The American Sonnet: An Anthology of Poems and Essays
by Dora Malech
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Release date: January 12, 2023
The first one-third of this book is an anthology of sonnets by American poets that highlight some of the characteristics of form and content that evolved in America. Therefore, one shouldn’t expect these to all be fourteen lines of iambic pentameter. America is the land of Whitman, and discomfort with strict rules and constraining requirements along with a desire to etch one’s individuality and voice into all activities is part of what makes a thing American. It’s an enchanting and suitably diverse (also an inherently American requirement) selection of poems, and I think all poetry readers would enjoy reading it. Included among the almost 100 poets are: Walt Whitman, Phillis Wheatley, Natasha Trethewey, Robert Frost, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Agha Shahid Ali, Claude McKay, Edna St. Vincent Millay, e.e. cummings, Countee Cullen, Natalie Diaz, Emma Lazarus, Terrance Hayes, Muriel Rukeyser, Sylvia Plath, James Wright, Gertrude Stein, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Lucille Clifton. The poets run the gamut from the Colonial Era to present-day heavyweights, and their works approach the sonnet from perfectly conventionally to wildly experimentally.
The remainder of the book is a collection of short essays that discuss various aspects of the sonnet in America. While the editors don’t explicitly group the essays, I would put them in three baskets. First, there are those essays that examine the work of a particular poet and discuss that artist’s influence on the sonnet. Second, some of the essays examine sonnets through the lens of a particular demographic and investigate how poets of that demographic have influenced, been influenced by, or modified the sonnet, be it those of a particular race, sexual identity, place on the autistic spectrum, etc. Third, most of the other essays explore technical aspects such as line length, rhyme schemes, metering, etc.
As I mentioned, I believe poetry readers will enjoy the selection of poems anthologized, herein. The essays are another matter. They are much more of a mixed bag for poets and poetry readers and are more geared toward other scholars. That is to say, some of them are both interesting and useful for poets and poetry readers, but others will probably not be of much interest to the non-academic reader. While the essays are brief and most are quite readable, a number of them either delve into arcane matters or tumble so deeply down the rabbit hole of wokeness that it’s hard to grasp what the author’s point is (or whether he or she has one.)
If you enjoy poetry and are interested in the American influence on the sonnet, this book is well worth reading – at least the poems and a selection of the essays.
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