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  • Formal Attraction
  • Clay Reynolds (bio)
Hot Sonnets. Moira Egan & Clarinda Harriss, eds. Entasis Press. 162 pages; paper, $14.00.

The world of contemporary poetry has for a long time been characterized by a civil war. At stake in the conflict is the question of whether much contemporary poetry is, actually, poetic. Any reader of contemporary magazines or literary reviews can easily discover that much contemporary verse is void of meter and rhyme. This is, of course, "free verse," or poetry that does not abide by the strict rules that establish set forms as the models for poetic expression.

Free verse isn't new; neither is the controversy surrounding it. Robert Frost said that writing it was "like playing tennis without a net." Ezra Pound reportedly said that it was just "prose, badly written." This reviewer has been guilty of paraphrasing Wordsworth by calling it "a spontaneous overflow of angst, recalled in agitation."

Even so, in the last half of the twentieth century, unregulated and often un-styled verses have dominated the contemporary poetic. Opponents, led in no small way by notable writers such as Lewis Turco, R. S. Gwynn, Dana Gioia, Frederick Turner, and other self-proclaimed "New Formalists" have railed against unstructured poetic utterances, basically echoing both Frost's and Pound's complaints in various ways and adding sometimes vitriolic epithets of their own.

Formal or structured verse, of course, is not ipso facto good. A great deal of very bad poetry has found its way into rhymed couplets, triplets, and quatrains over the centuries, something that was graphically illustrated by W. D. Snodgrass a few decades ago with his traveling road-show, "The Murdered Muse." This theatrically presented and utterly hilarious collection of bad poetry captured audiences across the country in its display of more than two centuries of formal poetry that, for one reason or another, just didn't work. That much of it was by poet laureates of one stripe or another didn't help much in selling the notion that a poem needed to conform to a preconceived scheme of rhyme and metrics to be poetic.

Regardless of one's position, almost all poets will agree that the sonnet is the unquestioned monarch of the genre. Fourteen lines and one of two established rhyme schemes (Petrarch's or Shakespeare's) place a demand on the poet that requires a great deal of thought, hard work, and careful composition. The required couplet at the end is designed to "sell" the poem, sometimes to twist it into an ironic or evocative conclusion that will leave the reader stunned, laughing, breathless, or merely thoughtful as the combined effect of poetic diction and careful composition are brought home.

It is not surprising, then, that of all the forms of poetry, none is more associated with love—or even with lust—than the sonnet. As with most thoughtful letters of passion, the sonnet requires so much effort that the object of its author's affections can't help but be flattered—or perhaps even stirred—by its effectiveness.

In Hot Sonnets from Entasis Press, editors Moira Egan and Clarinda Harriss offer just under a hundred poems—sonnets all—devoted to love in its several forms. Each verse in this collection is carefully and artfully composed; they run the gamut from the romantic to the erotic, from the funny to the thoughtful, from the contemplative to the provocative. Selections taken from the "sonnet mistress," as Egan identifies her, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and from e. e. cummings, perhaps America's wittiest poet, to contemporary "masters" of the form such as John Berryman and Tony Barnstone, combine to provide a kind of profile of love in a modern world. They also—and not incidentally—illustrate the power of form when a poetic utterance is controlled and compelled to meet a prescribed set of demanding constrictions.

Among the best poetry in the volume—not counting Millay's and cummings's, of course—are those that offer homages to previous versifiers who were expert in the form. Terri Witek's two-sonnet cycle, "Edit Sitwell and the Carnal World," and Wendy Videlock's "Prufrock Takes a Formal Lover" are two...


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