I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

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Look at Me

Michael Hinds
The Sonnet, by Stephen Regan, Oxford University Press, 448 pp, £19.99, ISBN: 978-019883886 Sonnets to Malkmus, by Ellen Dillon, Sad Press, 64 pp, £8, ISBN: 978-1912802272 If you are writing a guide to the sonnet then you are in the same situation as a poet writing a sonnet: plenty of people have been there before you. Stephen Regan’s The Sonnet is more or less unprecedented in its commitment to cover the history of the form in English comprehensively, but it is nevertheless aware of the heavy lifting that has been done in the past by the likes of Helen Vendler, John Kerrigan, Eavan Boland and the rest. Regan draws intelligently on the work of such canonical company, but also asserts his own authority through hot-wired close reading. His book is particularly good at the history of the form and is especially effective when asserting positively what the sonnet is good at: “The fascination of the sonnet for readers and writers alike is that it calls for discipline and constraint while simultaneously inviting endless permutation and innovation.”  He triangulates his study in terms of attitude, address, and adaptability. It is surely significant that the sonnet emerged in the Renaissance just as the concept of an explorable and variable self became culturally pervasive. Sonnets allowed sophisticated selves to show themselves to be sophisticated. Pleased with winning an argument, pleased with the neatness of their puzzling and figuring, pleased with themselves: maybe sonneteers are just wankers. Or perhaps, put more decorously, sonnets exist to satisfy homo ludens, both for writers and readers. The literary evolutionist Brian Boyd presents a good case for this argument in Why Lyrics Last: Evolution, Cognition and Shakespeare’s Sonnets, suggesting that Shakespeare’s abiding canonicity is related to his use of patterning, although whether sonneteering is an essential part of evolution or merely a digressive variation or adaptation remains questionable. Less questionable is Vendler’s assertion that the lyric excels at “making thought visible”, and Regan builds on this by asserting that the sonnet does this better than any other form. This reads like a rare moment of special pleading: there is as much thought active in the work of Catullus or Dickinson, sonnet-lacking as they are. What is exceptional about the sonnet is its radical enclosure. Thought shows up there so effectively because it keeps bouncing off the walls. A sonnet is a multi-barred cage within which the heart, mind and body paces like…

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