Thursday, October 16, 2014

Sonnet Sequences vs. Poetry Anthology Patterns

Nikky Finney's Head Off & Split: Poems (2011) includes a sequence of 19 sonnets. 
For decades now, anthologies have served, or supposedly served, as a record for activity among poets. Editors collect and publish apparent representative works of leading poets. Langston Hughes's "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," Gwendolyn Brooks's "We Real Cool," and Robert Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays" are a few examples.

A common feature of many signature or canonical poems is that they are relatively short. There are exceptions, of course. Hayden's "Middle Passage" and to some degree Margret Walker's "For My People" are notably longer than many frequently re-printed poems.

A. Van Jordan’s The Cineaste (2013) includes a crown of 44 sonnets.

I wonder, though, what will happen years and decades from now when and if anthologists seek to capture the activity among contemporary poets, that is, the activity of poets during the first decade of the 21st century. I am especially curious because so many poets have produced extended projects that exceed the short poem pattern of anthologies. In particular, how will editors represent sonnet sequences?

Over the last 10 years in particular, several African American poets have produced extended sonnet sequences. Tyehimba Jess, Marilyn Nelson, Vievee Francis, Natasha Trethewey, Elizabeth Alexander, Allison Joseph, John Murillo, Nikky Finney, Patricia Smith, and A. Van Jordan have all produced interlinked sonnets. Their works collectively represent an important trend in African American poetry.

Natasha Trethewey's Native Guard (2007) includes a crown of 10 sonnets. 
Will anthologies include entire sonnet sequences, or will only excerpts appear with notations that inform readers that the individual poems are parts of larger series? Editors will likely have to make difficult choices since space for individual poets in anthologies have historically been limited. It has been more common to see a long poem like Hayden's "Middle Passage" as opposed to a sequence of interrelated poems like a crown of sonnets. 

Anthologies, as it turns out, circulate in ways that volumes of poetry sometimes do not. Students in literature courses, for instance, are more likely to encounter poems in anthologies than individual volumes of poetry. Select works in anthologies often lead curious or interested students to seek out those individual volumes. So the question of how future anthologies will represent poems and poets is important.

Sonnet Sequences and Contemporary African American Poetry

1 comment:

Robert Bates Graber said...

On one hand, a long sonnet sequence (or "sonnet cycle" or "sonnet series") is created by the poet as a single work; on the other hand, care usually is taken to see that many, if not most, of the constituent sonnets can stand alone reasonably well. Any anthologist worth her or his salt should be able to identify such sonnets suitable for his or her purposes.

--Robert Bates Graber, author of Plutonic Sonnets