First emerging in the Italian Renaissance, the sonnet was used to document and address a problem, such as the pain of unrequited love. Under the shadow of slavery and then Jim Crow, African American poets from Phillis Wheatley to Natasha Trethewey have adopted the sonnet’s 14-line form to poetically register political protest. Fellow Hollis Robbins, from Johns Hopkins University, is currently at work on the first book-length examination of the African American sonnet tradition.
In this podcast, Robbins discusses how the sonnet both emerges out of and transforms the tradition of Platonic metaphysical ideal love. Drawing on examples from writers such as Claude McKay and Gwendolyn Brooks, Robbins explains how the formal qualities of the sonnet—structured around an argument—exemplify what W.E.B. Du Bois famously called “double-consciousness.” To this day, writers such as Terrance Hayes and Tracy K. Smith enlist its octaves, voltas, and sestets to narrate the African American experience.