Monday, August 15, 2011

The Strength of Weak Ties in Nikky Finney's Sonnet Sequence

I was recently re-reading Nikky Finney's large sonnet sequence "Plunder," which focuses on George Bush, from her book Head Off & Split. The use of a common set of words in the opening of a sonnet drawn from the words at the close of a previous sonnet is part of what makes the interconnected sonnet sequence fascinating. In other words, the strength of weak ties gives a sonnet sequence its strength.

The "strength of weak ties" is actually a phrase most often associated with concepts developed by sociologist Mark Granovetter. The presence of many distant, loose, or apparent weak social connections make it possible for people to still benefit when they have an absence of strong ties to powerful people or institutions. I am borrowing (and likely misapplying) that concept to discuss the distant, loose, and seemingly weak ties that hold Finney's sonnet sequence together.

Poem "iv" in Finney's series of sonnets closes with the lines "He likes being home / on the White House range," and poem "v" opens with the lines "Home on the range, a White House boy bucks / bad..."

Poem "xii" in the series closes with the lines "He knows another will / come behind him and pick up his mess," and poem "xiii" opens with the lines "Somebody always picks up his mess, so he leaves / detritus--pole to pole."

The overlapping and interrelated uses of words and ideas are the links that bind - ever so lightly at times - the series of 19 sonnets. Those connections between the sonnets display Finney's artistry in weaving different poems together.

Sonnet sequences have become increasingly popular among African American poets in recent years. Tyehimba Jess's Leadbelly (2005); Marilyn Nelson's A Wreath for Emmett Till (2005); Natasha Trethewey's Pulitzer Prize-winning Native Guard (2006); John Murillo's Up Jump the Boogie (2010); and Allison Joseph's my father's kites (2010) all include series of sonnets. 

One distinguishing feature of Finney's sonnet sequence is her subject matter. She focuses on George W. Bush and thus addresses a contemporary political figure. For whatever reasons, it's less rare to witness such an extended treatment and critique of a recent political figure like that in contemporary literary poetry.

Thinking about the literary skills involved with pulling the all the pieces together and concentrating on George Bush and his deeds, it's clear that Nikky Finney's "Plunder" is artistic and political in powerful ways. Those 19 sonnets add up to a 266-line rumination, and the turns of phrases that links the individual pieces that comprise the whole illustrates the strength of weak ties.

Related Content:
Nikky Finney's George Bush Sonnet Sequence, Pt. 1
Nikky Finney's Reading Style
Nikky Finney and her Audience
Nikky Finney, Nikki Giovanni, & the Black Poetry Best Seller List

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