“This resonant, strange, vaulting roof”: Contemporary Sonnets Beyond Iambic Pentameter
When poets speak of breaking the form of the sonnet, which some do fairly often of late, one implication is that the form is inflexible and, thus, brittle—any little shift will shatter it. The phrase also connotes a violence that can read as gendered: it can suggest that the form is merely a vessel the poet pours his genius into, and that it turns out genius needs no vessel, or looks better in one that is broken, coerced, or violated. I’m more interested in poets’ radical expansions on the form—in shifts that enlarge or transform the sonnet but leave its form felt. Rather than attempting to break the vessel, a number of contemporary poets are employing less-than-usual materials for its construction. Among the most exciting of these, to my ear, are meters other than iambic pentameter.
Antony Easthope, in Poetry as Discourse, calls English poetic discourse since the Renaissance, and by extension iambic pentameter, “an epochal form, co-terminous with the capitalist mode of production and the hegemony of the bourgeoisie as the ruling class” (24). In a poetic context in which most metrical work is still overwhelmingly iambic—and in a sociopolitical context in which labor and leisure are still overwhelmingly defined and confined by capitalist structures—noniambic materials surprise. They may make room for radical modes of being and saying, a possibility realized by US poets from Langston Hughes to Edna St. Vincent Millay to Patricia Smith. They make it possible to think and feel with the sonnet in new ways, and they help in exploring vital subject matter: expanding traditions of storytelling, addressing issues of race and gender, inhabiting new, or old but newly found, ways of inhabiting the world. A feminist reading might consider these shifts not just as expansions but as alterations, or repairs—(a)mending an object toward a new purpose, or longer usefulness. Here I’ll briefly consider four examples from US sonnet makers, each in a different meter, each offering distinct possibilities for the form.
Annie Finch’s noniambic sonnets, along with her extensive, groundbreaking scholarship on meter, open new possibilities for expressing women’s power and vulnerabilities through the form. In “Wild Yeasts,” from her 2003 collection Calendars, she uses dactylic pentameter to suggest the energy and mystery of making bread—a biological process humans use for our purposes but that feels, indeed, wild, mysterious, not entirely within our ken. The poem does not tell us much in the way of setting, but it privileges a single speaker kneading a single loaf of bread to be shared—a solitary act of craft that will lead to communion. Though this work might be done with iambs, the sprawl and spill of Finch’s dactyls allow the “breath of the wildest yeast” to “roar.”
Rhymewise, the poem has three quatrains and a final couplet, but its stanzas are divided as a Petrarchan sonnet. The sestet begins with a question:
How could I send quiet through this resonant, strange, vaulting roof
murmuring, sounding with spores and the long-simple air,
and the bright free road moving?
The answer is action: “I sing as I terrace a loaf / out of my hands it has filled like a long-answered prayer” (11–12). I hope readers will forgive me for hearing not only a bread-making but a poem-making argument here. “[T]his resonant, strange, vaulting roof / murmuring, sounding with spores and the long-simple air, / and the bright free road moving” feels like an apt description of metrical work, revealing it to be less constraint to be followed or broken by the poet than process, voyage, substance, transformation. To “send quiet,” the poem implies, needs singing; meter requires the interplay of soft spaces and stresses, beats and offbeats.
Another argument this poem (and many others) make for metrical patterning: having gotten off to an earnest start, within the song, there’s room to mess around. In the final line of “Wild Yeasts,” the position of refracts as an iambic substitution embodies its meaning—the rhythm turns back, much as the instant of eating the bread will recall its making. In the last two feet, like the dough, the meter rises: “Now the worshipping savage cathedral our mouths make will lace / death and its food, in the moment that refracts this place.”
In his Spenserian sonnet “Doppelgangbanger,” first published in Ecotone and the title poem of his 2021 collection, Cortney Lamar Charleston uses long lines of falling meter to evoke a teenager’s rebellion against received ideas about how Black men should be in the world, and a mother’s concern for her son’s safety. The poem’s flexible mix of trochaic and dactylic meter, in lines of mostly seven beats, allows a conversational beginning that places us immediately in the scene of the speaker’s memory: “Fox Valley Mall, technically in Aurora, attracts slightly / rougher edges—ya mans right here, stoners, guapo boys / and black . . .” The rhyme scheme enhances the poem’s energetic metrical moves, shifting effortlessly between falling and rising rhyme: in the first quatrain, for instance, slightly / boys / lightly / decoy.
Regular trochees (with an implied offbeat after “this”) in short, snappy sentences reinforce the strictures of the advice the speaker receives from a mall cop he encounters with his mom: “Straighten this. Pull up that. E-NUN-CI-ATE. I peep his ploy” (7). Briefly the speaker inhabits this same meter, before returning to more complex patterns for his (internal) retort: “But I don’t need telling. If I’m a stereotype, / I be branded Sony, Bose—not some shit Zenith did” (10–11).
The penultimate line moves into anapestic pentameter, a brief interlude in rising rhythm that heightens the return to falling meter that follows. And the final line’s rapid, almost-dipodic trochaic septameter lends even more weight to the poem’s devastating conclusion: “yet still, mom looks like she wants to light flame to my hide; / she don’t want me stunting as some stat been shot and died.” The hero of this poem’s heroic couplet is not the speaker but his mother, her anger with and fear for her son as poignant as his razor-sharp evocation of those feelings.
Anapests are sometimes said to rollick. Whether I like this I’m not sure; it suggests an absolute about their character that elides their more-subtle qualities. Anna Maria Hong’s “Nude Palette,” from her 2020 collection Fablesque, begins in anapestic tetrameter: “What a muse, what a mess, this state of undress . . .” An unfamiliar phrase in a familiar cadence quickly becomes a familiar lament, the meter and near-rhyme setting up less an opposition than a transformation. Hong’s anapests catapult us into a plethora of -ess rhymes, both internal and at line ends; their effect is less rollick than overwhelm, in which the speaker nonetheless remains in control of the narrative.
The combined effect is of excess, a chaos that’s both fertile and, possibly, more than the speaker can easily bear. “[A]n embarrassment of purchase, promise,” the eighth line puts it, shifting chameleonlike in the direction of iambs before diving back into triple meter in the next line: “Hello, virtuoso, you had me at emo.” Here the rhyme shifts too, into a surfeit of o’s. The ess returns only in the final line of the poem, where it envelops (clothes?) the o’s: “. . . en masse, in toto. Oh, no. Say yes.” The poem might seem to have abandoned its anapests here at the end, but it has only raised the stakes. The pause after “en masse,” and the parallel pause after “Oh, no,” take the place of unstressed syllables, emphasizing the drama of the poem’s conclusion, and allowing the last four syllables to hold even more weight. In those final two feet, the contrast, or transformation, or two-things-true-at-once, echoes the juxtaposition of the poem’s first two feet. The pause after “no” reinforces the shift from no to yes, even as it affirms each inclination.
Chad Abushanab’s ballad sonnets—a form that without question wins the Best Spoonerism prize—move in the tradition of Gwendolyn Brooks’s “the sonnet-ballad,” telling their brief, piercing stories with iambic tetrameter rather than Brooks’s pentameter. In Abushanab's poem “Here on Earth,” the meter combines with abab quatrains and plain, clear syntax and vocabulary to suggest, also, a relation to Robert Frost. “The field behind our house tonight,” the poet begins,
reminds me of an empty bed,
with drifts of snow like wrinkled sheets
and shadows where you laid your head.
The tetrameter’s quiet regularity helps portray a speaker whose understatement only makes their grief clearer. In pentameter we might feel a more conversational tone, one more confident or explanatory; here the speaker measures out words and phrases as if counting sheep, or days. In the fifth line, the first metrical substitution—a spondee that in a louder poem might barely register—suggests the speaker’s desperation: “A month and six days since you left . . .”
This poem also plays with the heightened possibilities for interaction between sentence and line that a shorter-than-pentameter line can allow. The first stanza is a single sentence. The next two lines comprise one sentence, after which follows the shortest sentence yet: “Sleep won’t come.” That acephalous iamb reads as a little joke by a speaker who’s being kept up by their thoughts.
The tetrameter also makes possible a brilliant enjambment before the poem’s final line. In a pentameter frame, the penultimate line would read, “and brace myself to face the numb white space . . .” But the tetrameter pushes “white space” off the cliff, conferring extra emphasis on “numb.” This makes possible a quietly heartbreaking caesura after “white space,” after which the poem turns from its view of the field outside to the empty bed inside: “and brace myself to face the numb / white space, the bed you’re missing from.” Abushanab’s final couplet, two feet shy of heroic, is one for an age of antiheroes.
In a brief survey, it is possible to suggest just a few of the modes that meters beyond iambic make room for. Rooted in oral tradition, and showing up in poems whose authors are keenly aware of the ways a poem on the page is embodied through speech or signing, these meters call us toward poetic ways of being that are variously interior, collaborative, inquisitive, incisive, and—okay, yes—rollicking. Inhabiting our bodies, they move us to new understanding, enhancing their poems’ complex subject matter. As we continue to enlarge and amend the sonnet, work like this stands as an invitation to make new metrical experiments.
Chad Abushanab. “Here on Earth.” Ecotone 28, vol. 15.1 (fall/winter 2019): 128.
Cortney Lamar Charleston. “Doppelgangbanger.” Ecotone 24, vol. 13.1 (fall/winter 2017): 33.
Antony Easthope. Poetry As Discourse. Abingdon, UK: Taylor & Francis, 2013. 24.
Annie R. C. Finch. “Wild Yeasts.” Calendars. North Adams, MA: Tupelo Press, 2003. 70.
Anna Maria Hong. “Nude Palette.” Fablesque. North Adams, MA: Tupelo Press, 2020. 35.
Anna Lena Phillips Bell is the author of Ornament, winner of the Vassar Miller Poetry Prize; A Pocket Book of Forms, a guide to poetic forms; and the chapbook Smaller Songs, from St. Brigid Press. Her poems appear in 32 Poems, Five Points, the Southern Review, and Subtropics. The recipient of a North Carolina Arts Council Fellowship in literature, she has served since 2013 as the editor of Ecotone. She teaches in the creative writing department at UNC Wilmington, and calls ungendered Appalachian square dances in North Carolina and beyond.