Sonnets or Anti Sonnets: Bernadette Mayer's subversive experiments with the sonnet form
Bernadette Mayer wrote her poetry collection Sonnets between 1965 and 1989. In this collection, Mayer deals with all different kinds of relationships between mother and children, partners and family members, and even poets with poems as well as readers. In her collection, Mayer retains the sonnet fourteen-line form but she dares to experiment with it by re-conceptualizing in multiple ways so as to respond to the needs of contemporary female writers or even readers. Not only does she exploit the contradicting powers of a new way of sonnet writing, but she also introduces a much more accessible and malleable sonnet form. Language and voice are the basic means through which she opens up her sonnet poems to multiple interpretations. In the sonnet “Birthday Sonnet for Grace,” Mayer makes motherhood a part of her sonnet writing process. The poem takes the form of a small child who is being raised by the poet while she aggressively comments on the daily problems a woman faces. The most striking thing, for me, is the metapoetic quality of this sonnet since it functions as a comment on sonnet writing itself. Starting from the title, Mayer preserves the word “Sonnet” in it. In my opinion, this word acts as a cover of an obfuscated meaning that the poem contains but simultaneously it connects the present with the past sonnet tradition. The poet intends to preserve some of the traditional traits of the sonnet even though she attempts to create a whole new idea about it. To support this new idea, Mayer adds the word “Birthday” to the title, emphasizing the birth of a new sonnet.
Bernadette Mayer wrote her poetry collection Sonnets between 1965 and 1989. In this collection, Mayer deals with all different kinds of relationships between mother and children, partners and family members, and even poets with poems as well as readers. In her collection, Mayer retains the sonnet fourteen-line form but she dares to experiment with it by re-conceptualizing in multiple ways so as to respond to the needs of contemporary female writers or even readers. Not only does she exploit the contradicting powers of a new way of sonnet writing, but she also introduces a much more accessible and malleable sonnet form. Language and voice are the basic means through which she opens up her sonnet poems to multiple interpretations.
In the sonnet “Birthday Sonnet for Grace,” Mayer makes motherhood a part of her sonnet writing process. The poem takes the form of a small child who is being raised by the poet while she aggressively comments on the daily problems a woman faces. The most striking thing, for me, is the metapoetic quality of this sonnet since it functions as a comment on sonnet writing itself. Starting from the title, Mayer preserves the word “Sonnet” in it. In my opinion, this word acts as a cover of an obfuscated meaning that the poem contains but simultaneously it connects the present with the past sonnet tradition. The poet intends to preserve some of the traditional traits of the sonnet even though she attempts to create a whole new idea about it. To support this new idea, Mayer adds the word “Birthday” to the title, emphasizing the birth of a new sonnet.
In this poem, Mayer by adopting the technique of obfuscation, she gives the impression of having written a traditional fourteen-line sonnet but in the end, this impression is vitiated by the typography employed and the content of the poem which appears to be split in two sections. As regards the first part of the traditional sonnet form, it states the problem while the second one, gives solutions to the problem already stated. However, in the second section the poet becomes more aggressive but, of course, no solution is given. The lack of punctuation marks highlights the persona’s aggressive tone which influences the way the poem is read. Consequently, readers run out of breath as the reading pace is accelerated. Finally, Mayer’s differentiation from the conventional sonnet form constitutes her way of stating her aggressiveness. The shift from the first section to the second one is realized by the use of a full stop which is actually absent from the last section. Thus, Mayer invites her audience to extend its thinking by bringing on the surface any hidden interpretations than an ostensibly traditional title may be holding back.
For me, Mayer has transformed her poem into a postmodern equation, which is composed by three elements: the “I,” the “she” and the “mother.” In her collection, entitled Memory (1976) Mayer playfully claims that “[t]he I-character is usually a she” (qtd. in Vickery 154) without mentioning the extension of the-“she” character. In “Birthday Sonnet for Grace,” the poet presents this extension playfully so, in my opinion, the “I”-character becomes a “she” one and finally the-“she” character transforms into a “mother-she,” whose love for her children inspires her to give birth to new poetics.
Imagery plays an important role in the first part of the poem. Mayer uses her poem to create images which resemble family life. At first, she addresses her poem and tries to define the size of it by deciding whether the poem is a “utopia” or “a smaller place” (3). The poet, here, mocks the idea of greatness since the poem does not need to be “a big project for changing the world” (4). Nevertheless, irony keeps dominating in the poem especially when Mayer refers to the perfection of the sonnet form. Moving on, she makes the readers visualize a small baby crawling on a “Hyacinth” (9) carpet. Through this visual effect, Mayer facilitates readers to adjust their vision of a family. The sensitive and motherly notions of the first part give their place to the aggressive and pompous language of the second one. Mayer describes thoroughly the daily obstacles in female life while she underlines the past impersonal character of poetry that the poets “digressed with once” (12).
To sum up, “Birthday Sonnet for Grace” uncovers Mayer’s integrated attempt to establish a new poetics in sonnet writing. The unrhymed lines deconstruct the conventional sonnet writing practice and create a holistic new approach to sonnet reading. The readers are not passive receivers but they become active participants in the sonnet formation, as they wonder and hesitate over the meaning of the sonnet (qtd. in Finch 18). For me, Mayer gives a different dimension to the sonnet writing process and simultaneously, she uncovers the female poet’s role as a mother and as a revolutionary whose role is enhanced and regenerated.
The poem entitled “A thousand apples you might put in your theories” constitutes Mayer’s attempt to deconstruct the initial sonnet form and reconstruct it on a new basis, that of a couplet or, according to J. Paul Hunter, the heroic couplet. The common theme of lyric intimacy is not only attributed to the turbulent relationship of a couple but also it covers the multiple uses of different languages and variable diction. Here, Mayer dares to use swear words and slang language, whereas she does not keep within the limits of the American language since she resorts to Spanish vocabulary as well. In this poem, Mayer delivers open messages to her readers and to women poets in particular whom she urges to do “something newer” (14) by employing an ironic and sarcastic language.
Divided into seven sections, the sonnet delivers a multitude of moods and ideas. Each one of the sections that has Mayer created here works as a poem made out of couplets creating thus a visual effect for her readers. However, the poem does not contain any rhyming pairings. The lack of rhythm improves the different stories each section deals with. For me, the lack of rhythm enhances the lack of homogeneity, which is what the traditional sonnet relies on. So, by dismissing rhythm in every section, Mayer brings forth a new idea or argument which does not depend on the poem’s totality.
In the sonnet, Mayer takes poetic language further and builds an indispensable bond between the poem and the language used. To support differentiation in the kind of language employed, Mayer uses daily and simple words including swear words, such as “fucking” (6), “your ass” (10). She even dares to transcribe the way a man would behave towards his wife: “You cursed and swore cause I was later/ to come home to you without your fucking dinner” (3). Moreover, short forms occupy an indispensable place in the sonnet since the poem does not resemble the formal and demanding sonnet language. In my opinion, Mayer creates her own language patterns which foreground a new way of expression; Mayer’s intentions become clear when she says “work your ass off to change language and don’t ever get famous” (“Daniel Kane Interviews Bernadette Mayer”).
Once more, Mayer digresses from the traditional sonnet content. Here, the female character addresses her lover and she openly accuses him of his way of speaking as well as his sexual performance. In my view, the poem becomes a means through which the persona, and actually the poet, is complaining to her lover about all his inadequacies. The female figure appears to be the traditional woman in a male dominant household but what she chooses to depict here is the rebellious side of a woman’s character. As a result, her rebellion is reflected in the kind of language she uses which is as offensive as the husband’s reactions.
In the middle of the poem, the readers are really influenced by her emotional and dramatic way of speaking since Mayer does not use any punctuation marks at this point. Consequently, the readers can start reading the poem quietly and easily but by the middle of the poem, they feel exhausted because of the lack of punctuation marks which pushes them to the very limits of their reading ability. With this poem, Mayer is actually subverting the traditional roles of a couple. Particularly, she makes the woman read as a man would do whereas she does not mention any of his reactions. Finally, Mayer is likely to find a balance between the commonness of her persona and the traditional woman’s extreme sweetness; in particular, the phrase “fucking dinner” (6) gives its place to the phrase “my existent dinner” (13).
In conclusion, her poetic modesty places Mayer among the poets who are determined to bring something new to sonnet writing. In this poem, we meet a rebellious and man-like woman who is not afraid to expose her lover’s rude reactions. Mayer moves beyond the language boundaries that her gender sets and masculinises her persona by shifting between language registers. The sonnet responds to the needs of contemporary women who yearn for a more essential place in society. Finally, I believe that this sonnet constitutes Mayer’s most comprehensive attempt to place women within the process of poetry making.
When Linda Russo reports that “Mayer’s writings often deploy tactics to modify poetic practices she didn’t desire to reproduce” (qtd. in Kane 136), she plainly refers to Mayer’s technique of writing Sonnets. Mayer’s plain style in expressing complex notions in combination with the different techniques she employs in her sonnets constitutes the main argument behind this short presentation. For me, Mayer epitomizes women’s attempts to be accepted by the male domineering poetic world. It is as if through her poetry she invites all women poets to enter this world and be judged with regard to their work and not their sex. Moreover, I believe that her collection gives away a scent of feminist gusto which reveals her experimental and subversive writing style. This is even more highlighted by the fact that she takes a traditional and fixed poetic form, as the sonnet is, and manages to transform it into an accessible and easily to be understood medium without losing its fourteen- line format.
Moreover, this process reveals that the sonnet form can become a spring board for multiple interpretations, while revealing that the White male English sonnet pattern can equally transform into a world-wide medium by both establishing a new form which goes beyond language and cultural restrictions, bringing to the forefront peripheral, neglected and not-so-fashionable themes. This echoes Fanny Howe’s idea about Mayer’s writing: “[S]he does, in fact, seem to be writing at the same time as she is living” (16). Everything we experience does not always appeal to others; however, Mayer succeeds in attracting different kinds of audience through her plain writing style. As far as I am concerned, Mayer has been so successful in her attempt to move beyond the limits of her gender, because she feels the burden and responsibility for her own neglected sex.
To conclude, the “upswing in the appetite for poetry” (“Transparent New Home for Poetry”) that Kate D. Levin refers to, improves the quality for poetry writing and further enhances its critical and thinking potential. The poets are now accessible to their readers through their way of writing which is not so lofty anymore. This traditional notoriety of sonnet writing should not follow postmodern poets but notoriety should be gained because of the accessibility and improvisatory capacity of their work. I believe that poets should dare to foreground new ideas and notions in their writing without caring for short-term fame: they should first draw on experience and then write. Their lives and experiences should be their leading force for further experimentations. Drawing on experiences, Mayer has managed to renovate an old sonnet pattern by expanding the array of her themes, concerning the new, rebellious but always responsible female self. For Mayer, the sonnet is not a closely-knit structure but an open form which needs to be explored further and to which more attention should be paid.
BIRTHDAY SONNET FOR GRACE (40)
I’ve always love (your) Grace in 14 lines, sometimes
I have to fir my love for Grace into either
An unwieldy utopia or a smaller space,
Just a poem, not a big project for changing the world
which I believe
It was the color of your hair that inspired me to try
to do in words
Since such perfection doesn’t exist in isolation
Like Hyacinth, Royal or Persian blues
That go so well with you
Now oder that we are before we were forty
And working so much in an owned world for rent money
Where there seems little time for the ancient hilarity
We digressed with once on the hypnopompic verges of the sublime
Now more engrossed in hypnagogic literal mysteries of
our age and ages I propose
To reiterate how I love you any time
A thousand apples you might put in your theories
But you are gone from benefit to my love
You spoke not the Italian of Dante at the table
But the stingy notions of the bedded heterosexual
You cursed and swore cause I was later
To come to you without your fucking dinner
Dont ever return su numero de telefono it is just this
I must explain I dont ever want to see you again
Empezanto el 2 noviembre 1980-something I dont love you
So stick it up your ass like I would say
I’m so mad at you I’m sure I’ll take it all back tomorrow
& say than they flee from me who sometime did me seek
Meanwhile eat my existent dinner somebody and life
C’mon and show me something newer than even Dante
BA graduate, School of English, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki
“As You Like It.” British Council, Greece. 10 Feb. 2010 <http://www.britishcouncil.org/>.
“Daniel Kane Interviews the Poet Bernadette Mayer.” 8 Oct. 1998. 10 May 2009
Finch, Annie. The Body of Poetry: Essays on Women, Form, and the Poetic Self. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005.
Howe, Fanny. Rev. of Midwinter Day by Bernadette Mayer, American Book Review 6, 1984.
Hunter, J. Paul. “The Heroic Couplet: Its Rhyme and Reason.” 10 Feb. 2010
Kane, Daniel. Don’t Ever Get Famous: Essays on New York Writing After the New York School. Champain: Dalkey Archive Press, 2006.
Mayer, Bernadette. Sonnets. New York: Tender Buttons. 1989.
Vickery, Ann. Leaving Lines of Gender; A Feminist Genealogy of Language Writing. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press/University Press of New England, 2000.
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