“THE MOST ARRESTING SEQUENCE WE HAVE HAD SINCE JOHN BERRYMAN”: SIXTY SONNETS BY ERNEST HILBERT

HILBERT, Ernest. Sixty Sonnets. Los Angeles: Red Hen Press, 2009. Small octavo, paper wrappers. $18.95. ISBN-10: 1597093610

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SixtySonnets Cover Big“Hilbert’s sure-footed poems have the breathless urgency of a man telling others the way out of a burning building. Unafraid to startle, often winning out over recalcitrant material, they score astonishing successes. A bold explorer with few rivals, Hilbert enlarges the territory of traditional form. Sixty Sonnets may be the most arresting sequence we have had since John Berryman checked out of America” (X.J. Kennedy). “Like the minutes of the hour, these Sixty Sonnets both combine to make a whole and shine as individual moments. While groups of these sonnets occasionally suggest a narrative—refreshingly, like the fugitives and weary academics that people these pages—they work alone. The newspaper crime blotter itself, from which, perhaps, some of these incidents are torn, speaks up as a single sonnet. Here are barflies, high-school dropouts, retired literary critics, washed-up novelists and war-zone reporters, suburbanites and historians, and lyrics with a range of reference from Zippos and Star Wars figures to George Gissing and Thomas Eakins. Mostly in a decasyllabic line that allows for the roughed-up prose rhythms of speech, these sonnets tend to conclude in true iambic pentameter, the tradition that haunts rather than dominates these poems. It is the voice of a less lyrical Prufrock (‘We’ll head out, you and me, have a pint’), a voice that speaks with unsentimental affection for the failures, the ‘fuck-ups,’ the ‘Gentlemen at the Tavern’—but it is a voice that just as easily could be speaking of the gentlemen at the Mermaid Tavern, and indeed there is something of Marlowe, as well as Eliot, in this sensibility. The evasive presence in the background occasionally speaks in propria persona—the wry, worldly-wise voice of the poet himself—as much listener as talker—something like a sympathetic bartender, scrupulous in his measures, who has heard it all before, but nightly observes every hour unfold afresh from behind the counter” (A.E. Stallings). First printing contains “pad” instead of “pat” on line 10 of page 44. The book’s first issue appeared with either glossy or matte paper wrappers, priority undetermined. The cover, designed by Jennifer Mercer, is based on that of a worn edition of Bach’s Klavierubung Teil Partiten issued by Edition Peters in 1950, from the collection of poet and critic Jan Schreiber. The tear at top left corner of the front wrapper displays the digitally-inserted musical staff from an engraved first edition of Domenico Scarlatti’s sonatas, intended as a hidden reference to the composer’s famous “sixty” sonatas.

SELECTIONS FROM THE COLLECTION

National Poetry Out Loud (National Endowment for the Arts recitation program) finalists reading “Domestic Situation” from Sixty Sonnets.

Katianna Nardone 1 from RSM Distributors on Vimeo.

Clara Henderson 1 from RSM Distributors on Vimeo.

Victoria Howard 2 from RSM Distributors on Vimeo.

 PRAISE FOR SIXTY SONNETS

Ernest Hilbert’s sure-footed poems have the breathless urgency of a man telling others the way out of a burning building. Unafraid to startle, often winning out over recalcitrant material, they score astonishing successes. A bold explorer with few rivals, Hilbert enlarges the territory of traditional form. Sixty Sonnets may be the most arresting sequence we have had since John Berryman checked out of America. – X.J. Kennedy, author of Lords of Misrule and editor of Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama

 

Hilbert has an appetite for life equal to his taste in literature: a rare combination in an age of dissociated sensibility. In these sonnets, whose dark harmonies and omnivorous intellect remind the reader of Robert Lowell’s, Hilbert is alternately fugitive and connoisseur, hard drinker and high thinker. But he is always a true poet, proud to belong to the company of those who still feel “The last, noble pull of old ways restored, / Valued and unwanted, admired and ignored.” – Adam Kirsch, author of The Modern Element: Essays on Contemporary Poetry

 

Just as the work of the modernists showed that the best free verse usually has something masterfully formal about it, Hilbert’s fine collection might serve to remind us that the best formal poetry has about it a marvelous colloquial freshness and inventiveness, and the ring of an actual human voice. It is a touching and intelligent book. – Franz Wright, recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry

 

Sixty Sonnets delights in a decidedly badass bravura. Hilbert’s red-blooded diction and febrile subjects put paid to any lingering suspicions about traditional verse’s chronic anemia. His erudition is salted with humor, his romantic flights with a rage for order. He is a twenty-first century beatnik in Elizabethan ruff. A smashing debut! – David Yezzi, author of Azores and Birds of the Air

 

The American lyric rendered in these poems follows Coleridge’s description of the sonnet as “adapted to the state of a man violently agitated by a real passion.” Hilbert’s passion here is to contain, precious piece by precious piece, the unordinary quotidian of the American poetic. Sixty Sonnets is a gift to all of us from an exceptional ear and a fine consciousness. – Afaa Michael Weaver, author of Multitudes

 

For scale alone, the project at first seems improbable. But then you read, and it’s clear that Hilbert’s sensibility, bright-hued and gothic, sentimental, precise and ambitious, could be contained by no less. These wry and lovely poems are for anyone whose curiosity ranges from Petrarch to improv, and the result is a complex portrait of the America of our current era—composed in singing verse! – Dave King, Rome-prize winning author of the novel The Ha-Ha

 

Like the minutes of the hour, these Sixty Sonnets both combine to make a whole and shine as individual moments. While groups of these sonnets occasionally suggest a narrative—refreshingly, like the fugitives and weary academics that people these pages—they work alone. The newspaper crime blotter itself, from which, perhaps, some of these incidents are torn, speaks up as a single sonnet. Here are barflies, high-school dropouts, retired literary critics, washed-up novelists and war-zone reporters, suburbanites and historians, and lyrics with a range of reference from Zippos and Star Wars figures to George Gissing and Thomas Eakins. Mostly in a decasyllabic line that allows for the roughed-up prose rhythms of speech, these sonnets tend to conclude in true iambic pentameter, the tradition that haunts rather than dominates these poems. It is the voice of a less lyrical Prufrock (“We’ll head out, you and me, have a pint”), a voice that speaks with unsentimental affection for the failures, the “fuck-ups,” the “Gentlemen at the Tavern”—but it is a voice that just as easily could be speaking of the gentlemen at the Mermaid Tavern, and indeed there is something of Marlowe, as well as Eliot, in this sensibility. The evasive presence in the background occasionally speaks in propria persona—the wry, worldly-wise voice of the poet himself—as much listener as talker—something like a sympathetic bartender, scrupulous in his measures, who has heard it all before, but nightly observes every hour unfold afresh from behind the counter. – A.E. Stallings, MacArthur Fellow

 

Ernest Hilbert’s Sixty Sonnets is exactly what its title suggests—and thus it’s a performance as much as a book of poems, showy and spectacular. From the brisk noir of “She Remembers How They Fled from the Liquor Store Robbery in New Mexico” to the ironic call-and-response of “Fortunate Ones” to the elegiac fatalism of “White Noise” Hilbert takes the reader on a bravura run through seemingly every variation of tone and style that the sonnet can contain. It’s a craftsman’s book, a revival of form best summed up by the opening lines of “Song”: “A song for those who learn forgotten, slow / Skills, crafts submerged long past by massed commerce.” – Levi Stahl, poetry editor, Quarterly Conversation

 

[Sixty Sonnets] delivers the full range of human types and stories, and nearly the whole breadth of what the sonnet can do. . . . We might see Hilbert as being God in these poems—as taking the all-gathering view of the merciful God who has room for all these lost ones, right along with the desperate fugitives, retired literary critics, crime victims, lovers, and godfathers. The poet as indwelling creator spirit? It fits for Hilbert: poet, from poietes, maker. – Rattle

 

Hilbert is at once ironic, dark, and witty. [His] lines reflect our own precarious hold on the world, where we are always close to losing control. From the perspective of an intriguing mishmash of subjects, Hilbert often takes on the persona of the failed, the beat up, and the beaten down, in which all are “sinking on a soft black balloon.” Hilbert entreats his hapless heroes to “go on, get high,” though there is always a price to be paid. – Bookslut

The poems are beautifully made in their diction. The intelligence is clear. – Donald Hall

 

The only other poet who plies risk against reward so deftly is Pound. – Strong Verse

 

Ernest Hilbert, in Sixty Sonnets, reminds us how vigorous and fun a form the sonnet is. That the form is still fecund becomes abundantly clear when one sits down with this collection and reads four, seven, nine sonnets at a sitting. . . . These sixty leave one hungry for sixty more. – Library Thing

 

The reader must be prepared to leap from ancient Greece to the East Village in one or two lines, and familiar with the Oresteia as well as Metallica . . . his is a quicksilver mind, generous and open and humorous. – The Sheila Variations

 

Bob Dylan, another poet who often takes the fugitive as a persona, put it this way: “To live outside the law you must be honest.” That begins to explain, for me, [Hilbert’s] identification with people on the fringe, gangsters, drunks and women who return to the men who batter them. He’s acknowledging that the poet in this place and age is a person on the fringe. – Alfred Nicol, introduction at Newburyport Literary Festival

Kentucky State Poetry Out Loud Champion Haley Bryan reads "Domestic Situation" by Ernest Hilbert

Kentucky State Poetry Out Loud Champion Haley Bryan reads “Domestic Situation” by Ernest Hilbert