- Three Mothers, Two Eves: Female Virtuosity and Outrage in the American Sonnet
This essay discusses the sonnet as a vehicle for female virtuosity and expression of attendant outrage in various registers, examining sonnets by two 20th-century maestros of form, Gwendolyn Brooks and Sylvia Plath, along with the very contemporary collaborative sonnets of Simone Muench and Jackie K. White.
I approach this writing as a practitioner, noting the patterns that I perceive in these poets’ invocations of the sonnet, as someone who knows the form from long engagement with its musical and political possibilities. When one is working within the sonnet, one can feel a direct engagement with other constraints and constructs—for example, of gender, race, and class, as embodied by the form’s notably male, white, and wealthy European tradition. As Gwendolyn Brooks says at the end of “The Womanhood,” which concludes her ground-breaking second collection Annie Allen:
The toys are all grotesqueAnd not for lovely hands; are dangerous,Serrate in open and artful places. Rise.Let us combine. There are no magics or elvesOr timely godmothers to guide us. We are lost, mustWizard a track through our own screaming weed.
Published in 1949, Annie Allen was the first book by any Black writer to win the Pulitzer Prize, and Brooks, of course, earned many other firsts in her illustrious career. “The Womanhood” ends with these lines, which cap a series of sonnets, ballads, and other poems, beginning [End Page 202] with the sonnet sequence “the children of the poor,” in which a young woman contemplates her life, her writing, the destructions of World War II on the home front, and the lives and futures of her children who are not just her biological progeny, but whole populations facing constant threat, “adjudged the leastwise of the land” and in need of the poet’s empowering “brisk contour,” which she delivers in this series, speaking as both a young mother and as an African American writer and activist. I want to examine the fourth sonnet, which confronts the dilemmas of her position head on, beginning with the directive to “First fight. Then fiddle,” and which extends the metaphor of music in the context of battle, as the speaker dramatizes the challenges of speaking and being heard. The poem ends:
Carry hateIn front of you and harmony behind.Be deaf to music and to beauty blind.Win war. Rise bloody, maybe not too lateFor having first to civilize a spaceWherein to play your violin with grace.
This poem is remarkable to me in both its candor—the overt call to fighting, war, and hate—and in its slyness. Even as the speaker privileges the fight in this ars poetica, recognizing the need “for having first to civilize a space” that is hostile to her and her peoples’ very presence, carrying “hate / in front of you and harmony behind,” she mellifluously sears her points home in precise iambic pentameter and a perfectly turned Petrarchan rhyme scheme.
Notably, only a few feet deviate from the iambs: the alliterative spondees of “first fight” and “win war” add sonic emphasis to those calls to action. The trochee of “muzzle” speaks to a desire to inhibit “the music that they wrote,” which I interpret as a reference to the sonnet tradition itself, which must be invoked in a dazzling manner akin to magic: “Bewitch, bewilder.” By the end of the poem, the fiddle has become a violin, an embodiment of high European culture and tradition, [End Page 203] much like the sonnet, which has been deployed as an instrument of change with “feathery sorcery.”
Lines 5–7 ironically instruct the poet/musician to use the form/ instrument gently so as not to disturb racialized and gendered expectations of delicacy and acquiescence—“Devote / The bow to silks and honey”—a sentiment that is immediately undercut by the delightfully understated turn of “Be remote / A while from malice and from murdering,” as if the speaker is calmly drinking tea while taking a break from a crime spree and not just being distant, as the phrase before the line break would indicate.
Then, literally without missing...