When people tell me that they hate poetry, I recommend that they read Billy Collins. His work is accessible, fun, and light in tone–but often with hidden depths waiting for you to fall into.
Today, I’ll look at Collins’ “American Sonnet,” a whimsical take on modern conventions of expressing love.
Here, Collins is doing what he does best: pointing out the poetic in the ordinary. What was once just a postcard is now an American Sonnet, a love poem for our time.
When you think about it, there are quite a few similarities between sonnets and picture postcards. Both require that you condense your feelings into a pre-set format, and they have certain conventions that govern them. As Collins points out, you must say you’re having fun, describe the weather, and say “Wish you were here!” if you intend to write a postcard. If you intend to write a traditional sonnet, you must use iambic pentameter and position rhymes at the end of each of your fourteen lines, in either the Petrarchan or Elizabethan rhyme scheme. Postcards and sonnets can easily become trite and mushy, like the kind that Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 (alluded to in line 9) parodies.
That’s the thing about anything with a lot of conventions: it gets old after a while. Not that conventions are necessarily bad–there are plenty of good sonnets that have 14 lines, follow iambic pentameter and an Elizabethan rhyme scheme, have a volta at line 8, and talk about love. But inevitably, writers resort to the same turns of phrase and metaphors (such as “eyes like the sun”), until someone needs to shake things up. Maybe someone needs to write a “Sonnet on his Blindness” instead of on his girlfriend. Or maybe, someone needs to write about “God’s Grandeur” and use sprung rhythm instead of iambic pentameter.
Is it time that someone challenged the conventions of the American Sonnet? Instead of writing about the place pictured on the front of the postcard, should we write a stream-of-consciousness narrative from the point of view of a paper clip on the desk? Instead of wishing you were here, should we wish that you were somewhere pretty close to here, but not actually right here because it’s kind of stinky?
Do people even still write postcards? I know I never do. It’s much easier to text a goofy picture to a friend. So is the American Sonnet, like the Elizabethan and Petrarchan, mostly obsolete? Is the last poem, the “poem on vacation,” gone? Then where will we “pour our sentiments”?
And this is exactly the kind of ridiculous rabbit hole that Billy Collins wants you to fall down.
What do you think about “American Sonnet,” postcards, and sonnets in general? Have I finally lost it? Let me know in comments!
Featured image: Joanna Kosinska
Poem graphic background: Elena Ferrer
Poem graphic made by me in Canva.