Monday, March 05, 2007

In Defense of Difficulty

Adolf Wolfli,
Mental Asylum Bandhain,

A talk given as part of "In Defense of Difficulty" panel at the 2007 AWP conference held in Atlanta, Georgia.

In 1895 a thirty-one-year-old man was sent to Waldau Clinic in Bern, Switzerland, after attempting to sexually molest a three-and-a-half-year-old girl. Judged “mentally ill, unaccountable for his actions,”1 Adolf Wöfli was to live as a patient at the clinic until his death in 1930. An often-violent inmate who was constantly plagued by hallucinations and voices, Wölfli would calm himself by drawing and writing. During his thirty-five years at Waldau he wrote 25,000 pages of text and created over 3,000 illustrations, which he bound into large folio-sized books. Although his work is quantifiable and has been sifted through and examined by a number of experts—both psychiatric and artistic—his position in the world as an artist and a man remains mysterious because of our social need to define and evaluate the visual and verbal work of artists: to place that work in some hierarchy of creative legitimacy.

In his writings on Wölfli, art critic Carter Ratcliff defines the logic behind this hierarchy: “At the apex, stands the genius: he can flirt with madness, even embrace it, so long as familiar definitions of art suffer no substantial change. But madness occupies a place too low for reciprocity. Art can be mad but madness cannot be art.”2

In 1908, after almost ten years at Waldau during which the self-taught artist evolved not only a method of drawing and writing but a set of symbols, icons, and musical notation, Wolfli began his first book: From the Cradle to the Graave. Or, through work and sweat, suffering and ordeals, even through prayer into damnation. In this 2,615 page hand-written narrative Wölfli retells his childhood, and transforms its unbearable realities: his brutal and drunken father’s abandonment, his mother’s inability to keep her children, especially her youngest Adolf, from fierce and shameful poverty, Adolf’s hiring out as a laborer at the age of eight, and his mother’s death when he was nine.

In his retelling of his childhood from the age of two to eight, his family not only remains intact—gaining two imaginary female children—it becomes part of a group of traveling relatives and scientists: the Swiss Hunters and Natural Explorer Traveling Society. Among the travelers are princesses and dignitaries, all humane in their treatment and alliance to the young Adolf, or as he is nicknamed, Doufi. The family travels through the cosmos, and Doufi is able to buy planets as well as countries, which he outfits with a host of utopian structures. His story is filled with lists, for the universe that Wölfli creates is densely populated—like his drawings—with materiality.

“…endless eternity is neither round nor square, has absolutely no limits. On a stretch of absolutely not less than about: 420,000,000 German miles or 1,680,000,000 hours along which, in 1868, with my very own beloved parents, brothers and sisters, friends, under the constant presence of God Almighty the Fatther, I traveled in the infinite spaces of creation by the most manyfold means of transport, as for instance gigantic and majestic carrier, luxury and transport birds, island-mothships, giant-fountains, lightning serpents, omnipotence-moths, etc. etc., always in quite comfortable riding information, I saw during every staar-bright night a chaos of staars of the most manyfold kinds such as the most skillful writer’s hand is unable to describe and explain.”3

Just three years before Wölfli was confined, Henry Darger was born in Chicago. Like Wölfli, he would lose both his parents—his mother through death and his father through illness and poverty—by the time he was eight. When his father entered St. Augustine’s Poor House, Henry was institutionalized in a Catholic boys’ home. A doctor, who claimed that the fractious young Darger’s heart was “in the wrong place,”4 had him transferred to the Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children in Lincoln, Illinois when he was twelve.

A recluse who attended Mass sometimes four and five times as day, the adult Darger was a janitor at local hospitals. At night, sequestered in his room, he worked on an epic story about an imaginary world in which Christian countries battled to defeat Glandelinia, a country that trafficked in the violently abusive slavery, torture, and murder of children. The heroes of his story were the seven dazzlingly beautiful, often naked and hermaphroditic Vivian girls, who were aided in the child-slavery wars by adult male soldiers and a genus of innocence-loving, butterfly-winged serpents.

During the course of his life Darger would write, illustrate and bind into books over 15,000 pages in The Story of the Vivian Girls, in what is Known as the Realms of the Unreal.

Filmmaker Jessica Yu, who made a documentary of Darger in 2005, explained the reasons behind making the film In the Realms of the Unreal: “. . . there was something about the combination of strange subject matter and innocent presentation, the total lack of irony in his bizarre imagery, that stuck with me . . . I was drawn to tell his story finally because he created this world of images only for himself. I kept asking myself, ‘Can imagination be enough? Can one replace real human relationships and community with those invented in one’s mind?”5

Darger’s ability to function in the world, no matter how minimally, has been used as an argument for his being a more “legitimate” artist than Wölfli. But in the world of art there is in fact little difference between Wölfli’s madness and Darger’s “innocence.” Both remain on the margins of literature and art.

A more interesting parallel between Darger and Wölfli was their need to move inward, to create an intricate, complex world in which they could somehow heal the injustices that had occurred to them as children. Any writer can identify with this impulse to move inward to create other worlds; it’s an essential imaginative form of the practice, and one that both writers and readers delight in. Perhaps it functions as a form of healing for most of us, if not an exploration of possibilities.

Louis A. Sass, a professor of clinical psychology at Rutgers, brought forth the topic of schizophrenia and literature and art in his meticulous and wide-ranging study, Madness and Modernism. Sass likens the symptoms of the disease to practices of perception and techniques in art developed in the early twentieth century and in use today. He does this, he claims, not to “denigrate” or claim that modernist and post-modernist art is schizophrenic, or to “glorify schizophrenia … as conducive to artistic creativity” but rather to “clarify” what has been named the “quintessential form of madness in our time.”6

Schizophrenia, writes Sass, begins with changes in perception, the first of these is an experience of the external world as an “unreality” in which “Reality seems to be unveiled as never before, and the visual world looks eerie and peculiar—weirdly beautiful, tantalizingly significant, or perhaps horrifying in some insidious but ineffable way.” The perspective includes experiencing the very existence of objects in reality as unbelievable and as fragmented: “objects normally perceived as parts of larger complexes may seem strangely isolated, disconnected from each other and devoid of encompassing context.”
Sass finds “such experiences can be akin either to the exalting feeling of wonder, mystery and terror inherent in what Heidegger considers to be the basic question of metaphysics—“Why is there something rather than nothing?”

Finally, “a certain abnormal awareness of meaningfulness or of significance” accompanies the individual’s new perceptions of the surrounding world.

As one moves deeper into schizophrenia, the trend is for unremitting self-awareness, an increasing sense of isolation, and solipsism. Sociologist Brigitte Berger’s explains Sass’ thesis:

“. . . both the modernist artist and the schizophrenic are characterized by a pronounced thrust to deconstruct the world and to subjectively reconstruct human experience without reference to objective reality. Layers of reality exist side by side, frequently fusing into each other, and the acute self-awareness Mr. Sass calls hyperreflexivity, as well as a profound sense of alienation from the empirical world, run rampant.
And there is the crux of this provocative book [Madness and Modernism]: the contention that there is a tenuous, though clearly discernible, connection between modern culture and madness.”7

Wölfli, in his schizophrenia, claimed that he was “only copying what he had drawn before at God’s bidding, during his travels round the cosmos before he was eight years old.” What kind of truth we as readers and observers attach to his words, however, is somehow irrelevant. By saying that I’m ascribing to neither an ideology of inwardness nor to one of laissez-faire creation and interpretation. What I’m reaching for is something closer to what the German psychoanalyst Hemmo Muller-Suur suggests when he states:

“With his art Wölfli mastered his fate with a naïve but deep earnestness, imperturbably devoted to his artistic mission. And just as for him this art contained the task of ‘commemoration,’ it contains this task for us as well . . . We understand it only when we also consider how in this art the theme of Wölfli’s being insane is developed as a human fate, and we thus experience therein something of the mysterious essence of being insane.”8

We also understand something more of the essence of being human, the core of its fragility. Wölfli and Darger lie at the extreme end of the spectrum of writing and art. However, wayward their impulses may seem to us, writing served to save them. Who would deny them this? And if we allow that their writing has validity, not simply to themselves but to all of us who struggle with the dilemmas of writing and living, then how can we not extend that validity to others? If we make an exception in their cases, give them legitimacy because their work is directed by an inner need that seems to endow them with a less rhetorical and purer motivation than that of a writer who seeks an audience, then we undercut the legitimacy of the rational writer. Can we also designate experimental and difficult writers as less legitimate because their writing is less accessible? Perhaps even less accessible than either Wöfli or Darger’s writing? Why would we do that? Why would we deny validity to any writer whose work comprises one more intensely human act; who, in concert with other writers, forms the human community?

My thanks to Dr. Robert Ehrlich for pointing the way.


1. Carter Ratcliff, “Adolf Wölfli,” from the catalog The Other Side of the Moon: The World of Adolf Wölfli (Philadelphia: Moore College of Art, 1988) accompanying the exhibition at the Goldie Paley gallery, 17.

2. From the Ratcliff essay cited above, 25.

3. Harald Szeeman, “No Catastrophe without Idyll, No Idyll without Catastrophe,” from the catalog Adolf Wölfli (Berne: Adolf Wölfli Foundation, Museum of Fine Arts, Berne, 1976), 63. Quotes from Adolf Wöfli are from this catalog unless otherwise noted.

4. From the introduction by Michael Bonesteel, Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings, (NY: Rizzoli, 2000), 9.

5. From the PBS site:

6. Unless otherwise stated, all the quotations referencing this book are from Louis A. Sass, Madness and Modernism (NY: Basic Books, HarperCollins, 1992), 9, 44-49.

7. From the review of Madness and Modernism by Brigitte Berger, “Schizophrenia: Chicken or Egg?” New York Times, December 13, 1992.

8. Hemmo Muller-Suur, “Wölfli’s Art as a Problem for Psychiatry,” from the catalog Adolf Wölfli (Berne: Adolf Wölfli Foundation, Museum of Fine Arts, Berne, 1976), 105.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

An Evening of Songs

More reviews by Jaime Robles can be found at Repeat Performances.

Nora Lennox Martin, vocals
Jerry Kuderna, piano
January 26, 2007

This second concert in the Berkeley Arts Festival could easily have been titled “Flowers and the Blossoming of Modernism,” for the work featured, except for a couple of forays into the postmodern, fell under one of those two headings. Pianist Jerry Kuderna presented a selection of contemporary piano pieces from Schoenberg to Helps and accompanied soprano Nora Lennox Martin in a selection of florally thematic songs, written primarily by twentieth-century composers.

Kuderna began the concert with Prelude and Song from Robert Helps’ 1977 Suite for Piano, which was later titled In Retrospect (Op. 26). This is a composer he clearly feels great sympathy with, for he negotiated the piece with emotional sensitivity and care.

Martin next sang Milhaud’s Catalogue de Fleurs. Because it imitates a flower catalog, the text of these short songs has a flatness that makes interpretation a challenge:

The Aurora Begonia has a full double blossom,
Apricot, tinged with coral; very pretty color;
It is rare and unusual.

The music supports a certain loveliness but beyond that it’s up to the singer to individualize each of the seven flowers and then to tie them together in an ending whose irony—“The price list will be sent to you by post”—could easily undo the charm that has gone before. Martin uses her opportunities well, spanning the host of traits ascribable to flowers from demure to seductive, and shows her ability to handle humor with lightness. Because of her youth, her voice has the freshness necessary to give the song cycle a springtime warmth and airiness.
Kuderna completed the first half with a piano piece by Lani Allen, “Soquel Sunrise,” and Alban Berg’s landmark Sonata for Piano, Op. 1. Kuderna flew through this formidable piece, bringing its agitated and wandering center to a satisfying completion.

The second half of the program was devoted primarily to vocal music and began with Fauré’s “Les roses d’Ispahan.” This bit of late Romantic orientalia with its seductive melody and soft, rhythmically mesmerizing accompaniment was especially good for revealing the sweetness of Martin’s soprano voice. It was followed by two pieces by Respighi—“Notte” and “Nebbie”—that showed the darker side of love lost, ominously connected to despair and death.

Kuderna followed with Schoenberg’s Sechs Kleine Klavierstuecke, and he gave the lyricism in these brief pieces an interesting quality that bordered on the light and quixotic, while at the same time suggesting a seriousness, a “reaching for,” as if the composer were listening to the tick of a different neurological clock just on the other side of the perceivable.

Kuderna and Martin then presented five of Schoenberg’s Das Buch der haengenden Gaerten—1, 2, 5, 9 and 10. These pieces taken from Stefan George’s atmospheric tracings of desire—realized and lost—are notable as Schoenberg’s first clear realization into atonality, and it is interesting that Schoenberg was able to find his way into this sense of sound through the poetic word. The first song, which begins with a simple direct pattern startlingly disrupted by a single dissonant note, establishes not only the world of atonality but the disruption of an easily definable inner state: a strangeness compatible with the symbolist text as it defines the imaginary world of the poet’s Babylonian hanging gardens.

As the musical agitation continues, the poetic line establishes itself above the music as a separate “other” emotional place whose boundaries are drawn by a voice very close to spoken word. The poetry is fairly regular rhymed iambic pentameter and Schoenberg set it very carefully, recognizing not only the line breaks but also delineating between full stops and enjambed lines, or lines that continue on without syntactical break.

Despite that, the listener is never aware of metrics, rhyme or line breaks—so subtle is the treatment.

Martin, with extreme sensitivity to the text, has followed Schoenberg’s lead and further interprets the vocal line in a way suggestive of how Stephan George’s own readings have been described by the writer-translator Rudolf Kassner:

… murmuring word after word, avoiding emotion, as if he were reading magic spells or prayers in language that no one needed to understand, because it is holy and designed for purely magical effects.

Regrettably, only five of the 15 songs were sung, which leaves this duo with a mission for the future.

The program closed with a wonderful selection of four blues songs by contemporary composer Logan Skelton. These difficult songs, three of which were settings of poems by e.e. cummings, showed a range from exquisite to just plain fun vocal gymnastics, as Martin used her voice to dive, dip, slide, and shimmy while telling us stories about Jimmy’s “goil” and a woman who stores her life savings in her gold fillings.

Nora Martin not only has a beautiful voice, but she uses it deftly, assuredly and with great joy. She abandons herself to the music and to the moment. Further, her great sensitivity to text—a trait unusual in many singers, who are often concerned more with tone and phrasing—allows her to make the most of the emotional sense of words.

Martin and Jerry Kuderna, as able accompanist, make an excellent duo, exploring and presenting the vocal intricacies of contemporary music.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

On theory and death

It is difficult to consider theory seriously in the light of death.

The feral cat who has lived in my yard for years is dying. I define my
relationship to her in terms of how long I can keep her alive. And in comfort.
She lives inside now. By the radiator, which I leave on.

Outside in the yard, two trees are also dying. They are large
evergreens. Is it possible for evergreens to die? Doesn’t their name
signify forever green. That is to say, immortal, or more—forever fresh, alive.
A third one died in the spring, turned brown. Now, the other two
are slowly turning brown.

The hard drive on my computer is also dying. On Monday I will have it
replaced and all the data transferred over to a new 9-gig drive.

It will take years to replace the evergreens. Are they Monterey pines?
I think so. Or some kind of cypress.
Something that should have lasted centuries.

I can’t replace them with more of the same. I will need to try a
different plant. Perhaps a ceanothus, which will grow taller and
thicker and bluer. Or a manzanita with twisting branches, peeling red bark.

And there is nothing theoretical about the mass in the feral cat’s
body—the mass that is killing her. When she dies—which means
when I decide that she’s begun to suffer too much—I will bury her near her
brother cats—who died just two months ago—

out in the yard, not far from where the first evergreen—was it a
cypress?—died last spring. Which was only six months after my
father died—

just over a year ago.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Francesca's Complaint from 'Inferno'

The final aria from ‘Inferno’ based on the story of Paolo and Francesco in Dante’s ‘Commedia.’ Music by Peter Josheff, words by Jaime Robles. The staging at Thick House Theater in San Francisco can be found at YouTube.

You, poets, ask me what I have done.

What crime did I commit while licorice sweet earthly air
Still filled my lungs, rang through the long

Rhythms of my heart? What could I say? Why should I tell you?
Stories have unraveled me: false-hearted words now
Tangle across my tongue. Words, with breathless ease, undo

Us both, speaker and listener. I am restless to death
In this humid wind, I hunger for sturdy skin—
Thick flesh that could—with just a touch—stutter words and death

To a stop.

Let me breathe in

Solid skin, blood and bone, here in this icy air,
Where I dangle, hooked and shuddering like a fish,
Through eternal time, my hell-bound prayers

Chatter that love is no crime, no love is a crime.
Neither spouse loved us, ever: We thought we loved each other.
I, a girl they sold to a hunchback soldier—in time

Love’s pearl dissolved like a story told years ago.
—Speak new words to me.

Monday, January 01, 2007

A Question of Reading

A talk given as part of "A Continuing Discussion: Experimental Form and Accessibility" panel at the 2006 AWP conference held in Austin, Texas.

This past winter a colleague of mine asked me why I had objected to the term “aberrant” in his description of a poetic form he was planning to teach in the spring. He had written the following: “Studies in the first half of each class will include a close examination and practice of the traditional poetic forms of the ghazal, sestina, and haiku, as well as at least one aberrant form, such as concrete poetry.” What I realized in that moment of rereading was that I didn’t think of any poetic form as aberrant, at least not in the way we think of aberrant as meaning “a straying from the right or normal way,” a “deviation from the natural.”

The example of concrete poetry brought to mind that the earliest writing was based on the connection of sign to meaning as opposed to sign to sound, pictographs conflated the shape of things with meaning before they conflated those shapes to sound. Further, shaped poetry has been around from the earliest times of the phonographic alphabet and it appears throughout poetic history, although without reaching popularity or taking on the cryptic intensity of concrete poetry.
Most of the poetic forms that we think of as traditional, or “normal,” were at one time variations of a preceding form; form as such is constantly changing—mutating or evolving, depending on whether one looks at change as bad or good.

Today’s experimental poetry is the wellspring of formal change in our landscape of writing. It allows for mutation or evolution; and is validated by being named “experimental” in a culture that values science above all. I propose that most generations have experimental poets, and that accessibility to their work is contingent more on an ability to shed expectations about what poetry is or is not than on an understanding of literary trends. Reading experimental poetry requires a desire to attend to the words on the page, to be drawn in by a need to grapple with the work intellectually or to follow its mysteries into some relationship. Accessibility may not be the true issue. In order to explicate some of these thoughts I’d like to examine a more traditional poetic form—the sonnet.

According to British scholar Michael Spiller “the sonnet is probably the longest-lived of all poetic forms, and certainly the longest lived of all prescribed or closed forms . . . It’s identity is formal rather than thematic.” When we think of the sonnet we think of it as a fourteen-line poem in iambic pentameter, divided by rhyme into an octet and a sextet or into three quatrains and a couplet. The invention of the sonnet form is attributed to a legal deputy of the Emperor Frederick 2 of Sicily, Giacomo da Lentino, some time between 1208 and 1250. It’s unknown from which form the sonnet was derived, but scholars take the existence of a preceding form as a given. What they postulate is that the sonnet is derived from a much longer form—the provençal canson. The canson was a long song, usually of persuasion between a lover and his lady. It was divided into two major sections with a turn (or volta) between these two sections. The major sections themselves were divided into two sections, so that each comprised a proposal and response. Because the canson was a song, each division of each section was a rhythmic and rhyming mirror of its mate. The sonnet form is seen as a condensation of the canson’s metric and rhyming back-and-forth of the lovers’ persuasion. So the primary meaning of the sonnet was structural.

In our postmodern world, what may have remained of the canson and sonnet’s thematic structure is lost; the sonnet’s constraints are simply arithmetic, and in that lies the experimental writer’s fascination with the form. But before I move on to contemporary experiments with the sonnet I’d like to briefly look at the accessibility of the most valued sonnet sequence in English, and that is Shakespeare’s.

In Rowan Atkinson’s sequel to the television series Black Adder, a contemporary incarnation of the ever-foiled schemer Black Adder is transported by time machine to Elizabethan England, where in the halls of Windsor Castle, he decks a poet while fleeing a less than friendly court. Finding out that the poet is William Shakespeare, Black Adder turns in flight to give Will an additional swift kick, adding by way of explanation, “And that’s for making every school child’s life miserable for the next 400 years.”

In The Pound Era, Hugh Kenner quotes a song from Cymbeline: Thou thy worldly task hast done,Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages;Golden lads and girls all must, As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.We feel that we can easily understand these lines. All children, all human will eventually die, no matter their riches or their poverties. The image “golden lads” conjures up fair-haired children with sun-browned limbs set in contrast to the soot-covered children we most often associate with Dickensian pathos. It’s interesting that any time there is a change in literature, what is written preceding that change is changed as well. Kenner remarks that the word “golden” so irradiates the line that we barely think to ask how Shakespeare may have come to his comparison. Kenner then goes on to tell that a mid 20th century visitor to Shakespeare’s Warwickshire met a countryman, who remarked as he blew the grey head off a dandelion: “We call these golden boys chimney sweepers when they go to seed.” Kenner asks is that what Shakespeare heard when he was writing—a portrait of “Death as the blowing of a common flower?” Kenner continues, “If there were no Warwickshire ears in the Globe to hear that Warwickshire idiom, the dandelions and their structure of meaning simply dropped out. Yet for 350 years no one has reported a chasm.”

Shakespeare’s sonnets present another dilemma as well, and that is the narrative thread running between the sonnets, which seems to tell a story of adorations, patronage, and betrayals, between the writer and the two love interests he addresses. The order of the sonnets, which was probably not Shakespeare’s, does little to solve such questions as who is the fair young man? Shakespeare’s lover? A possible patron? A disguised portrayal of Queen Elizabeth? An idealization of love? All of these possibilities have been proposed and justified. Any of them would seriously change the meaning of sonnets and of the sequence itself. Having logged on to an e-list discussion between Shakespeare scholars I came across the following complaint: “Analyzing the sonnets feels to me like trying to hack a path through a swamp. The more I clear out of the way, the more tangled the underbrush becomes.”

Even if there were no lexical, cultural, or historical mysteries in the text of Shakespeare’s sonnets, the average reader would be baffled by the elaborations of syntax and grammar. Inversions, displacements, complex metaphors with frequent ambiguities, and language dense with repeating sounds separate Shakespeare’s language from the everyday, and by doing so hamper the work’s immediate accessibility. We learn to read Shakespeare’s sonnet, and by doing so understand more fully their inherent loveliness. How immediate does accessibility have to be to be truly accessible?

Contemporary writers continue to experiment, and experiment radically with the sonnet form. These writers are interested in time and its compression, repeating the sonnet’s impulse to condense the canson. The traditional constraints that have been recently discarded, however, are different than that of the open-ended length that was abandoned 800 years ago. More often twentieth century poets have discarded the iambic pentameter and the rhyme scheme, and what we now have is a sonnet formed in a culture where the predominant verse form is free verse.

In the early 1960s Ted Berrigan wrote a long sequence of short poems that was published in 1964 as The Sonnets. Alice Notley comments: “Ted returned to the strict form of The Sonnets several times . . . to make points about his life and the passage of time.. . . Ted liked to say that poetry is numbers, and maybe everything is numbers. The sonnet form is “about” the number fourteen, but Ted’s sonnets use fourteen as a frame for the disassemblage of the number, making a real advance in the form and its relation to the psyche. To the extent that Ted broke and remade the form, it became possible to use it for more than argument.”

In his sonnets, Berrigan occasionally uses the iambic pentameter line, if rhyme occurs it is likely to be happenstance. What Berrigan preferred to do as a formal pattern was to repeat lines across individual sonnets. If you look at the sonnet packet you will see four of Berrigan’s sonnets all of which contain some lines from the others. Sonnets 15 and 59 have exactly the same lines only shuffled. The original writing of the sonnet— number 59—has a linearity and coherence that is disrupted and presented out of sequence to the reader in the earlier sonnet 15. Other lines from sonnet 59 appear in sonnets 42 and 43. Isn’t that slightly perverse? Yes, probably, I won’t argue that there isn’t a streak of perversion to any experimentation or conscious deviation from canonical convention, but there are other reasons involved. In this case, a sort of playfulness on the part of the poet, who is turning a traditionally linear series into a set of non-chronological events. In a mnemonic and verbal challenge, on the one hand, the poet is asking the reader to decipher the lines that are repeated and tumbled together; on the other hand, he is making a serious statement on how cognition and memory work, challenging the idea that thought runs in a clean and straight line from the past into the future. Notley remarks on Berrigan’s internal relation to his sonnet form: “The form is suited to detached self-scrutiny, using lines and phrases from past and present poems, reading material, and on going mind, in an order determined by numbers rather than syntax . . . The pieces of the self are allowed to separate and reform: one is not chronology but its parts and the real organism they create. One could condense cognition into fourteen or so lines, if each piece, each segment of the fourteen, even each phrase in a line, meant enough.”

Berrigan’s fascination with numbers connected him in a way to Rexroth’s idea of “Natural Numbers,” which referred to a prosody that approximates the speech used from one person to another. This sense of diction—The “Dear Margie, hello. It is 5:15 a.m.” language—echoes Frank O’Hara’s exhortations on poetry, and finds its analogue in the use of the vernacular in the original sonnet form.

In a recently published sonnet series, Involuntary Lyrics, writer Aaron Shurin uses the Shakespeare’s 154 sonnet sequence to construct an experimental series of fourteen-line sonnets that are about San Francisco, gay life and the disaster of AIDS. In this project he takes the end words of each of the original sonnets, switches their placement in order to disrupt the rhyme scheme, and then writes into these words so that each of the lines of each of his sonnets ends with one of Shakespeare’s end words. Part of the game played becomes that between the two writer’s vocabularies. There is wit and humor in his reinterpretations of Shakespeare’s words: the “husbandry” of Shakespeare becomes Shurin’s “bodies—dry.” Woe—w-o-e—becomes Whoa—w-h-o-a.

Included among the experimentations of poet Laynie Browne are several series of sonnets, which also take their identity as sonnets from the constraint of fourteen lines. “The Daily Sonnets,” which is her longest series, is comprised of a variety of shorter series that are intermixed: Love Poems to Light, Alphabet poems, poems in collaboration with friends, sonnet fragments that are variously called things such as “half sonnet + 1” “six-fourteenth sonnet” all of these are part of a daily writing practice she follows. They are filled with the language, observations, and everydayness of family and children. Browne explains: “As a parent of two small children I invent time in order to work. Thus the one-minute sonnet.” Her desire to use the form comes from her sense of time: “There is an openness I am attempting to enter as an experiment, as a salute or recognition of time passing so that everything is included” [and] “I think of the modern sonnet as an increment of time within a frame. Something that often physically fits into a little rectangle (but not in thought). Something you can utter in one long breath or hold in your hand. When my hand covers the page, it disappears. It’s a controlled measure of sound and space within which one can do anything really. And then do it again.”

Perhaps the most radical of the sonnet experiments in the group I am describing is the “Transcendental Grammar Crown” by Brian Teare, a fifteen-poem sonnet crown that is meant to fuse the sonnet form with open field poetry. The poems pay homage to the what Teare describes as “four musico-logical minds: Thoreau, Emerson, Dickinson, and Ives.” The idea of open field poetry resonated in another, more metaphoric, way with Emerson, Thoreau and Ives. Teare explains his experiment: “I was really interested in and moved by the way that Ives placed his work as a bridge between centuries—Romanticism and Modernism—with his spirituality intact, and I wanted to place my own work in a similar aesthetic location. It seemed to me, as I read through the long history of the sonnet alongside Dickinson’s un settling syntax and during Ives’ Three Places in New England, that what I wanted for the sonnet had been there all along . . . suddenly it seemed as though having one volta [or turn between the octet and sestet] limited the potential energy of the sonnet: why not put a volta between every stanza? That way, the rhetoric could have more than one turn; the voice, more than one tonality or opinion; the form, more than one way of being on the page . . . Such a change would enable the sonnet to harness the energy of the open field, especially in the sense Duncan means when he writes, in The Truth and Life of Myth, “The Divine Will in Poetry is Creative and its inspiration never single-minded or strait, but creates a field of meanings.”