It’s been almost 25 years since I first heard the quote “The sonnet is a fascist form” which, if memory serves, was mistakenly attributed to Walter Benjamin in one of my MFA seminar classes. In fact it’s usually credited to William Carlos Williams although it seems there’s some doubt around that attribution too.
But regardless of who said it first, the phrase is generally used to castigate art that is deemed to be too aesthetically conservative. It basically equates use of traditional forms with regressive/conservative political tendencies and aesthetic experimentation with progressive politics. Herbert Read’s comment “In back of every Dictator there is a bloody Doric Column” kind of points in the same direction.
On the surface, this appears to make some kind of sense. It’s not unreasonable to think that an artist whose work is aesthetically conservative might also be politically conservative. And of course official Nazi art and architecture were conservative in the extreme, so there is some historical justification for the judgment as well.
The problem of course is that when you look a bit closer at the historical record the equation “conservative aesthetics = conservative politics” falls apart fairly quickly. Ezra Pound’s poetry was highly inventive, formally, while Pound himself was an actual fascist, making propaganda broadcasts for Mussolini during WWII. The Futurists provide a number of other examples of extreme right wing views linked to aesthetic inventiveness. Meanwhile, Edna St. Vincent Millay, a left-wing feminist activist, won the 1933 Pulitzer prize for her sonnets.
So, historically, there’s really no strong linkage between politically progressive art and formal innovation. But maybe there’s another kind of connection?
I think there is, and that connection is metaphorical. The sonnet is a highly structured form, with not much room for variation. If you read formal order as social order, the constrained, traditional, rule-bound sonnet becomes a metaphor for an authoritarian society, and “free verse” as a metaphor for the other kind (it has the word “free” right in the name, after all).
My belief is that the metaphorical connection is, simply, a mistake. There is no particular reason why aesthetic forms need to be thought of as metaphors for social ones. A poet who chooses to structure words in the form of a sonnet is not the same as a dictator who forces other humans into a rigid social order. Anyone who can’t tell the difference really needs to give the matter some more thought.