October 04, 2016

The Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review enters its fifth decade with a radical twist: a sonnets-only issue. Having distinguished itself for publishing the work of Eastern European poets from behind the Iron Curtain as well as that of winners of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, the Review is now connecting contemporary poets with classic form. 

Review Editor and Hampden-Sydney College Poet-In-Residence Nathaniel Perry says he was inspired by John Keats and his poet friends: "They would get together and have sonnet challenges. They would say, 'You have 15 minutes to write a sonnet about a grasshopper. Then whatever they turned out, they would read. It was sort of like a parlor game. In one instance, Keats liked his so well that he included it in his first book of poems."   

For the 2016 Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review, Perry gave poets a challenge: in only one hour, write a sonnet about one of five topics (a walk, water, silence, frames, or containers).   

"I really thought a lot of poets would be adverse to this, that I would be stepping on their artistic process. But almost everyone I asked to do it just jumped at the chance. They thought it was cool."   

There was some wiggle room. Perry let the individual poets decide for themselves what a sonnet is. "It doesn't have to be 14 lines in a particular rhyme scheme if they don't want it to be." He adds, however, "That's how I would have done it. Some people interpreted it rather loosely."   

To his surprise, many of the poets stayed within the constraints of the traditional definition of a sonnet.   

Nearly all of the submissions for the sonnets-only issue have been received and Perry has begun working with his four student editors on the production of the physical book, which will be released in the late fall. Working on the Review gives Perry's poetry students an even greater appreciation for and understanding of the genre.   

"Most of the time, the students think like a lot of people think-that poems are scary puzzles that they either have to solve or they're stupid if they can't solve them. In reality, poetry is like any other consumable piece of writing; it's just meant to be enjoyed. Nobody has similar qualms over listening to music, right? If you listen to Bach, you can find a way to enjoy it without knowing exactly what Bach's doing with the key. Poetry's the same way. You don't have to know everything that's going on in a poem to enjoy it. The poem really exists for the reader, not as a puzzle at all."   

Perry also says that rumors of the "death of poetry" are overblown. He says poetry may have a small place in our culture but it is a secure place, a place where we as a society return when necessary, often following a major tragedy. He points to the resurgence in popularity of W.H. Auden's poem "September 1, 1939" as Americans were recovering from the terrorist attacks in September 2001.   

The endurance of The Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review is a testament to the security of poetry's place in American culture, and Perry hopes the combination of classic form and whimsy in this sonnets-only issue will remind readers that poetry is both accessible and enjoyable.   

"Poetry really, more than other forms of art, is a populist thing. All you need is a pencil and a piece of paper to engage in poetry. You don't need ballet slippers or a huge canvas or even lessons. You can just go."       


The Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review will be available in December and can be ordered online.