#451: If Walt Whitman tried to write a sonnet . . .

On day 13 of the sonnetsplosion, I find myself thinking, this is only day thirteen. We’ve got seventeen more days of this to go. And then: why did I choose to write 30 sonnets again? It’s proving more difficult than I thought it would be. Sonnet’s are a bitch, remember. Larry Levis was right on the money. It helps a bit that I have let go of a number of conventions, or at least, loosened the reigns considerably. This is the third sonnet in which I have either jettisoned or skirted the rhyme. I’m still counting syllables, but allowing myself an occasional 11 or 12, sometimes a 9 syllable line. And I care less about a perfect iambic meter, that is, an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable (du DUH), a convention that I was probably allowing myself to break now and then from the beginning of the project. I gotta say, though, I do love me a concluding rhyming couplet. And I’m pretty pleased with this one. Larry Levis may have telepathically and through time communicated his sentiments to Walt Whitman, because, as far as I can tell, Whitman wrote no sonnets.


If Walt Whitman tried to write a sonnet
It would be eighteen lines long and each
Line would go out to the margins, just like
His life. There would be barbaric yawps
Galore and singing, too, varied carols;
He would go missing and we would look
For him under our boot soles, line 7 or 8.
There would be a civil war and Lincoln would
Be shot and that’s where you’d think Whitman’s 
Sonnet would end, but you’d be mistaken,
Because it stretches out and keeps going. 
Outside the lecture hall he’d look up at stars.
There’s not enough room for me in this sonnet,
He’d say, write six or eight more lines on it.  

Post-script: I actually did a little digging around, enough to make me dangerous, to see if I might be wrong in my assumption that Whitman didn’t write any poems in the sonnet form. I found on a website called The Whitman Archive a transcription from a microfilm copy of a poem called “A Death-Sonnet for Custer,” published in the New York Daily Tribune, 10 July 1876.

It was worse than I suspected. Whitman’s sonnet is not remotely at all like a sonnet; it wasn’t fourteen lines long, or eighteen lines long as I have predicted, it was twenty-six lines long! And it was structured in four numbered sections! The final version of the poem published in Leaves of Grass retains its twenty-six lines, but drops the numbered sections in favor of a double-space stanza break, and (hold on to your stove-top hat), it drops the word “sonnet” out of the title! It dropped the title altogether in favor a first-line-as-title strategy. In Leaves the poem is called “From Far Dakota’s Cañons.” So, without reading through Whitman’s entire collected poems, it might be safe to say at this point that, no, Whitman did not write sonnets! Not only that, he was, as frisky as he could be, unwilling to write a twenty-six line poem and call it a sonnet. I am vindicated! Sort of. Not really. Don’t believe anything I say.   

Published by michaeljarmer

I'm a public high school English teacher, fiction writer, poet, and musician in Portland, Oregon

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