Thomas Lynch on the sonnet

In Presiding Spirits we explore how a contemporary poet draws from the work of the past. This time, Thomas Lynch describes the impact of a form, the sonnet, on him and his writing. Lynch is the author of three collections of poetry, Skating with Heather Grace (Knopf 1987), Grimalkin & Other Poems (Jonathan Cape 1994), and Still Life in Milford (Jonathan Cape & W.W. Norton 1998) and two collections of essays, The Undertaking – Life Studies from the Dismal Trade (W.W. Norton 1997) and Bodies in Motion and at Rest (W.W. Norton 2000). He lives mostly in Milford, Michigan where, for the past thirty years, he has been the funeral director. Tim Kindberg asked him about the sonnet’s influence.

The sonnet has always seemed to me such a gorgeous form. E A Robinson, Millay, Yeats, Heffernan were my favorites early on – in particular the Selected Poems of Edwin Arlington Robinson edited by Morton Dauwen Zabel and introduced by James Dickey which I read in 1967. These were the first sonnets I understood as sonnets – poems like ‘The Tavern’, ‘George Crabbe’, ‘On the Night of a Friend’s Wedding’. Or the dark little Yuletide, ‘Karma’. Here’s a favorite, ‘Reuben Bright’ from The Children of the Night:

Because he was a butcher and thereby
Did earn an honest living (and did right),

I would not have you think that Reuben Bright
Was any more a brute than you or I;
For when they told him that his wife must die,
He stared at them, and shook with grief and fright,
And cried like a great baby half that night,
And made the women cry to see him cry.

And after she was dead, and he had paid
The singers and the sexton and the rest,
He packed a lot of things that she had made
Most mournfully away in an old chest
Of hers, and put some chopped-up cedar boughs
In with them, and tore down the slaughter house.

It was, I suppose, the first time I began to "hear" poetry – in the ear and the intellect, all at once. I still love the "cedar boughs"/"slaughter house" rhyme and "the singers and the sexton and the rest" and, in the larger sense, Robinson’s focus on the person, the character, the details of a personal history in the third person which struck me then and strike me now as rich fodder for poetry.

Then, of course, Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sonnets, all decorum and desire, were a delight, still are. The woman-voice she brought to sonneteering was I think, an improvement – taking the hearts and flowers out and replacing it with blood and lust whilst maintaining the formal constraints. And in the mid-1960’s, this seemed a more elegant way to say (as we were wont to say) "if you can’t be with the one you love, honey, love the one you’re with."

Yeats was and remains, for me, the business. The blue-bound Macmillan Company Definitive Edition first published in 1956 was in its 13th printing by the time I bought a copy in 1966. And it was not the sonnet, but his mastery of the iambic code, his line, and all his attentions to line ends – that kept me dipping into that text. "The brawling of a sparrow in the eaves," "The intellect of man is forced to choose", "Now that we’re almost settled in our house / I’ll name the friends that cannot sup with us…". I was so taken with his sense of the line and language that I’d go whole days thinking and speaking in pentameters – the five beat, ten syllable utterance that Yeats had put into my ear became a code I kept trying to remake and then stray from, as Frost, of course, had strayed to such good end.

I owed my introduction to Yeats, indeed my introduction to poets and poetry, to Michael Heffernan whose first teaching job was at Oakland University in Rochester Michigan where I was, in the late sixties, a lackluster student. He was the first living poet I’d ever met. Importantly, for me, he had a day job and a Buick and a mortgage and a barber – things that American poets of the day seemed determined to eschew. Because I was working in my father’s funeral home in a middle-class suburb of Detroit I was required to conform in fashions and footwear and hairstyles to a kind of ‘chamber of commerce’ look. It was Heffernan and Heffernan’s poems that made me think one could live an ordinary life and write extraordinary things. When he left Michigan to move to a better job in Kansas and eventually to the University of Arkansas where he is today, I left school for Ireland and the Continent (having drawn a high number in the Nixon draft lotto which kept me out of Vietnam) and returned to marry, go to mortuary school, make babies and settle in to the life of the funeral director in Milford, Michigan. For nearly a decade I neither read nor wrote much that wasn’t required. When Heffernan published, in 1978, his first slim volume of poems, The Cry of Oliver Hardy, I remember being utterly shaken at the notion that some of these poems, these pages, would outlive him. I was thirty. Mortality was becoming more than an idea to me. To hold in my hand a book full of poems I’d seen in the making years before, to say the things out loud, to hear the making of them in the sounds they made – changed my life. I began to write soon after that.

This was before the New Formalist push in US poetry and yet Heffernan’s was a collection full of sestinas and sonnets and purposefully distant rhymes. There was a series of fourteeners called ‘The Crazy Man’s Revival’ and several that looked like standard sonnets but were anything but: ‘The Apparition’, ‘A Figure of Plain Force’, ‘Rage Seated’, ‘In Praise of It’. And ‘Nineteenth of April’, a poem in five 14-line stanzas written on the bicentennial of the battle for Concord Bridge, suggested to me that the form itself could generate poetry. Years later it seems self-evident. But at the time it was like the light going on. I cannot overstate the impact these poems had on me and I’ve never stopped being grateful for it. On the one hand I was startled by their singular beauty and on the other I was emboldened to think I could do such things myself.

In 1983 Michael Heffernan and I took up a correspondence in sonnets on postcards. I can’t remember now if it was Heffernan or me that wrote and sent the first one – snug to the borders of a standard postal card, 14 lines for 14 cents, as if the Postal Service was imitating art. Postage has been going up ever since. And it was the sense that once you’d filled the card, you were done – as if the poetry had borders, boundaries set at random, which is, of course the comfort behind any formal constraint, any word play. In retrospect, I was in a very dark place in my own life and times back then and the poems were, it seems now, more aware of it than I was. Like most correspondence, they endeavored to tell the news of the day, the details of the moment, and to respond to issues raised by return mail. And yet when I read them now they seem to stand alone – little doses of the anger and sadness I was full of then, rage and grief that played itself out the following year in a divorce. Eventually they were all published in a collection called Skating with Heather Grace, my first book, published by Alfred Knopf in 1987. Of course the editor, Gordon Lish, turned a few into 13 line poems, some to their betterment, some not. The following, ‘Damage’, is fairly representative:

My own dilemma was not life but death.
I disapprove of hangings, pills, gas stoves,
gunplay, self-inflicted wounds with knives,
forks, spoons wielded in despair – here’s the truth:

I’m frightened witless at the prospect of
some bomb or cancer out there with my name on it.
No, I’m no do-it-yourselfer, though I’ve
known a few who were and might half admit

a certain envy at their pure resolve,
the clarity of will which did themselves

such massive and irreparable damage.
After all the dust clears, I imagine
little difference – we, none of us survives
our awful will to live or will to die.

Billy Collins, our current Poet Laureate, is a friend. I’ve read with Billy in England and Ireland and America and am always pleased when he comes to his famous poem ‘Sonnet’. I’m always tickled by its opening:

All we need is fourteen lines, well thirteen now,
and after this just a dozen
to launch a little ship on love’s storm-tossed seas…

This is Collins as we have come to know him, serving up poems to demystify poetry at the same time he re-energizes it – a sonnet to make sonneteering seem a simple and amazing thing – as if poetry is as much about counting as raised consciousness or pristine vision. Of course, anyone who has written one or read one closely knows counting is, indeed, among the things that count. It is in the math – the ‘sensual math’ as Alice Fulton named it memorably – of meter, image and metaphor that magic resides. Saying so out loud, stating the obvious in ways that make us treasure it again, is Billy Collins’ special gift. He’s not so much an influence as a reminder that poets must, to keep their license, write poems. Like Heaney and Heffernan, Matthew Sweeney and Robin Robertson, and a few dozen others I could name, Billy occupies a place on the list of living poets who make me glad to be alive whilst they are writing. Reading them makes me want to write. In that way they are essential to me.

As Billy’s poem shows, the sonnet is an example of the kind of ‘self-tasking’ that is so central to poetry. Knowing that I had to do 14 lines has been for me a more manageable concept because I could envision the size of the job. Knowing that I had to find some acoustic details – some count of syllables, some third-cousin rhymes, and knowing, around line 10 or 12 that you’d better be wrapping up now has made for better endings. I’m also thinking here of formal imperatives in the wider sense – the jobs that poets give themselves to do with the language in part because the culture at large has made them (I love this term) ‘redundant’. What I mean is that no one calls and says "I need that poem by Tuesday or else" as they might with a story or an essay or an editorial – something for which the ‘market’ is assumed. The marketplace is glad to have poets in the way they are pleased to have good parking, clean restrooms, appealing landscape and window displays; but they treat poetry as a kind of ‘accessory’ rather than an essential dynamic of the language. Poets are ‘interesting’ but not ‘required’. Nice to have and nice to ignore. We give them safe harbor and health insurance and the captive audience of our young if they will be indentured to our universities, but the marketplace does not honor their work, their poems. This is not news, of course. And I think it is one of the appeals of ‘form’. It is the task that poets assign themselves – for every poet is his own taskmaster – that makes the work itself somehow more meaningful. By choosing the honest work of words, the duties and details of the culture, the marketplace, the ordinary workaday life, are hushed momentarily, in favor of language and sound and meaning and metaphor. It is vital to me – it makes me the most alive – even if the world at large thinks they can live without it.

As for the rules, Simon Armitage is right when he says "it’s not like the Sonnet Police are going to come in and bust me for not using the tenth syllableî. And as Don Paterson suggests, they are only there to be broken. But we must know them well, before we can truly savor the breakage. There is a pleasure in keeping and breaking after all. When rummaging through what Heaney calls the "word hoardî, looking for the three-syllable word that will echo the three-syllable word from three lines back, and add to the poem’s progress, there is a thrill in the search, the selection, the draft and final draft. And, because each line and each word in a line is so great a portion of the whole, there is the sense of gravity that mixes nicely with the sense of play. Then there is the constant revision, and with each change, the proximate and attendant changes. And after everything the sense, if it is well made, that the enterprise was effortless – it emerged from the ocean of language like something suddenly buoyant and the poet simply happened upon it, in the right place at the right time.

A couple years ago, for my birthday, I wrote this 15 line poem (counting is not so important as we age) called ‘Refusing at Fifty-Two to Write Sonnets’:

It came to him that he could nearly count
How many Octobers he had left to him
In increments of ten or, say, eleven
Thus: sixty-three, seventy-four, eighty-five.
He couldn’t see himself at ninety-six –
Humanity’s advances notwithstanding

In health-care, self-help, or new-age regimens –
What with his habits and family history,
The end he thought is nearer than you think.

The future, thus confined to its contingencies,
The present moment opens like a gift:
The balding month, the gray week, the blue morning,

The hour’s routine, the minute’s passing glance –
All seem like godsends now. And what to make of this?
At the end the word that comes to him is Thanks.

The notion that the older we get, time runs more quickly, but we keep less track of things – old wars, old contentions, old hurts and heartbreaks – this is, after all, the existential concern. Not only how long? but to what end? So the poem both insists on counting time – "in increments of ten, or say eleven" but miscounts the sonnet by a line. "And what to make of this?" Perhaps this has something to do with the sonnet’s appeal – it comes with its own "expectancy." We know it’s going to give up the ghost of its creation after a hundred and forty or so syllables, maybe 70 heartbeats, give or take. Here’s the part where poetry sometimes sends a chill through me: because the overwhelming sense I get when I’m doing it is gratitude, thanks, this sense of creation’s abundance and that I have happened along, at the right place at the right time, to catch just the right words out of all the words around me any given moment and write them down. And I have seen this in people nearing death – I saw it in my parents, and friends I’ve known who died of cancers, heart attacks, random mayhems – they seemed, just before they died, the most alive, in ways I’d never recognized before. And lost for words (as we eventually all are) the word that they most opt for at the end is "thanks."