‘American Sonnet’ by Billy Collins is a seven stanza poem that is divided into sets of three lines, known as tercets. These tercets do not follow a specific rhyme scheme, and, aside from the first stanza, all the lines appear to be around the same length.
Even while pushing back against the traditional sonnet forms, it makes use of a number of poetic techniques within ‘American Sonnet’. These include anaphora, alliteration, enjambment, simile and metaphor. All four of these techniques are mentioned in the body of the analysis, but it is important to have a clear definition of what each means before beginning.
Summary of American Sonnet
In the first half of the poem, the speaker uses similes and metaphors to describe how a sonnet is similar to a postcard. Ad well as how contemporary sonnet writing, in America at least, is different than the traditional forms used by Petrarch and Shakespeare.
The second half of the poem is more emotional as the speaker uses an example. He describes how one might write a postcard to someone they care about and secretly wish they were with. Collins emphasizes how emotions are compressed to fit on to the thin piece of paper, as well as how they travel across continents and oceans.
The first, anaphora, is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. An example of this technique can be found in the fourth stanza. Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. In the fifth stanza, there is a great example with the use and reuse of words beginning with “w”.
Another important technique that is commonly used in poetry is enjambment. This occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. It forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For instance, the transition between the fourth stanza and the fifth stanza in which emotions begin to play a more important role in ‘American Sonnet’.
Last, simile and metaphor, the first is a comparison using “like” or “as”, such as can be seen in stanza there. The second, metaphor, is a comparison without “like” or “as” such as can be read in stanza two.
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of American Sonnet
In the first stanza of ‘American Sonnet,’ the speaker begins by telling the reader about the kind of sonnets Americans write. They are unlike those penned by Petrarch or Spenser. American sonnets and those who write them, are not concerned with structural limitations or abiding by what has come to be important literary customs. So, when reading an American sonnet (which is described in much more detail later on in the poem), one should not expect to find it lasting for “fourteen lines“. As anyone knows who is a fan of poetry, especially of the sonnets written most famously by Shakespeare, they almost always contain fourteen lines. These fourteen lines usually make use of a consistent rhyme scheme and a metrical pattern, such as iambic pentameter.
Poets have written sonnets over the centuries for a variety of reasons, but they have always been loved and respected for the challenge the form poses. That form could be Petrarchan, Shakespearean, or Spenserian form. Then, also for the beauty of the language that comes out within this kind of writing.
But, Collins’ speaker does not see it that way though. He describes the fourteen lines of a sonnet as “furrows in a small, carefully plowed field“. They aren’t a bad thing necessarily, but they are very straightforward, regulated and steady. The reader can expect that the definition they are about to receive for an American sonnet is quite different.
The second stanza picks up by informing the reader that the “picture postcard“ is the form in which Americans pour out their feelings. On the back, one might find a “poem on vacation“. These postcards force “us to sing our songs in little rooms“.
The challenge of space, just two or three lines, pushes “our sentiments into measuring cups“. These metaphors speak to the simplicity of the “American sonnet“ in relation to the complexity of the Petrarchan or Shakespearean.
And the third stanza of ‘American Sonnet’, Collins’ speaker begins a new sentence describing how “we”, Americans, “write on the back of a waterfall or lake”. These are the stereotypical images one would find on the front of a postcard anywhere in the country. The view is expanded upon and illuminated by “a caption“.
As if making light of the complicated diction and style of traditional sonnets Collins uses a simile to compare the caption to “an Elizabethan woman’s heliocentric eyes“. This makes another obvious connection, or rather disconnection, between the Elizabethan writing and today.
In the fourth stanza, Collins makes use of anaphora. It can be seen with the repetition of the word “we“ at the beginning of all three lines. He describes the American technique of writing as very simple. “We“, Americans, “locate an adjective for the weather“.
Then, “we“ go on to “announce that we are having a wonderful time“. Last, there is an expression of the wish that “you were here“. There’s nothing mysterious, transcendent, or very poetic about these lines, but that’s the point.
The last line of the fourth stanza of ‘American Sonnet’ is picked up at the beginning of the fifth. When the postcard writer is writing, they are forced to “hide the wish” that “we were where you are“. Generally, people would rather be where their friends and family members are. In the next line, Collins jumps to the recipient of the postcard. They pick up the thin message and turn it over in their hands“. There is a physicality to the sonnet postcard that does not exist in traditional sonnet forms.
The size of the postcard is utilized again, this time in order to describe the vacationers location. The “place” is represented in a “slice” in the recipient’s hands. It is a small “length of white beach, / a piazza or carved spire of a cathedral”.
This thin piece of paper will travel across the world and “pierce the familiar place where you remain“. At this point, the poem is becoming much more about personal connections. Collins is now spending time describing the impact of longing and distance rather than a meditating on contemporary sonnet writing.
In the last stanza of ‘American Sonnet,’ Collins emphasizes how the postcard writer has to compress their feelings into a small space. These emotions travel thousands of miles and end up tossed on “the table“. The “reversible display” of the postcard now sits within the home of the recipient. In front of them, they have a “few square inches of where” the vacationer “has strayed”.