Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Art of the Sonnet

The Art of the Sonnet by Stephen Burt and David Mikics is very good at what it does. What it does is sound a heck of lot like literature professors giving little mini-lectures about "one hundred exemplary sonnets of the English language." And, given that I found out about this book through The London Review of Books, I should have known what I was getting. I'm afraid that this English major has been out of the classroom waaaaay too long. Most of the mini-lectures just put me in a very drowsy state. I'm not saying I didn't learn things; I did. But I most of the time I felt the way I felt when I had a class right after lunch...and it was just right warm in the classroom and the professor had this pleasant, steady speaking voice that made me just want to put my head down and sleep.

I did much better once I started skimming the explanations and just paying attention to the sonnets. I love sonnets. I've even tried my hand at a few. And this book is excellent because it has picked some very wonderful sonnets that are NOT in every anthology I ever had to read when I was in college. Yes, there are still a few that any English major should have seen before--but most of these were brand, spanking new. But I do have to confess that I'm pretty much a traditionalist when it comes to the sonnet. I much prefer those that stick to the classic form and rhyme pattern. (AND actually do rhyme) It's not that I don't appreciate poems in other forms or poems that don't rhyme. They're fine. Just don't call them sonnets. About 15 or so of the more modern poems were beautiful...but I'm still scratching my head and wondering, "What the heck are they doing in a book of sonnets?!"

My favorite new (to me) poem is "In Time of War 27" by W. H. Auden. It helps that I just plain like Auden's poetry. But this one is very poignant...bringing up imagery that recalls the fall from Eden--a fall from paradise to a world of choice and a world where we are responsible for those choices. Auden is writing from his experiences of the Spanish Civil War and the invasion of China by Japan. The choices and responsibilities are all about war and the destruction of innocence. But the imagery is hauntingly beautiful.

Three and a half stars out of five.

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