The American Sonnet: Commentary and Conversation
Building on The American Sonnet: An Anthology of Poems and Essays (University of Iowa Press, 2023) and the Sonnets from the American Symposium (2020)
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Note: unless otherwise indicated, page numbers on this site refer to The American Sonnet: An Anthology of Poems and Essays.
by Zephaniah Oppen
Among “some two dozen [recent] collections'' (p. 1) of American poetry centered on the sonnet is the late Jay Hopler’s hurtling and self-elegiac response to his terminal diagnosis as though an ugly and unyielding sentence were a thing that one might as well mock and be done. Still Life was published just a week before Hopler’s death in 2022. This year it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize—ironic phrasing he might have joked about, given a poem like “Discarded Memoir Titles,” from this collection. Hopler’s poetry was unmistakably individual within free verse, alchemical and fastidious. Surprising as it may still be that Hopler did not even attempt English poetry’s favorite and longest-standing delineated game, the sonnet, until his 40s (late in this case, sadly), one expects him to establish some house rules.
The main and most distinctive one in Still Life is visual. A sonnet is usually recognizable simply by its appearance, its natural shape supporting a tradition of self-metaphorization as room or box, even a hostile one (Ramazani, p. 133); from within which Hopler’s opening sonnet, “Radiation Vault 4,” satirizes the hope of aesthetic transformation, of thus emerging alive. To its point, a reader’s eye is less likely to recognize this poem as a sonnet at first. The lines stagger toward the right margin of the page.
Similar movement characterizes sonnets throughout Still Life. Line indentations often appear haphazard and inconsistent, often have a two-steps-forward-one-step-back fashion. While in “Radiation Vault 4” the effect is movement within constraint (the poet imagines merging with a butterfly inside his treatment room), more generally in the collection it is a feeling of force and lesser counterforce. In the context of aggressive cancer, this visual arrangement suggests the struggle against an impatient goad toward death. The collection’s inconsistent capitalization and abbreviations like “w/” and “b/c” also evoke the poet’s pitiful sense of drivenness and of being driven, and of poetry being all but potent in shifting from “perfection to existence” (see Kimberly Johnson’s conversation with him).
Actually, the logic of Hopler’s visual arrangement is conventional: indent and justify lines that share an end rhyme. The simple difference is, he moves each rhyme progression further across the page. Obvious obscures itself. Varied rhyme schemes help, and lines that occasionally have no correlate, wonderfully creating a sense of chaos via a formality that is precisely controlled. It excuses Hopler to hitch together wonky rhymes, often slant or merely assonant, as in “Honky-Tonk Sonnet” where “country” is correlated to “squeak”; and stranger pairings like “lifespan” and “find,” a missing rhyme, or the semantic rhyme in “Radiation Vault 4” between “wing” and “span.” (Again, “perfection to existence.”) In the world of the poems—and only in that world, the poems themselves are aware—rhyme and, more basically, correspondence, as the living could only wish it to do, stays and staves off an inevitable ending.
Tess Taylor states in her essay on Gwendolyn Brooks that a poet’s reinvention of a form must “charge it both forward and backward in time, electrifying it anew” (p. 327). Hopler certainly achieves that current in Still Life; he may or may not reinvent the sonnet. But the result is unique, the life of the sonnets felt. They deserve consideration in a larger discussion of the American sonnet.