Bringing Back the Sonnet in ‘January Machine’

James Kennedy

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A long time has passed since the sonnet and other similarly restricted forms of poetry were the dominant art form in the popular consciousness, but many enterprising poets still carry on the tradition and adapt their work to the modern day. One such man is Visiting Assistant Professor of English Rob Schlegel in his new poetry book, “January Machine.”

“January Machine” is his second book. This new book, which is composed of modified sonnets, is very different in structure from his first, “The Lesser Fields.” While Schlegel thinks that “The Lesser Fields” could have been written in prose, “January Machine” is a very distinct work of poetry.

“[‘January Machine’] is formally much different [than my first book],” said Schlegel. “I wanted to challenge myself.”

The poems that make up the book are composed of sonnets that were 11 lines long, then doubled to 22 lines, than condensed into 14 lines, though there are some sonnets that are double or triple that length. Often loose in structure, the lines don’t often rhyme.

“They’re kind of bastard sonnets,” said Schlegel.

Although the formal poetry presented in “January Machine” is rarely seen in recent works, Schlegel hopes to create a poetry book that will resonate with modern audiences by changing the form and presenting a unique work drawing on the texts of famous poets. The author’s wife, Adjunct Assistant Professor of English Kisha Schlegel, elaborated on this point.

“The sonnet is not a commonly used form. It’s definitely not in the popular mind, which is what I think makes it interesting,” said Kisha Schlegel. “It’s fraught, it’s tense, [and] I think it speaks to a lot of fears that people have.”

The parts that make up the book both work on an individual and grouped level, leading to multiple possible frames of expression and storytelling.

“It’s creating an overall, general narrative, but also each poem in itself offers a narrative,” said Kisha Schlegel. 

That narrative is one derived from the differing viewpoints of poets Walt Whitman and George Oppen, with some inspiration taken from Elizabeth Bishop in its use of description. 

“[George Oppen’s] emphasis on the isolated self contrasts with [Walt] Whitman’s plurality,” said Rob Schlegel.

In creating such a work, peer review is important to improve drafts in progress. As his wife is a fellow English professor, Schlegel has continued to rely on her in the more isolated environment of Walla Walla, which is very different from the poet-heavy environment of Iowa City, Rob Schlegel’s previous place of residence.

“I would tell him where it’s particularly sparkling with energy … or where it seems kind of flabby, where it’s out of sync with the rest of the poem,” said Kisha Schlegel.

Despite accusations of poetry being in decline in recent years, Rob Schlegel asserts that poetry is everywhere and continues to remain very relevant. Rather, its form has merely changed, and it is “thriving against all odds.”

“Hopefully [poetry] is changing, always changing. That is the poetic mind. That is poetry,” said Kisha Schlegel.

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