Review of Jailbreaks: 99 Canadian Sonnets in The Pacific Rim Review of Books 11, Spring 2009
Shall I Compare Thee to a Beaver's Pelt?
Poets writing in English have had a long and unlikely love affair with the sonnet.
The form probably originated among the French troubadours of the twelfth century,
but was appropriated and revised by Italian poets of the early Renaissance. The most
illustrious of these, Francesco Petrarca, overlaid on the form's fourteen-line structure
and rigid rhyme scheme a rich lexicon of metaphors for the ironies of love. Petrarchan
love is a sickness, a wound, an inspiration, a battle, a delight, and an agony;
it is both cosmic and private, both life-giving and fatal. Formally and thematically,
the sonnet has always entailed a fine balance of opposites.
Not coincidentally, its established combination of brevity, rigor, and paradox makes
the sonnet the most difficult of fixed forms. Because it captures energy within
strict convention, the form compels the poet to dance nimbly in chains. For obvious
reasons, the transmutation of Italian sensibilities into the syntax and idiom of
English poetry was not achieved without strain. In fact, it is arguable that the
enthusiastic adoption of the sonnet form in the 1590s by such poets as Wyatt, Surrey,
and Sidney, did more to revolutionize English prosody and poetics than it did to
transform the sonnet itself.
Nevertheless, as Zachariah Wells declares in his Introduction to this small anthology,
"a good poet can take liberties-often outrageous ones-with a sonnet's structure,
without destroying the sonnet's essence." By choosing the title "Jailbreaks," a
figure borrowed from Margaret Avison's "Snow," one of the gems of the volume, Wells
draws attention to the irresistible lure of writing against the constraints of form.
Such is the essence of inventiveness, and as many examples in this collection testify,
Canadian poets have used the sonnet inventively almost from the beginning. Even
the traditionalists like Charles G.D. Roberts, Archibald Lampman, and Duncan Campbell
Scott are here represented with works that do something new, and specifically Canadian,
with the sonnet.
At the other end of the spectrum are poets whose variations on the form are recognizable
as such only with careful attention to the nuances of structure. In a self-reflexive
use of the sonnet patter, Don Coles's twenty-line "Sampling from a Dialogue" describes
the way a couple's inability to collaborate on "a new line" brings about the collapse
of the relationship. Gerry Gilbert pushes formal constraints in the opposite direction
with the thirty-four-word sonnet, "Bannock," while preserving just the faintest
whisper of the conventional interlocking rhymes. Ken Babstock then makes the intricate
rhyme scheme of the Shakespearean sonnet look like a game, as he delivers he whole
in the voice of a hockey player in the penalty box. And there are dozens more well-chosen
poems which flirt or quarrel with the sonnet form, even as they keep it alive.
Jailbreaks is not a textbook. Perhaps in an effort to distance himself from the
tendency of academics to fossilize things that are still alive, Wells has imposed
no discernible order on his ninety-nine selections. The absence of method makes
for some terrific juxtapositions: Joshua Trotter appears alongside Molly Peacock,
for example, pondering abstractions such as "the way grammar employs the onrush
of language," while Peacock stubbornly examines the "dreams, brains, fur, and guts"
of a very concrete dead possum-a synecdoche for "what we are." Then there's Irving
Layton sharing a two-page spread with E.A. Lacey. Layton is off in Las Vegas playing
blackjack with death, while Lacey, in his revision of Frost's "The Gift Outright,"
stays home to contemplate the Canadian Shield as the source of our puritanical and
self-torturing national ethos. These are two sides of the same coin, perhaps.
On the other hand, the collection's methodological randomness is somewhat undercut
by the thirty-odd pages of notes on the poems tucked away at the end of the volume.
Not that Wells waxes professorial here; on the contrary, his annotations are decidedly
jaunty-but they do invite the matching up of artifact and analysis normally associated
with interpretation and study. Hesitating somewhere between kaleidoscope and categorization,
Wells is evidently prepared to take the mild risk of perplexing the pedantic reader.
But that, too, is part of the balancing act. Poetical "reason," as the mercurial
Philip Sidney remarked, "wouldst needs fight both with love and sense." Of course:
that is the struggle that produces the sonnet.
Hilary Turner teaches English and Rhetoric at the University of the Fraser Valley.