Dan’s American Sonnets series is a series of poems drawn from Shakespeare’s sonnet. In each American Sonnet, Dan takes one of Willy’s and creates his own using the original as a jumping off point. The American Sonnet I shall focus on now is Sonnet 11 – a sonnet about aging and youth. When I first read through a bunch of the American Sonnets, this was one of those where the lyricism caught my eye immediately. Here’s the original Shakespeare version:
As fast as thou shalt wane, so fast thou grow’st
In one of thine, from that which thou departest;
And that fresh blood which youngly thou bestow’st
Thou mayst call thine when thou from youth convertest.
Herein lives wisdom, beauty, and increase;
Without this, folly, age, and cold decay.
If all were minded so, the times should cease,
And threescore year would make the world away.
Let those whom nature hath not made for store,
Harsh, featureless, and rude, barrenly perish.
Look whom she best endowed, she gave the more,
Which bounteous gift thou shouldst in bounty cherish.
She carved thee for her seal, and meant thereby
Thou shouldst print more, not let that copy die.
And here is Dan’s:
Disclaimer: Do not read my analysis until you’ve pondered the poem for yourself. After all, most of the fun and power comes from how you, as a person, orient yourself to the poem before conferring with other views. In the end, much of poetry’s strength comes from intuition – although explanation & analysis can help ground intuition for later readings.
Unlike the previous analysis, this isn’t really a comparison, since I want to focus more on Dan’s poem, so I’ll quickly take stock of the first sonnet. Take note how Willy deals with the theme of aging, and reproduction. His poem is places greater weight on youthfulness and children that will help overcome old age through continuation of “wisdom, beauty, and increase” – and ends with a call to “print more, not let that copy die”.
Dan’s sonnet takes the same theme, but doubles off of some of the images in Willy’s while still keeping the poem as, fully, his own work. Think of what significance a ‘copy’ has in Dan’s versus Willy’s.
Lines 1 – 2:
Music is apparent immediately, as the kinetic whirr of the steeplechase is conveyed through the ‘e’ and ‘i’ sounds, but the ‘o’ comes in exactly when it slows, and sets up the sounds for line 3. The image of the steeplechase is given dreamlike ambience through the “faster than true”, playing up what occurs in the eyes of the young, more caught in youthful dream than reality, also doubling on the memory & nostalgia (when the twist in the second stanza comes). The “slowing faster than you” then plays off this, with repetition giving new paradoxical meaning, pointing towards the ephemerality of the moment (or memory). Notice how immediate, concrete, and fresh this is – conveying the feeling immediately – when compared to the explanatory hue of Shakespeare’s opening.
Then line 3 carries over the sounds, as I just mentioned, but carries out of the moment to comment on youth. Even as the tones slow, there’s a sudden spur in the middle with the ‘giggle’ – which is immediately dragged back in by the “out of solemnity” – an interesting way to phrase it “leased out of solemnity” – which brings back to that idea about youth trying to escape out of solemn age.
But, the next “once I was called mine” is even more interesting, because it doubles on the ‘I’, but reveals, in the next line, that the ‘mine’ came from the other’s lips. Thanks to the enjambment, the mine can be seen as both a coming into individuality (changing from seeing the self as ‘mine’ into ‘I’) as well as expression of love (calling a lover ‘mine’). Interestingly, although I seem to have this impression of a boy and a girl, there is no indication of gender any place, only hints of the relationship from “your lips, their indeterminate beauty” – and the overall sensuous hue of the lyric.
The first stanza ends with talk about the youthful subjects being “unprodded by follies this new century/will reveal, as we rage into its incline”. The ‘rage’ is a word that sticks out, providing one last rush before dissipating into the sounds of the finale – but notice what a subversion there is as the last part. Normally, we might associate the rage with a “decline” – stemming from other lines like Dylan Thomas’ “rage rage against the dying of the light”. But, Dan uses ‘incline’, which implies a thrust without the downwardness.
The second stanza delivers the twist, and opens with a dreamy flow of lyric as the poem talks about storing the old memory of the amusement park. These languorous tones are immediately broken in line 11 by the sudden harsh tones. Look back at how Shakespeare uses the word ‘harsh’ and see how the effect is multiplied here by the contrast. Furthermore, what makes subjects of the poem ‘harsher’ is the wandering through Dreamland, which is a subversion possibly hinting at people who are too stuck in their memories and become bitter at the present.
Finally, the last 3 lines provides a complete anti-thesis to the initial flow and nostalgia, and it talks about the “forgettance of what made us become” – where, trapped in the memory of the past, forget the rest of the past that led to the present. The subversion of Shakespeare’s ‘copy’ comes at this moment, where the nostalgia leads to becoming “pale copies of children… who never get off, who never decide”.
In order to be more objective, I will try to rate this poem, basing my own scale on the 100-point scale that Dan uses, as detailed in his TOP analyses and his William Shakespeare/Wallace Stevens essay. This poem is full of twists and subversions (within itself, not just in relation to Shakespeare’s), great images, and the music is excellent at all points – so I would place it as great, in the above 90 category. When you compare to a sonnet like The Passings, though, which has similar themes in change and that sort of thing, but opens up into themes on Art and the Cosmos and many other layers – this poem is narrower in its reach (well, it also doubles as a Love poem, which is less so in the Passings, so it still has a reach in other areas). I feel this would fit somewhere close to a 93. It takes a scenario/idea and explores it fully.