The Contemporary (African) American Sonnet

Catlett, Lucy, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Catlett, Lucy

“Poetry is inalienable from poetic tradition,” writes Hollis Robbins, just as readers and critics are inalienable from the traditions that shape us (5). Characterizing poetry as a technique of engagement with cultural inheritance, Robbins identifies the sonnet, a ‘received’ European form, as an enduring mode or “form of contention” for African American sonneteers as they grapple with two literary traditions at once. Thus, we readers are tasked with greeting the African American sonnet with two formal lineages in mind: on the one hand, the broader, eight-hundred year old Eurocentric tradition, originating with Shakespeare, Petrarch, Milton, and their European poet-descendants, and on the other, the African American sonnet tradition, which in the last century has proliferated more than a thousand sonnets (Robbins 7).
Just as sonneteers contend with tradition via the sonnet’s form, so students contend with the traditions they inherit and carry into undergraduate literature classrooms as future poets and critics. This course, moreover, is intended to provide prospective English and humanities majors with an opportunity to explore the English literary tradition alongside African American sonneteers, whose works contend with the sonnet form in contemporaneous political, social, and historical contexts.
Rather than ‘surveying’ the African American sonnet, this lower-level English Literature course addresses contemporary African American sonneteers in conversation with some of their literary forebears. Unit 1 of “The Contemporary (African) American Sonnet” introduces students to the sonnet form through the study of sonnets old and new. In Unit 2, students focus on close literary analysis of sonnet “crowns” by contemporary African American sonneteers. Practicing a “situated formalism,” to borrow Anthony Reeds’ phrasing, students examine the formal strategies that Unit 2 poets develop to engage cultural and historical circumstances that they navigate in their texts. Those collections include Kiki Petrosino’s “HappineSs” sequence from her collection White Blood, Natasha Trethewey’s sonnet sequence from Native Guard, Marilyn Nelson’s sonnet crown A Wreath for Emmett Till, and others. Finally, in Unit 3, we conclude with a deep dive into our most challenging text, Terrance Hayes’ collection American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, a complex and radically contemporary collection of sonnets written from 2017-2019.

MA (Master of Arts)
Contemporary Sonnets, Contemporary Poetry, Pedagogy
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