Fuck Lectures About Sonnets: On Noor Hindi

By | 1 September 2023

You pleasure that which makes us fiction // while staring // into our graved eyes
—from ‘In Which the White Woman on My Thesis Defense Asks Me about Witness’

In December 2020, Noor Hindi posted a photo of her poem, ‘Fuck Your Lecture on Craft, My People Are Dying‘ on Twitter, announcing its publication in a forthcoming Poetry. The response was prolific. Off the back of an initial, much-liked Twitter post, fellow writer Rebecca Hamas tweeted a picture of the poem, attracting 5,990 retweets and more than 25,000 likes. A few months later, when Israel bombed Gaza in May 2021, further posts and reposts on Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr saw people from across the internet share, praise, critique, and discuss the poem. A 2022 Reddit thread features commentary ranging from celebration of the verse for its beauty, to castigation for its ‘lashing out’ at other writers. The poem’s reach extended beyond literary-focused circles, perhaps explained by its keeping with a viral-making formula for online circulation. Its snappy brevity, provocative ‘fuck you,’ and stripped-back, accessible language make it highly quotable and easily shareable. But this snapshot of reach is a sketch of visibility, not a qualitative summary. Tallies of likes, searches, and shares tell us only that the poem was circulated, not how it made people feel, or if these data points initiated any real-life mobilisation. As Claire Schwartz puts it, the no-space of social media sees refusal and collusion speak in a single voice.

Surveying responses to the poem, the loudest voices in this conversation tend to praise its simplicity, with comments in these online spaces herald the poem for its straightforwardness and clarity. Close Talking, the ‘world’s most popular poetry analysis podcast,’ introduces the poem as a critique of craft, a complete package in which ‘the title says it all.’ ‘You can’t miss what the experience of the poem is and contains,’ the hosts argue. In one sense, this online response realises the ‘fuck you’ from the poem’s title. It suggests a resonance that does not need to be affirmed by academic intervention, by a lecture on craft. But this idea of a ‘single impact’ both elicits a response, and stops the conversation after the first sentence. Outside of the context of 160-character write-ups and flattened ‘like’ and ‘share’ responses, this straightforwardness does not quite stack up. Does the poem not ask more questions than it answers? Who is the ‘you’ being addressed? How do we reconcile these viral, anti-craft reactions with the poem’s publication in the prestigious Poetry?

I want to suggest a different approach to ‘Fuck Your Lecture on Craft’ – an intervention into the online intervention, if you will. While the media discourse surrounding the poem sheds a light on questions of reach, circulation and audience; it has been broadly inattentive to further, knotty questions around craft itself. What happens if, rather than taking the ‘fuck you’ to poetics as straightforward, we address the tensions this challenge throws up?

From the outset, the poem is hostile to the ethics of poeticisation. In declaring ‘Colonizers write about flowers,’ the speaker dismisses poetry for its insufficiency to forge an otherwise. By extension, it rallies against the contexts which privilege this mode of abstraction, recognising how poems and the architecture of their discussion are both inadequate responses to the violence of settler-colonialism in Palestine. But the poem relies on craft, on poetry, as the vehicle for this message – caveating the apparent rejection of poems and their insufficiencies. On a closer look, the poem’s engagement with the lecture on craft seems more complicated than a simple ‘fuck you.’ The poem is structured as 14 lines, voiced by lyric ‘I.’ The conflicted allegiances revealed at line 11, ‘I know I’m American because when I walk into a room something dies,’ offer a volta-like turn. For all the claims of straightforwardness, these features cannot help but echo traditional verse forms, deepening a sense of the irreconcilable. Taking a cue from these elements, I want to bring the poem into the ‘lecture on craft’ and consider it as a sonnet. This is not pure provocation: rather, it seeks to meet the poem on its own terms of opposition, recognising how these formal qualities interact with the sonnet framework. I want to take up Hindi’s line of contradictions by paying close attention to the poem’s craft, unpacking its preoccupation with poetry’s insufficiency.

The American sonnet is a verse form that has sought to renovate, localise, and democratise its European Renaissance foundations since the late 18th century.1 The sonnet’s formal design is fixed: it has 14 lines, a set rhyme scheme and rhythm, and a volta, with structural divisions marked out in Shakespearean and Petrarchan traditions. But while these are often framed as rules, it is more useful, I think, to consider these as reference points for conformity and variation. It is a poem’s engagement with these rules, rather than a strict adherence to them, which brings it into conversation with the accumulation that is the sonnet form.

  1. Poets have been breaking out of the formal elements of the sonnet for as long as the form has existed in the English language. This buckling is not the exception, but the rule itself. Notable examples include Shakespeare’s 12-line couplet series, ‘Sonnet 126’ (1609); and Shelley’s irregularly rhymed ‘Ozymandias’ (1818). In the American tradition, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, William Cullen Bryant and Emma Lazarus offer early examples of ‘Americanisation’ of the form. The Harlem Renaissance writers were celebrated for their revisions of the sonnet – Claude McKay and Countee Cullen, in particular, ‘wrote back and wrote black.’
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