‘Sonnets and Para-Sonnets’: Stephen Guy-Bray on Glasshouses and Lyn Hejinian’s The Unfollowing

I’m very grateful to the lovely Stephen Guy-Bray, Professor, Department of English, University of British Columbia, for thoughtfully writing about two of Glasshouses’ poems—‘Proverbs’, ‘10.15 Saturday Night’—in his conference paper ‘Sonnets and Para-Sonnets’. Stephen also discusses Lyn Hejinian’s collection The Unfollowing: ‘a set, if not a sequence, of sonnets.’


‘Sonnets and Para-Sonnets’


Despite the antiquity and international range of the sonnet form, for English-language readers it is largely the case that sonnet = Shakespeare. We could also say that it is the case that sonnet = sonnet sequence, and even that sonnet = a highly restrictive poetic form. Despite being untrue or only partially true, these qualities of the sonnet have led many contemporary poets to try their hand at writing sonnets, or perhaps I should say at doing them, and also at undoing them. This is true of many poetic forms—the sestinas of Elizabeth Bishop and John Ashbery are obvious examples, as are the ghazals and pantoums of many contemporary poets—but I think that in recent years the sonnet has been the favoured form for poets who want to try their hand at forms. As well, in recent years, poets have turned to rewriting Shakespeare’s sonnets in one way or another: Jen Bervin’s Nets, for instance, Sharmila Cohen and Paul Legault’s The Sonnets: Rewriting and Translating Shakespeare, and D. Gilson’s Out of Sequence: The Sonnets Remixed. In this paper, however, I’m concerned with two contemporary poets who interrogate the sonnet form and (usually implicitly) its specifically Shakespearean legacy in ways that are less obviously indebted to the actual words of Shakespeare’s own sonnets.

The first is the American Lyn Hejinian, who in 2016 published The Unfollowing. This book consists of 77 poems, each of which has 14 lines, or rather units, as some units take up more than one line. In her preface, Hejinian draws attention to this fact:

An attentive, or perhaps merely line-counting, reader will come fairly quickly to the conclusion that “The Unfollowing” is a set, if not a sequence, of sonnets. This wouldn’t be inaccurate—or it would be entirely so. The poems are all fourteen lines long, and I did most certainly have the sonnet in mind when I decided to adhere to a fourteen-line constraint. But at the conclusion of a proper sonnet, regardless of whatever residual ambiguities remain, something like a resolution is achieved. Sonnets are the summit of logicality (9).

It will be apparent to any attentive (and line-counting) reader of sonnets that her characterization is inaccurate. In order to write her collection of poems that invoke the sonnet form, Hejinian is apparently obliged to resist the form by defining it in this tendentious way. In this formulation, the sonnet form can only be a “constraint,” and not in an erotic sense. To some extent, of course, the history of the sonnet is the history of resisting the form, but Hejinian’s version of this seems especially contemporary.

Perhaps one reason for her ambivalence about the sonnet is suggested by the first line of one of the poems: “According to one theory of the novel, narrative is a man’s piano at which a woman sits” (38.1). It is certainly true that despite the many distinguished women who have written sonnets, and despite the many homoerotic sonnets that men have written, the sonnet has primarily been a genre in which men talk at and about women, but rarely to them. Hejinian’s book is primarily addressed to women, and often, and very movingly, to women who have died—the “unfollowing” of the book’s title. Insofar as the book could be said to be about anything then (or any one thing), it is about the bonds between women, something rarely covered in the sonnet. I would say that from one point of view, The Unfollowing is less a collection that subverts the formal qualities and operation of the sonnet than it is a collection that subverts the androcentric qualities of the sonnet. Although the book has no characters as such—there is certainly no equivalent to the young man or the dark lady, for instance—men do appear in the collection often and in a number of ways, but women’s concerns seem paramount here.

In order to resist what she sees as the confining logic of the sonnets, Hejinian made another decision: “The fourteen-line constraint was not the only one I imposed on the making of the poems. I also required myself to build them with non-sequiturs” (9). Here is a representative passage:


That March morning spotlight fell, felt, can’t field, can’t follow

Smaller as some days get, they may be inextricable from the bigger ones

I haven’t written the faintest idea (59.1-4)

In these lines we can see many of the hallmarks of the collection: the first line gives us direct address without telling us who is being addressed, the second line starts out as a sentence (perhaps even a sentence addressed to “Sir”) but is quickly derailed by the poet’s playing with homophony, and the fourth line suggests that Hejinian’s poetry is not a poetry of communication. It is the third line of this excerpt that is most interesting to me now. In the idea of items in a series (in this case a chronological one) being impossible to separate from each other, I believe that she gestures towards the idea that her poems can be read as a series—or, as we might say, a sonnet sequence. And while the lines do not follow each other logically, to read The Unfollowing is to be struck by the recurrence of certain words, images, and topics: the individual poems may indeed by baffling compared to an individual sonnet by Shakespeare, but the sequence holds together to some extent. In refusing what she sees as the rigour of the sonnet, Hejinian has found a new way to create a familiar kind of text.

While Hejinian’s book can be read as a sequence of some kind, Stuart Barnes’ Glasshouses is clearly composed of discrete poems. Nevertheless, there are a number of unifying elements, in particular his emphasis on form. In her blurb for the book, the Australian poet Jessica L. Wilkinson writes of “Barnes’ meticulous bowerbird poetics.” Wilkinson draws attention to the extent to which Barnes’ poems are often created out of other poems, whether literally—as in the case of the five centos he includes—or more metaphorically, as in his use of sonnet form and of quotations. While The Unfollowing privileges the sonnet form (explicitly so in Hejinian’s preface), in Glasshouses the sonnet is only one form among many that Barnes plays with, just as the lines of other people’s poetry that make up all of the centos are only one kind of quotation among the many others—conversation, texts, brand names, place names—that fill the book. A number of poems seem like sonnets (sonnet adjacent?) in a number of ways; for this paper, I’ll look at two fourteen-line poems, each of which not only resembles a sonnet but can in some ways be read as a comment on sonnets.

The first poem of his I’ll look at is “Proverbs.” I see this as a poem about adaptation or perhaps rather a series of examples of how adaptation can work. Proverbs are by definition both old and impersonal. Adapting proverbs, as Barnes does 14 times in this poem, provides an object lesson in making what might seem like constrained and constraining forms more flexible. Barnes’ self-imposed task here recalls Adrienne Rich’s conclusion to her “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning”: “To do something very common, in my own way” (18).  While Rich’s poem foregrounds adaptation chiefly in its title, Barnes’ poem gives us adaptation in every line and in the form of the poem itself: not only does the poem have 14 lines, but it is also laid out on the page in the form of a Petrarchan sonnet, with two quatrains and two tercets. Each of the lines of the poem gives us a familiar proverb with one term changed to a literary one: for example, in the first line Barnes takes the proverb “A fish always stinks from the head down” and replaces “head” with “elegy”—a particularly suitable change as the basis for the proverb is the changes wrought by death.

What particularly interests me in the context of this essay are two of the lines that I see as tacit commentaries on Shakespeare (I should perhaps mention that I know from personal communication with the author that for him, as for so many of us, his introduction to sonnets was through Shakespeare). The first of these lines is “Love of the couplet’s the root of all evil” (5). This is a joke with serious implications. If we keep in mind that “the couplet” replaces “money” we could see the couplet, which ends the sonnet in the form invented by the Earl of Surrey and used by Shakespeare, as the money shot of the sonnet: the thing that signals an ending. What is more, we can also read this line as a comment on Shakespeare’s own sonnets specifically. A final couplet can certainly be a useful way to wrap up a sonnet, but far too many of Shakespeare’s sonnets end with a couplet that simply contradicts what has gone before—a kind of surprise ending that ceases to be a surprise very early on in his sequence: after twelve lines in which the speaker bemoans his cruel fate, we get two lines that provide some version of “but then I remember I have you and I’m happy again.” My point is not that Shakespeare’s sonnets are not good (and often great) but rather that, as Barnes can be taken to suggest, his reliance on the couplet is a serious problem in the sequence as a whole. I would argue that Barnes also hints at this in the final line: “From little poems mini-series go.” While this is most obviously a reference to television shows, we can also read it as a comment on the self-perpetuating nature of the sonnet sequence, a kind of poem that seems difficult to stop writing.

“10.15 Saturday Night” is very different. It also has fourteen lines, and can thus be considered a sonnet-like object, but it is much more informal. At the end of line four the word “Grindr” introduces a blank space and thus the poem is set up as an English sonnet with three quatrains and a final couplet. The intrusion of the gay sex app turns this poem into a sonnet, although in each quatrain the first and fourth lines do not rhyme while the second and third do. Barnes uses a new font to separate the speaker’s thoughts from the conversation on Grindr:

trills    Bud what ya into    Familiar thrill.

in general? in bed?            Whatevs HAHA

proving his youth. I thumb Olds’ “Bruise Ghazal.”

write, edit, cook, swim, dance; vers    Goosepimples:

The “thrill” that the response to his profile elicits almost rhymes with the word “trills” that describes the sound that Grindr makes. In contrast, the rhyme in this quatrain (“HAHA” and “Ghazal”) is only a partial rhyme; it is significant that the title of Olds’ poem—the only high cultural reference in the poem (as opposed to the high cultural reference of the sonnet form itself) disrupts the rhyming we have come to expect. There is no place for the speaker’s literary interests in the context of a conversation on the apps. The speaker’s listing of what he’s into is mainly non-sexual: he writes, edits, cooks, swims, and dances. Separated from these interests by a semi-colon is “vers,” which simultaneously answers the sexual part of his interlocutor’s question by saying that he is sexually versatile, but of course this is also the French word for poetry. The encounter with the stranger on Grindr is not going to happen, but perhaps writing and reading poetry might also be sex acts.

Displeased with the speaker’s answer, the anonymous man lashes out: “You sound SO fucking GAY.” It is not clear whether the verb is meant literally or metaphorically: does the speaker’s voice sound gay or do the speaker’s interests make him appear gay (or, in the context of the sex app, “too gay”)? In any case, this offensive comment returns the speaker to the past—“nearly / a rehash of the torment of high school”—and then leads him to a general conclusion. This conclusion begins in the third quatrain itself with the words “It’s immense, the fear,” words that would function perfectly well as a conclusion but instead lead to the final, and rhyming, couplet: “of gay men. The rage it creates. The sorrow. / To crash tonight’s to burn tomorrow.” The stanza break between “the fear” and “of gay men” forces us to consider how to take these words or, if you prefer, what kind of couplet they are. Does Barnes mean what we call homophobia—that is, bigotry against gay people? Or does he mean the fear that gays feel with regard to homophobes or other gay men or perhaps even themselves? All these readings are possible and none is foreclosed by the poem itself.

There is a further uncertainty in the couplet. Its first line refers to the “rage” and “sorrow” caused by this fear, but I think the poem’s final line is a comment on the story that the poem as a whole tells. On the one hand, to crash and then to burn is a familiar and basic narrative of disaster, and the speaker has clearly failed to impress his interlocutor. On the other hand, as it is already 10.15 at night and this particular Grindr conversation is clearly going nowhere, the speaker could also be understood as suggesting that he will just go to bed—“crash”. But, of course, if he just goes to bed, he will burn tomorrow, and so perhaps back to Grindr and the attempt to find someone. In other words, while “10.15 Saturday Night” seems to give us a picture of a particular and discrete moment, it is also a scene that has probably occurred before and will probably occur again. That is, we can see this poem as potentially part of a sonnet sequence, a form, as Shakespeare can be said to demonstrate, that hints that stasis may itself be a narrative. As well, sonnets may be their own reward. In blurring the lines between sexual and poetic activity, Barnes sets up a consolation for the lack of sexual success that the poem recounts, a consolation that is arguably implicit in almost all the sonnet sequences ever written, and certainly in the most famous ones.

“10.15 Saturday Night” thus lends itself to being seen as part of a sequence, or at least it sets up the right conditions for a sonnet sequence—or, as Barnes said in “Proverbs,” a “mini-series.’ But by the end of the poem the poet Barnes most resembles is perhaps not Shakespeare or any of the other sonneteers of the sixteenth century but rather (to me, at least) Hart Crane. Towards the end of his early poem “Porphyro in Akron,’ Crane comments ruefully that “in this town, poetry’s a / Bedroom occupation” (60-1). Crane means both that poetry is something that can only be done in private (in contrast with the highly uncongenial work that had taken the young Crane to Akron) but also that poetry is something that happens in bedrooms because it is like sex. As I have argued, the speaker’s responses to the man on Grindr blur the lines among the different kinds of things the speaker is “into” and, in particular, between poetry and sex. Perhaps writing (and reading) poetry can deliver something that, in this poem at any rate, a sex app cannot: a happy ending.


Works Cited

Barnes, Stuart. Glasshouses. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2016.

Crane, Hart. Complete Poems of Hart Crane. Ed. Marc Simon. New York: Liveright, 1986.

Hejinian, Lyn. The Unfollowing. Oakland: Omnidawn, 2016.

Rich, Adrienne. The Fact of A Doorframe: Poems Selected and New 1950-1984. New York: W.W. Norton, 1984.

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