(Image: that's me at Hay reading Philip Terry's sonnets as part of the lecture. Geraldine Monk's book folded on the desk before me. Photo: John Goodby)
POETICS. My first sonnet was an Oulipo offshoot, though I didn’t know it at the time, 1978. ‘Pataphysical Sonnet’ was formed from the examples of the combinatory ‘Thousand Billion Sonnets’ of Queneau and the ‘irrational sonnets’ (using pi to determine stanza shape and rhyme) of Jacques Bens both of which I found in the New Writing from France Penguin anthology.
G – The Pataphysical Sonnet
Returns to the bedroom, out of his head,
Out of tunes fragments come rocking his bed
Between order and chaos, freedom and …?
Ever, I see my order’s rule in the edge
Riff between sound and silence. Out of hand
The moon in June security has led
So boot if at all to the point of dead
Hope for happiness. Beyond the land
Every sea must ordain its religions in the edge.
Priscilla leaps from bed and surveys her life
Plus belle qu’une poubelle (just) in a cold sweat.
A certain kind of order, edge-of-knife,
provokes her (13 is unlucky) strife.
DADA was here, but I have no regret.
in Dedicated to you but you weren’t listening (London: Writers Forum, 1979)
The first few words of each line were drawn from the titles of music by The Soft Machine, to which it paid homage. The poem uses the rhyme scheme of one of the Bens poems and I worked out that my name furnished an acrostic in reversed 6+8, a device I used (without the accidental clinamen I adopted here) in Twentieth Century Blues, when I returned to the sonnet over a decade later. Meanwhile, I’d enjoyed teaching the form, particularly where coherent but variable units formed parts of a more or less coherent but differentiated whole or extension, and slowly this formal intelligence permeated the poetics of sequences I was writing.
Most recently my poetics journal articulates this in terms of the tension between two modes of organisation:
The isolate poem as the construction of a centrifugal engine, pulling itself together to centre its energies in nodes of impacted attention, supported by a vocabulary of completion wholeness closure structure shape. The danger of saying or doing only one thing…
Or the centripetal: a sense of continuation dispersal openness unfinish
processual structure with evolving forms or even entropic systems…
WORD. I’ve also felt drawn to creating my own structures for sonnets, and I’m proud of having invented the 100 word sonnet in Twentieth Century Blues. Actually, I didn’t invent it; it came from a serendipitous misreading of an Adrian Clarke sonnet with a two word title and 14 lines of 7 words. Adrian hadn’t noticed that that added up to 100 but I wrote a number, eschewing punctuation and using a centre margin (a form that seems to drive the long lines to vertical completion).
LINE. By the time I began Warrant Error, which appears in the Hilson anthology, I had abandoned word count and devised a 2/3/4/5 sonnet stanza, a form which offered 24 combinations. I have since found that Andrew Crozier used the form in the 1980s (?) . Warrant Error was influenced by Berrigan (I thought of modelling them on his and calling them ‘The Poems’, a title used by Berrigan within the poems). But I’d also written on Raworth’s sonnets by then (and on Allen Fisher’s Apocalyptic Sonnets from the 1970s), Adrian was writing his own Skeleton Sonnets and Ken Edwards was publishing parts of his 8+6. Something was in the air. Believing with Rosmarie Waldrop that ‘collage is the splice of life’, I found the ‘little rooms’ of my shifting stanza forms ideal for forming works from the mass of material I was collecting (by 2003 various takes on the War on Terror, human unfinish and other subjects!). As ever with collage, the formal action and the pre-determined shapes meant a lot of the poems gathered their content through formal working. I wrote 100 poems in all, in 4 sets of 24, with 4 extras. I’ll present some in a later posting.
CHARACTER. My Belgian alter-ego Rene Van Valckenborch, more modish and technologically advanced than I, has used Twitter to write his Twitterodes, but the first (or is it the last) is a (Petrarchan) ‘twittersonnet’: 14 lines of 10 characters instead of syllables. (They are here on Pages, November and December 2010; click on those dates to the right.)
SYLLABLE. I have an unused form, adapted from Pierre Alferi’s sequence OXO: 7 lines of 7 syllables, though I call it the half pint sonnet (perhaps in deference to these straightened times). Place a proportional Petrarchan break after line 4, add a one syllable title to bring the count to 50 (which suggests a sequence of 50 of them). I haven’t used this form yet, and there’s another question nagging at me: isn’t it time to stop writing all these sonnets? I’m a great believer in Miles Davis’ advice: ‘End your solo before you’re done’, that is, before every bitter drop has been squeezed from the (arguably) desiccated form. While there’s still life in it.
(NOTES: The title of this posting is meant to allude to Jeff Nuttall’s journal: ‘My Own Mag’, by the way, but the resonance is muted. These last two heading-paragraphs were written for the Hay on Wye lecture but weren’t used due to time constraints. I feel it very unlikely that I will write the syllabic half-pint sonnets now, but I have a notion to do one (last?) sonnet sequence, perhaps based on Milton’s 24 sonnets and perhaps called ‘Bad Sonnets for Bad People’, or that’s what I’m telling myself in my poetics journal today. I am also revising this lecture into a strictly literary-critical chapter for a monograph on Form (ennobled by the capital); that too is feeding into a stirring desire to write a completely different kind of (non-)sequence. I’m also reading the anthology Against Expression, the anthology of conceptual writing, edited by Craid Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith, which contains one brilliant tour de force using anagrams from Shakespeare: K. Silem Mohammad’s ‘Sonnagrams’.
I was also reminded in reading the anthology of Stephen McLaughlin and Jim Carpenter’s Issue 1 of 2008. It's very large (warning: it’s a pdf of over 7000 pages but the link I tried to insert here doesn't work, but I found it through ubuweb), and it contains a poem by me, ‘Small-scale lives and low alarms’; well, it has my name under it but a nice computer program called Erica wrote it. I sought it out again and have plans to ‘do something with it’. I’ve alphabeticalised it for a start. It looks like this now:
- , , ? ? ? a a A a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a b b b B b b b b b c c C c c c c d d d d d d d d d d d d d d d d dd e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e ee e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e f f f f g g g g g h H h h h h h h h h h h h h h h h h h h h h h h h h h h i i i i i I i i i i i i i i i i i i j k k l l l l l l l ll l l l l l l l l l l l l l l l m m M m m m m m m m n n n n n n n n n n n n n n n n n n n n n n o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o p p p P r r r r r r r r r r r r r r r r r r r s s s s s s s s s s s s s s s s s s s s s s s S S s S s s s s S S s s s s t t t t t t t t t t t t t t t t t T t t t t t t T t t t t t t u u u u u u u u u v v v w w w w w w x x y y y y y y y z z
Maybe that doesn’t quite do it justice. But worst of all I noticed that this poem (it’s at p. 35) is actually a kind of sonnet; it has 14 marginalised lines.
The ‘Pataphysical Sonnet’ above was only alluded to (dismissively) at Hay on Wye, but I thought to recover it here to see what it looked like. It seems relevant now to all the projects I have been looking at and describing here.
OK. Back to the lecture: In the next four sections (my daily postings), I’m going to be looking at the four contemporary British sequences as promised in the last posting, asking questions about how the frame of the sonnet is used to facilitate aesthetic encounter, how the poems individually and in sequence take form and make form.)