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)
Search the Site:
Join the Conversation:
Note: unless otherwise indicated, page numbers on this site refer to The American Sonnet: An Anthology of Poems and Essays.
by Joyelle McSweeney
For a long time, I was possessed by a question: what is the lyric?
What accounts for its intensity, its irresistibility, its brevity? In our age of toxins-- environmental, political, pharmaceutical, psychological, social-- could we also think of lyric as a toxin--seductive, mind-altering, fatal?
I thought of Plato's model of writing as pharmakon, a volatile and dubious mix of medicine and poison. I learned that word toxin derives from the Greek word for arrow-- more specifically, a poison arrow.
Well, if Plato could have his pharmakon, I thought, I would have my Toxicon-- a collection of poems like a quiver of poison arrows.
As I grew more and more absorbed in constructing my Toxicon, I asked myself further: which form of Western lyric poetry is the most toxic, the most intense, the most sweet, the most fateful? The answer seemed to be: the sonnet.
When I drew back my poisoned arrow, I saw that it was pointing at Keats.
It could be said that John Keats is himself a sonnet-- emblem of the sonnet's sweetness, intensity, pugnacity, brevity, and fatality. My sonnets grew out of an obsession with Keats, but also with the tuberculosis bacillus that delivered him out of this bad world and into the immortality he so desired, that looked a lot like mortality itself.
As I wove my toxic crown, I felt like the bacillus: dubious, lethal, I ate John Keats alive. The sonnets themselves began to feel like lungs where all the toxins and contaminants of our toxic planet would run, chemical and lit up, a toxic stew that sent up prophetic, glowing fumes.
And these toxic sonnets turned out to be, quite literally, prophetic. The poems I had written in and around 2017 carried the wingsweep of a catastrophe that would shortly touch every precinct of the planet. My sequence alludes to Apollo, god of poetry and plague. I drew in the swine flus and bird flus that were winging around the planet, thanks to global distribution chains and market demands, but also other kinds of specifically American violences, from military occupations to drone pilots trained on video games to celebrity dog fights. With the arrival of COVID in 2020, as well as each year's brutal compounding of the climate catastrophe, techno-fascism and cruelty, the true prophetic force of these sonnets has come into focus.
Truth be told, I didn't used to think of the sonnet as a prophetic form. But maybe it's like any boundary augurs, oracles, prophets and scientists draw around the world in order study it-- bird flight, sheep's organs, two neutrinos on their gold track, the hasp of DNA. Draw the circle of study tight enough and the truth comes into view.
Re-encountering these sonnets now, in six-years' retrospect, I recall the particular truism of prophecy as it was practiced in the classical world: all prophecy is retrospective. As I wrote in a sister-essay to this working note, "How I Became a Prophetess":
When books of prophecy are opened, we discover what we knew all along.
Joyelle McSweeney is a 2022 Guggenheim Fellow for Poetry and the co-founder of the international press Action Books. Her tenth book, Death Styles, is forthcoming from Nightboat Books in 2024.