Asymmetrically Self-Reflexive, by Jesse Sutherland

Asymmetrically Self-Reflexive, by Jesse Sutherland

About the Author:

Last semester, I took a poetry course taught by Kate Hall. Every class, she would have fun and creative activities prepared, which gave me the opportunity to reflect on and discuss various poems in a comfortable and engaging environment. Being in Pure and Applied Science, I am interested in science and math, and that’s what I’ll be studying in university, but I’ve always loved creative writing as well. I have lots of stories to tell, and now I’m trying some poetry too.

Jesse Sutherland
Prof. Kate Hall
English 102: Literary Genres

Asymmetrically Self-Reflective

The sonnet has been described as a form of poetry “that turn[s] and sp[eaks] to itself” (Levin xl), almost as if it were alive and had a mind of its own. One unique trait that all sonnets share is the presence of a volta: a point in the sonnet where its meaning shifts dramatically. The volta is traditionally marked by a change in rhyme scheme or a physical space delimiting two stanzas, but its appearance and location in the poem varies amongst both traditional and contemporary sonnet forms. The specific form that will be referenced in this essay is known as the Petrarchan form, which situates its volta between the first eight lines, called the octet, and the last six, the sestet. This essay aims to explore the ways in which the sonnet embodies an active thought process, which shifts and evolves throughout the poem. The sonnet’s distinctive, asymmetrical structure and its dynamic nature allow the speaker to interrupt their initial train of thought—and view their situation from a new perspective. This liberation from old patterns can turn the sonnet into an instrument for critical thinking and deep reflection. In this exploration, two contemporary sonnets will be analyzed: “Unholy Sonnets” by Mark Jarman, which creates tension through its structural asymmetry, and “First Alzheimer’s Sonnet” by Marilyn Nelson, which features a fascinating parallel between its thematic elements and the process embodied by the sonnet.

“Unholy Sonnets” by Mark Jarman embodies the tension that exists in the speaker’s relationship with their Christian faith. This tension, created by the striking structural asymmetry of the poem and significantly intensified by the poet’s word choice, ultimately erupts at the volta, forcing the speaker to shift their perspective and reflect on their initially passive situation. Structurally, “Unholy Sonnets” follows the traditional Petrarchan form: the sonnet starts with the regular rhyming pattern abba abba in the octet, which shifts into a completely new rhyming pattern cde cde in the sestet. This sudden shift in the rhyme scheme—the volta—breaks the speaker’s initial train of thought and starts a new one. Indeed, the volta moves the speaker from a passive observation of Christian rites to an active reflection on whether all his praying truly does anything to remedy the guilt he feels. Interestingly, “Unholy Sonnets” also features a visual shift. The starting letters of the first seven lines follow the pattern AAO AAO A; the pattern breaks at the eighth line and becomes irregular in the remaining lines of poem. This visual contrast creates tension between the octet and sestet. However, possibly the most powerful source of tension in this sonnet is the repetition of the word “after” in the octet, in phrases such as “After the praying, after the hymn-singing” (Jarman 1). Essentially, these phrases describe the speaker’s experience in church: the prayers, the sermon, and communion. Yet, the word “after” tells the readers that this situation precedes another. It is the ‘before’—an ‘after’ is implied—so we know something is coming. Furthermore, the repetition of “after” gives the octet a certain rhythm, a certain pattern to its phrases, a pattern that, combined with the tension created, is waiting to be broken. So, we read in anticipation, the tension held over the entire octet, culminating in its last two lines: “And how the light swords through it [the church], and how, scary / In their sheer numbers, motes of dust ride, clinging—” (7-8). Basically, the speaker experiences a moment of awareness at the end of communion. The two images “light” and “sword[]” (7) create a sense of abrupt awakening, and the depiction of the dust as “scary” (7) reveals that the speaker is feeling a vague sense of fear or doubt. The tension is pushed to its peak in these two lines because preceding it are already six phrases that begin with “after”; now the speaker drags it on with two additional phrases beginning with “and how”. With so much build-up of tension, it’s almost like the sonnet is about to explode, forcing to break free from the initial pattern. Moreover, all these phrases are grammatically part of the same sentence, one that hasn’t even ended yet! In fact, almost the entire sonnet is part of the same sentence, which could be cut down to: “After the praying, … There is … one stubborn remnant of your cares / Intact” (1-14). Reading the octet out loud, one would certainly be out of breath by the end. Fortunately, the long dash creates the space to take a breath before finishing the sentence. Rather than completing the sentence in one go, along the same train of thought, the sonnet is given a moment to breathe, contemplate the situation, and resume along a different track. Indeed, the sestet starts off as if it were addressing a totally different subject, talking about “doctors” and “pain” (9). The phrasing is different too: instead of “after” it’s now, “There is” (9, 13). Following the volta, the speaker approaches the discussion from a critical angle. They have made a connection between guilt and pain, coming to the realization that, just like prayer does nothing to remove pain, any ‘forgiveness’ given by the church does nothing to remedy the guilt they feel. Therefore, it is only through the change in perspective made possible by the escalating tension and dramatic shift that the speaker is able to deepen their reflection and complete their thought process.

“First Alzheimer’s Sonnet” by Marilyn Nelson is an example of a sonnet that does not follow a traditional form, yet still accomplishes asymmetry in its own unique way. The poem plays the thematic elements of “thought” and “sense” (Nelson 3), two ideas which unexpectedly portray the process employed by sonnets. The speaker uses these two concepts to express their struggle with Alzheimer’s, painting a picture of swimming in a sea sensory information, where—unable to hold on to thoughts for very long—the only thoughts are those of the immediate present. In terms of form, “First Alzheimer’s Sonnet” doesn’t follow any traditional sonnet form, as it is largely free of rhymes. Even so, a volta exists after the first eight lines. The octet is mainly descriptive and is filled with vivid imagery, using evocative words and metaphors such as: “wave,” “membrane labyrinth” (1), and “mushrooms” (2). Then, in the last six lines, the focus completely shifts from the speaker’s senses to the formation of a thought. Pushing the meaning further, the speaker makes an interesting comparison in the octet. As the speaker’s “thought disappears from sense” (3), they describe this moment as similar to “the vapor trail of a skeptic’s awe” (4). In other words, the speaker’s thoughts are slipping away from their consciousness, leaving them to sensations alone. The speaker’s memory loss is depicted by a “vapor trail”— a white streak of steam left behind by an airplane, which quickly fades against the sky. Intriguing is the poet’s choice of the word “skeptic”—someone who doubts, a critical thinker—given that the sonnet form itself can be used as a tool for critical reflection. The archetype of the logical skeptic does not feel “awe” for very long; hence, the speaker compares their loss of memory to a skeptic’s lack of emotion. Not only does this image contribute to the sensory nature of the octet, but it also reveals a parallel between the theme of forgetting and the sonnet’s form. There being no thought, no reflection, and only sensation in the octet; it is fortunate that a sestet follows, providing the speaker with an opportunity to find their thought and voice it. Whereas their “thought disappears” (3) in the octet, in the sestet “a thought forms” (10), allowing them to reflect on their condition. The speaker muses:

What if for a brief moment the flame burns
higher, as a thought forms of you, my dear,
then psses back into oblivion? (9-11)

In other words, the flame, which can be interpreted as the spreading Alzheimer’s disease, is reaching deeper into the speaker’s mind and touching more intimate memories. The “What if” encapsulates the new possibility that comes after the volta, yet there is also a risk. Passing into the speaker’s consciousness is the brief thought of a person, whom the speaker calls “my dear”— a loved one. The speaker has a strong attachment to this person, and this blossoming thought is a chance to remember them. However, the hopeful tone of this possibility is tainted by the word “oblivion” and the onomatopoeia “psses” (sic)—a painful reminder to the speaker that their thoughts can dissipate as easily as air can escape through the thinnest of cracks. Every time the speaker remembers their loved one, they are also remembering that they’ll one day forget them. This is the risk that comes alongside the introspective capabilities of the volta. Reflecting on a problem often also implies being faced with the hard truths in life, being faced with the possibility that there is no resolution to the problem. In the end, the speaker bitterly asks, “Forget you?” and adamantly follows it with, “Never” (14). Memory loss having previously been compared to the lack of emotion of skeptic (due to their critical attitude), we can take the speaker’s resolve to mean that they are turning away from a critical view of the world. In the sestet of this sonnet, the speaker finds a resolution to their condition not through critical reflection but through the emotion they feel towards their loved one. Their love for this person runs so deep that they have the confidence and assurance that their loved one will always be a part of them, whether they remember them in the immediate present or not. Therefore, the process undertaken by “First Alzheimer’s Sonnet” not only passes from sensation to thought, but also finds its way to emotion, moving past the pitfalls of seeing the world through the lens of scrutiny.

A sonnet’s thought process can be described as a movement from sensations and observations to thought, questioning and reflection,the essence of which is beautifully captured by Marilyn Nelson in “First Alzheimer’s Sonnet.” This thought process is driven by three concepts that are at play within a sonnet: asymmetry, tension, and freedom. The asymmetry within a sonnet, whether it be from a break in rhyme scheme or a shift in focus, makes room for freedom. Asymmetry also creates tension, a powerful force that pushes to break free from initially set patterns. Furthermore, there are existing tensions implicit to the themes addressed by sonnets, as Mark Jarman masterfully demonstrates in “Unholy Sonnets,” where the tension between the speaker and their faith is pushed to its breaking point. These tensions give poets the desire to create asymmetry—in other words, to create a space for freedom. Self-reflection and introspection are skills that many of us may find valuable at certain points in our lives. In these moments, we may turn to sonnets,look inside, and see our reflection.

Works Cited

Jarman, Mark. “Unholy Sonnets.” The New Criterion, vol. 2, no. 8, April 1993, par. II, Accessed 12 December 2021.

Levin, Phillis. The Penguin Book of the Sonnet. New York, Penguin, 2001.

Nelson, Marilyn. “First Alzheimer’s Sonnet.” Black Poetry and the Politics of Black Writing, special issue of Obsidian III, vol. 5, no.1, 2004, pp. 40.

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