Poetry Sunday: Poems by Sandra M. Gilbert

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor
Today’s poems are all from AfterMath, a remarkable collection that came to my attention when I heard its poems read at Book Passage, a local bookstore, the year the book came out. I’d heard of the writer before then, of course—not just her poems but also her feminist prose in widely read books like On Burning Ground and The Madwoman in the Attic. I bought theNorton Anthology of Literature by Women as soon as it came out, 25 years after I graduated from college as an English major steeped in the old, white-male-dominated Norton anthologies. Huzzah, I thought then and do now. It was about time.
Gilbert’s scholarly works are luminous and visionary, and so are her poems, as I found the night I sat down to peruse AfterMath and ended up reading it straight through. It’s a moving tribute to the writer’s departed life partner, a mathematician whose death gives the secondary meaning to the title, AfterMath, an apt name for a book in which witty word play and mathematical concepts are so important.
Not all the poems in AfterMath are sonnets, but four poems from a sonnet sequence in the book are the focus of today’s column. Readers of “Poetry Sunday” know of my fondness for sonnets, but what I like best are poems like these that begin with the form and then make it new, transforming it into something  relevant, powerful, and contemporary. Today’s poems are a good representative sample of the sonnets in AfterMath. What I can say about all the poems in this sequence is they begin with the sonnet template and adhere to what I think of as the sine qua nons of the form, but they also bust out of the tradition in many wonderful, powerful ways. I studied the sonnet my last year of grad school and at that time wrote most of the poems that later became my collection Paradise Drive. My focus then was on this: What makes a sonnet a sonnet? Or rather, how many of the traditional sonnet 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 there are many wonderful sonnets that have fewer or more than that number. Annie Finch’s shorthand for this is that a sonnet looks as if it could fit into the palm of your hand. Another traditional requirement is that the poem have rhyme and meter. There are many variations, but the most common two rhyme schemes are Petrarchan, classically rhymed abbaabbacdecde, and Elizabethan (aka English or Shakespearean), rhymed ababcdcdefefgg. Variations have evolved, and many contemporary sonnets substitute slant for full and internal for end rhyme, or even eschew rhyme entirely. There are also blank verse sonnets, metered but not rhymed, as well as so-called “American Sonnets” in 14 lines without meter or rhyme. There are villanelle sonnets and sestina sonnets and acrostic sonnets, and more. 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 in Alexandrines and even longer lines.
Another traditional requirement is a volta or turn, and I am among those who believe that a poem without a volta is hard-pressed to call itself a sonnet. The turn usually happens in line 8 in poems rising from the Petrarchan tradition and in the last two lines in sonnets that are Elizabethan or Shakespearean. Because they evolved from the Petrarchan form, Elizabethan sonnets sometimes exhibit, besides the volta in the closing couplet, a second, more subtle “demi-volta” or “shadow turn” in the 8th line.
My thesis is that calling a poem a sonnet requires the same kind of analysis Wittgenstein uses in his family resemblance theory: if a person has enough (a critical mass) of the common family characteristics, then we can call that person a member of the family. Applied to sonnet analysis, the question is whether a given poem has enough traditional criteria to evoke the idea  of a “sonnet” as it is read. One anthology on the sonnet 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.
People love to get exercised about questions like this, pointing out quite rightly that not every poem in 14 lines is a sonnet; some are just fourteeners. And there are some definite sonnets out there, like Yeats’ “The Fascination of What’s Difficult,” which earn the title despite having fewer (or more) than 14 lines. In Paradise Drive, I included two poems not meeting the requirement even though I did have versions in exactly 14 lines. My approach in writing those poems went like this: Write it first as a traditional sonnet with tight rhyme and meter, then revise it without worrying about any of that stuff until the poem finally emerges in its strongest, best form.
Today’s poems take liberties with rhyme, often substituting slant rhyme or assonance for full end rhyme, and feeling free to use envelope (Petrarchan) rhyme in one stanza and alternating (Elizabethan) rhyme in the next. We see this in “(Triple A),” rhymed abbXcdc’d’ efef’ gg, where prime symbols designate slant rhyme in lieu of full rhyme and an X designates a line with no rhyme partner anywhere else in the poem. Today’s sonnets are all in meter (the first three iambic pentameter and the last iambic tetrameter), and all end with the signature Elizabethan rhyming couplets. What’s more, all have strong voltas in their closing couplets and more nuanced voltas just where we’d expect to see them in a Petrarchan sonnet, at the end of the octet or 8th line.
In “(Triple A),” the poem’s octet describes the poet’s last conversation with her lover about the need to call Triple A to change a flat tire. While the poem’s end is presaged in the words “the last exchange” and “wounded thing,” the scene and mood are, by and large, tranquil and domestic. In the next quatrain, things change. We are given extraordinary focus on minute details composing the scene—“ink of The Times soaking up the silence,” and a surprising view of the landscape outside—“tulips & autos fractioning the light.” As a result of this volta, the ordinary has become strange. The big change happens in the poem’s last two lines that liken car engines to a hospital device that will later try but fail to fix the lover’s heart. In both cases the change is signaled by white space, and in the last it is underscored by being placed in privacy-affording parentheses that remind me of the way parentheses are used in other famous poems about the death of a beloved, Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” and  Donald Justice’s “Psalm and Lament.”
In “(Machine),” the first eight lines meditate about disconnecting life support from the speaker’s partner. A change happens when line 9 introduces a line of spoken dialogue, someone else in the room warning that the dying “can hear you.” At this point (lines 9-12) the poem shifts from the speaker’s abstract musings to the reality of the death room, with the focus on sound: words, music, and finally, utter silence in line 12. The big volta happens in the closing couplet when that silence is broken by a death rattle: “the strident rasping sight / a body utters when it has to die.” “(Eyes)” also modulates sound in a way that accomplishes a volta between lines 8 and 9, from weeping and praying to a sudden “silence broadening into shock.” Focus shifts again in lines 13-14, from sound to visual image, the dying eyes “slowly widening; innocent; absolute.” In “(Kite),” the first 8 lines provide a visual image of a kite in flight, and a transitional word beginning line 8 (“but”) signals the turn to more abstract reflection about how perceptions are fleeting things. The final turn in lines 13-14 is to the larger and philosophic notion that we invent what we perceive through our senses, captured  gorgeously as “a mind imagined this flight, & proved it once.”

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