As I’ve suggested before, the sonnet may not be dead, but I’ve certainly seen it struggling. Why is it so many work still to fail at a form with such potential? For all the miserable, ordinary pieces I’ve seen over the past number of years by those who claim to love the form, there have also been worthy and even thrilling sonnets written by others, including Toronto poet/publisher Jay MillAr, through his ESP: Accumulation Sonnets (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2009), Alfred Noyes, and the brilliant things done by New York School poet Ted Berrigan in his own reissued collection, The Sonnets (New York NY: Penguin, 2000), since reprinted in The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan (Berkeley CA: The University of California Press, 2005). As Noyes wrote in the introduction to his Compression Sonnets (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2006):
I do not wish to participate in the maintenance of the sonnet, like some hand-wringing relative at the bedside of a long-term coma patient. And yet something in the form will not let go. Its practice, at its best, was a form of condensation; I have sought here only to see how far such condensation may be taken. Fourteen lines, if nothing else, every student recalls at least this. What might come of only fourteen words? What of the 'sonnet' remains? A turn after the eighth word? At the thirteenth (a concluding 'couplet' of words)? What of the sonnet's traditional themes? I am interested only in economy ― in what might be said with less. In reducing the poem until it turns in on itself, turns itself inside-out. Becomes something else. Becomes nothing. What becomes of a form and its tradition, through compression? This may be ― I certainly hope it is ― the last of what might be wrung from the very shape of literary fatigue. After this, the sonnet, shrinking in size since its heyday four centuries ago, becomes so small it disappears. The patient is to be unplugged. Goodnight.
There are so few that seem to know how to bring something new to an often-used form that when it happens, it’s worth noting, and such is the case with Toronto poet Camille Martin in her second trade poetry collection, Sonnets (Exeter England: Shearsman Books, 2010). Martin, an American relocated north after Hurricane Katrina, writes with the most wonderful sense of clarity, thought and play in these poems, and with a flavour that puts her, perhaps, far closer to American poets than her Canadian counterparts.
cranes lift junky scraps. slagheaps and scraps
pile up in a car graveyard near shiny yellow
school buses. the parking lot mirrors dim
cars on a pretend pond. dark’s one word,
dull’s another, though streets glisten
in the dim winter dusk. winter’s a dull
boy who stares at the playground but forgets
about recess. sleet streaks a diagonal
across the window of my brain. i borrow
the window between blinks and give it
back, embellished with graffiti. melting
snow gives back accidental scraps. frozen filth
and flying white flurries are both ideal states.
will geese never fly north? (“parroted weeds, xv”)
In the hundred-plus pages of this collection, most poems remain untitled, and some titled even exist in longer sequences. Throughout, Martin holds to the sonnet form while allowing for the form’s mutability, shifting her way page after page in a series of pieces that nearly exist as a single unit.
and if the seeds and if they sprout in the bulldozed
forest the forest where trees tall and green once
where they once where they swayed in the wind where
treetops back and forth where they waves and if the birds
drop seeds if they drop them on the razed on the vanished
woods where birds remember perches where bird nests
once perched if birds remember if they know that here
they once flew if birds drop to the bare ground if they drop
seeds if the seeds sprout in the mind of the bird if
the bird’s mind sprouts if it grows its own perch if that perch
on the sprout in the mind of the bird if the bird’s mind remembers
a nest if the eggs in that nest if they hatch if they remember
hatching little birds if the little birds fly over the forest over
the bulldozed forest if they drop seeds and if the seeds
Martin’s Sonnets writes out hope, abandonment, dreams and fear to an unseen “other” that could perhaps be the author herself. She repeatedly references rain, writes out snow, writes out, “i said i was happy” (p 42) or “i plant a tree but later i can’t find it” (p 83), writing out that sense of something lost, something perhaps swept away. Writing Katrina references in some of these pieces, the storm she rode north, is this Martin, perhaps, writing out poems to her own lost self, abandoned back in the American south, or her self abandoned far north?