Modern Sonnet and the Plain Style
The famous poet and literary critic Yvor Winters started his career by using techniques of juxtaposition and sensuous imagery associated with the Imagist movement. In the 1930s, he abandoned this style in favor of a more rational and plain rhetoric that could explore the possible affordances of abstraction and epigrammatic statement in modern poetry. He returned to the Renaissance period and found there a model for his evolving stylistic and rhetorical preferences. He conceived of this period’s poetry as divided between eloquent and plain styles, and attempted to rewrite a history of English poetry by foregrounding the evolution of the plain style. Since the sonnet was one of the most important poetic forms in the Renaissance, Winters’s own experiments and teachings on the form became generative for a generation of poets who studied or worked with him at Stanford University, including Thom Gunn, J.V. Cunningham, Edgar Bowers, Alan Stephens, Robert Pinsky, and Robert Hass. Though all of these poets went on to develop their own distinctive styles, most of them never stopped thinking about the role of plainness in poetry: For example Thom Gunn continued to teach the plain style at Berkeley for the rest of his life and edited collections of poems by the Renaissance poets Fulke Greville and Ben Jonson; J.V. Cunningham continued writing the same stylistic distinctions and became a connoisseur of the epigram genre; and Alan Stephens edited a collection of poems by the mid-Tudor poet Barnabe Googe as well as exploring the idea of plainness in his sonnet sequences. My paper will offer close-readings of sonnets by Winters and his students, demonstrating how their take on the sonnet reimagines the role of plain description, abstraction and epigrammatic statement in the form’s modern journey in America.
Melih Levi recently received his PhD in Comparative Literature from Stanford University and currently teaches at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul. He works on 20th-century poetry in English, Turkish and German.