Urgent Hymn

[img_assist|nid=11508|title=Amy Lemmon|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=118|height=118]The sonnet is a paradox: fixed yet flexible, consistent yet versatile. It’s one of the most lasting modes of literary expression, dating back to the 13th Century writer Francesco Petrarca. I’ve been thinking about sonnets a lot lately. As more animated gifs, emoticons, and emoji creep into daily life, supplanting not only words but complex feelings, what’s the sonnet’s role? What can Twitter bards and emerging writers learn from the conventions and puzzles of sonnets?

For insight into this rich tradition, I turned to Amy Lemmon, author of two poetry collections: Fine Motor (Sow’s Ear Poetry Review Press, 2008) and Saint Nobody (Red Hen Press, 2009) and co-author with Denise Duhamel of ABBA: The Poems (Coconut Books, 2010) and Enjoy Hot or Iced: Poems in Conversation and a Conversation (Slapering Hol Press, 2011). Her work has been featured in Rolling Stone, New Letters, Prairie Schooner, The Journal, Barrow Street, just to name a few. An “omniformalist,” Amy writes convincingly in traditional forms, free verse, and everything in-between. Her work was included in the exciting anthology Hot Sonnets (Entasis Press, 2011), edited by Moira Egan and Clarinda Harriss. Amy is a Professor of English at the Fashion Institute of Technology where she encourages students to explore the intersections of visual art, music, and writing. On a sun-soaked April night, we met in Queens, New York, and discussed the enduring legacy, misconceptions, and permutations of sonnets.

Margot Douaihy: Do you remember the first sonnet that spoke to you or stood out in a unique way?

Amy Lemmon: Yes. There are about 154 of them. I was in graduate school at the University of Cincinnati, and I was taking a course called “Bibliography and Research.” The professor was a Shakespearian scholar, and he had us read all of the sonnets. We did all kinds of edgy readings of them, and there was a lot of gender-based inquiry, as well as the motions of scholarship. It was great education for me at the time, and that’s when I first started writing in form. I had already started writing in blank verse at the suggestion of Andrew Hudgins, who was my professor in my poetry workshop. It just seemed like a natural step. I wrote a couple of sonnets after that, but it wasn’t until I connected with a group of women poets [via a listserv] and we wrote a crown of sonnets together. That’s when I felt like I hit my stride with it.

Do you feel like the energy of the collective crown opened up a new kind of exploration?

Definitely. And, as you know with the crown, the last line of one sonnet becomes the first line of the next. So we were writing poems with each other, but in our own voices. It was really interesting and so much fun for me. I got hooked.

 How important is it to have that fidelity to either the Shakespearian or the Petrarchan style?

I would say it depends on the situation. When I was first writing sonnets, all I knew was that the poem had to be 14 lines; it was supposed to be iambic pentameter; and there are a couple different ways you could rhyme it. I am a real fan of the “snap” of that closing couplet. I’m kind of what Annie Finch and Kathrine Varnes would call an “omniformalist,” writing in (or creating) the form that works for what you are doing at the moment. I think that there’s something to be said for starting with the idea, “I am going to do a series of Petrarchan sonnets.” It’s a great exercise. And then, when I collaborated with Denise Duhamel, the “ABBA” poems, [it confirmed] that the iambic pentameter is just there for me. It’s always there — always something that felt comfortable to me. But then I think of the sonnet form that was invented by Ernest Hilbert, a poet who lives in Philadelphia. Daniel Nester dubbed it, “The Hilbertian sonnet.” Basically, it’s sort of a hybrid of the Petrarchan and the Shakespearian. It has sestets, and then it has a couplet at the end. When I wrote my poem “Asymptotic,” it’s actually dedicated to him.

Who else is innovating in this space?

Kim Addonizio. Wyn Cooper. Quincy R. Lehr. Kathrine Varnes. Moira Egan and Clarinda Harriss. Jessica Piazza. Wyn Cooper’s book, Chaos is the New Calm, consists of 50 14-line poems he calls “sonnets,” though they don’t use the traditional meter and rhyme schemes. He visited my Poetry Writing class at FIT yesterday, and he told us that after writing the “postcard poems” that ended up in his book Postcards from the Interior, he started spontaneously writing 14-line poems. After writing 300, “they just ended.” What he does is so interesting; most of the poems are very short lines, shorter than pentameter. He also plays with stanza. He is mixing it up as much has he possibly can. He wanted there to be no repeats, in terms of the form. He wanted every poem to be different, which is what he accomplished. And Kim Addonizio’s latest book of poems is called Lucifer at the Starlight. She takes “Lucifer in Starlight” by George Meredith, and she rewrites it. It’s a dramatic monologue spoken by Lucifer, and she turns him into a guy at a bar, which is just so Kim. She also has a great sonnet called “Stolen Moments” where she uses the work “orange,” which, of course, has no rhyme in the English language. She rhymes it with “fridge,” and it totally works. She makes it work. She is somebody who’s played a lot with the meter. She plays fast and loose with it, but she knows it. The thing about Kim, when she does something, it’s deliberate. She’s doing it on purpose. Her craft is really, really top notch.

It’s tight. 

But at the same time, there may be looseness in the lines. She’s kind of the master of the slant rhyme. Again, think “orange” and “fridge.” She deliberately put the word orange in there.  

Do you feel that there’s a psychological advantage to slant rhyme?

That’s a great question. There is an ease of composition that comes from knowing that you have it at your disposal. It’s something I love to teach my students, because they feel enslaved to rhyme. Then they end up rhyming slant, anyway. So when I tell them, “You have your poetic license. You can do that,” it helps. And often what they come up with is actually more interesting.

Do you feel like there’s a growing appetite or hunger for sonnets right now?

As a teacher of undergraduate writers, I can tell you that some of them come to it on their own. The compression of the 14 lines is really compelling to them. It’s something that seems manageable. I just had a student write a villanelle, which she had apparently learned in high school. It was in trimeter; she wasn’t using pentameter, so it was really short lines. But it was a good poem!

Does formal poetry offer a different playing field for writers?

Definitely. Anything that offers guidelines — and guidance — is helpful. I return to Wyn and his Chaos is the New Calm. Everybody knows chaos. Everybody is feeling chaos. In a chaotic experience, whatever that might be, whether it’s societal, whether it’s personal, it’s good to have that. Molly Peacock has written about her experiences in very tight form poems. To write about chaotic, very difficult family experiences, the constriction helped. It was like a container that was enabling her to handle the material. It was the asbestos gloves that she needed to handle the volatile material. I think a lot of the younger writers that I am teaching experience it that way. It’ll be interesting to see what they come up with after reading Wyn Cooper — his fractal and exploded sonnets. They are special.

What advice might you give to someone sitting down to write a sonnet — specifically someone who is relatively new to the form? Would you have any particular words of support or wisdom?

I’ll say what Wyn said yesterday in my class, “Read.” Read Berryman’s sonnets. Read the sonnet sequences by Meredith and Rossetti. Read Kim Addonizio and Marilyn Taylor. Read Karen Volkman. Read A.E. Stallings, who shines by sticking to the rules, and Sandra Simonds, who reinvents them. Read the sonnets that are strict. Read the ones that are veering off from the constraints. Obviously, read Shakespeare. You’ll get that music in your ear, and then you’ll make it your own. You’ll see what you have to say to add to that conversation, because it’s a long conversation. It’s a long and rich and varied and contentious — in many cases —conversation. People take their sonnets really seriously.

Do you take your sonnets seriously?

I try to. I try not to take the writing of it too seriously, though, so that I don’t block myself from finishing it. You have to think: “Okay. I see this. I can do this.” And then you go off and solve the problem.

Solve the problem? Do all sonnets solve a problem?

Yes. I think so.

How do you keep your sonnets so nimble and agile? What’s your recipe?

That’s a great compliment. And I’m glad that you see them that way. I have to remain flexible [with the form], or else I’m going to completely silence myself. You have to. When I write a poem, my spirit has to be in it, or else I’m not going to finish it. That’s just kind of the way I work. For example, in “Asymptotic” — which is in “Hot Sonnets,” — there was an occasion that I felt needed that specific form. And I also wanted to use it as an homage to Ernest [Hilbert], “onlie begetter” of what Daniel Nester called the Hilbertian Sonnet. And it fit.   

Is it fun? Is writing sonnets fun?

[Laughter] Fun? It’s satisfying.

Thinking about the compression of form, and knowing that you have an evangelical background, does the sonnet feel reminiscent of a prayer? 

I would say it’s more like the hymn than a prayer. Hymns are prayers, too, because you’re using music along with the words to pray. My family stopped going to church for awhile when I was in junior high, but we did these little services at home, when I was a teenager. We had all these old hymn books. The family gathered around and would sing. Hymns are really ingrained in me. And, of course, that was the meter that Dickinson used. All of that informed me.

I find that when something satisfies a person’s need for repetition or musicality, it feels like putting a hand in a glove. It fits. There’s utility.

Beautifully put. That’s a great metaphor. There is utility. There’s comfort. And aesthetics, as well.  

Is there crossover with your formal poetic projects and music? 

Music is one of the most important forms of art in my life. It’s in my DNA. At my house we had my great-grandmother’s piano, handed down so that I could play. I started lessons when I was six. My musical background made form so natural to me, so when I started being told I could write in form it wasn’t much of a stretch. When I went to college, everyone was doing these free verse poems, and you didn’t really do form. It wasn’t done, right? So, when I go the “permission” from my professors in graduate school it felt very comfortable to me. Plus, my father had all of these anthologies of the classics. He would read Noyes’ The Highwayman, and Emerson’s Concord Hymn. And we’d have all these poems. And Kipling. Oh, my God. He loved Kipling. He read that to us. So, with all of this, it came naturally.  

Why do readers respond so strongly to repetition?

First of all, the human ear — the human body — is trained for rhythm. The heartbeat in the iamb, and the breath. Music is a physical — it’s all about the body. It’s natural. I think about the history of how poetry started, with the bards, as an oral art. You had to have repetition, you had to have rhythm to memorize and remember. That was sort of a mnemonic device, too.

In your mind, what makes a sonnet radical?

Hmm. I’ve always loved the definition of radical as “root.” It has to have close to 14 lines. There could be 13 or 15. It has to have some allusion to rhyme and meter. That’s the radical root of a sonnet. And, there has to be a lyric impulse — a strong emotion that has a need to be expressed. That has to be in there somewhere. They may tell little stories. There may be little anecdotes. There may be a joke quality to it, right? It may be a dream song. But it has to have a sense of urgency.

Last question: do we need sonnets?

I can’t imagine life without them. And I think it depends on who you mean by “we.” In the English language, there’s nothing more lasting. There are very few forms that have stood the test of time. And it didn’t even start in English. I think we have to go back to the origins — what the meaning of sonnet is. Sonnet means little song. And then, I also think about the word stanza, which means room. I think of the wonderful Wordsworth sonnet “Nuns Fret Not at Their Convent’s Narrow Room.” Roberta Allen’s assertion about micro fiction, that the compact story is “a container for change,” applies here. A container for change; a sonnet is that, exactly.

 For more information:

Kim Addonizio


Wyn Cooper


Annie Finch and Kathrine Varnes’s Omniformalism


• Amy Lemmon


•  Sina Queyras


•  Sandra Simonds







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