Gilbert Sorrentino Essay - Critical Essays


Although Gilbert Sorrentino 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, isa 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...

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