Reviving the Sonnet

By Foy, John | New Criterion, April 2014 | Go to article overview

Reviving the Sonnet


Foy, John, New Criterion


Ernest Hilbert

All of You on the Good Earth.

Red Hen Press, 96 pages, $16.95

Ernest Hilbert's new book of poems, All of You on the Good Earth, takes its title from an astronaut speaking at a larger-than-life moment. On Christmas Eve 1968, the crew of Apollo 8 witnessed that heart-stopping image of Earth rising over the Moon's desolation. In his message to Mission Control, Commander Frank Borman, riven with homesickness, signed off: "Good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you--all of you on the good Earth." This is a fitting title because there is something larger than life in Hilbert's voracious range. The poems in this second collection, as in his first (Sixty Sonnets), spill out like fruit from a cornucopia. His imagination has room for sharks, Etruscans, cats, Cyril Connolly, Chelsea lofts, gravediggers, the Green Line in Philadelphia, Seneca, and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.

Hilbert is a literary man who wears his erudition lightly. The epigraphs that begin the sections of his book come from the likes of Whitman, Byron, Montaigne, and ... Warren Zevon? What would you expect from a poet who holds a Ph.D. from Oxford, works as an antiquarian book dealer, writes libretti, and appears in short films for a post-punk conceptual band? He channels his manic, Lowellian energy into the sixty sonnets that make up this book--yes, another sixty sonnets! One of my favorites is "Sportsmanship," about the disappearance of an old, chivalric ideal in the crush of the new:

   The character of a gentleman rests
   On his never needing to get ahead.
   High-school quarterbacks pummel losers
   100-nil to push personal bests
   Of players (not of teams) whose stats are read
   By eager scouts and college recruiters.
   What's really proven on the fields of Eton?
   Little that would win battles anymore.
   And what of those who never had a chance
   To do much but avoid being beaten?
   Standards decline, true, but who were they for?
   Not for those who are obliged to advance.
   Even without gentry, there's still conduct,
   For what it's worth, and there is always luck.

The ideas bounce around in these fourteen lines like hungry lions in a cage, and his declarative, head-on opening sentences, typical of many Hilbert poems, give this one its rhetorical charge. It's as driven as those quarterbacks and as determined to advance its point.

The Hilbertian sonnet, as some have called it, has a clear set of structural preferences. Each is fourteen lines long, the rhyme scheme is an untraditional double sestet plus couplet (ABCABC DEFDEF GG), and each line counts ten syllables, as you'd expect in lines of iambic pentameter--except these aren't. There is not much accentual-syllabic regularity, but the lines do tend to stabilize, in varying degrees, toward the end of each poem.

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