Poetry Sunday: “An Old Story," by Tracy K. Smith

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor
When I see any poem in 14 or even 13—or as it is here, in 15 lines—I have to ask myself whether it could be called a sonnet. I spent a lot of time in grad school studying that venerable old form, which dates back to the 14th century, writing many of the sonnets that later went into my book, Paradise Drive. Nowadays I often teach a class focusing on the question, What makes a sonnet a sonnet? Or rather, how many of the traditional criteria can you jettison and still call a poem a sonnet?
Almost all of them, it turns out. We think of one sine qua non as 14 lines, but many wonderful sonnets have fewer or more than that number. People love to get exercised about questions like this, pointing out quite rightly that not every poem of 14 lines is a sonnet. And there are some poems, like Yeats’s “The Fascination of What’s Difficult,” which unequivocally earn the title despite having just 13 lines. George Meredith’s Modern Love sonnet sequence features 16-line sonnets; Pushkin also wrote them, and I agree with those who call John Berryman’s Dreamsongs sonnets. In Paradise Drive, I included a few poems in more or fewer than 14 lines even though I did have, in earlier drafts, versions in the prescribed number. In that case, I just included the best versions of those poems.
I believe that calling a poem a sonnet requires the same kind of analysis Wittgenstein uses in his “family resemblance” theory. It works like this: Family members are not usually identical, but they do share DNA. If a person has enough (a critical mass) of the common family characteristics, then we can recognize that person as a member of the family. Applied to sonnet analysis, the question is whether a given poem has enough traditional criteria, or sonnet DNA, to evoke the idea of a “sonnet” as it is read. One anthology calls this, somewhat New-Age-ily, as “having the sonnet experience.” [Hirsch, Edward, and Boland, Eavan. The Making of a Sonnet. (Norton 2008)] Urban Dictionary says a poem is a sonnet if it produces “a feeling like pop rocks going off in your mouth.” I like this, because for me the most successful sonnets do deliver an element of explosiveness and surprise.
Today’s poem is laid out in five three-line stanzas (tercets) for a total of 15 lines, but look more closely at lines 6 and 7. Line 7 is pushed out to the right margin in a way that makes it look as if it once belonged to line 6 before being moved down to its own line. In other words, it is arguable that “An Old Story” actually does consist of 14 lines, where lines 6 and 7 count as just one line, its latter third simply moved down to create white space inside the poem, perhaps done to mime the lapse of time expressed in “A long age / passed.” I also noticed that the shape this poem makes on the page is what we typically see in sonnets—compact, boxlike, and as Annie Finch would put it, able to fit in the palm of a human hand.
Another traditional sonnet requirement is that the poem has rhyme and meter. The most common rhyme schemes are Petrarchan, with envelope rhyme in the octet (abbaabbacdecde) and Elizabethan (aka English or Shakespearean) using alternating rhyme and closing with a rhyming couplet (ababcdcdefefgg). Dante wrote sonnets in complex interlocking terza rima   (ababcbcdcedeff). There are villanelle sonnets and sestina sonnets and acrostic sonnets, and more. Infinite variations have evolved, and contemporary sonnets routinely take liberties, relying on slant rather than full rhyme and on other forms of sonic repetition like internal rhyme and alliteration. Word repetition is another form of rhyme long used in sonnets, with perhaps the best-known example being William Meredith’s wonderful “The Illiterate.” Some sonnets eschew rhyme entirely; blank verse sonnets are written in unrhymed iambic pentameter and “American Sonnets” are free verse, with no meter or rhyme.
Today’s poem has a few subtle examples of end rhyme. In a nod to that closing couplet of a Shakespearean sonnet, the final words of lines 14 and 15 (“another” and “color”) both end in “—r”, echoing the end words in lines 5 (“over”) and 12 (“weather”). “Urge” and “age” in lines 2 and 7 also slant-rhyme. The rest of the poem is rich in rhyme variations. In a dramatic example, “then,” “animals,” “long,” “gone,” and “down” all repeat the nasal “—n” sound in line 13. Other internal rhymes are “we” and “be” (line 1), “past” and “last” (line 8), and “kind” and “wind” (an eye rhyme in line 3). Consonance often substitutes for rhyme in contemporary sonnets, and we see it here in “livid / land” and “ravaged / rageful” in line 4, and in “we wept” in the poem’s last line. Repeated initial “l” sounds in “last” and “little” in line 8 trill a ululation—sound supporting the expression of loss and despair. Finally, “every” is repeated three times in stanza 1. In sum, there is more than enough sonic repetition in today’s poem to satisfy the “rhyming” component of traditional sonnet criteria.
Another oft-cited requirement for sonnets is that they be metered, though the free-verse “American Sonnet” is now an accepted variation. For centuries, most sonnets written in English used iambic pentameter or tetrameter, but they’ve always been written in other time signatures, and my “What Makes a Sonnet a Sonnet” class handout lists examples ranging from the one-beat-per-line minimalist sonnets (monometer) all the way to sonnets written in Alexandrines with six beats and even longer lines. Today’s poem scans as iambic pentameter with variations, the classic meter of English or Shakespearean sonnets.
The sine qua non for many sonnet diagnosticians is the presence of a volta, or turn, where tradition has taught us to expect it: in or near the close of the octet (line 8) in a Petrarchan sonnet and in the closing couplet or last two lines of a Shakespearean sonnet. Because the latter derived from the Petrarchan form, you will often find a “shadow” or “demi” turn after the 8th line as well as a full turn at the end, and it is not uncommon in modern sonnets to see turns in both places. In today’s poem, a volta occurs in the middle of line 8, signaled by the word “when.” At this point in the poem’s narration, one stage or age of the history has concluded (“passed”) and another is about to begin. A second volta, cued by the word “then,” happens at the beginning of line 13—a bit sooner than classical sonnet theory predicts, but close enough to the turn we see in the last lines of Shakespearean sonnets. It is arguable that a third turn happens precisely where we expect it in line 14, in the phrase “we took new stock of one another [emphasis added].”
“An Old Story” engages with the sonnet tradition by invoking the form but also departing from it, an activity that has evolved through the centuries into yet another sonnet indicia. Many sonnets, such as Wordsworth’s “Nuns Fret Not,” directly address the struggle with the form, making the sonnet itself their subject. What else is it that makes me think of “An Old Story” as somewhat subversive (in the best possible sense)? Maybe its subject matter and the way it flirts with genre (sci-fi) fiction. The traditional subject for sonnets is courtly love, and for centuries sonnets were the way lovers addressed the (usually unattainable) objects of their romantic and carnal desire. Over time, the subjects expanded to include sacred as well as carnal love, with the metaphysical poets like Donne, Herbert, and Hopkins writing well-known examples. In more recent times, sonnets have become vessels for individual self-reflection, self-discovery, and even political expression; Terrance Hayes’s recent and highly-acclaimed book, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin (Penguin 2018), comes immediately to mind.
The subject of today’s poem is end times or apocalypse, brought on perhaps—the word “weather” in line 12 suggests this—by climate change. Most of the poem paints the bleak picture of a dystopian, ruined world. “An Old Story” opens just before the apocalypse happens, a time when “we were made to understand” what was coming, and the first two stanzas paint a bleak and terrifying picture of ruin. Geologic time is compressed, amazingly, into “A long age / Passed,” and then there is a change (the first volta) in “when at last we knew.” This is the postapocalyptic stage of the history being narrated in the poem, the nadir of terror and horror, and after humanity reaches it comes a second, more positive change in a second volta: “something / Large and old awoke.” This line also brings “singing,” and then comes a third volta and a dramatically positive change to the possibility of a “different manner of weather,” one offering redemption and hope. As the poem ends, we see the return of animals believed to be extinct—and also, in this grim, dark, black-and-white landscape, the return of “color” so vivid and beautiful it makes us “weep.”
For me then, the main thing that distinguishes today’s poem from most sonnets is the way it invokes science fiction—something that Smith does quite a bit in her work—and its oracular quality, partly an effect of Smith’s highly effective use of the collective or communal “we” (first-person plural) point of view. The voice, reminiscent of the Greek Chorus in ancient plays, belongs in this poem to everyone in the world. Sadye Teiser’s essay calls the collective voice “inherently eerie, because people don’t naturally talk as one” and lauds its “singular ability to harness a power that is not limited by the bounds of one character’s individual perspective. That is why the first-person plural is often used to describe events, be they real or unreal, that feel bigger than us.” [“The First-Person Plural Voice,” in The Masters Review]
No bigger-than-us event than the apocalypse, right? When earned, as it is here, the “communal we” bestows authority and gravity, and speaks with immense power. When not done well, though, the perspective can wind up alienating readers. One risk is of giving offense, either for presuming to be able to speak for all members of a group or for not representing them accurately. Another is of sounding too grandiloquent or distant, something avoided here by the author’s choice of a subject—the destruction of the world—whose scale matches the voice. A way to avoid the problem of presuming to speak for a group is to situate the speaker squarely within the group’s purview. Today’s speaker does that by speaking not as a member of a particular race or nationality or other subgroup, but for all humanity—everyone left in the world following its near-total collapse.
The way “An Old Story” evokes the feeling of a large, prophetic utterance and a feeling of we-are-all-in-this-together reminds me very much of another famous author and personal favorite, Ursula K. Le Guin, whose work I rediscovered when I ran across her entry in the “House Journal” of a cabin I recently occupied during a writer’s retreat at Hedgebrook on Whidby Island in Washington. Le Guin worked mostly in science fiction and fantasy fiction, but she also wrote poetry, and I hope one day to feature her in these columns. Her voice, distinctive, universal, and wise without ever sounding pompous or grandiose, reminds me very much of Smith’s in today’s poem. A New York Times Book Review calls Smith’s work “persuasively haunted” and Smith “a canny medium of fellow feeling and the stirrings of the collective unconscious.” Academy of American Poets Chancellor Toi Derricotte says: “The surfaces of a Tracy K. Smith poem are beautiful and serene, but underneath, there is always a sense of an unknown vastness.” I wholeheartedly agree. “An Old Story” uses plainspoken diction to evoke the feeling of an utterance relevant to all people in all times, and at the same time, addresses issues that matter to us here and now. That Smith pulls it off in a compact form that invokes sonnet tradition at the same time it subverts that tradition to make it wholly her own—well, that is a real tour de force.
Let me close by highlighting something you will not want to miss—Smith’s wonderful daily podcast called “The Slowdown,” produced in partnership with the Library of Congress and the Poetry Foundation: www.apmpodcasts.org/slowdown. Each day, Smith introduces and reads a poem that has caught her eye. Her selections and comments are just wonderful, and tuning in daily can be a great way to augment your poetry practice, or just add a brief, bright spot to your everyday routine.]]>

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