Marilyn Hacker on the Modern Sonnet

Two weeks ago, if someone asked me to play a game of word association with the term “sonnet,” I would have responded with “archaic,” “rigid,” and “unimaginative.” At least, that was the case before I attended Marilyn Hacker’s lecture.

On October 24th, award-winning poet Marilyn Hacker made her case for the modern sonnet during a lecture in the Humanities Quadrangle. The lecture, which was the second installment in The Franke Lectures in the Humanities, focused on how the sonnet has and continues to uplift marginalized voices. Acknowledging contemporary resistance to the sonnet, Hacker opened her lecture by claiming that the sonnet “seems to be an untimely subject but is apparently relevant.” Although students often view the sonnet as an unforgiving form of poetry due to its strict line constraints, Hacker argued that its inflexible form makes the poem more digestible. The sonnet was the first poetic form to become accessible to wide audiences, she noted. While other forms of poetry were written exclusively in Latin, the sonnet was largely written by those without Latin knowledge, including women and middle-class individuals. Hacker believes that this history is integral to the sonnet’s place in contemporary poetry and that marginalized voices have continued to make use of the sonnet.

One of the sonnet’s highest virtues, according to Hacker, is the freedom that it grants poets. At first, this claim seems counterintuitive, but Hacker explained that the experience of writing a sonnet is comparable to “moving into a small room and discovering that there is space for all the furniture.” The sonnet’s limited space forces poets to focus only on the most salient images, which “permits and almost requires meticulous examination of its subject from different perspectives.” 

Still, Hacker acknowledged that there are instances in which fourteen lines cannot fully capture a poet’s vision. “One sonnet often leads to another related one, even when that wasn’t what I intended,” said Hacker about her own writing. One way that modern poets have expanded the sonnet’s limited space is by creating crowns of sonnets—a series of sonnets that address a single theme. The first line of each sonnet in the sequence is the same as the last line of the preceding sonnet. The sequence culminates in the crown’s final sonnet, whose final line is the same as the opening line of the first sonnet. These crowns allow poets to tell complete stories without burdening their poems with “connective tissue” language that Hacker identified as “the bane of verse writers.”

Hacker also commented on how modern poets can use sonnets to subvert their readers’ expectations. While sonnets traditionally consist of fourteen lines of rhyming iambic pentameter, Hacker noted that modern sonneteers are increasingly using assonance and consonance as replacements for rhyme. These inventive strategies are Hacker’s main evidence for why the sonnet is not static but rather an evolving form of poetry. 

After explaining why the modern sonnet remains relevant, Hacker guided the audience through a few of her favorite sonnets, focusing on Patricia Smith’s “Motown Crown.” This set of poems, which celebrates Black artists’ contributions to poetry and music, is an example of a heroic crown. In other words, the collection contains fifteen sonnets, the fifteenth made up of the first fourteen lines of the other sonnets. Using “Motown Crown” as evidence, Hacker commented that the heroic crown “is proof of the sonnet’s malleability and diversity.”

Although her lecture focused on modern sonnets written by marginalized communities, Hacker also noted the value of reading traditional sonnets. “One of the virtues of creative writing classes is that students reading canonical sonnets apply that information to crafting their own fourteen-line labyrinth,” she stated. Concluding the lecture, she encouraged students to try their hand at this seemingly outdated form. 

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