Timo Müller, The African American Sonnet: A Literary History (Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2018), 192 pp.
Through a concise history of the African American sonnet, this book offers several discoveries of some little known, much less criticized poems and poets, a revised contextualization of well-known ones such as Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die,” and new perspectives on some key periods of African American literary and cultural history, while simultaneously paying close attention to the literariness of tightly wrought texts. That the relatively slim book can do all of this is due to its extremely stringent, lucid, and tight organization: inspired by his subject matter, perhaps, Müller writes sections and paragraphs that have clearly marked argumentative relations toward each other and have a transparent structure wherein larger claims about the cultural significance of the sonnet frame a number of close readings and discussions of single texts. The approach that is consistently used from beginning to end is a spatial one: it rests on the conceptualization of the sonnet and the creation of a tradition as a literal and metaphorical space. Precisely because the sonnet visualizes and enacts, sometimes also explicates, constraint, it can become a site to demonstrate creativity sparked by using form as voluntary shelter or refuge, as well as one resulting from clever ways to circumvent, disrupt, or rebel against limitations. Inasmuch as black sonnet writers were for the longest time faced with the limitations of a racist literary and cultural context, the sonnet becomes a very productive site of a literary engagement with form that is simultaneously always political.
The starting point is therefore obvious enough: with the first African American sonnet, a “group whose capabilities had widely been disparaged was demonstrating its mastery of one of the most complex poetic forms in the language” (3). As the subsequent chapters then show, the demonstration of mastery or the masking of radical issues behind a familiar form are not the only functions the sonnet might serve. Rather, the appropriation of the genre and the inscription into the tradition is so thorough that African American poets have created their own poetic space that has endured over time and is, as of now, firmly established. What its history demonstrates is how poets, through their work in the genre, created a space that became their own in the sense that, by the latter half of the twentieth century, the poems no longer needed to confront white ideas, but could increasingly be used to debate the concerns of specifically African American poetics.
This engagement can be seen, for instance, in the response of sonnet writers to the Black Arts movement “in the Age of Black Nationalism,” as the subtitle of the chapter puts it. They could look back to a venerable tradition at this point, yet found themselves beleaguered by an aesthetic that rejected the sonnet as a white form. They responded by using three different strategies, according to Müller: two of them use camouflage, the first by changes in formal structure to include “blackness markers like music, the spoken word, and vernacular expressions,” the second by “choosing topics whose racial and political relevance outweigh the association of the form with whiteness” as, for instance, in posthumous tributes to Malcolm X (95). Both strategies continue the strand of a black modernist poetics developed, for example, by Langston Hughes’s “Seven Moments of Love: An Un-Sonnet Sequence in Blues” (1942) discussed in chapter four, wherein the classic sonnet form becomes vernacularized and approaches free verse. The third strategy, however, uses the marginal position of the sonnet at the time to carve out an enclave for black interiority and individuality “in the midst of the collective struggle against racism.” (102) The sonnets by June Jordan or Jeff Mitchell not only explore the potentials of the love sonnet to express intimacy, but also, in their metapoetic comments, engage in a dialogue with a white tradition. In contrast to earlier dialogues, however, this is no longer done to take on white prejudice, but instead to challenge the boundaries of the black nation’s discursive space. No wonder, then, that the sonnet can re-emerge in the mid-80s as a form that suited a new generation of avant-garde poets and helped to generate the “Rise of Black Experimental Poetry” (chapter six).
The sonnet is thus depicted as a powerful genre with a number of remarkable and unjustly forgotten texts, but it also provides Müller with a lens through which we are prompted to reevaluate the genteel tradition, the Harlem Renaissance, or single poets such as McKay. As for the genteel tradition, Müller first points out how poets like William Stanley Braithwhite and James Weldon Johnson lay the groundwork for more radical protest poems in using the sonnet and genteel conventions against the supposedly white assumptions they implied—examples are the praise sonnets engaging with public figures and ultimately elevating the black speaker or, in the case of Dunbar’s “Robert Gould Shaw” (1900), foreshadowing a bitterness that will re-emerge in Claude McKay’s famous “If We Must Die” (1919). Müller then proceeds to show how these conventions persist into Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance: rather than foreground modernist experimentation and radicalism, the lens of the sonnet allows us to see the more indirect protest in poems by Countee Cullen, Sterling Brown, or Helene Johnson. Framed by Houston Baker’s distinction between the mastery of form and the deformation of mastery, Müller challenges this binary by arguing that the above writers, who undoubtedly mastered the form, use their mastery to “reform” (42) the white literary tradition. The focus on the sonnet, however, also affirms the impression that the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance shifted away from the initial confrontational protest such as in Leslie Pinckney Hill’s “Vision of a Lyncher” (1912) (a grammatically ambiguous title that Müller reads as clearly announcing the Lyncher as part of the poet’s vision) and Claude McKay’s famous sonnet to more conciliatory, perhaps also somewhat resigned poems that lost the bitter edge of the earlier ones. In the 1930s then, the sonnet becomes a tool to explore the transnational dimension of black identity, and, as one example, the book explores the posthumously published the Cities sonnets by McKay to demonstrate yet another transformation of the sonnet, here within one poet’s oeuvre.
I would like to offer two minor observations that may prompt further thought and discussion amongst other readers: there are many claims to “firsts” in the book: there is, of course, the first African American sonnet (Albery Allson Whitman’s “Sonnet: The Montenegrin,” 1877), but also the first sonnet sequence published by an African American (Samuel A. Beadle’s “Sonnets to my Love,” 1899, 24), the “first African American love sonnet explicitly devoted to a black person” (Beadle’s Sonnet XVII, 25), the “first African American poet to realize and exploit the interpretive authority that the praise sonnet afforded its speaker” (Paul Lawrence Dunbar, 32), the first black poet who could address well-known white figures on a basis of personal acquaintance (William Stanley Braithwhite, 37), or the first African American sonnet that “openly protested against racial injustice” (Leslie Pinckney Hill’s “Vision of a Lyncher,” 42). These phrases undoubtedly stress the thorough archival research and the broad basis of texts that went into the making of this book, but as the first footnote in the book also reveals, “firsts” in cultural history are always difficult since nothing is really without forerunners. What or whose needs, then, does this problematic idea of origins or firsts cater to? Secondly, I want to mention that in the close attention to details of imagery, structure, rhyme, and prosody, Müller is not afraid to occasionally judge the success or failure of lines or poems: some are “badly written and badly organized” (24); there is “the inferior quality of the last line” (67) of a quote, but also an “impressive” (71) conclusion. I tend to agree with many of these judgments; that they are there at all, I think, is a productive trait of the text: one hopes that students and scholars will take up some of these judgments and regard them as a challenge to prove, perhaps, a significant contribution to the meaning of a poem by seemingly awkward lines. Read this way, Müller’s book also serves as a reminder that attention to literariness and aesthetic characteristics has not vanished from American Studies.
Astrid Franke (Tübingen)