Poets On Poetry header graphic

P o e t s   C h a t

POETS ON POETRY: Daniel Kane interviews poets about their poems, their poetics, and their ideas on how to teach poetry to students in grades K-12. This month, Daniel and poet Bernadette Mayer talk about sonnets, rhyme, and other exciting stuff.

Poet On Poetry Menu
Poem Sample      Interview with Poet

Download Reading Of "Sonnet" By Bernadette Mayer

Bernadette Mayer's Poem

The rather grainy image you'll see below is that of the poet BERNADETTE MAYER. Bernadette was born on May 12, 1945, in Ridgewood, Queens. She has lots of books out, including "A Bernadette Mayer Reader" which was published by New Directions Press.

I took this picture of Bernadette at a reading she gave on October 5, 1998 . Her reading was part of Eleni Alexander's "Mad Alex Presents" reading series in New York City. Bernadette read for an hour, and what a treat it was! Sweet, funny, and really smart language filled the air, and everyone clapped a lot at the beginning and the end of the reading. Someone in the audience even cheered, and shouted out "Bernadette! Bernadette!"

I thought it would be good to put one of Bernadette's poems on-line and talk to Bernadette about it -- especially in terms of how one could teach the poem to people of high-school age. So, read the poem, and then read a transcript of the conversation Bernadette and I had. Hopefully all you writers and teachers out there can bring this poem into your classrooms and share it with your students. You can find the following poem in Bernadette's book Another Smashed Pinecone, published by United Artists. If you want, order the book from United Artists' Lewis Warsh -- just send him a check for $10 to 112 Milton Street #3, Brooklyn, N.Y. 11222. For more information, take a look at the United Artists web-site at http://lwarsh.home.mindspring.com/uab/.


There was a man on 8th Street
	around independence day
Looking for help to get back to his house
The old man said, Now you're going to see
	something you've never seen before
We guided him there behind the locked door
	up the indoor stairs to the outdoor floor
		and there were flowers and 7 doors
			he was ninety-four
On 13th street a stoop and the front
	of a tenement collapsed
For no reason killing Evelyn
	who was in Sophia's class
Right around independence day an american
Shot down an Iranian passenger plane saying
	it was an accident or tragedy
Killing everybody nobody's ever gonna know 
	what really happened
Some people die you know them right next door
Other ones they die what seems like anonymously
	in a war
Some do both things or all three and now
You are going to see something you've never seen before
Up the indoor stairs behind the locked door
	we guided him there

*He said the landlord paid him two months rent to move in
forty years ago and there were no other tenants for a year.

Daniel Kane interviews the poet Bernadette Mayer, October 8, 1998

Mayer photo

DK: Why are you attracted to the sonnet form?

BM: I like the sonnet form because it gives you the chance to develop some thought, and then come to a conclusion. It's all totally false -- that's not how you really think, but in a way, it is how you think, so that' s why sonnets are interesting. Sonnets pretend to reflect the way you think. That's always been my theory.

DK: You mean when you have a thought, your mind runs through it, and then your eyebrows dart up in a kind of pleasurable physical acknowledgment that there is now a sense of conclusion?

BM: Yes. It's weird, because it's not the way you'd want people to respond at a poetry reading. You wouldn't want them to say "A ha!" A couple of times I went to hear poets read, and they would read really short poems. They would say something really horrible to the audience like "I don't think you really understood that, so I'm going to read that again." This has happened to me more than once.

DK: Does the way you use the sonnet, especially in the context of the poem SONNET, fight against that? What I love about this poem is that there's a sense of mystery throughout the whole thing. Were you consciously playing with the expectation of a reader who, this being a self-titled "sonnet," would assume her eyebrows were probably going to go up in the end?

BM: Yes. My poem has a little footnote at the end, but you can't figure out where that note belongs. I'm talking about those final two lines, which break the fourteen-line "rule": "He said the landlord paid him two months rent to move in / forty years ago and there were no other tenants for a year."

DK: I love that footnote. How would you explain that to a kid who might yell out "Hey, what's that doing there!"

BM: Well, after writing the poem, I wanted to explain what the old man had said to us about the landlord. It would also be interesting to tell kids about the numbers in the poem. I noticed that there are a lot of numbers happening in this poem, so then I started mentioning as many numbers as I could. I figured, "It's a number poem!" Also, of course, a sonnet is notorious for having a certain number of lines, even though it doesn't really. Fourteen lines is the traditional kind of sonnet, but a sonnet until recently could be as long as fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, or eighteen lines. When I say "recently" I'm talking about the sixteenth century.

DK: The footnote business aside, I thought it was funny the way you snuck around that fourteen line rule by indenting the lines. It's still fourteen lines.

BM: Right, the lines are so long, and that's why I decided to indent them, to stick with the fourteen-line rule. But there is that addendum, so the poem is really just a hoax. But as long as it looks good I think it's o.k! (laughs)

DK: Now what would a kid learn about sonnets from reading your poem SONNET, assuming the kid was determined to only see a poem as a sonnet if it followed the Petrarchan or Shakespearean templates? How would the kid ideally respond when suddenly encountering this strange Bernadettean sonnet?

BM: I think it's important to tell children - or anyone who's learning about poetry - that a sonnet isn't a fourteen-line poem. Many ancient authors wrote sonnets that were longer or shorter than what many of us might imagine a sonnet should be. Catullus would write eleven-line poems that were twelve lines long. I think if you tell somebody a form is a certain length, they really believe you, and that's too bad. Catullus didn't really write sonnets, of course. He wrote in hendecasyllables, which are eleven-syllable lines, and then a lot of them were twelve-syllable lines. In other languages or in other times, nobody took these rules too seriously. They broke them all the time. I'm sure they took the rules seriously, but they seriously broke them. That's kind of fun, actually, breaking the rules. It also calls attention to the way in which you broke the rules.

DK: In a weird sort of way, breaking these rules manages to establish the strength of the "conservative" Petrarchan or Shakespearian sonnet, because our attention is drawn to how the sonnet is "supposed to be" that much more -- we contrast the new rule-breaking sonnet with the old "established" sonnet. What about other formal decisions you make? For example, we could talk about the rhyme in your poem, which I thought was really funny and great. I'm thinking about rhyme, because I've seen that a lot of students' rhyming poems either tend to promote a kind of rap-style bravado or, on the other side of the coin, a kind of Hallmark-style treacly sentimentality. How would you teach this poem as a model for surprising and fresh uses of rhyme, and how would you talk about rhyme in general?

BM: Well, I always thought rhymes were interesting if words looked the same and if they were directly underneath each other. That's what happens in this poem. I think if you're talking about the doors, four, before, floor, I must say that was all an accident. It just worked out that way.

DK: So your rhymes weren't that intentional -- that's interesting. I noticed that you've placed the words Collapsed and class so that they work as a slant rhyme, which I really like. Slant rhymes can be a healthy alternative to predictable rhyming, encouraging students to think about language in a slightly more sophisticated way. But do you ever read students' rhyming poetry and want to run away, lock the door behind you?

BM: Well, I made my students at the Staten Island school I've taught at join the Rhymers Anonymous group.

DK: Were there a lot of members?

BM: Oh, yes, they loved it. Twelve-step programs for rhymers proved very popular. Before they joined the program, I asked them what their favorite poem was, and they'd literally respond with that Valentine's Day poem, "Roses are red, violets are blue." After all, it rhymes! And then they would rhyme every poem. One woman in the same class made much more money than I ever did as a poet by selling a poem she had written to a greeting card company. It rhymed -- boy, did it rhyme!

DK: In Rhymers Anonymous, was the purpose to wean students off of rhyme?

BM: Yes, definitely.

DK: But you use rhymes -- fairly traditional ones, at that!

BM: Sure, well, that's breaking my own rules, which I encourage! (laughs)

DK: At moments like this, I think of Whitman's line "Do I contradict myself, very well then, I contradict myself. / I am large, I contain multitudes." But perhaps to rhyme imaginatively, one initially has to take a break from rhyming, think about how one might tend to rhyme in predictable, familiar ways, and then finally start rhyming in an interesting way.

BM: Hopefully you can do both things -- rhyme, not rhyme. Using internal rhymes is fun if you want to break bad rhyming habits.

DK: Can we talk a little bit about mystery -- the role of mystery in SONNET? I'm thinking in particular of the final couplet: "You are going to see something you've never seen before / Up the indoor stairs behind the locked door we guided him there"

BM: There's no mystery about it to me. Does it seem mysterious to you?

DK: It does, because the fact that the old man says "You are going to see something you've never seen before" sets me up to see something at the end of the poem, and of course the sonnet form itself promises some kind of conclusion. The mystery for me is in the line "we guided him there," which doesn't even have a period to indicate closure! It ends on an open note. The monster I expected to see in the living room, or the old guy's dead mother sitting on a rocking chair -- they aren't in the poem.

BM: In reality, though, the guy just meant that he was paid to live in this place, which I had never seen before. That's all he meant. That's the job of the addendum, to clear that up. This guy's apartment was off 8th St., near all those shoe stores on West 8th St.

DK: Can you tell us more about the names and places in this poem?

BM: Sure -- Sophia is my daughter, and Evelyn was her friend in P.S. 19. Evelyn was sitting on her stoop and it collapsed underneath her.

DK: You mention these personal events, and you also allude to political events like the time when an American warplane shot down an Iranian passenger plane. However, you don't sound like you're unfurling banners or putting on your combat boots. How would you suggest kids deal with their political concerns in terms of writing poetry?

BM: That's a difficult question. I wrote a Utopia, a whole book where I get political. A lot of people have said it's my worst book, but a lot of people say it's my best book, so who knows? I don't think you can be directly political, but some people can be. Allen Ginsberg is good at political writing. Catullus wrote great poems making fun of Julius Caesar. Paul Goodman also wrote great political poems. I don't know if you can still get Goodman's Collected Poems, but read it if you can.

DK: Is there such a thing as a popular poet for students who might not be in the "poetry world?"

BM: I once asked some of my students, who were college age, who their favorite American poet was, and they said Jim Morrison. I had made a bet with them that whoever it was, I'd teach that poet for a week, so I had to teach Jim Morrison for a week. I actually grew to like him! You know who's a good poet? Leonard Cohen -- he's popular, I guess. Patti Smith is an interesting writer, too.

DK: People could teach Patti Smith as an introduction to a lesson on Rimbaud, maybe?

BM: That would be fun. I made my students write down the words to "Stairway to Heaven," because they kept mentioning it, and actually it's a pretty good poem.

DK: Really? Even with that line, "There's a lady who knows / all that glitters is gold"?

BM: Well, that doesn't sound very good, does it? (laughs)

DK: O.K., we should wrap things up. So let's get back to the sonnet form. What if William Shakespeare were to walk up to you one day and ask you "Bernadette, how does your poem fit in to the definition of the word 'sonnet'?" How would you respond?

BM: First, I'd invite him to dinner. He'd be a good guest. We could eat rabbit, stuff like that. And then I'd say, "William, it has fourteen lines!" And then he'd probably say, in a dubious kind of tone, "Yeah, fourteen lines." Then we'd see what happens next.

DK: Fair enough. Is there anything else you'd want to say to me about this poem? Imagine I'm thirteen, and I'm looking out the window, maybe not paying attention.

BM: I would just say write any way you want. You can make the lines short, or long. And looking out the window is a good way to write a poem. A good way to write a sonnet is to walk fourteen blocks. Write one line for each block. I knew a poet, Bill Kushner, who used to do that. I used to see him all the time with his notebook on the street. You can do it easily in a city, because there are all these words around.

Link to T&W main menuEmail T&WBecome a member of T&WT&W's WriteNet

WriteNet Menu | Register | Teaching Techniques | Virtual Poetry Workshop | I Remember | Contacts

©1995-2000 Teachers & Writers Collaborative; Site developed by Glyph Media Group, Inc.