She ruled in beauty o’er this heart of mine,
A noble lady in a humble home…
The Petrarchan sonnet, perhaps more than other literary form, has come to be associated with the male gaze. Line by line, we are presented with a beautiful girl, her arms, her hands, her feet, and a man who is crushed with care.
The female beloved is spoken about, but rarely, if ever, speaks for herself. He describes the pearly buttons stitched to her silk cuffs. A gown covered in lace and the ribbon laced a bit tighter than before. She wields all of the power, but at the same time, none at all.
What have we inherited? What do we carry with us, sewn discreetly into the hem of a white dress?
The hair’s bright tresses, full of golden glows,
And the soft lightning of the angelic smile
That changed this earth to some celestial isle,
Are now but dust, poor dust, that nothing knows.
And yet I live!
A privileged speaker, an imbalance of power, a silenced beloved. These ethical problems remain inextricable from the sonnet form, which continues to bear them into the work of contemporary poets.
In recent years, though, readers have seen a veritable renaissance of female sonneteers. Karen Volkman, Ellen Bryant Voigt, and Camille Martin in particular have simultaneously inhabited and revised this received literary form, raising fascinating questions about our relationship to tradition: How can one participate in a conversation while at the same time redefining its terms? Can one inhabit a form without becoming complicit in its assumptions about gender, sex, and sexuality? In what ways can content serve as a commentary on form, or even expand our sense of what is possible within those formal constraints? As these women tease out possible answers, they present us with provocative imagery, a wonderful tension between style and content, and dazzling soundscapes, offering us sonnets that crackle, sizzle, and hum.
When does a childhood end? Mothers
sew a piece of money inside a sock,
fathers unfold the map of the world, and boys
go off to war–that’s an end…
Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Kyrie, a book-length sonnet sequence, presents us with a magnificent re-envisioning of the age-old form.
The book is set during the influenza epidemic of 1918, and as Voigt narrates this devastation, the orderliness of form becomes a source of power. By giving structure to the world around us, one is able to create meaning, and as a result, overcome grave tragedy. What’s more, the female speaker wields the power to create meaning, construct narrative, and use language to structure the world around her.
The sonnet, then, is a vehicle for conveying grief, but also offers the possibility of redemption.
The beloved sits quietly in her chair. She brushes her flax locks. She stutters.
Can the sonnet, whole and intact, ever be redeemed?
Sweet are the songs of bitterness and blame…
Sweet are the songs of envy and despair…
Sweet are the songs of wry exacted praise…
As Voigt sings the losses of generations past, the sonnet is no longer a vehicle for portraying ill-fated earthly desire. Rather, her poems transcend the physical body, its limitations, and the social constructions surrounding it.
For Voigt, the sonnet becomes a form of prayer, an invocation. Through their repetition and anaphora, the poems in Kyrie take on a devotional quality, allowing the form to rise above its problematic gender politics.
In many ways, this explains the music in Voigt’s work. The rhyme, meter, and their inherent musicality become a way of expressing faith, offering praise, and appealing to a divine power, whatever form it may take.
After all, the word sonnet is roughly translated as little song.
Show me the body that brides its quest,
that sleeps its seemings, tremblant inconnue,
jeweled Ophelia of diaphanous hue
in all her slippings, weed-wedded, water-dressed…
A pristine rhyme scheme, neatly divided lines, flawless meter. At first glance, Volkman’s poem appears to be faithfully reproducing the sonnet form. Yet within these immaculate formal constructions, the reader discovers a provocative fragmentation of meaning. The narrative is no longer clear-cut, nor is narrative a framework for ordering the world around us.
In many ways, Volkman uses the sonnet form to conjure expectations on the part of the reader, which she deftly undermines. We expect that the work will privilege narrative structures, and, as a result, its meaning will be straightforward. What’s most provocative about her poems is that these expectations are thwarted from the first line, and in doing so, Volkman renders us starkly aware of how we have been conditioned as readers. We have become accustomed to a very specific definition of legibility, which arises out of a predominantly male intellectual tradition, one driven by order, reason, and logic.
Volkman presents us with familiar words, phrases, and images, but narrative, and its underlying logic, are left in glimmering shards.
What, then, are we left with?
The throat-flute uttering its constant note
of claim and name and wake and never-same
and nuanced cadences of sate, remote
days translated into a breathing frame…
Line by line, Volkman reveals to us a series of soundscapes. While eschewing narrative, she uses sound to create meaning, forging connections between images and ideas through alliteration, assonance, and consonance.
The sonnet becomes a space for challenging our definition of textual legibility, and at the same time, proposing alternative structures for creating meaning. Sound becomes a way of revealing relationships between words, images, and ideas. A way of inviting misreading, appropriation, and, as a result, dialogue outside the bounds of received structures of thinking and communicating.
Volkman also directs our focus away from the word as signifier, forcing us to attend to the materiality of language itself.
River ruptured. Rumured as a rune.
As Volkman writes beyond conventional logic and narrative conventions, she is able make claims about the nature of language one could not convey as forcefully within a clear narrative. In many ways, her provocative fragmentation of meaning affords new possibilities for creating meaning.
still at funnel wake,
braided unction stomachs no
crime, spurs no spit of plowed
habit. so, wrong torque? other-
wise puppet? shrieks drain cloistered…
Camille Martin’s Sonnets seems, at first glance, similar to Volkman’s work. We are presented with pristine formal and grammatical structures, but within them, a fragmentation, an unraveling.
Yet Martin’s work differs from Volkman’s in that she interrogates not only the logic implicit in grammar and narrative, but also, their implied hierarchies. For example, most poets capitalize proper nouns, and offer us familiar subject-verb-object constructions. These small choices contain worlds within them, conveying a complex ranking of words and ideas to the reader.
For Martin, however, all words are weighted equally. Because nothing is capitalized, no ideas are elevated above the others. Moreover, she eschews familiar subject-verb-object constructions, instead allowing words to interact freely with one another. Words that would not ordinarily be paired with one another are suddenly juxtaposed. Sonnets represents, in essence, a leveling of linguistic hierarchies.
Like Volkman, Martin envisions the sonnet as a space for interrogating the values, assumptions, and forms we have inherited. By taking us beyond the constraints of grammar, the sentence, and their implicit logic, Martin allows us to challenge assumptions that we wouldn’t within the confines of linguistic convention. After all, we would still be reproducing the status quo.
As the book unfolds, linguistic structures are revealed as subjective, the sonnet form calling attention to its own arbitrariness. Martin inhabits the form she has inherited, but with a wonderful self-consciousness, well aware of its problematic gender politics. In many ways, these inequities are rooted in language. By interrogating linguistic conventions, their assumptions, and their hierarchies, one contributes to a more mindful way of communicating, and in turn, a more just society.
The beloved unfastens her hair. She opens her mouth to speak—