I’m sure we’ve all had to read a sonnet or two in high school English. If you’re especially unlucky, you may have even had to write one once or twice (like me). These experiences may have taught you that sonnets are old and boring. But actually, the sonnet form has sustained immense popularity among poets and readers for centuries thanks to its versatility; a Petrarchan sonnet (the original sonnet style) is composed of fourteen lines with a regular rhyme pattern. Within these conventions, a massive amount of variations, experiments, and poetic brilliance can emerge.
Shakespeare is, arguably, the most famous practitioner of the sonnet form, having invented his own form with a different rhyme scheme and writing over 100 sonnets that people read and memorize to this day. However, there are also hundreds of other writers who have tackled the sonnet form in many exciting ways. Here are a few sonnet sequences that you should check out after you’ve finished with Shakespeare.
Terrance Hayes, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin
Now, you may be wondering: what exactly is a sonnet sequence? Well, a sonnet sequence is a collection of sonnets that are thematically connected to create a unified work. However, each individual sonnet is still its own poem, allowing the sequence to either be read as one big piece, or as a grouping of smaller pieces. Terrance Hayes’ American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin is an excellent example of a modern sonnet sequence.
The collection, written immediately after President Trump’s election in November 2016, features over seventy sonnets that all bare the title, ‘American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin’ and express the African-American poet’s anxieties over the state of modern-day America and its racist past. Hayes draws from a wide array of influences and weaves poems that push what it means to be living through America today. Here is one of those poems, courtesy of PoetryFoundation:
2. JOhn Berryman, Berryman’s Sonnets
John Berryman was an American poet predominantly active from the 1950’s to the 70’s who won a Pulitzer for his collection The Dream Songs. However, years before he won notoriety for this collection, he wrote a sequence of over 100 sonnets which was published years after they were written. This collection charts his extramarital relationship with a woman he has dubbed Lise (scandalous!) and is full of Berryman’s signature flowing imagery and syntactical experimentation.
This collection is a fascinating sonnet selection, for just like most affairs, it eventually ends in pain and Berryman charts that the whole way through. If you’re a fan of mid-century American poets, definitely check this one out. Here’s sonnet number forty three from the collection:
You should be gone in winter, that Nature mourn
With me your anarch separation, call-
ing warmth all with you: as more poetical
Than to be left biting the dog-days, lorn
Alone when all else burgeons, brides are born,
Children yet (some) begotten, every wall
Clasped by its vine here . . crony alcohol
Comfort as random as the unicorn.
Listen, for poets are feigned to lie, and I
For you a liar am a thousand times,
Scars of these months blazon like a decree;
I would have you—a liner pulls the sky—
Trust when I mumble me. Than gin-&-limes
You are cooler, darling, O come back to me.
3. Kevin Young, Brown
Kevin Young is the current Poetry for The New Yorker as well as the director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library. He has won numerous awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, and has published eleven books of poetry and essays. Brown is his most recent collection and it features the twenty four-sonnet long sequence, ‘De La Soul is Dead.’
These sonnets heavily reference famous African-American artists and musicians, such as Prince and Jimi Hendrix, to frame its celebration of black culture. Brown as a whole is a breathtaking meditation on all things “brown,” and this sonnet sequence is a beautiful and fascinating aspect of black culture and history. Here’s sonnet ‘Three is the Magic Number:’
Twins to the rhythm, we danced,
as one does- to the remix of Three
Is the Magic Number- at a house party
someone threw just because.
We were black then, about to be
African American, so folks schoolhouse rocked
& smurfed whenever we damn well pleased.
We should have done more, or believed,
mon frère, mine own body double-
given the campus cops the slip
Whenever they quizzed or frisked us
for studying while black. Kenny.
I hope you’re somewhere
far from here, dancing away trouble.
4. Wanda Coleman, American Sonnets
This sonnet sequence, by American poet Wanda Coleman, may remind you of the first sequence on this list. Well, Hayes actually took inspiration from Coleman’s sonnet sequence through its stark and honest depiction of African American life. Coleman was active during the second half of the century as well as the early 2000’s until her death in 2013.
This sonnet sequence takes the very formal and stoic sonnet form and breathes new life into it through Coleman’s use of diction, lack of capitalization, and the ways in which she joins together the joys and sorrows of African American life in America. This gives her poetry a magically intimate feel, as seen in ‘American Sonnet 10:’
boooooooo. spooky ripplings of icy waves. this
umpteenth time she returns—this invisible woman
long on haunting short on ectoplasm
“you’re a good man, sistuh,” a lover sighed solongago.
“keep your oil slick and your motor running.”
wretched stained mirrors within mirrors of
fractured webbings like nests of manic spiders
reflect her ruined mien (rue wiggles remorse
squiggles woe jiggles bestride her). oozy Manes spill
out yonder spooling in night’s lofty hour exudes
her gloom and spew in rankling odor of heady dour
as she strives to retrieve flesh to cloak her bones
again to thrive to keep her poisoned id alive
usta be young usta be gifted—still black
5. Ted Berrigan, The Sonnets
Ted Berrigan was a poet active from the 1960’s to the 80’s and was widely known in the avant-garde literary scenes in New York City at the time. The Sonnets was his first major and most respected work due to its experimentation with the sonnet form.
By using lines from past sonnets in the sequence, Berrigan creates collage-like sonnets that breathe new life into the form. These sonnets are highly stylized and unique, and would be an excellent introduction to any poetry lover who wants to explore mid-century avant-garde poetry. Here’s ‘Sonnet III:’