March 2008

Blythe Boyer


The Making of a Sonnet edited by Eavan Boland and Edward Hirsch

Eavan Boland follows up her 2001 collaboration with Mark Strand, The Making of a Poem, with another co-edited book, The Making of a Sonnet. This time she works with Edward Hirsch, and what good company she keeps: his personal essay opens the book and brings the reader back to the day when a 17 year-old Hirsch discovered Robert Frost’s sonnet “Acquainted with the Night.” Hirsch evokes the particularly adolescent mix of superiority and giddy exploration as he begins to realize the power that the sonnet wields. “I didn’t at first recognize the form of Frost’s poem. It worked on me before I worked on it.” Further, Hirsch showed me a new depth to Frost’s poem -- the circular, pacing rhythm of a poem about taking a walk -- effectively pricking my own long-past feelings of teenage discovery. Boland echoes Hirsch’s discovery of the sonnet with her girlhood experience reading the Irish folk poet Patrick Kavanagh. Boland writes at the close of her personal essay, “The sonnet is a form of true power -- malleable, nomadic, humane. And it can travel to any uncertainty and offer its marvelous interior architecture to shelter the moment.” The book then demonstrates this strength in all of its constituent parts -- mathematical, emotional, and enduring.

The anthology presents over three hundred poems, organized mostly by a chronology that begins in the 16th century -- two hundred years after the sonnet form was invented. They look at its royal introduction in the courts of Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily, to its years of ignominy in the eighteenth century.

Before embarking on this journey through time, the anthology offers a formal introduction to the sonnet’s fourteen-line structure and defines its parts: the quatrain, the volta, the iamb. Then the editors set the sonnet to gaze at itself in my favorite section of the book, titled “The Sonnet in the Mirror.” These poems are both self-conscious and carefree; the poets display a wit that eases the introduction to such a noble and long-lived form. By taking the sonnets out of chronological order, the editors have indeed formed a dialogue between poets -- Wordsworth speaks to Billy Collins, and Poe chimes in. Millay responds with her effortless and accomplished voice. She hushes the more melodramatic tributes to the sonnet with her opening lines: “I will put Chaos into fourteen lines/ And keep him there; and let him escape/ If he be lucky…”

The anthology’s chronological segment starts in 1500s. The editors open each century’s section with a brief and scholarly introduction. I was impressed by the precision with which they prepared me to read unfamiliar poets from five hundred years ago, and even add a bit of romance. In the past I was not especially fond of poetry from these early eras, but by the time I read Sir Thomas Wyatt’s sonnet, “The long love that in my thought doth harbor,” I had gained an appreciation for his innovation and his tragic story.

The editors give the sonnet’s riches to rags story an intriguing arc, from its proud beginnings to its struggles during the age of reason. The eighteenth century is the shortest section of the book, with only sixteen examples. Just as we fear for the future of the sonnet, though, the Romantic era shines brightly on the form. Perhaps the Romantics were swinging fully away from the scientific era, but even Wordsworth admitted that he found the sonnet form “egregiously absurd” until hearing Milton’s sonnets. As we approach contemporary times, we find experimental sonnets of astonishing craft. How has this poetic form, so strict and structured, enjoyed such longevity and bursts of innovation?

This is the question that threads throughout The Making of a Sonnet. Hirsch and Boland, poets themselves, do a good job of directing the dialogue while letting the sonnets speak to each other. The editors examine seven hundred years of poetry and still convey their enthusiasm for fourteen metered lines. As they say in the acknowledgments, “This has been a joyous collaboration.” It certainly shows in the anthology they produced.

In the last sections, the editors show the sonnet going to different length, and journeying around the world. They close with ten pages of quotes addressing the sonnet, from King James VI to W.H. Auden. For me, William Carlos Williams says it best: “Never in this world did I expect to praise a living writer because of his sonnets, but these have been a revelation to me.” I thank Eavan Boland and Edward Hirsch for sharing this revelation.

The Making of a Sonnet edited by Eavan Boland and Edward Hirsch
W.W. Norton & Company
ISBN 978-0-393-05871-0
384 Pages