“Names,” The New Yorker September 22, 2008
I don’t think any contemporary poet nails the sonnet into its box as effectively as Marilyn Hacker. This isn’t to say she has written the best sonnet in the last X-amount of years necessarily, but she has regularly proven her ability to use and abuse the form to her great advantage. This is true of her villanelles, too.
“Names” is an Italian sonnet right that closely follows the traditional form of meter, rhyme scheme, and turn. Only a line or two is perfectly iambic, which is not a problem, but the lug of the rhythm is immediately clear: “Be mindful of names. They’ll etch themselves” she writes in line one. The first foot here is a headless iamb, but the rest of the feet all fit the proper flow; so, rhythmically, the poem’s tone is set, one line swinging readers to the next and so one, even in the case of endstopped lines. That’s simply the way pentameter works—it keeps the story rollin’.
But it’s not Hacker’s use of meter that I particularly enjoy; it’s her end rhymes. Those of the first envelope quatrain are straight forward and simple: themselves, glass, pass, dissolves. The B rhymes are straight while the A rhymes are slightly—but just slightly—slanted. The second four lines bend end-rhyme a bit more: twelves, grass, piss, calves. The B rhymes share consonance via S, but their vowels have shifted. The A rhymes share a similar slantiness. But, what’s really cool isn’t the transformation of sound within the quatrain but its play with the first set of B rhymes. Glass and grass are straight, sharing vowels and consonants, while pass and piss are slant, sharing consonants. The echo is obvious, binding the quatrains with more than a simple ABBA rhyme scheme.
How this interplay affects meaning—I don’t know. Nor do I think any end rhymes must support some kind of rhetoric…end words maybe, but the rhyme is there in support of the form. I’m just saying Hacker pushes the form beyond its usual, simple requirements.
In terms of true coolness, however, it’s the end rhymes of the sonnet’s sestet that really, for me, make the poem click. Consider lines 10 and 13: “A sparrow lands in the japonica….wingbeats intrusive and symphonic—a….” (italics mine). That’s very (I hesitate to say) clever, at the very least creative. And the rhyme, for such an usual example of it, doesn’t feel forced, either. It feels worked, considered, deliberate. “Japonica” is the less common name for a camellia, so I’m conjecturing it wasn’t Hacker’s first choice. Maybe she wrote “symphonic” first only to end up at “japonica” later as a result of the sonnet’s strict form (of course, it’s impossible to know without asking the poet). I believe, too, this diction helps her emphasize the poem’s turn. None of the previous language is anything like “japonica,” the poem’s only four-syllable word.
A well, that line is the only one that’s a complete sentence (though it ends with a semi-colon). This, along with the shift from the ground-dwelling park-folk to the airborne sparrow, also emphasizes the turn. After this, the names, the poem’s only grammatical subject with the exception of the first sentence through nine lines, have disappeared. They’ve been replaced by “a sparrow…massed pigeons” that flee the scene, “a / near-total silence” that takes their place. This interests me because the disappearance of names is exactly what Hacker is asking us to be aware of in the first half of her poem: “Be mindful of names,” she writes, “They’ll pass / transformed, erased, a cloud the wind dissolves.” And, in fact, they disappear in the amount of time it takes readers to get two-thirds of the way through her sonnet. Her advice seems apropos
But what exactly are these names? Are they representative? Symbolic? I’m not too sure. I do think of names and dates when I read that line, historical facts we’re supposed to remember at all costs as students and that we probably forget as non-students. Both are sort of concrete ways of tabbing history while it happens, after it’s passed. And, there is a sense of this history passing in the middle section of the poem as the pre-teens play and the adults go about their business, all at the park somewhat oblivious to the turnings of the world. The anonymous, distanced speaker seems to be the only entity sentient of such turnings. She notices the sparrow and the flock of pigeons taking flight “as if it were a signal,” an important phrase suggesting there is something of which to be aware. But the others are locked in their own worlds, kids and adults alike. It’s funny, but in the poem, those worlds—and their inhabits—don’t seem important by the sonnet’s close. The birds do.