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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The Couplet Sonnet
by Laura T. Smith
“The Fifteen-Year-Old Considers His Closet” is one of three sonnets by Tariq Dobbs in the January issue of Poetry. All three take different forms, this one, a couplet sonnet.
The couplet sonnet is something of a hybrid form, balancing the forward march of the heroic couplet with the centripedal, circling qualities of the sonnet. Dobbs’ sonnet amplifies this both/and quality, punctuating heavily enjambed lines with feminine rhymes (“prettied”/”taxied”), wending one long and jostling sentence over thirteen lines.
While the couplet sonnet is perhaps less common than other variations, the couplet itself is central to the fundamental construction and musicality of the sonnet in general, not just in the closing couplet of the English form, but in the musicality of the Italian’s abbaabba rhyme, which is composed mostly of couplets, though we don’t experience them as rhymed pairs, lending a stairstep, one-note-off quality not unlike the couplets of Jericho Brown’s sonnet form, the duplex. Michael Dumanis describes Brown’s duplex as “nonlinear, fragmentary, disjunctive, destabilizing, protean,” where “each step forward is partially undone, until we end up where we began, a circular journey” (p. 239). Dobbs’ poem makes its own circular journey: “these images dreamed in my mirrored/gaze of a high school men’s restroom.”
Couplet sonnets show up throughout the Sonnets from the American anthology: Phillis Wheatley’s “To The King’s Most Excellent Majesty” (p. 10), Alexander Posey’s “On the Capture and Imprisonment of Crazy Snake, January, 1900” (p. 23), Lola Ridge’s “Electrocution” (p. 24), Lousie Bogan’s “Roman Fountain” (p. 41), Langston Hughes’ “Bed Time” (p. 43), Jericho Brown’s “Duplex” (p. 112), and sections of Tarfia Faizullah’s “Reading Celan at the Liberation War Museum” (pp. 117-121). Unrhymed couplet sonnets by Philip Metres and torrin greathouse also appear; Charles Bernstein’s “Questionnaire” might be read as an unrhymed couplet sonnet.
In his essay in the collection, Stephen Regan characterizes the couplets of Lowell’s couplet sonnet “To Speak of Woe That Is in Marriage” as “relentless” (p. 315). Jonathan Post hears in the couplets of Frost’s early sonnet “Into My Own” “will” and “youthful chutzpuh” (p. 260).
In “Notes on the Couplet in the Sonnet,” Stephen Guy-Bray notes that while couplets usually “indicate finality” or foreclosure, in Shakespeare’s sonnet 126, a twelve-line sonnet made entirely of couplets, they instead "give way to another couplet that also doesn’t provide an ending, a pattern that is repeated five times.” Sonnet 126 is also the last of the young man sonnets, and the sonnet in which the speaker gives up on all his solutions to the problem of mortality. Here, the couplet sonnet might signal a difficulty or refusal to conclude.
Dobbs’ sonnet turns toward its own meditation on immorality in the final lines as “crushed soda cans turned/ urinal cakes would outlive all the friends who snorted/ our shared Ritalin collection, and/certainly, outlive me, and thank God.”
If couplet and closet represent kinds of closure/enclosure, the unpaired final line, its own complete sentence, offers as closure an opening: “My love will outlive me.”
Notes: Stephen Guy-Bray. “Notes on the Couplet in the Sonnet,” Shakespeare 18:3 (2022): 322-331.
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