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.”