Completely Subjective: Sherman Alexie’s “Sonnet, with Pride”

I sat down this morning with the 2014 version of “The Best American Poetry”, flipping through the pages, hoping to come across a poem that would toss a match onto my thoughts and light the flame of ingenuity. For a while I sat and flipped, and then flipped back again, and again. In the process of finally retiring the 2014 volume for another, a poem that I had not yet read caught my eye. An unusual format was what originally piqued my interest (stanzas delineated by numbers instead of spaces), but I quickly became ensnared in the larger ideas being offered out to me. Entitled “Sonnet, with Pride” by Sherman Alexie, I knew that this was my match.

The most intriguing aspect of “Sonnet, with Pride” is Alexie revealing to the reader the meaning behind his poem and telling us that he is not “Using starving lions as a metaphor for homeless folk” but rather that they are “A simple metaphor for hunger”. Instantly disturbed by the flagrant break in the laws of poetry (of which I have been assured do not exist time and again), it occurred to me that there was a reasoning behind the unusual choice.

I was brought back to a poem called “Introduction to Poetry” by Billy Collins, in which he teaches that profound meaning is not meant to be tortured out of poetry. Alternatively, one must “Walk inside the poem’s room and feel the wall for a light switch.” You would think that the same is true for poems that are too easily deciphered. Alexie did not analyze his own poem to impress his thoughts upon the reader, he did it so that the reader could walk the maze of his work and stumble across understandings that even he himself did not notice. Many poem interpretations begin with, “The poet was trying to convey…through his use of…” My feeling is that Sherman Alexie wants the reader’s analysis to go more like this…

I found the pride of lions to be reminiscent of a few teenagers escaping high school only to find themselves in the middle of the war that is life. In Darien, we live under our own little dome. For the most part our needs are met and exceeded. We watch the news, and are told stories about what goes on in the world, but at the end of it all most of us have no way of truly knowing.

At the end of high school we stand as a pack and look out into the roiling clouds of the future. We know that many of us will adapt and survive just like we were told everyone does, and yet infringing on our happy fantasies of leaving the nest is that not everyone will. The lions looking out on their new freedom and not feeling liberty, but fear. The jock and his crew, once larger than life, stand before the explosions and take inventory of their now seemingly minuscule arsenal of skills. They are told, like the lioness told a lion in “Sonnet, with Pride”, “You still think you are king of the jungle” and now they understand they are not.

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