Richard Wilbur, back at the end of the 20th century, told Peter Davison, then poetry editor of the Atlantic, “I love Bill Williams’s poems but his critical opinions seem to me to be nonsense. He was forever saying that if you write a sonnet you are making a curtsey to the court of Elizabeth I–”
Well, Dick, in some ways, Bill (WC Williams) was right.
The sonnet, as a form, just has a way of sounding polite and respectful, no matter how many ‘bad words’ you toss in there.
But on the other hand, is this a bad thing?
In a nutshell, this is what went completely wrong with American poetry in the early 20th century—and we still have not recovered.
American poetry split decisively into two camps: and both were dead wrong.
And the fatal error was thinking the choice you had was only between these two.
One camp, let’s call it the WC Williams camp, said: Get rid of the sonnet!
The other camp, let’s call it the Richard Wilbur camp, said, But we can make the sonnet impolite!
The truth is: the sonnet, as a form, is polite, and there’s nothing at all wrong with this.
A form, like the sonnet, which always sounds polite, no matter how selfish and rude the author, is a wonderful invention—a gift to the world.
But it shows nothing but ignorance of form in general to then assume that all forms are like the sonnet.
Just as it is ignorant to insist that poetry should not be beautiful, or romantic, or worshipful, or respectful, if that is, indeed, what certain forms do best. If you want to slap a person in the face, use your hand. And yet a curtsey, depending on to whom it is made, or where, or when, can be even more devastating than a slap.
Nalini Priyadarshni, from Punjab, India, enters our 2016 March Madness Tournament with the following:
Denial won’t redeem you or make you less vulnerable. My unwavering love just may.
Poetry once appealed to sentiment and fed on sentiment and grew large and popular on sentiment and quieted crowds with sentiment and gloried in sentiment.
Until one day, poetry was demeaned and shamed with the relatively recent term (early 20th century) that’s entirely pejorative: sentimental.
One can see Pound in the transition period using the word sentimentical.
This line of Priyadarshni’s (singing with a strong iambic/anapestic rhythm) could defeat armies.
Richard Wilbur, who is 95, and honored with the second seed in the South, very much belongs to that overly-intellectual century (the 20th) in which poetry lost its way, asserting itself in thousands of tragically over-thought strategies.
Here is Wilbur asserting himself, without sentiment, as poets in the American 20th century were wont to do, strongly, forcefully (one can almost hear the fist thumping on the desk: not, not, not!):
not vague, not lonely, not governed by me only
Wilbur was a formalist, and like so many formalists in the 20th century, had to apologize for it in all sorts of unconscious ways, yearning to be serious, but falling into spasms of light verse here and there, almost against his will; writing as delicately as he could with a modesty that signaled to his peers he wanted nothing to do with courts and queens and monuments.
This contest is sentiment—of the most loving and powerful kind: Priyadarshni—against whatever it was respected poets were trying to do in the 20th century: Wilbur.
Who will win?