THE NEW LITERACY

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After the child has learned his alphabet and become fluent in their native tongue, when a desire to be a writer takes over, what is the “literacy” which comes next?

There are stages of literacy in which proficiency surpasses itself, but usually we stop short, or venture outward into a verbosity without order.

The order of the alphabet, the sentence, the paragraph—for prose; the line—in the more ordered, or perhaps messier, poetry, is not impressive; it is merely the literacy of anyone—the student, the rank amateur, the mediocre scribbler.

What is the further literacy which marks the pro?

Are there measurable and greater stages? And of what do they consist?  Larger vocabulary? Greater life experiences? Wider reading?

Yes, but does this sum it up?

It’s rather commonplace to think of the novel as merely a series of letters, or epistles—some put this as the origin as the novel; Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein this way.

The great writer rests on this as their crutch—the hidden progress they made from the alphabet to the missive.

All one has to do is write correspondence, and the letter of correspondence is the unit—and enough of these allows the novel, or short story, to exist.

But the poet is lost in the wilderness. The line is a meager unit, but it’s all the poet has. The stanza has no internal organization, per se, except a rhyme, or a refrain—but today these devices are ones poets almost entirely reject. Also, the stanza isn’t much lengthier than a line.

But there is a unit which the poets, even the modern ones, have been using, and rather secretly.

This unit is the sonnet.

Think of the most famous poems in the canon.

Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind is 5 sonnets strung together.

As is the Ode to a Grecian Urn by Keats: 5 sonnets.

Eliot’s Prufrock is 11 sonnets.

Poe’s Raven, when you break its long line in half, is 15 sonnets.

We remember Poe saying the Raven was an ideal length for the popular poem—108 lines.  One could see this unique work of Poe’s as a sonnet-slayer. The sonnet emerges uneasily from it, and it must be admitted that calling any lyric poem an ‘X number of sonnets’ is not always proper, or simple.

Plath’s Daddy is, as we might expect, a formal monstrosity, 4-5 unwieldy sonnets, threatening all the time to be a greater number of shorter sonnets, or murdered sonnets bleeding into each other, even as the unit, the sonnet, is glimpsed; her poem is undermining, and embracing, the sonnet-form as a unit, simultaneously; the poem is both extremely formalist, yet subversive in its formalism—and the sonnet is the underlying reason.

Ginsberg’s Howl is also roughly 15 sonnets—that is, the better known, first, part of the poem equals 15 sonnets. The whole of the poem is 21 sonnets.  The second (Moloch!) and third (Carl Solomon!) parts of Howl are 3 sonnets each. The more famous part, the first one, lacks cohesion—its disordered rebellion finally fails to find poetic unity.  This probably increased its notoriety as a modern, or post-modern work, but there is something which happens when poems are rebellious—they merely sink into prose.

But the point here is that every well-known lyric poem in English is perhaps best understood as a sequence of sonnets—not lines.

And we don’t even have to mention the sonnet in literature itself—the giants who used it: Shakespeare, Milton, Michelangelo, Dante, Petrarch, Sidney, Wordsworth, Yeats, Millay; and what was Dickinson, writing, really, if not the sonnet? How many significant poems are, if not sonnets, precisely, near-sonnets?

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address consists of three sonnets, with each sonnet corresponding to the three rhetorical turns made in the address, 1) The civil war testing the great proposition 2) We cannot dedicate, we cannot hallow, this ground 3) But we will dedicate, and what we dedicate will not perish.

And wonderful coincidence! An excellent piece on the sonnet’s effect on modern and contemporary poetics, “Petrarch’s Hangover, An Argument in Five Sonnets,” by Monica Youn, was just published this week. Here it is.

The secret literacy of great poetry?

The unit of poetry is not the line, but the sonnet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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