Sonnets Are Too Long: The Disembodied Fifteenth Line

A.R. Ammons, Collected Poems 1951-1971. Norton, April 2001. $19.95.

Though not a new book, A.R. Ammons' Really Short Poems has been on my mind for a few months, mostly due to his unfortunate passing in late February, but secondarily due to Norton's recent reissuing of his Collected Poems 1951-1971. His unmistakable wit and signature precision made his short poems favorites, and I thought Really Short Poems was a perfect antithetical vacation from my reading of his long poem "Tape For The Turn of The Year." I was also fending off criticism from acquaintances who dismissed Ammons' short poems as either cute or merely chiasmatic. To reduce Ammons' poems to this does him a great disservice; if anything, he is a noteworthy practitioner of a more cynical Frostian wisdom. With this in mind, it is important to note what Ammons' short poems function as: the epiphanic concluding line to a longer, implied poem.

Ammons' utility in his shorter poems prevented him from using anything but the most vital information. Here, in "Stills":

                                                  I have nowhere
                                                  to go and

                                                  nowhere to go

                                                  when I get
                                                  back from there

One can see how the arguments involving cuteness and chiasmus could be made, yet it is evident that this line/poem simultaneously displays the attention-grabbing power of an opening line and the epiphanic closure of a final line. It is also incapable of further editing. To accomplish such introductory and terminal feats in a mere five lines is remarkable. There is nothing cute about this. His power over the language allows him to present us with a paradoxically constructed line that is both its beginning and end, while never slipping into paradoxical subject matter.

While attending to Ammons' short poems, I had also been reading two contemporary collections which included sonnet sequences: Sophie Cabot Black's The Misunderstanding of Nature, and Joe Osterhaus' The Domed Road, part of Agni's "Take Three" series.

Now, I do not mean to single these poets out and then place them against a wall to be fired upon. Both books are stylistically surprising; Cabot Black is fond of ruminating thematically, while Osterhaus is playful and charming. This is Cabot Black's "How The Soul Moves," a poem highly deserving to be quoted in its entirety:

                                                  I come to your border with a secret.
                                                  For this, watchmen have waited a long time.
                                                  The region brims with fugitive bliss.
                                                  I am done with art, with passion begun

                                                  In the wrong hour. It has been too long
                                                  To hate you in just one night. The rope
                                                  Of your legs becomes easier, the descent.
                                                  Your hip opens its careful mercy;

                                                  We link solemn fingers until beyond
                                                  Reckoning a sound comes like an old hinge
                                                  From my throat. I hurry to confess
                                                  Because I am afraid of breakdown;

                                                  And I would lie for you, for your country,
                                                  Even when it is not necessary.

But the sonnets in both collections resemble either accidental 14-line poems, or else they sound like a child being forced into a hand-me-down that doesn't quite fit. It is possible to write a poem and realize after the fact that it is, accidentally, fourteen lines long. But nobody writes an entire sequence of accidents. These poems were sonnets from the start, or, as I suspect, they were sonnets before they were written; both writers knew that whatever product came out was going to be a sonnet, and if it didn't resemble a sonnet after the first draft it was manipulated until it did. Consider this: being naturally long-winded and being deliberately long-winded are two completely different matters.

In reading these sequences, one is never prompted to say something like "what a polished quatrain!" or "what a subtly orchestrated volta!" And putting prescriptive criticism to work on them generally results in a much shorter poem. Which is not to say that they necessarily are in need of a good whittling, but merely that there is an excess of rhetorical baggage that is being used to simply fill out the fourteen line form. Rather than ask "do I really need this extra line here?", the question asked is "what line can I put here that rhymes with 'car'?" Perhaps this is an appeal to utility in language, but writing in forms, especially shorter forms, requires strict attention to word choice because the margin for error is so small; one misstep and any rhyme scheme or lineation you were trying to achieve becomes contrived.

Both poets have written some fine poems which are essentially poems with an arbitrary fourteen line limit. It could have been twelve. It could have been Frost's "Hyla Brook" at fifteen. They could have trimmed the fat themselves and offered us beautiful moments in brevity. As it is, however, we have "sonnets."

Osterhaus writes rhymed sonnets, and does, on occasion, employ bouncy iambic lines ("And as she works, how intimate becomes / the space between the rippling monitor"). These traditional features, which are the real examples of poetic "cuteness," contribute to an incredibly charming poem such as "Piecework," in which he compares his work habits with those of his lover's:

                                                  The space we both require to compose
                                                  is different for each: I need low light,
                                                  coffee, the cut-off grain of wood or rows
                                                  of books, while you need just a space so bright

                                                  it naturally inclines you toward the screen
                                                  and all the variations hid between.

And it is here that the poem ends, on the rhymed couplet. I contend that if we were to hand Ammons a red pen and invite him to go to work on this poem, he would pillage each line for only the most essential moments, write a fifteenth line that summarizes it all, and then delete the original sonnet. Here is Ammons in "Success Story":

                                                  I never got on good
                                                  relations with the world

                                                  first I had nothing
                                                  the world wanted

                                                  then the world had
                                                  nothing I wanted

I can think of no better summary of "Acquainted With The Night" or "Into My Own."

He has, in one sense, written a one line poem, albeit heavily enjambed over six lines. It is also a poem which is no different than, again, "Hyla Brook" if it were to look like this:

                                                  We love
                                                  the things we

                                                  love for what
                                                  they are

This is by far the most memorable line from "Hyla Brook," the most quotable, and the line that is most likely to be represented on a poetic bumper sticker. Ammons' short poems function as the fifteenth line, that line which, if and when it exists, is a controlled summary of all action preceding it. The only difference is that the Frost line, turned into the short poem, is taken grossly out of context; the Ammons poems "Stills" and "Success Story" are all the context we need.

In some instances, the form of the sonnet raises questions that do not need to be asked about the text. This is the case with both Osterhaus' and Cabot Black's volumes. While capable of extraordinary moments of tenderness and heartbreaking detail, both do have many lines that leave the reader in the doldrums, waiting to be led out into the next (and hopefully more relevant) line. It is difficult to hide behind rhetoric when writing formal poetry.

Many recent writers have achieved success with the fourteen-line restriction. Berryman's Sonnets to Chris are remarkable both in their allegiance to tradition and their insistent stretching toward the new. That collection amazes me largely because he doesn't resort to including nonessential information simply to fill out his space. Ammons doesn't write "sonnets for dummies"; rather, he shows that sometimes one line is all you need.


The Really Short Poems of A.R. Ammons. Norton, 1990. $8.95

Sophie Cabot Black. The Misunderstanding of Nature. Graywolf, 1994. $12.00

Joe Osterhaus' collection The Domed Road, available in Take Three: Agni New Poets Series 1, Graywolf, 1996. $12.95.

John Erhardt lives in Western Massachusetts, where he coordinates that region's Poetry In Motion program. He teaches technical and business writing at University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and has poetry forthcoming in Spinning Jenny.