The Dreadful Sound is an experimental project in citizen engagement conducted by students and staff of the Humanities program at the Sequoyah School in Pasadena, CA. Inspired by our study of metrical verse reaching back from Homer to the Renaissance, and wishing to test William Carlos Williams’ famous dictum that “it is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there,” we are trying to respond with poetry to the new political situation ushered in by the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States.
For each of the first 100 days of the Trump Presidency, we will consider the “news”–domestic and global events, political movements, and our own evolving feelings as citizens–in the form of a sonnet. We hope that this cycle of 100 sonnets, taken together, will comprise a complex and multivocal exploration of our relationship to American democracy, at this moment in history. With luck, it will be discursive and strange, personal and political, coherent but contradictory, and devotional yet kvetchy, the way the best sonnets are.
It was mere amusing coincidence when we memorized the Walter Raleigh sonnet “On the Cards and Dice” in class, and came across the line that gave us our project’s name. In that sonnet, Raleigh elaborates a complex conceit comparing games of chance with the Christian apocalypse, creating a poem that is as gamesome, and as deadly serious, as our current moment seems:
|Full many a Christian’s heart shall quake for fear,|
|The dreadful sound of trump when he shall hear.|
The sonnet is a verse form of Italian origin that gained popularity in England during the Renaissance. The particulars of the form can vary, especially in more modern versions, but traditional sonnets usually comprised 14 lines of rhymed iambic pentameter. Often in highly personal (and often romantic) tone, the sonnet advances a thematic or philosophical argument, with a turn, or “volta,” at a specific point in the poem, that amplifies, counters, or extends that proposition. Touchstones of this traditional form include Thomas Wyatt, William Shakespeare, John Donne, John Milton, William Wordsworth, John Keats, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
We began our humanities class this year with a sonnet by Robert Lowell, simply called “History.” As we progressed through both sonnets and history, we became interested in the potential of the sonnet to make arguments, but to do so complexly, metaphorically, with undertones that convey what W.H. Auden called “the clear expression of mixed feelings.” Given our simultaneous conversations about this surprising election year, as well as its connections to larger political, social, and economic forces, we wondered whether we might be able to think through our responses interestingly, in sonnets. We expect that it may sometimes take the form of resistance and protest, and sometimes, less contentiously, as reflection, excitement, resignation, openness. It is possible to draw some inspiration from the way Donne applied a form most commonly used for love poetry to examine his relationship with God; by some similar (if less brilliant) extension, we thought we might learn about our relationship with the American democratic experiment itself.
Oh, and also we found that nearly anything could be cleverly expressed with sonnets, as when two students informed the teacher about a botched homework assignment, by email, in the form of a sonnet. It also seemed funny to imagine tweeting out sonnets, fusing a popular form of the Renaissance with a popular form now.