Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy
This study responds to the need for an understanding of the relation of form and political critique within the sonnet form, and hopes to demonstrate that the sonnet can be used to effectively articulate the experience of racism, especially the Du Boisian concept of "double- consciousness," a sense of two-ness born of being both black and American. The fundamental structure of the sonnet (octave, volta, sestet) is dialectical; it "contests the idea it just introduced" (Caplan, Poetic Form: An Introduction 75). The sonnet's self-reflexive structure has been adopted and adapted by poets such as McKay, Cullen, Hughes, and Brooks. The formal and social characteristics of sonnets by African-Americans function synergistically: the way that the octave and the sestet respond to each other in a single poem is also similar to the "call-and- response" movement of African American oral culture. Its tendency to mix two unlike things is like Harlem itself: a compressed space where the street sweeper rubs shoulders with the business tycoon. Perhaps most importantly, the sonnet can be a Trojan horse, a genteel container that conceals a potentially subversive message. This study is constructed around related lines of questioning: First, why did African American poets, in an era usually associated with free verse, choose to adopt a traditional form? Second, how do African American poets adapt a European form as a lens into African American experience? Sonnets by African Americans reflect the complexity of a seemingly simple triangulation between the traditional requirements of form, the promise of equality, and the reality of racism. African American poets infuse "Harlem in Shakespeare," pouring black consciousness into the European form, and they raise "Shakespeare in Harlem," elevating the status of African American forms to the highest levels of literary art. At the same time, this study demonstrates the value of a prosody-based approach for examining how small formal details contribute substantially to the reader's impression of the sonnet. These poets deploy the "rules" of the sonnet ingeniously and unexpectedly. Additionally, the sonnet is a way to separate from and simultaneously be a part of the dominant culture by writing a critical message in a recognizable form. Black culture can criticize white culture, while at the same time acknowledging the mutual, inescapable relationship that binds blacks and white Americans together. Additionally, the sonnet is a way to separate from and simultaneously be a part of the dominant culture by writing a critical message in a recognizable form. Black culture can criticize white culture, while at the same time acknowledging the mutual, inescapable relationship that binds blacks and white Americans together.
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