Anti Sonnets exhibition cover


01.09.19 - 31.12.19

Mark Staniforth

Anti-Sonnets comprised the creation of one sonnet per day over a year, irrespective of personal circumstance. Each sonnet’s subject matter, and perhaps also the perceived quality of its artistic execution, would reflect the tribulations of daily life. Anti-Sonnets aimed to challenge assumptions associated with the sonnet form, and to champion the ascendency of context over content. Writing in The Cambridge Companion to the Sonnet (2011),2 the poet Stephen Burt identified “a commitment to dailiness, to impressions without an overarching order, each in its separate frame, as in a notebook or calendar ... [a]s each sonnet records an occasion or a day, a set of sonnets can take its own larger shape.”3 

No poetic form is richer in historical referents, nor so evidently shaped by its own processes of production, than the sonnet. Since the Italian scholar Francesco Petrarca was credited with its creation in the 14th century, it has intimidated and belaboured some of most prestigious poetic minds. 

Shakespeare sought to establish a new form which deviated from Petrarca’s strict rules; Wordsworth and Keats each issued paeans to its paradoxical freedoms; Edna St. Vincent Millay feared its composition so delicate she may make it “burst”4 . 

Yet the sonnet’s fundamental tenets have endured for centuries, whether as a structure for strict adherence or simply a scaffold for intentional dismantling. Such weighty tradition is perhaps why experiments with the form have, with a handful of notable exceptions, been relatively reserved. Sonnets languished unfashionably in the minds of most post-modernists and Beats, and their potential was also broadly ignored by the 1960s concrete movement. The Swiss concrete poet Eugen Gomringer began his career writing sonnets before, having perceived that he had reached a “dead end”,5 abandoning them entirely. Allen Ginsberg derided the form as a kind of confidence trick, insisting: “Of the fourteen lines, twelve lines set up this inexorable death of love, and a completely hopeless scene, so you could actually pile it on ... and then the last two lines pull the rug out from the thought and change it completely”.6 

Only in recent years has the sonnet shown signs of re-emerging, as a new generation of poets show less compunction in trampling its sacred ground. Anti-Sonnets set out to discover its ‘bursting’ point, and to chronicle every day of the journey. “The sonnet ... is a portrait of the mind in action,” wrote Phillis Levin in her introduction to The Penguin Book of the Sonnet (2001), “a mini-guide to the progress of an emotion.”7 

  1. Elizabeth Barnett, Edna St Vincent Millay: Collected Sonnets, preface (New York: Harper Perennial, 1988) p. 153.
  2. Stephen Burt, ’The contemporary sonnet’. In: A.D Cousins & Peter Howard, eds., The Cambridge Companion to the Sonnet (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2011).
  3. Ibid, 246.
  4. Ibid, xiv.
  5. Mary Ellen Solt, Concrete Poetry: A World View (Indianapolis: Indiana Univ. Press, 1969), http:// www.ubu.com/papers/solt/intro.html
  6. Allen Ginsberg (unknown). History of Poetry 9 (Drayton & the Sonnet). http://ginsbergblog.blog spot.com/2011/10/history-of-poetry-9-drayton-sonnet.html. 12 May 2019.
  7. Phillis Levin, The Penguin Book of the Sonnet (London: Penguin, 2001) p. xxxvii.

past exhibitions