Although Gilbert Sorrentino (April 27, 1929 – May 18, 2006) is not usually identified with the Beat poets, he was contemporaneous with them and published many as the editor of Kulchur magazine from 1961 to 1963. Significantly, Sorrentino’s first published book of poetry appeared in 1960. The term “Beat poets” is applied to a loosely knit group of American lyric poets identified more by their shared social attitudes, such as apolitical and anti-intellectual orientations and romantic nihilism, than by stylistic, thematic, or formal unity of expression. They were centered in San Francisco and New York. The term “Beat” expressed both exhaustion and beatification. The writers were tired and disgusted with what they saw as a corrupt, crass, commercial world ruled by materialism and believed that by disassociating with that world they would provide a sort of blissful illumination for it, aided by drugs and alcohol. In the best of the Beats, such as Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and Jack Kerouac, there is a personal statement and power that goes beyond the jargon and “hip” vocabulary many of them used.
Sorrentino’s poetry owes much to the Beat movement, although as his poetry continued to develop it became difficult to classify. Sorrentino had faith in the power of the word and its multiple technical possibilities, which may be the subject of all his works. The only rules that he adhered to were a rigorous parsimony for his poetic diction and a luxurious inventiveness for his fictional language.
Midnight Special and Nightpiece
These two poems from Sorrentino’s first book of poems, The Darkness Surrounds Us, use techniques that would be found again in his work. The title “Midnight Special” is taken from a song of that name and refers to a midnight special train ride, but in the poem it refers to a nightmare the poet has of his son in a snowy garden. In another ironic twist, the last line of the poem, “shine your everloving light on me,” uses the last line of the song’s chorus to address the child directly. The world of music would play an important part in Sorrentino’s later poetry.
“Nightpiece” is a city poem ostensibly about rats that first are seen along a wall. One of the rats enters a house and is eventually trapped in a room and beset by fear and disorientation. The poem ends with a shocking comparison to men, who “have shot themselves// in the head/ for less reason.” The poem uses images of bleak despair that are omnipresent in some of Sorrentino’s later collections.
The Perfect Fiction
In an interview in 1994, Alexander Laurence asked Sorrentino about his interest in formalism. Sorrentino replied that he had always been interested in the formal, which, in his sense, is a
structure or series of structures that can, if one is lucky enough, generate “content,” or, if you please, the wholeness of the work itself. Almost all of my books are written under the influence of some sort of preconceived constraint or set of rules.
In The Perfect Fiction, dedicated to his mother, who died in 1960, Sorrentino presents his vision of the city through a series of untitled poems written in three-line verse units called triplets and populated with shadowy, anonymous, vaguely threatening figures. The tone is uniformly dismal, creating a metropolis inhabited by lonely, lost souls, such as this image: “an old woman maybe// was kind to her cats is dying/ of loneliness. Hers is that face/ in the window, how impossibly// remote.” Other characters who populate this city are “a huge black man/ riding on a motorcycle,” “The stupid painter,” and “stinking” people who “know that they/ are garbage and this fact/ somehow consoles them.”
The triplet form of the work occasionally admits slight variations, such as “(pentagram),” a poem constructed of ten triplets arranged with five down each side of the page. Each stanza is very brief, the lines consisting of only one or two syllables, or only punctuation, until the last stanza, which begins with the word “nostalgia.” Another variation is found in the untitled poem that begins with “Such a long walk to get out/ of any pocket, any abstract/ one,” in which the third line of each triplet consists of only one word, spaced to the right of the first two lines.
Although the triplet form has never been used as widely as the couplet or the quatrain, it was used in the collection The Desert Music and Other Poems (1954) by William Carlos Williams, a poet whom Sorrentino always admired and whom he published in his literary magazine Neon.
A Dozen Oranges
A slim paper volume, A Dozen Oranges contains twelve poems using the word “orange.” It typifies the use of color in Sorrentino’s poetry, which became increasingly important as he continued to write. All the poems published in A Dozen Oranges were reprinted in The Orangery, to which Sorrentino added another sixty poems.
White Sail is a collection saturated with color. Although many of the poems feature other colors, such as “Drifting Blue Canoe” and “Navy Blue Room,” there are also ten “Orange Sonnets” included here, each a fourteen-line poem using the color orange. One “Orange Sonnet” begins with the line “She was all in black” and expands the shade of black as symbol for the darkness of evil: “We know black here in America./ Why, it’s a scream.” By the third stanza the black becomes both color and metaphor: “Stick a point of orange in it/ just for fun. Just to see what comes of it.” Another “Orange Sonnet” describes a town the poet sees or imagines “across the water,” a town drenched in “lime-green haze” and filled with “Mothers and children in blue,” where “the sky is blue.” Yet the poem ends with a playful reference to orange in a direct address to the reader: “I forgot orange. There.”
In a third “Orange Sonnet,” subtitled “1939 World’s Fair,” the poet describes the fair with its “fake orange trees” and includes this image: “My mother was beautiful/ in the blue gloom.” Yet by the end of the poem “She died ice-grey in Jersey City” after “Depression and loneliness/ dulled her soft bloom.” Color is used here to signify emotional states, and the gentle rhyme of “gloom” with “bloom,” echoed by “word” in the last line, gives the poem a certain poignancy.
The Orangery is one of Sorrentino’s most memorable collections of poetry. Each poem includes the word “orange,” the “preconceived constraint” upon which the poet planned this book. Orange appears and reappears as a color, a fruit, a memory, an intrusion, a word seeking a rhyme, or an unexpected presence. On first publication William Bronk wrote, “In The Orangery Sorrentino makes things which are hard, gaudy, and sometimes scary. They are stark artifacts of our world. . . . They are made to last.”
The poem titled “King Cole” takes two lines from a song that Nat King Cole made popular—“Wham! Bam! Alla Kazam!/ out of an orange colored sky”—and focuses on the nonsense words. In two spare free-verse stanzas the poet brings the reader’s attention to the way the words “Wham! Bam! Alla Kazam!” somehow achieve a meaning of their own within the “foolish song,” a meaning wedded to the sound of the words even more powerfully than the image of “a sky colored orange.” The poem is modern in its self-referential quality; it is basically about itself and the images contained within it. Yet the last word of the poem, “Fruitless,” is ambiguous; the reader does not know if it refers to the “foolish song,” to the analytic method of the poem itself, or to both. Sorrentino seems to be experimenting in this poem, trying out tricks to see how they work, such as the use of a parenthesis that is not closed.
Many of the poems in The Orangery experiment with form as well as meaning. There are sonnet variations, including the poems “Cento,” “Fragments of an Old Song,” and “One Negative Vote, “which keep the fourteen-line sonnet form but ignore the traditional iambic pentameter and rhyme scheme. One of the most charming poems in this collection is “Villanette,” a word that does not exist yet and was presumably created by the poet to title this variation on the venerable villanelle, an Old French form derived from Italian folk song. The villanelle is composed of five tercets (rhyming triplets) in the rhyme scheme aba, followed by a closing quatrain in the scheme abaa.
Sorrentino’s “Villanette” contains only four tercets, which maintain the rhyme scheme, and closes with a rhymed couplet. The subject of the poem is certain words denoting a northern winter, compared to the pleasures of winter in Florida. The form lends a certain dignity to the topic, adds importance, and renders it more memorable.
Long fiction: The Sky Changes, 1966; Steelwork, 1970; Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things, 1971; Splendide-Hotel, 1973; Mulligan Stew, 1979; Aberration of Starlight, 1980; Crystal Vision, 1981; Blue Pastoral, 1983; Odd Number, 1985; Rose Theatre, 1987; Misterioso, 1989; Under the Shadow, 1991; Red the Fiend, 1995; Pack of Lies, 1997; Gold Fools, 1999; Little Casino, 2002; A Strange Commonplace, 2006; The Abyss of Human Illusion, 2009.
Short fiction: The Moon in Its Flight, 2004. play: Flawless Play Restored: The Masque of Fungo, pb. 1974.
Nonfiction: Something Said, 1984; Lunar Follies, 2005.
Translation: Suspiciae Elegidia/Elegiacs of Sulpicia, 1977.
Conte, Joseph. “Gilbert Sorrentino: A Crystal Vision.” Critique 51 (2010): 140-146.
Howard, Gerald. “A View from the Ridge: Back in the Old Neighborhood with Postmodern Prole Gilbert Sorrentino.” Bookforum, February/March, 2006.
Klinkowitz, Jerome. The Life of Fiction. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977.
Mottram, Eric. “The Black Polar Night: The Poetry of Gilbert Sorrentino.” Vort, 1974, 43-59.
O’Brien, John, ed. Gilbert Sorrentino Number. Elmwood Park, Ill.: Dalkey Archive, 1981.
Sorrentino, Gilbert. “Shoveling Coal.” Interview by Barry Alpert. Jacket 29 (April, 2006).