JAILBREAKS: 99 CANADIAN SONNETS
Ed. by Zachariah Wells
Why sonnets, anyway? The origins of the form – now essentially any fourteen-line poem – go back to the Middle Ages, but that was in another country and another tongue. Indeed, culturally speaking another world altogether. How is it that they are still being written and indeed are still widely recognized even by the unliterary, when the villanelle, sestina, rondeau and rondel exist only in specialist vocabularies?
Tradition is obviously a big part of it. And in this case tradition is something more than the example of Shakespeare’s sonnets and the rest of the sonnet canon. It also refers to the place sonnets continue to hold in the teaching of literature, especially at the public and high school level (likely because they’re easy to memorize and because the formal elements give teachers something to hang on to). Early exposure and memorization are key, providing a model that mature poets carry within them and are able to work with and hear in their heads before putting pen to page. And by “work with” I mean what editor Zachariah Wells refers to as the sonnet’s refusal to be contained:
Far more than other forms, it has been defined by its adaptability, flexibility, plasticity. Its deceptively ample cargo space can accommodate – and has done so – pithy wit and irony, intellectual investigations and expressions of sincere feeling. A good poet can take liberties – often outrageous ones – with a sonnet’s structure without destroying the sonnet’s essence.
Which is one way of looking at it – what might be called the “jailbreak” perspective. But in addition to this centrifugal force there is an inward-looking attitude that doesn’t fret at the sonnet’s narrow room but rather celebrates its restrictions – within its scanty plot of ground finding relief from the weight of too much liberty. Inward-looking also in taking as its subject, as in Wordsworth’s poem, the very business of writing poetry. This centripetal force of self-referencing is obvious in poems here like Steven Heighton’s “Missing Fact,” Walid Bitar’s “Tarzan,” Phyllis Webb’s “Poetics Against the Angel of Death,” and George Whipple’s “Poetry,” but can also be only slightly or indirectly registered, as in Leonard Cohen’s “You Have No Form.” And what of the collection’s final poem, John Smith’s “There Is One”? A somewhat loose sonnet about metaphor, the tenth line, which re-introduces the poem’s theme, ends with the evocative word “turn.” A delayed volta? One always has such possibilities in the back of one’s head. Given the sonnet’s status as our most readily identified poetic form, it makes the perfect vehicle for such meta-poetic musings. You can never not be aware that what you’re reading has been built to a set of established specifications. And so to some degree those specifications become part of the poem’s subject matter.
Another thing “There Is One” shares with several of the other poems in this book is its nautical imagery. The one metaphor for everything may be “that single nonsense syllable sung by the indefatigable / oarsman . . . groaning out the strokes of his trade.” Something of that sound, the rhythms of tide and rowing, seems to strike a chord with Wells (who was born and raised on Prince Edward Island). But another, more striking, characteristic of most of the poems selected is their newness. The Introduction tells us that this anthology is “the first of its kind to appear in Canada since Lawrence Burpee’s A Century of Canadian Sonnets in 1910.” That said, don’t expect these 99 poems to represent the past century. Over half were published after 2000. Aside from nods to the usual round-up of big names from the past (Pratt, Layton, Klein, Cohen), this is mainly a selection of new poems, albeit some of them written by today’s established veterans. A young man himself, one senses a not unwelcome bias in Wells toward the contemporary scene. The selection has no end of variety though, fulfilling his mission to emphasize invention and innovation within the (broadly construed) sonnet form. And the arrangement is also well-handled, for example playfully juxtaposing Raymond Souster’s “Young Girls” with Elizabeth Bachinsky’s “How to Bag Your Small Town Girl,” and grouping a sextet of boat poems together.
Also worth attention are the endnotes, which provide quick, enthusiastic and sometimes idiosyncratic and personal readings of each of the poems along with making the case for their inclusion. And Wells’s fondness for “jailbreak” sonneteering, which takes liberties (“often outrageous ones”) with the sonnet form, does require him to provide some explanation for poems that are, for example, a line or two long or short. In the case of P. K. Page’s “Water and Marble” he even questions whether a fourteen-line poem qualifies – deciding, after admitting to some doubts, that on the basis of its structure it probably does.
It’s refreshing to see an editor so engaged with his material. And while there are omissions and inclusions individual readers may disagree with, the result is a collection that successfully showcases remarkable variety within its narrow room.
Review first published online June 8, 2008.