American Sonnet 95
by Wanda Coleman
seized by wicked enchantment, i surrendered my song
as i fled for the stars, i saw an earthchild
in a distant hallway, crying out
to his mother, “please don’t go away
and leave us.” he was, i saw, my son. immediately,
i discontinued my flight
from here, i see the clocktower in a sweep of light,
framed by wild ivy. it pierces all nights to come
i haunt these chambers but they belong to cruel churchified insects.
among the books mine go unread, dust-covered.
i write about urban bleeders and breeders, but am
troubled because their tragedies echo mine.
at this moment i am sickened by the urge
to smash. my thighs present themselves
stillborn, misshapen wings within me
I am hesitant in writing about issues of race in this country because my own experience is starkly white. Wrestling with the legacy of Lowell this past month made me ask myself the question; how do I respect the history of the African American sonnet both past and present? Does spending time with all early 20th Century sonnet writers, regardless of race, honor the writers who created it or are am I perpetuating a problem in our society by nostalgically looking backwards and not focusing on the present? Is the constraint that lyric poetry creates less a metaphor and more a symptom of our racist past that inevitably formed a wedge in literature, a demarcation that poets have wisely taken their writing further and further away from elitist sounding language and moved instead down a new path with free verse that has the flexibility poets need to articulate the breadth of their human experience? As much as I enjoy sonnets, if that was my only diet in reading poetry I would soon starve to death.
In searching out some reading on what place do the classics have in today’s world and in particular in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement I came across Princeton professor Dan-el Padilla Peralta. Peralta, an Associate Professor of Classics, was in the news in 2019, when at an important conference of his peers, he dared to ask the question – should the field of study we call classics survive?
It is a fascinating question, particularly since it is his life’s passion and profession. My Mother was taught Latin in High School in public school in the 1940s in Minnesota, so I am only one generation removed from the idea that classical studies should be part of every high school graduate’s experience. I was always impressed by her insight into language and meaning of words that comes from a rudimentary understanding of Latin. (Also an invaluable skill for cross word puzzles and of course a deeper understanding of poetry.)
So how then do we reconcile the history of the sonnet with current issues around equity and inclusion? Does the sonnet deserve a hall pass to the future? My suggestion; let’s read the poets of color who are skillfully and thoughtfully treading those planks, seek out their poetry for its unique perspective. In the next several blog posts I will present African American sonneteers across the decades and let you explore what relevance their words bring to your current mindset.
If I were to draw a simple progression of African American writers of sonnets from the 1700’s to today in America that are top of mind for me, without doing any additional research, it would start with Phyllis Wheatley, then progress without perfect linearity, to Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Claude McKay, James Weldon Johnson, H. Cordelia Ray, Gwendolyn Bennett, Marcus Garvey, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden, Wanda Coleman, Rita Dove, Nikki Giovanni, Marilyn Nelson and Terrance Hayes, with my apologies to all the fine poets I have missed, but look forward to meeting someday.
One of the things I try and share through Fourteenlines is nearly every poet has written at least one sonnet like poem, in part because it connects their writing to the past. These poems are not always classical sonnets in construction and sometimes I am not even sure the poet was consciously aware of the sonnets influence, so ingrained in our culture are “the classics”. So if it is by this distinct lens that we think of as classical literature that most art is influenced and judged, and if its by these very archetypes American thought has been formed and whittled over generations of high school and college educations, than why wouldn’t we at least ask some questions about what holes we have dug for ourselves in this process without even realizing it and should we stop digging? I am not suggesting we have to chuck the lot of it, nor is Peralta, only maybe we should go back and re-read the classics with a different focal point and scrutinize what is relevant and meaningful in our journey today while taking a bright yellow high lighter to unhelpful and racist stereotypes that don’t move us in the direction of equity and are partially to blame for the mess we have made of things.
Poetry doesn’t need to be serious. I read it because its fun. I don’t believe I have to analyze it endlessly. I read what I like and honestly don’t think too much about it in terms of an academic understanding. But this February I am trying to think a little differently and consciously address how I am presenting African American poets and poets of color during Black History Month. I feel an obligation to not be tone deaf and color blind to the biases of my “liberal” arts education.
What’s your thoughts on Peralta’s interesting ideas in the article below? I don’t think he is suggesting we should stop reading sonnets. But he opened my eyes to change my reading glasses and ponder the fact that all those ancient Greek marble statues in our museums were not originally displayed as we now see them. It was only over time that the affluent collectors of art history, in the name of conservation and “classical” studies, scrubbed and polished them white.
by Countee Cullen
There are no wind-blown rumors, soft say-sos,
No garden-whispered hearsays, lightly heard,
I know that summer never spares the rose,
That spring is faithless to the brightest bird.
I know that nothing lovely shall prevail
To win from Time and Death a moment’s grace;
At Beauty’s birth the scythe was honed, the nail
Dipped for her hands, the cowl clipped for her face.
And yet I cannot think that this my faith,
My winged joy, my pride, my utmost mirth,
Centered in you, shall ever taste of death,
Or perish from the false, forgetting earth.
You are with time, as wind and weather are,
As is the sun, and every nailed star.