Henri Cole’s Sonnet Sequences
For Henri Cole, whose restless innovations of the sonnet form have come to characterize the primary formal means of his mature work, the sonnet sequence, in particular, is an inexhaustible space for exploration of art and self. This paper explores the evolution of the sonnet sequence, its form, structure, and purpose, in the poetry of Henri Cole, from the sequences, “Chiffon Morning” and “Apollo” in The Visible Man to what we might consider a trilogy of book-length cycles of the sonnet form, Middle Earth, Blackbird and Wolf, and Touch. I consider how Cole’s free-verse variations on the sonnet self-consciously draw on Petrarchan tradition, often commenting on poetry’s vital role in becoming and shaping a self. Mixing the high formal elements of the traditional sonnet with Japanese poetry and vernacular—even vulgar—American language, Cole exploits the fractures of the sonnet form to convey the tensions central to his poetry: between classical repose and raw desire, between the ordering properties of art and the chaos of life, between lyric address and the interior world, as he strives, in sequence after to sequence, “To write what is human, not escapist.”
Richie Hofmann is the author of a collection of poems, Second Empire, and a Jones Lecturer in Poetry at Stanford University.