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Mapping the Contemporary Sonnet in Mainstream and Linguistically Innovative Late 20th– and Early 21st–Century British Poetry

Cartographie du sonnet britannique contemporain dans la poésie britannique traditionnelle et d’avant-garde de la fin du xxe au début du xxie siècles
Carole Birkan Berz


Au vu du regain d’intérêt pour les formes poétiques depuis la Renaissance jusqu’à aujourd’hui, le sonnet devient à nouveau un objet d’étude critique. Cet article esquisse les diverses manières qu’ont les poètes britanniques contemporains d’envisager ou de s’approprier la forme sonnet, à la fois dans la poésie traditionnelle, dite mainstream, ou dans la poésie d’avant-garde. Après avoir passé en revue les différents enjeux historiques et contemporains de la forme, cette étude se penche sur trois manières d’écrire le sonnet, que l’on retrouve dans les deux formes de poésie britannique à l’heure actuelle : le sonnet parodique ou auto-reflexif, le sonnet comme processus d’écriture et enfin le sonnet en traduction.

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  • 1 As this article focuses on the formal aspects of this poetry, it relies on term ‘linguistically inn (...)

1With the revival of interest in poetic forms amongst poets (Finch, Chivers) and as a focus of study from early modern to contemporary times (Wolfson, Caplan), the sonnet has come up once again on the critical compass. It therefore seems relevant to try and sketch out the various ways in which some contemporary poets—whether mainstream (hereafter MS) or linguistically innovative (hereafter LI)—negotiate or reclaim the space of the sonnet form in their work. In the background of this study is the rift between MS poetry, with its heavily subsidised major publishing houses, poetry prize culture and events directed at a wider audience, and LI or avant-garde poetry, with its small presses and restricted audience of poets and university critics. The main formal differences between the two types of poetry have been identified as accessibility versus defamiliarisation (instability of the lyric I, lack of normative syntax, mistrust of closure, etc.), processes of composition such as procedural writing, and inclusion of other forms of discourse or materials (sonic or visual) in a bid to question the very materials of poetic discourse.1 Up until recently, LI poetry was thought to have rejected formalism in favour of open-form procedures, while the MS was seen as the sole guardian of tradition. However, much poetic evidence argues against this. In his ground-breaking anthology The Reality Street Book of Sonnets (hereafter RSBS), Jeff Hilson shows that such British poets as diverse as Tom Raworth, Peter Riley, Tony Lopez, or Geraldine Monk have been using the sonnet form successfully and opening it up to experiments. The aim of this article is therefore to ask whether the sonnet may be conceived as one of the last poetic spaces for a national—and international—conversation between MS and LI poetries and to investigate similarities or differences in the strategies used by MS and LI poets in handling the sonnet form.

2Before looking at contemporary strategies in detail, a brief review of the historical and contemporary stakes of the form is necessary. It may be argued that a clear-cut distinction between the upholders of form and the proponents of innovation stems from a misreading of the tradition itself. Indeed, despite the calls of certain rule-makers, the sonnet has always been a privileged space for innovation. In the hands of the Renaissance sonneteers, it underwent a gradual Englishing of its rhyme scheme and stanzaic organization and became an established space for vernacular eloquence not restricted to courtly love (Colie 107). Milton then opened up the sonnet to an urgent political topicality introducing a flexible placing of the volta and the addition of a coda. Along with many other reinventions of forms, the Romantic age engaged with the sonnet tremendously (Curran 29–55), stretching the form to its limits and foretelling Hopkins’s long and curtal sonnets. In the twentieth century, Yeats was instrumental in Irishing the sonnet, modernizing it and helping it survive through experimentation (Vendler 147–181). In other words, although poets and critics often use such terms as ‘near-sonnet’ (Hughes), ‘almost-sonnets’ or ‘limit-cases’ (Burt-Mikics 24), it is quite clear that each of the ‘three main rules’ of the sonnet, its fourteen lines, use of iambic pentameter and strict stanzaic or rhyme pattern division—or in Spiller’s abstract terms ‘extension, proportion, duration’ (2)—have already been broken at one time or another, and new patterns injected into the tradition.

3In fairness however, in the contest between free verse and so-called fixed forms, many modernists did reject the sonnet as an over-rehearsed exercise. William Carlos Williams famously shunned it as an artificial frame imprisoning the energy of modern America, famously likening it to ‘putting a crab into a square box’ (Wagner 1976, 30). His provocative image also pleaded for poetry’s right to go sideways, to eschew the sonnet’s well-trodden rational or argumentative path, a claim made by today’s postmodern poets, who struggle with the commodification of all forms of discourse, poetry included. Therefore what seems at stake in writing the sonnet today is a tension between truth to materials—the aesthetic imperative for a poem to be written in a certain form—and a (post-)modernist critique of representation, the scepticism over one’s very means of expression.

4American experimenters, which LI British sonneteers often quote as influential, dealt with this tension: E.E. Cummings and Louis Zukofsky, Ted Berrigan and Bernadette Mayer to name but four. In Tulips & Chimneys (1923), Cummings worked with and against the sonnet’s formal restrictions to express ‘a myriad of contrary feelings’ (Howarth 233–236). Zukofsky structured ‘A-7’ as a Donne-inspired corona, a semi-narrative, disjunctive allegorical sequence mixing high and low registers, blending social commentary with motifs of resurrection and revolution, and using the images, verbal dexterity and wit of the sonnet form (Lang 267–276). The religious-allegorical sonnet sequence, though disrupted at every line, thus exemplifies a certain truth to materials. Berrigan and Mayer’s autobiographical sonnets also enact the paradoxical urge to write in the form even as it is perceived as almost defunct (RSBS 11–12). In these poems, most rules are broken yet a gestalt of the sonnet persists in its 14 lines and in its thematics. As Berrigan put it: ‘“I LOVE YOU”/and the sonnet is not dead’.

  • 2 While others, such as J. H Prynne, did not and are therefore not included in the present study.

5One final question that needs to be addressed is how experimental can a sonnet get until it stops being one? In view of my preceding remarks, I have selected as ‘sonnets’ poems which conform to at least one of the form’s characteristics of ‘proportion, duration, extension’ and which gesture toward at least one of the traditional interpretations of the genre (the love lyric, the political sonnet etc.). Moreover, it seems relevant to point out at this stage that many of LI poets explicitly gave permission for their poems to feature as sonnets in the RSBS.2

6To summarise, MS and LI poets tackle the challenges of the sonnet, its overwhelming tradition, its rhetoric, its strictures, and the persistent or changing value of that particular form. I want to argue that today’s British poets respond to these challenges in three ways: in writing parodic or meta-sonnets, in envisioning form as process rather than monument—whether in narrative or speculative sonnets—and in translation.

Satire, Parody and Meta-poetic Modes

7The first way in which poets negotiate with the iconicity of the sonnet is in modes of parody or satire or other meta-poetic modes. A frequent step is to craft a text that parodies or obliquely satirizes the form. This was the path taken by Eliot in The Waste Land, in which the five-stress, hendecasyllabic lines beginning after ‘He, the young man carbuncular, arrives’ (lines 230–248) comprises a rhyming octave and a prolonged mock-sestet to ridicule a suburban adulterous tryst. Similarly, rather than shun the sonnet completely, many contemporary poets engage with its generic, as well as formal identity against the backdrop of a former ‘metrical . . . feudalism’ (Spiller 2). In other words, they engage with the sonnet’s discourses through parody and satire, overturning them in their own perspectives, in terms of class, race, ethnicity, religion, gender or sexuality.

8One recent example from the MS is the poet George Szirtes, of Jewish-Hungarian background, who uses a conspicuously strict sonnet form in ‘An English Apocalypse’ contrasting the hardships of immigration and the over-wrought beauty of the English landscape. Another example is the Northern poet Simon Armitage, whose sonnet ‘Those Bastards in their Mansions’ stages the breaking-and-entering of a poet-burglar into the stately home of the sonnet. The poem functions as a well-wrought icon, with or despite its unusual stanzaic grouping (6/3/4/1), in its compounding of a criminal metaphor, a Promethean motif and an accumulative rhyme scheme (OOaabaccccOdd) ending with a punch-line volta in the ultimate line.

9Another strategy is to write in the tradition of ‘sonnet on the sonnet’ (Boland and Hirsch 55-59). Many MS and LI authors have recently written meta-sonnets. These poems enact the contemporary contradictions of the form, its possibilities of subversion and escape, and its renewed relevance in today’s world—in Thom Gunn’s words ‘each new sonnet [is]/a plot against the sonnet’.

10In this vein, the Adventures in Form anthology (2012) edited by Tom Chivers, features two prose poems written by the performance poet Patience Agbabi. Mocking the content of ‘Poetry surgeries’ and mimicking the Q&A form of agony aunt columns, she replicates the proportion of the sonnet with a prose ‘octave’ and ‘sestet’ set as two blocks of justified bold and regular typeface. In the first poem, entitled ‘TWO LOVES I HAVE,’ Agbabi uses a parodic-satirical mode of self-representation to subvert traditional expectations of the sonnet in terms of race and gender in the public artistic sphere, while expressing doubt that these can ever be overturned. In ‘FROM AFRICA SINGING’, she combines parody with the ‘sonnet on the sonnet’ genre:


Dear Patience, I write from the tradition of
non-European poetry that celebrates the voice
of the people, the orality of literature, spoken
word, yet sometimes the struggle shrinks to a
clenched fist in a European cage: a sonnet. My
sonnet for Phyllis Wheatley, the first Black
woman to be published in America, has a 4/4
beat, internal rhyme. Did she write sonnets?

If she did they weren’t published. Frozen in the
headlights of the heroic couplet, she didn’t feature
in a recent dialogic sonnet sequence. A shame!
Hi-5 for using the sonnet to highlight her fame
and subverting in back to its roots. How many
poets think ‘little song’ when they think ‘sonnet’?

11Agbabi’s poem begins by posing the age-old problem of confinement, then satirically recalls the traditional ‘monumental’ use of sonnet in epitaphs (‘to highlight her fame’). Though her intention is clearly ironic, the poem performs itself as a sonnet thanks to its layout and typography. The bold and regular lines mirror the major/minor effect of the octave and sestet and subliminally ask how ‘bold’ or ‘justified’ it is to be using the sonnet today. The voice of the poetry teacher ironically emerges as taking itself very seriously in the sestet, since it has a faint (aabbcc) rhyme scheme at the end of its last 6 lines. In this poem, every formal feature seems to play with and against itself as the sonnet challenges its own authority.

12Another self-reflexive piece entitled ‘Sonnet 101’ is by Sophie Robinson, a young poet who was recently Poet in Residence at the V&A, and whose poetry has been labelled ‘cross-over’ as it features in both MS and LI anthologies.

Sonnet 101

      why is everybody always writing
      about fucking like me the more writing
      to be done the less time to do the
      necessary fucking for poetry

      which is just as well when ‘at a bar’ or
      side by side alone & almost having
      sex but in the end we change our minds ‘cos
      work is early/harsh work makes you nervous

      lines up the days & besides you don’t love
      each other so much today as yesterday
      & that dwindle’s dampened the itch to do
      anything but write some stupid sonnet

      frigid at the kitchen table no damp
      itch to speak of no great love to leap off

13The ironic title in the manner of a basic college course warns that unless some new path is found, poetry will abandon the sonnet. Robinson here re-appropriates the sonnet as a metrosexual woman writer—maybe a modern, avant-garde Edna St Vincent Millay. In the first quatrain, the poem’s imagined female persona is reduced to ‘everybody . . . like me’. The difficulty of poetic renewal is compared to love or sex, and reduced to a repeated ‘fucking’, perversely making the ‘sonnet/frigid’. And yet, thanks to the play on pronouns, this almost-Spenserian sonnet achieves an unexpected volta in the middle of line 9: ‘& besides you don’t/love each other’, and the addressee suddenly becomes plural, and more distant. This opens a gulf of desire, which reappears in the muted lyricism of the last lines: ‘no damp/itch to speak of no great love to leap off’, in which the poem expresses a longing for possibility.

14Robinson’s characters appear to be ‘nervous’ about ‘work’—perhaps the ‘harsh’ work of form. However, as the word ‘sonnet’ only appears towards the end of the poem, the text appears to be falling accidentally into the sonnet shape. In this, Robinson echoes the calls made by the poets Paul Muldoon and Jeff Hilson urging fellow poets to free themselves from the anxiety of the fixed form:

P. Muldoon: The very idea that one might be in the business of writing a sonnet at all should itself be accidental. One should realize only when one is part way into it . . . that a sonnet is indeed the received pattern into which the poem is falling.

J. Hilson: I find that the most useful approach to writing sonnets is to forget about the accumulated connotations. . . . [B]ecause the conventions are so well known, . . . they feed unconsciously into the poems, . . . and often in unexpected and exhilarating ways (both quotations Cousins-Howarth 10).

15The three poets shift the focus as they approach form not as structure but as process—that of progressively giving shape. This is the idea I wish to explore in the next section.

Beyond the ‘Moment’s Monument’ (Rossetti), the Sonnet as Process

  • 3 Use of IP and strict rhyming remains frequent but it is not used by poets who try and get away from (...)

16Many contemporary sonneteers, whether MS or LI, wrestle with the sonnet’s monumental aspect and with the stultifying rigidity of the ‘fixed’ form. In many cases, this leads poets to write narrative sonnets or to move away from the single poem to the multi-part narrative or semi-narrative sequence. Formally speaking, this also entails the use of a loose meter (and the transition from strict rhyming to slant or consonantal rhyming (Tyler 221) allowing for more fluidity, and combining well with the run-on line.3 Two eloquent examples taken from the MS—one about birth, one about death—show us how poets also introduce fluidity into such monumental themes.

17Alice Oswald’s sonnet ‘Leaf’, describing the gestation and birth of a child through the closely observed opening of a leaf gives us the sense of movement and flux, or of a life continuum, through the pervasive use of enjambment—only 5 lines in the poem are end-stopped—and by omitting capital letters and a final full stop. The meter is fluid too, being a loose, mainly 4-stress, iambic-anapaestic meter.


      the leaf that now lies being made
      in its shell of scale, the hush of things
      unseen inside, the heartbeat of dead wood.
      the slow through-flow that feeds
      a form curled under, hour by hour
      the thick reissuing starlike shapes
      of cells and pores and water-rods
      which builds up, which becomes a pressure,
      a gradual fleshing out of a longing for light,
      a small hand unfolding, feeling about.
      into that hand the entire
      object of the self being coldly placed,
      the provisional, the inexplicable I
      in mid-air, meeting the wind and dancing

18Oswald has related that she uses ‘Shakespearean or a Miltonian form’ when writing about the mind or the heart, and a sonnet structured on a series of couplets invented by John Clare when writing about the natural world. Yet this poem has a hybrid rhyming pattern, which heightens our impression of a poem ‘in the making’. Indeed, the mostly consonantal rhyme scheme (ababcbcbddefeg) indicates an octave/sestet organisation, with the lack of absolute rhyming being compensated by the use of intralinear assonance or parallel syntactical constructions. The single consonantal rhyming couplet (‘light/about’) arrives at lines 9–10 providing a subtle volta (the leaf turns into ‘a small hand unfolding’). This turn is then confirmed in the conclusion provided in the ‘sense couplet’ of the last two lines. In a subtle manner, the poem has dramatised or performed the coming into being of a human ‘I’ as the coming into shape of the sonnet.

19Another potent example of a MS poet struggling with the stasis or fixity of the sonnet form is Derek Walcott in White Egrets (2010). The collection as a whole is concerned with an aged poet’s contemplation of his poetic legacy. It comprises many poems approximating 14 lines—often 16 or 13—and following a sonnet structure. Many are part of narrative sequences or series of travel vignettes. The book also recalls or takes up Walcott’s early sequence ‘Tales of the Islands’ (1958). The incipit poem subtly takes up the tradition of the sonnet’s wrestling between two contraries. The poem begins with the image of a grid: ‘The chessmen are as rigid on their chessboard/as those life-sized terra-cotta warriors.’ Though 16 lines long, the poem respects the sonnet’s proportions, with three blocks of lines constructed as sentences and concluded by a short epiphanic couplet. It shares many of the features of Oswald’s sonnet (consonantal rhyming, parallel structures, enjambment) but strongly affirms the presence of a sonnet grid by using rigorous syllable count, some iambic pentameter (in 4 lines), and strict repetition (‘from clay to clay’) and by placing parallel constructions at key places in the line (e.g. at the beginning and end). This geometrical aspect is also reinforced by the horizontal presence of dashes. However, the use of repetition and anaphora (‘whose vows’, ‘if vows’, ‘his emperor’, ‘their emperor’) across the poem also creates a new dynamic, as does the use of enjambment, and the final image of the bird. But, says Walcott, ‘[motion] brings loss’: this statement is powerfully rendered in the poem’s phonic pattern as many sounds are taken up then partly abandoned, e.g. ‘sword’ is visually taken up by ‘word’ and ‘sworn’; this results in a gradual fraying of the sonnet’s edges. In this way, the poem hovers between time and eternity, between stasis and flux, light and darkness, silence and music, and acknowledges the beauty and difficulty of these opposing states.

20While many poets in the MS have had recourse to narrative to bring the sonnet out of its monumentality, very often what results is a return to the linear logic they may have been trying to escape in the first place. Many MS narrative sonnets are structured around an anecdote and end up doubly enacting ‘the well-wrought epiphany of predictable measure’ (Charles Bernstein, quoted in Sheppard 134). Examples of this may be found in George Szirtes’s sequences or Lachlan McKinnon’s lyrics, among many others. Longer narrative sequences, such as Seamus Heaney’s recent ‘Sonnets from Hellas’ (2001), or ‘District and Circle’ (2006), reminiscent of his previous sequences such as ‘Glanmore Sonnets’ draw various ellipses but usually provide the reader with a clear denotative structure: a time, a place and a stable persona. By contrast, in LI sequences, narrative is constantly undermined by disjunctive strategies. In such sequences and volumes as Peter Riley’s ‘Ospita’, Tony Lopez’s ‘Assembly Point D’, Geraldine Monk’s Ghost & Other Sonnets—all of which possibly influenced by Tom Raworth’s ‘Sentenced to Death’ and ‘Eternal Sections’—the reader constantly has to piece together symbolical, thematic or linguistic elements to achieve a measure of provisional meaning. Symbolically, all of these semi-narrative sequences have as a starting point the agony of the contemporary sonnet. Both Raworth’s ‘Sentenced to Death’ and Riley’s ‘Ospita’ are set in the context of severe diseases. (Ironically, one of Riley’s patients’ name is shouted down a hospital corridor: ‘Sidney! Sidney! Sidney!’). Monk’s title suggests that the sonnet is now a ‘ghost’ form and that it is about to become ‘Other’. Lopez’s work can be read as a poem lamenting the demise of the lyric voice down to ‘a cheap ventriloquist routine’. And yet, all of these sequences also address the possibility of a postmodern lyric through the use of the sonnet form.

21Riley’s sequence for one adheres to traditional form to a great extent (with a mean syllable count of 10 and the use of a varied, fluid consonantal or slant rhyme scheme in each of the ten poems), but destabilises the reader by giving at least two superimposed settings (a somewhat blurred vision of hospital, a rural or sea-side setting, and the epigraph ‘Wirksworth to Cambridge’), as well as two male but indistinct personae: an ‘I’ and a ‘he’. The poem moves from accounts of disease to political reflection (‘this tableau my government’), to scenes of a somewhat hostile nature. Despite these destabilisations, the poem contains moments of poignant lyricism, such as the following sentence, embedded in the third poem.

                              … Suddenly a man
Shouts, ‘Orpheus!’ and the dying die,
The sick sleep on, the deserted bitterly cry
And I count the call as best I can across
The fogs of routine silence; word that holds
The earth into a chiming whole, enfolds
Love in a capsule coated with loss, never
Cedes to wishful death but calls us to drop
Our trades and be again that whirring top
On the mountain ridge, screaming down river a pain
Of incompletion, fall medallion, cut
The human heart to song. . . .

22Using an Orphic strain in the very language of pain and helplessness, the poem persists in a form of dogged lyricism, stretching a 12-line sentence across enjambment and variable caesura against the beat of rhyme and pentameter. Though the only lyric cry left for us today might be a howl, Riley shows us that this can still be carried forth by the modern sonnet.

23In a similar way, Lopez’s sequence, structured as a montage of found materials, such as advertising copy, offers a glimmer of hope for poetry in its contemporary commodified condition. When Lopez begins the sequence with a line from Browning and later foregrounds a character whose job it is to shred unsold novels, he puts linguistic commodification and waste at the core of his poem. The last sonnet however has ‘When the alarm sounds, we go to Assembly point D’. One possible interpretation of this isolated line is that if there is an ‘Assembly Point D’, there might be—or might have been—points A, B and C from which to reconstruct the shape of a room (the Italian stanza). These four hypothetical corners might also be those of the sonnet, suggesting that a possible way out of commodification might be an engagement with historical forms. In this vein, Geraldine Monk’s use of the sonnet form in Ghost & Other, with its detached epigrammatic couplet persisting through the disjunctive syntax, parataxis, and unexpected onomatopeia also suggests that the sonnet form is still a powerful force, even where verse refuses the simple continuity of narrative and the comfort of the lyric I. To paraphrase Peter Riley, the sonnet may well remain a ‘[h]-ospita-ble’ space.

Translating the Sonnet

24Though the sonnet might be an inhabitable space, for it to hold interest for modern poets, it should not become too comfortable either. One of the ways in which poets open new avenues for forms is through their translation. As Peter Howarth says, ‘poetic forms may inherit new significances as they move through cultures; they may also mediate between societies or within cultures’ (Cousins-Howarth 227–228). In other words, the existence of an original might serve as pole for creating tension with the translated text and the target language, as Ezra Pound’s translations of the Stilnovisti poet Guido Cavalcanti served to revivify English.

25Arguably, the process of translation, version or adaptation might abate the feeling of self-consciousness, allowing poets to use a form while concomitantly commenting upon it. In the MS, Lachlan McKinnon’s ‘Le Cygne’, which presents as a translation of interspersed lines in French, helps the poet move away from the more linear sonnets mentioned above. Likewise, Wendy Cope’s translation of Harry Oberländer’s ‘Das achtundsechziger Sonett’ (‘Sonnet of ‘68’) gives more gravitas to a poet known for her parody and so-called light verse. Among LI translations, Sean Bonney’s punk graffiti adaptations of Baudelaire’s poems might help us grasp how we as readers use the sonnet as a recognizable shape, as some poems such as ‘La Chevelure’, which are not sonnets in the original, bear a definite sonnet stamp in Bonney’s version.

26Whether in the MS or in the LI group, contemporary poets have devoted much energy to the pursuit of translation in recent years, as the re-launching of the Modern Poetry in Translation review and its attendant website shows. Among the practitioners of the sonnet, such large scale enterprises such as Don Paterson’s Orpheus, A Version of Rilke’s Die Sonette an Orpheus (2006) or Tim Atkins’s Petrarch (2011) also testify to this dynamic, though in different ways. In the first instance, Paterson’s translative project, explained in his ‘Notes’, testifies to his desire to create sonnets that like Wyatt’s versions of Petrarch might become ‘poems in their own right’. In this regard, Paterson justifies his use of rhyme and his addition of a laconic title to each sonnet. However, Paterson does not highlight a radically new interpretation of Rilke’s seminal work or give an indication of how translation might serve to refresh the contemporary sonnet in English. Conversely, Atkins’s versions of the Canzoniere are often presented as riffs on the original, leading to completely novel perspectives. To quote just one example, his version of Sonnet 212 (‘Beato in sogno et di languir contento’) provides a hilarious commentary on Petrarchism from the perspective of the new masculinities, as it translates the Renaissance wistful reflection on platonic love into a long list of contemporary male types:

Men who dream of children and are satisfied to languish

Men who embrace shadows and lie down with therapists in order to embrace them

Men who swim a sea that knows no depth or shore

Men who insist on the beach high & mincing

Men who live in cocoons & ride scooters

Men who read about glaucoma and are forced to give up yoga

Men who buy books of lists of 10000 stupid things and then do them . . .

27In this and other poems, Atkins creates a new structure for the sonnet as he reincorporates certain elements of the original. In exchanging the rhetoric of longing and conceits for the rhetoric of the apparently mundane list (whose history lies in modern American poetry), Atkins at once comments on and celebrates the sonnet form, providing it with a new immediacy and creating new constellations of meaning for the defamiliarised Petrarchan fragments.


28Though there has been a reluctance amongst MS and LI critics to share the same critical space for the sonnet, it seems clear from even a brief survey of contemporary British poetry that the two poetries may inhabit the sonnet form and make use of similar strategies in dealing with its pressures. Time will tell whether the sonnet tradition, altered by today’s ‘individual talent’, will remain coherent. In the meantime, however, highlighting poets’ strong engagement with the history of the form should encourage more close readings of texts through a new formalist approach, one that is both historicist and attuned to contemporary problems. The poet and critic Jeff Hilson has called for ‘a radical defamiliarisation of the [sonnet]’, which his sequence In the Assarts achieves using reflexivity, open-form procedures, and a translative mode catapulting medieval or Renaissance English into a contemporary idiom. As poets keep striving for a stronger vernacular sonnet, perhaps it is also time for criticism to defamiliarise formalism, and makes use of all its possibilities.

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All Li poets and their work are quoted from The Reality Street Book of Sonnets unless otherwise stated.

Armitage, Simon, Book of Matches, London: Faber and Faber, 1993.

Atkins, Tim, Petrarch, London: Barque, 2011.

Boland, Eavan and Edward Hirsch, The Making of a Sonnet: A Norton Anthology, New York: Norton, 2008.

Bonney, Sean, Baudelaire in English, London: Veer, 2008.

Burt, Stephen and David Mikics, The Art of the Sonnet, Cambridge, Mass: Belknap, Harvard UP, 2010.

Caplan, David, ‘What Was New Formalism?’, A Companion to Poetic Genre, ed. Erik Martiny, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011, 18–33.

Chivers, Tom, ed., Adventures in Form: a Compendium of Poetic Forms, Rules and Constraints, London: Penned in the Margins, 2012.

Colie, Rosalie L., The Resources of Kind: Genre-Theory in the Renaissance, Berkeley: U of California P, 1973.

Cope, Wendy, If I Don’t Know, London: Faber and Faber, 2001.

Cousins, A.D. and Peter Howarth, The Cambridge Companion to the Sonnet, Cambridge, Mass.: CUP, 2011.4

Cummings, E. E., Complete Poems: 1904-1962, Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2013.

Curran, Stuart, Poetic Form and British Romanticism, Oxford: OUP, 1986.

Finch, Annie and Kathrine Varnes, eds., An Exaltation of Forms, Contemporary Poets Celebrate the Diversity of Their Art, Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2002.

Gunn, Thom, “Hi”, Boss Cupid, London: Faber and Faber, 2000.

Heaney, Seamus, New Selected Poems 1966-1987, London: Faber and Faber, 1990.

———, Electric Light, London: Faber and Faber, 2001.

———, District and Circle, London: Faber and Faber, 2006

Hughes, Ted, “Eve”, Three Books: Remains of Elmet, Cave of Birds, River, London: Faber and Faber, 1993.

Hilson, Jeff, In the Assarts, London: Veer, 2010.

Hilson, Jeff, ed., The Reality Street Book of Sonnets, Hastings: Reality Street, 2008.

Lang, Abigail, ‘La couronne de sonnets d’‘A-7’: le manège de Louis Zukofsky’, Le Sonnet au risque du sonnet, ed., Bernard Degott et Pierre Garrigues, Paris: L’Harmattan, 2006, 263–278.

McKinnon, Lachlan, The Jupiter Collisions, London: Faber and Faber, 2003.

Oswald, Alice, Woods, etc. London: Faber and Faber, 2005.

Paterson, Don, Selected Poems, London: Faber, 2012.

Robinson, Sophie, “Sonnet 101”,, retrieved on July 17, 2013.

Sheppard, Robert , When Bad Times Made for Good Poetry: Episodes in the History of the Poetics of Innovation, Exeter: Shearsman, 2011.

Spiller, Michael R. G., The Development of the Sonnet, London: Routledge, 1992.

Szirtes, George, An English Apocalypse, Tarset: Bloodaxe, 2001.

Tyler, Meg, ‘“Named Airs”: American Sonnets (Stevens to Bidart)’, A Companion to Poetic Genre, ed. Erik Martiny, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011, 220–233.

Vendler, Helen, Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form, Oxford: OUP, 2007.

Wagner, Linda, ed., Interviews with William Carlos Williams, New York: New Directions, 1976.

Wolfson, Susan J. and Marshall Brown, eds, ‘Reading for Form’, Modern Language Quarterly 61.1 (2000): 1–16.

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1 As this article focuses on the formal aspects of this poetry, it relies on term ‘linguistically innovative’ rather than ‘avant-garde’ or ‘neo-Modernist’ to describe the poetry written in the UK and Ireland since the late 1970s.

2 While others, such as J. H Prynne, did not and are therefore not included in the present study.

3 Use of IP and strict rhyming remains frequent but it is not used by poets who try and get away from the sonnet’s monumentality.

4 Especially the contributions by Heather Dubrow, Peter Howarth and Stephen Burt and the trialogue between Jeff Hilson, Paul Muldoon and Meg Tyler.

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Carole Birkan Berz, « Mapping the Contemporary Sonnet in Mainstream and Linguistically Innovative Late 20th– and Early 21st–Century British Poetry  »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 46 | 2014, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2014, consulté le 21 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Carole Birkan Berz

Carole Birkan Berz teaches and researches English language, literature and translation at Paris Descartes and Sorbonne-Nouvelle Universities. She has published articles on poetic forms and national narratives, especially in the work of Geoffrey Hill.

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