“Core and Case”: Some Thoughts on the Subaltern Sonnet
By Koh Jee Leong
Closed poetic forms, such as the sonnet, are conventionally conceived as restrictive, like a straitjacket, whereas open forms are conceived as liberating, like a field. Where do these ideas come from? If we pursue them to their origins, they are as white as the origins of the sonnet. They come from Whitman who wanted to sound his barbaric yawp over city roofs. They come from Ezra Pound who wanted to break the back of the iamb. They come from William Carlos Williams who wanted to work in the American grain. They come from Charles Olson who wanted to compose by the breath. They come, in other words, from the American declaration of independence from British versification.
During the Cold War period, American cultural exports gained ascendancy all over the world. Along with the triumph of American Abstract Expressionism over Soviet Social Realism, the prestige of American poetry – T.S. Eliot, Robert Lowell, Allen Ginsberg, Frank O'Hara – persuaded poets everywhere that the closed forms of their own tradition spell imprisonment and backwardness, and so they broke their chains to write in various forms of free verse. The American nationalism operating behind open forms became a form of cultural imperialism.
So, these ideas about open forms are not only white but also imperialist, two aspects that give me pause when I approach them as an immigrant writer of colour, a Chink from Singapore (Is it a part of China?). The pause here is crucial. It does not mean complete rejection. Neither does it mean immediate acceptance. Instead, the pause affords the time and place to re-think and re-formulate. And the re-thinking and the re-formulation never end because these ideas are never free from racial and imperialist discourses.
When I approach the sonnet form, the same pause applies for exactly the same reasons, because of the sonnet's colonial antecedents. For the British, colonisation was all about trade, at least at first, and then trade was followed by ideology. For the Americans, during the Cold War, it was all about ideology. Every child of colony growing up in the British Empire, if he or she were privileged enough to receive an English-language education, was, and probably still is, taught Shakespeare in school. Not the sonnets but the plays, but the child learned to honour the Bard as the greatest poet in the world. The first poem such a child learned to recite, a poem in closed form, was typically William Wordsworth's 'I Wander Lonely as a Cloud' about those damn dancing daffodils.
Because of my history, the sonnet is a colonial inheritance that I cannot assume is mine at all and ever. There is always a gap, a paradox, an irony, between the form and me. I don't find this gap disempowering. Quite the opposite. The gap is extremely productive for my purposes. Not in the way of trying to close the gap by mastering the form, because any such attempt at mastery only underlines one's subalternity. No, I exploit the gap, the incommensurability, by dramatising it in the space of the sonnet. I will attempt to illustrate this by referring to two different sonnet sequences written five years apart.
The first sequence is made up of 30 sonnets, mostly written one a day in the month of April in 2005, just before I was about to graduate from the graduate writing programme at Sarah Lawrence College. It was a time of great insecurity for me. I had spent all my savings on the MFA. I was about to leave school without a job offer. I had to find a job in order to stay in the country. I was seeing someone and he did not want me to move in with him yet. To cope with these anxieties, I wrote the sonnets that made up my first book Payday Loans. Every poem is titled with a date and day.
The first quatrain states the problem of the sonnet – how does an immigrant become an American poet when America prefers the native-born? The second quatrain compounds the problem by adducing two reasons for such a preference. First, America has hurt its native-born poets into poetry. Second, native-born poets sing songs that reflect America to itself. Both reasons, obviously do not apply to those born and brought up elsewhere. The problem is further compounded for me because, unlike those brought to America at a very young age, I migrated to America at the ripe old age of 33. I have a history elsewhere, a history of growing up in Singapore, which is a country that most Americans cannot even locate on the map.
What the sonnet form does here is to dramatise the arguments against my acceptance, as indicated by the speaker's question in the first quatrain and his Heart's "reply" in the second quatrain. By acknowledging the objections, Heart brings them into the space of the sonnet and shows itself cognisant of the claims of reason and the emotions.
The turn of the sonnet laments, in a comically condescending manner, my difference from the native-born and the adopted poets, and introduces a third reason for why I should be accepted for what I bring: my famine. I am what Emma Lazarus described so famously as "the wretched refuse". Instead of coming by boat, I have come by more modern means, an airplane, but this updated mode of transportation carries its own risks, for instance, the risk of stalling in the air and landing in a crash. Heart should respond to heart, and let me in, the poem says.
At the time of writing the sonnet, I was literally inside America. I was living in the pretty village of Bronxville, the address that Sarah Lawrence College claims, instead of grittier Yonkers. Sonnet-wise, however, I am outside America, circling above the JFK airport, waiting desperately for permission to land. Precisely by being a closed form, the sonnet enacts the national boundaries from which I am excluded. The Petrarchan rhyme scheme is not evidence of my mastery of the sonnet form, but traces of my testing of the limits of American goodwill, like fingerprints one leaves on a glass wall.
The next poem, also from Payday Loans, is written after Frank O'Hara's Lunch Poems.
This is obviously a very different sonnet from the first one. It is not structured like an argument. Instead, it follows, or better still, parodies Frank O'Hara's personism, itself a parody of poetry manifestos. Looking at this poem, one of my teachers at Sarah Lawrence suggested that I free the poem from its sonnet straitjacket if I wish to write more freely, more like Frank. To do so, however, is to erase the point of the poem.
O'Hara could write his lunch poems so freely because he has a job, not just any job, but the highly coveted job of assistant curator at the highly prestigious Museum of Modern Art in New York. His freedom is possibly only because of his material conditions. Lunch Poems can be more accurately, if less poetically, described as Lunch-hour Poems. You can have a lunch hour only when you have a job. Otherwise, as in the case of the speaker of my poem, the whole day is one long lunch hour, one long, anxious, uncertain lunch hour, which is, after all, more limiting than liberating, as the sonnet form subtly indicates through loose iambic metre and slant rhymes.
The second sonnet sequence that I'd like to refer to was written five years later and published in my third book Seven Studies for a Self Portrait. My personal circumstances had changed for the better. I had a good teaching job in a private school in Manhattan. My school was sponsoring me for a green card. I was in a fulfilling relationship. The relative security encouraged me to look back upon my religious past with some critical distance and to consider what my life would have been like if I had not come out as a gay man.
Titled 'Bull Eclogues', the sequence of seven Petrarchan sonnets is spoken in the voice of Ted Haggard, once the President of the National Association of Evangelicals. Having preached against homosexuality, the white pastor was outed by white male sex worker Mike Jones for having paid for sex and drugs from Jones. In the sonnets, I imagined their meetings taking place in dingy motel rooms, and so the sonnet becomes that secret meeting place hidden and saved from the rest of the world.
I imagined the sexual encounter has the magical power to transform a tawdry room into the exotic island of Crete. It has the power to civilise the existential tumult inside oneself, because one must necessarily interact with the other person, developing rules, cultivating habits, nourishing morality. However, the encounter cannot civilise the world outside the hotel room because it is entirely predicated on staying within the room.
This divide between the inside and outside becomes its own theme in the fourth poem of the sequence.
Part of the poignancy here comes from the sonnet form. The typical speaker in a sonnet conveys a tone of great intimacy. They are a lover speaking to their beloved, a Petrarch speaking to his Laura. Here, the speaker is utterly unable to speak of his life outside to his beloved, just as he is utterly unable to speak of his beloved to his outside life. The sharp sense of self-division owes everything to the divisions of the sonnet into self-contained stanzas and, ultimately, self-contained lines.
When Haggard is outed by Jones, the sonnet charts Haggard's reactions in a series of diminishing spaces.
From the wide primetime report heard all over the country to the bewildered churches and their conference rooms, to the private grief of the home, to the refuge of the smoking den, and finally to the possible escape of a gun in a drawer. The change from quatrains to tercets mirrors the feeling of being cornered. To reinforce further the spatial progression, the rhymes recur in the same lines for each stanza. Being a tercet, the third stanza is of course missing the D rhyme. The suspended D rhyme returns in the very last line of the poem to close the poem like the click of the lid of a box, to borrow W.B. Yeats's metaphor.
The final poem of the sequence does not rely on rhyme but rather rely on word repetition to give an overpowering sense of claustrophobia. After being outed, Haggard denied being gay and chose to remain in the closet.
The whole sequence is loosely based on the myth of Pasiphae, the Cretan queen who fell in love with a sacred bull. To fulfil her desire for the creature, she had Daedalus the master-craftsman create a wooden cow into which she crept so that she could receive the consummation so devoutly to be wished. In my sonnet, Haggard is both Pasiphae and Daedalus since he creates the vehicle of both his fantasy and his imprisonment.
When Haggard enters his brazen bull, he enters it as if he is entering into his "core and case". That is perhaps not a bad description of the subaltern writer's paradoxical approach to the sonnet. On the one hand, he encounters the sonnet as the core, or centre, of a colonial tradition of poetry, and so he wears the form as a kind of ill-fitting case when he writes a sonnet. On the other hand, the core is the inedible remains of an apple, whereas the juicy case is what we do consume. The word "core" always implies one, whereas the term "case", as in its meanings of example, state and question, always implies many.
In other words, the sonnet represents the dead weight of tradition, which can always be revitalised into many things, nourishing and various. Whether we approach the sonnet in a spirit of pessimism or optimism or a mixture of both, the subaltern writer and the immigrant writer of colour cannot help but approach it with a knowing wariness.
QLRS Vol. 18 No. 2 Apr 2019