30days30poets: Billy Collins’ “American Sonnet”
April 5th, 2013
This week, our poetry selections have explored “singing” the American experience. Today’s poem also takes up this subject, though from a different vantage point. In “American Sonnet,” Billy Collins compares the traditional Italian or English sonnet to a postcard, which he describes as “a poem on vacation, / that forces us to sing our songs in little rooms / or pour our sentiments into measuring cups.”
A native of New York City, Collins (b. 1941) attended the College of the Holy Cross and then earned his Ph.D. in English from the University of California-Riverside. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, he published many works of poetry, including Questions About Angels, a 1990 National Poetry Series winner—and it is from this work that “American Sonnet” is drawn. In 1994, Poetry magazine selected Collins as the “Poet of the Year,” and in 2001 he was named the US Poet Laureate, a position he held until 2003. From 2004 to 2006, he also served as the Poet Laureate for the State of New York. Collins currently teaches English at Lehman College (CUNY), where he joined the faculty in 1968.
As you read “American Sonnet,” consider the following questions: How, according to Collins, is an American postcard like an Italian or English sonnet? (Consider the lines: “the picture postcard, a poem on vacation . . . forces us to sing our songs in little rooms / or pour our sentiments into measuring cups.”) How is it not like a sonnet? Consider, too, Collins’ own poem: is it a sonnet as its title claims? How does it follow, and break from, the genre’s conventions? Collins writes that “We do not speak like Petrarch or wear a hat like Spenser;” are the old poetic forms, such as the sonnet, no longer appropriate to the American experience? Why or why not? How is Collins’ American song (and those of the postcard writers he describes) different from, or similar to, the American songs in Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” or in Maya Angelou’s “Caged Bird”?
We do not speak like Petrarch or wear a hat like Spenser
and it is not fourteen lines
like furrows in a small, carefully plowed field
but the picture postcard, a poem on vacation,
that forces us to sing our songs in little rooms
or pour our sentiments into measuring cups.
Click here to read the rest of “American Sonnet.”
Other suggested poems by Billy Collins:
Click here to sign up for our newsletter.
Tags: 30days30poets, Billy Collins, National Poetry Month