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“Sonnet” by Alice Notley: Poetry Analysis Research Paper

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Updated: Sep 5th, 2022

Alice Notley is an American poet, a representative of the second-generation of the New York School of Poetry. She wrote “Sonnet” in 1976, and this poem is focused on two main characters, Gracie Allen and her husband George Burns, who was trying to cure her of an illness. The story of “Sonnet” is considered to be partly autobiographical, although the characters were real people who lived in the first part of the 20th century.

Structure of the Poem

“Sonnet” consists of three verses. The first one presents the image of Gracie Allen and George Burns, this shining and optimistic couple. They seem to be so happy, light-hearted, and inspiring for the others. Then, we see how magic was the mood and atmosphere in their marriage, and it is not only because the characters were comedians, but because of their personalities, which made them “artful” and “bright.” Nevertheless, the ending of the second verse prepares the reader for the tragedy. Finally, Notley describes Allen’s death in a romantic way, with a gentle hand. The reader might feel the couple’s hope for the better, but the miracle does not happen.

It is noteworthy that in “Sonnet” Notley actively uses enjambment lines. Almost every line runs over the following one without finishing the statement, without pause or break. This method is sometimes used in poetry in order to confuse the reader by putting contradictory ideas in the following line. For example:

He’d give her a pill and they’d hold each other till the palpitation Stopped—just a few minutes, many times and pills. As magic fills…(12-13) The enjambment also gives the reader a sense of a fast pace of the poem. Therefore, every part of “Sonnet” can be read almost in one breath. Moreover, the enjambment reinforces the sense of the last lines of the poem, which gives a moment of hope for the happy end, but finally, the reader sees the sad and inevitable outcome:

heart fluttered
And hurt and stopped (14-15).

In “Sonnet” Notley did not use any traditional rhyme. However, some prosody techniques were used. Accentual prosody can be observed throughout the poem, with different accents in every verse. For instance, in the first part, there is an obvious accentual verse in which the number of stressed syllables remains constant (comedienne, illogical, halo). Also, some slant rhyme can be found in last lines (fill, till, pill). Usually, these techniques are used by poets for multiple reasons, but in this case, Notley seems to use them for expressive purposes to accentuate certain points.


Knowledge of the background is necessary to make the plot clear. Gracie Allen was a famous American comedian. She became a celebrity while performing in comedy shows together with her husband, George Burns, who was her “straight man.” Allen died in Hollywood from a heart stroke in 1964. “Sonnet” is based on their real story, and despite the fact that it sounds like a comedy, it is a true drama.

This poem is sometimes called autobiographical, as its events correlate to the life tragedy of Alice Notley. “Sonnet” was written in 1976, exactly when Notley’s family moved to New York and her husband was taken ill with hepatitis. They made a huge effort to help him recover. Unfortunately, the disease made him suffer and he died in 1983 (“Alice Notley”).

It is likely that personal drama motivated Notley to write this poem. Her style of writing was always perceived as modern and complicated, but in “Sonnet” the structure and the manner of writing do not hide the sense from the reader. There is a sort of an allegory in a way Notley describes life and death of the famous comedian. At the beginning, it looks like a fascinating story about a couple. In the end, the reader is already upset with the fact that Allen dies, but Burns drops an unexpected phrase: “But I still have some of the pills” (16). It makes the reader smile, but this is a sad smile. This turning of the death into a romantic moment, supported by an innocent question gives a certain charm to “Sonnet.”

To sum up, “Sonnet” can be called a modern poem because of its extraordinary and complex style. The structure of the poem does not resemble a traditional poem. However, Notley clearly transferred the general mood and the irony of the story to the reader. She succeeded in this mission thanks to her way of accentuating the important moments and expressing feelings in a surprising manner.

Works Cited

Notley, Alice. “Sonnet” from Grave of Light: New and Selected poems, 1970-2005. Wesleyan University Press, 2008.

“Alice Notley.” Poetry Foundation. n. d. Web.

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