Intro and Endnote to an afternoon of “Dueling Sonnets” conducted between Chris Bogart and Gregg G. Brown in the Late Spring of 2013.
This “duel-to-the-deaf,” cooked-up at Chris’ instigation, is a good moment to reflect on the combative nature of poetic friendship. There is the dare, the challenge, of two eagles sparking each other to higher cloud-cliffs, or the raucous oboe-music of two bullfrogs boisterously bellowing out their over-proud self-renown in the echo chamber of a mud pond. Always there’s a glance at “what the other guy is doing” when writing, when flirting with Fame. The current crop of rappers and “slam” poetry contests takes this energy for what it is–an evolutionary imperative. Be we bullfrogs or banded eagles, we expand or soar to what loudnesses and heights our time of trial allows.
May 22, 2013
[Gregg G. Brown]
Secrets of the Sonnet
Anguish gives us that to call our own–our littleness in the immensity. And it is this littleness that we, still reasoning with fate, sing. And it is in the sonnet that this “anguish of reason,” of needing to need reasons, finds its singing voice. So congenial is the sonnet for the purpose of striking off an attitude of thought, and then briefly turning it around for consideration, that it is itself an essay-in-little, a quantum of human sensibility, a unit of our vast humanity.
A sonnet holds a pillow’s-worth of dreams, a santa’s-sack of infinity. How could it be otherwise? Like Dr. Berhen’s execrable x-rays, the sonnet shows a lump of heart amidst a ghost of bones.
The sonnet is an able instrument. At times, it seems a wispy lyre, no more than an adolescent’s inaugural mustache. At other times, as with Milton, it seems a pocket cannon, Dirty Harry’s .357 magnum blasting out Justice. Often the form seems to encourage the play of quickened wit, thrusts and parries, both of image and of sound, with much more variety and activity than so small a string quartet seems like it should be able to provide.
The sonnet has been the library of such scintillating variation and is, I think, the closest that English verse has come to a jazz form–open to all subjects and moods. The very fact that it drips with unstated implications (because of its enforced brevity) and, at the same time, demands careful development of a theme (because of its long history of use, and not just in english), no sonnet sings in a vacuum. Even Robert Lowell’s unusual fourteeners of blank verse play out their game in the context of sonnetry, so wrestler-wiry is the tradition.
Sometimes a sonnet is a plain pocket of worsted poesies, a very dry handful of desiccated violets. Like a compact mirror, it is portable enough to show any face; a pocket kaleidoscope of Lon Chaney faces. In argument, the sonnet has “a sting to do his foes offense.” In loving, no tool but the lover’s native virility is more efficacious in making fruitful the demurest vale. It is a Caliban of enmity, and an Ariel of loveliness. It cannot be sung, properly speaking, but is best composed as a sort of talking-song, often with a very specific, even singular, audience in mind. In Wordsworth’s hands, it has amplified private meditation and carried out loud that part of public discourse.
One secret of the sonnet that I know, is its approachability. No writer fears the sonnet, and almost all writers try their hand at taming or maiming it. A mistake is more easily forgotten than forgiven–and especially so with the sonnet; the bad ones die off without a murmur, and the good ones maintain a freshness unique to the form. Look at Millay’s triumph; her voice in the sonnet is out of tune with her time, but the goodness she put in her sonnets is still seen as good. A counter-example are Robert Frost’s lengthy Horatian declarations–quite good, really, (and perhaps, of their type, present-day exemplars) but unforgivably out of key with the times, and so they lack a sympathetic audience beyond a few ruminative souls.
Another good secret is how a sonnet, with all its twists, can be held in a single contemplation or experience of it as a performance in such a way that the content and form are balanced in the reader’s mind. It is small enough and open enough to invite your own further speculations; in fact, its success depends upon your participation. And so, when a sonnet catches you, it is like an answered prayer; you remember the deity of your own percipience. A sonnet can draw a picture, or snip a snapshot, but you supply the vital memory that brings the thing to life. The sonnet demands this of you, talks you into dreamy collaboration with its therapeutic life-process; it is the “talking cure” writ small.
[Gregg G. Brown]