hand, the form can indicate conservative views on art or society. The opposite is just as likely to be true, as the history of the form can be used to address historical injustices. Likewise, the strict format of sonnets can be a comforting, solid structure suitable for holding intimate thoughts; it is equally as powerful when that structure is broken.
Burt illustrated this with the example of “Sonnet” by Elizabeth Bishop, which breaks convention with lines like “Freed- the broken/thermometer mercury/running away” which clearly does not match the five-feet and abab rhyme scheme of Shakespearian sonnets.
During the talk, Burt passed around a copy of Please Add to this List, a collection of the sonnets of Bernadette Mayer, an avant-garde poet, in addition to passing her list of writing experiments. The list included prompts like, “Write a work that intersperses love with landlords,” and “Write the longest most beautiful sentence you can imagine, make it be a whole page.” Modern sonnets can be invitational, a teaching tool to pull others into the often intimidating tradition. The lecture, “Art of the Sonnet,” shows us the reasons why the sonnet does not just belong to dead, romantic poets. It is in fact a living and diverse form.
This article was edited to reflect the proper attribution for “Sonnet.”