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20 pages 40 minutes read

Sherman Alexie

The Facebook Sonnet

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 2011

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

“The Facebook Sonnet,” by well-known Native American poet and novelist Sherman Alexie, was published in the New Yorker magazine in May 2011. As its title states, the poem is a sonnet; it consists of 14 lines and follows a traditional rhyme scheme. However, in other respects the poem diverges from the traditional sonnet form and has a more contemporary flavor. The poem is about Facebook, the social networking service that has become almost ubiquitous in American life. The speaker is no fan of Facebook, however, and offers a heavily ironic critique of how people use the service. Although Alexie has acknowledged having a Twitter account, he told Bill Moyers in a 2013 interview, “I don’t have Facebook friends. I have friends,” thus drawing a distinction between the value of online relationships and those conducted in person. “The Facebook Sonnet” is not Alexie’s first venture into the sonnet form; he has experimented with sonnets since his earliest poetry. His 2013 collection, What I’ve Stolen, What I’ve Earned, contains about 20 poems titled as sonnets. Those poems acknowledge the traditional literary form while radically reinventing it.

Poet Biography

One of the most prominent of Native American writers, Sherman Alexie was born on October 7, 1966, in Spokane, Washington. His father was a member of the Coeur d’Alene tribe, and his mother was of Colville, Choctaw, Spokane, and European American ancestry. Alexie lived on the Spokane Indian Reservation until he was 14 years old, when he left to attend high school in Reardon, Washington. He attended Gonzaga University and then Washington State University, where he studied creative writing. He received a bachelor’s degree in 1995, by which time he had already published his first book, The Business of Fancydancing: Stories and Poems, in 1992. Another poetry collection, I Would Steal Horses, was published in the same year. With these publications, he began to establish a reputation for poetry about Native American life on reservations, in which he explored various themes, including alcoholism, drugs, poverty, and racism. Despite the serious themes, Alexie also laced the poems with humor.

In 1993, he published two more poetry collections, Old Shirts and New Skins and First Indian on the Moon, as well as The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, a collection of interwoven short stories. The latter collection won the PEN/Hemingway Award for best first book of fiction. One of its stories was later made into the movie Smoke Signals (1998), for which Alexie cowrote the screenplay.

Alexie’s first novel, Reservation Blues, was published in 1995. Subsequent poetry collections include Water Flowing Home (1995), The Summer of Black Widows (1996), The Man Who Loves Salmon (1998), One Stick Song (2000), Face (2009), and What I’ve Stolen, What I’ve Earned (2013). During this time, Alexie developed a reputation for performing his own poems at poetry slams and festivals. He held the Taos Poetry Circus’s World Heavyweight Poetry title for four years.

Alexie’s short-story collection The Toughest Indian in the World (2000) won the PEN/Malamud Award for short-story writing. Ten Little Indians (2004) was a collection of nine short stories. Alexie’s second novel, Indian Killer, was published in 1996. Eleven years later, his young adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007) won a National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. A third novel, Flight, was published in 2007.

War Dances, another collection of short stories and poetry, won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction in 2010. Blasphemy (2012) collected new and previously published short stories. In 2013 Alexie was awarded the John Dos Passos Prize for Literature. His memoirYou Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, was published in 2017.

Poem Text

Alexie, Sherman. “The Facebook Sonnet.” 2011. The New Yorker.

Summary

The poem, which is in the form of a sonnet, is highly critical of how people use Facebook, the social media giant. In Line 1, the speaker welcomes people to Facebook. However, it quickly becomes clear that the speaker is not going to extol the benefits or pleasures of Facebook. Instead, he denigrates Facebook as being like a high school reunion that goes on seemingly without end. Facebook users, according to the speaker, are locked into the past, always looking back and trying to relive their former years as if nothing has changed. This illusion continues as Facebook users keep adding to their collection of Facebook friends.

In Line 5, the speaker appears to defend the way people use Facebook, speaking as if he is one of them—but he speaks ironically. He thinks the Facebook enterprise is like a big pretense, as if everyone is just reliving their youth. He suggests that everyone should just remain children, playing the same games. Still using irony, he says that Facebook users should just go ahead and enjoy the publicity they generate for themselves, whether it is good or bad (Lines 9-10). Everything about their lives, even their search for God (however conceived), should be broadcast to other users.

The final two lines continue the mocking tone, inviting everyone to sign up for Facebook—but in the last line, the speaker reveals his actual feelings directly, casting irony aside. He states that, in fact, Facebook does not foster nourishing connections between people but leads instead to loneliness.

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