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To Sonnet, to Son-net, Tuscon Net
Recently Geist Magazine, one of the great Canadian magazines, announced a contest for the best “Jackpine Sonnet.” The Jackpine sonnet was named by Canadian poet Milton Acorn. It’s a fairly regular sonnet that aims for the traditional 14 lines, each line containing 7 to 13 syllables, but, in Acorn’s words, “If your sonnet cuts itself off—click!—at, say line 12, 18 or 20, leave it at that.” As for rhyme, “Acorn advised writers to write internal rhymes (rhymes within a line) or external rhymes (rhymes at the end of consecutive lines) ‘to keep the flow.’ In the absence of rhyme, use assonance (the repetition of vowel sounds), ‘to keep the rhyme alive in order to come up with a true rhyme further on’…”
I love the sonnet, and the many ways in which poets have handled the form and continue to handle the form. It’s a challenge to make it lively, to not feel you’ve handed yourself over and let its history have its way with you: are you writing the sonnet, or is the sonnet writing you? So many feel like ghosts of other sonnets, barely breathing, barely able to stand on their own two feet. Others snap, insist. Demand attention.
The sonnet can be overwhelming and liberating. A necessary exercise for a poet I think, at least at one point in one’s development. The form is pliable. Back before I realized that the sonnet could be so pliable I recall encountering Vikram Seth’s novel The Golden Gate, which, while impressive, I didn’t find particularly compelling (It’s hard to pull off so many…Shakespeare only did 154). Then I discovered Marilyn Hacker’s Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons and was quite taken by the energy she captures in those sequences. Hacker’s book isn’t only sonnets, but there are many, and Hacker certainly can claim to be both a master of the form, and a great reader of the form. Here she is on Gwendolyn Brooks’ “The Rites for Cousin Vit” which reminds me a little of the luge track in Vancouver the way she handles the corners and slides into the gold stretch.
When we discuss the form in an introductory setting we do so in several ways: from traditional to radically experimental. Recently a poem from Ken Babstock (more on him to come) and a crown of sonnets by Anne Simpson—both found in Open Field. Babstock’s handling of the form is full of swagger and precision. Here’s the beginning of “First Lesson in Unpopular Mechanics”:
As a boy, it was a scale-model Messerschmitt
pitched at the wall in a boy-scale rage–
Now? These grown-up middletones, wafflings, shit
flung deliberately wide of the fan. I remember the age
I began to ease off–thirteen, fourteen–
when busting one’s stick meant a five-minute major,
and there, in the sin bin, thinking, what did I mean
by two-handing the crossbar?
Simpson’s crown takes on ekphrastic poetry and mixes in a post 9/11 narrative with great condensed and moving language.
“Are you still there? Are you?” A voice falls. Stone,
Unbearable stone. It grinds. It tastes of grief.
Don’t watch. Go blind. Oh Lord, those moans
will haunt us. This one. That one there. Brief
There are many poets in North America working with the sonnet, and many in Canada. George Murray published a collection of sonnets not long ago. Here’s a couplet from “Collusion”
The crushed grass evidence of collusion:
the animals fuck themselves to bleeding.
And from The Corner:”
The child’s conception like a struck match,
an axe ringing off knots in trunk wood,
cloudy brains forming in the sky. The twin
of today is yesterday, or will
be tomorrow, yet each continues/follows,
different from the last/next. Like obstinate
math problems we line up, waiting, in effect,
for a dark age to pass; to be made public, fixed.
In Murray’s hands the sonnet becomes a comfortable vessel in which he offers playful, and often very insightful, knotty, stubborn, surprising, ruminations: “I’ve met my match in my son, the mirror/image of his face constantly separating/from mine…”
There are more unconventional turns—such as Mr. Acorn with his cut it at 12 if it wants. West coast poet Alfred Noyes, also known as Stephen Collis and author, most recently of The Commons, has also published poems called Compression Sonnets. Wee sonnets that consist of fourteen words:
What shall a
Book undo measure
And consign the
First act of
Dear anything with
Ears we are
Imbedded displeasures who
War as reporters
A poem appearing
After Auschwitz dear
Unflappable ghost we
Must address a
Noyes is interested in condensation. In his introduction he asks, “what might come of only fourteen words? What of the ‘sonnet’ remains? A turn after the eighth word? At the thirteenth (a concluding ‘couplet’ of words)?”What remains is a good question, and one that poetics of erasure takes up (The Capilano Review did a brilliant job with this).
One can’t think of the sonnet without considering Shakespeare, and all of the textual interventions and engagements his sonnets have evoked. Jen Bervin’s exquisite book Nets, for example. If you haven’t seen Nets, you must. For a little movie about Bervin’s book check out this link from Webdelsol and you can find an essay on Bervin here. What Bervin does can be compared to heightening or rubbing away. It’s a technique that I used in Teeth Marks—but with my own work. Chiseling away the dull bits from a conventional narrative poem to allow for a fragmented version of same poem to emerge. In Nets Bervin takes several dozen of Shakespeare’s sonnets and rubs away at them revealing her own poems. The result is exquisite. Here is one of my favourites:
When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defaced
The rich proud cost of outworn buried age;
When sometime lofty towers I see down-razed,
And brass eternal slave to mortal rage;
When I have seen the hungry ocean gain
Advantage on the kingdom of the shore,
And the firm soil win of the watery main,
Increasing store with loss and loss with store;
When I have seen such interchange of state,
Or state itself confounded to decay;
Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate
That Time will come and take my love away.
This thought is as a death which cannot choose
But weep to have that which it fears to lose.
It’s one of the best uses of erasure/intervention I have found, and partly because it actually builds to something, becomes more than the constraint though arguably no longer a sonnet?
There are many, many interventions. Chris Piuma’s Constellated Sonnets, Raymond Queneau’s “100,000,000,000 Poems,” Mr. Bok reminds us “a book of 10 sonnets, whose cognate lines can be permuted to create more sonnets than aspeedreading immortal can read in 3.5 million years…” Paul Hoover, in Sonnet 56, Les Figues 2009, takes up one of the homely sonnets–and rewrites/revisions in all the hip ways, from N+7 to digression, villanelle to ghazal, haibun to haiku, flarf to homophonic–translation that is.
In a similar turn, Gregory Betts, the author of the essay Plunderverse, recently published The Others Raisd in me, a little book that takes sonnet 154 and creates 154 poems by erasing, sort of as Jen Bervin did with Nets except he doesn’t leave the original poem in the background. Rather he takes words over and over again from the same sonnet, arranging them to create the different poems.
Along the same vein there are the anagrams from K. Silem Mohammed. Elizabeth Bachinksy takes a close look at Mohammed’s sonnet 44, which begins:
Unwholesome leather flagpoles gross me out;
I never may endure their bulging mass.
Abjection hatches random nests of doubt
When I am reading Newsweek in the grass.
Bachinsky compares the Mohammed’s results with her own reworking of Milton’s “On His Blindness,” which turns into “She is Blond Sin” which I offer the first four lines as well, just for a teaser:
Dim, nephritic, yet single (whoosh!)
She’s a dandy kid. Why film her drear wilt and
Tease the wanton hidden clit? Oh had I that
Molten loadstone rebel—gum my thighs. She is down…
Bachinksy is one of the few poets who roam from conceptual and procedural into more formal realms, which has lead reviewers to ask will the real Bachinsky please stand up? I think she did stand up, in several fields, and with equal prowess.
There are also visual sonnets. Christian Bok blogged here on the Poetry Foundation about Darren Wershler’s “Sonnet for Bonnie” pictured above, a few years back.
Sonnet for Bonnie” is a provocative brand of occasional verse—a love-poem that comments upon the vaunted history of the love-poem itself. Wershler-Henry has written a kind of encoded message to a girlfriend named Bonnie, but he has revealed his feelings without resorting to the tropes of standard lyricism because, for him, the act of writing a sonnet in our contemporary, technological milieu must seem all too sentimentally anachronistic. His poem often causes my students much bewilderment when they first encounter it, and I go on to tell them that I always enjoy teaching this poem because, in my opinion, it represents one of the great limit-cases of sonnetry, since the poem is almost a miracle of concision, distilling all the traits of Petrarchan expression into a hieroglyph of four symbols.
“Sonnet (for Bonnie),” Bok points out, is a Petrarchan sonnet using only four characters (probably the shortest possible sonnet so far created). Of his sonnet Wershler says, “If I remember correctly, my thinking was that the basic definition for a love poem of any sort was a question to which the answer was inevitably “you.” The sonnet diagrams that relationship (octave and sestet) in the most efficient way I could imagine at the time. In that respect, it’s more conceptual than visual — almost an algorithm that you could use to generate other work.”
Indeed. The form is generative on many levels: the constraint itself, the conventions, the history, the body of work…it’s probably our most durable and flexible form. The sonnet is a great tool, as Collis says, “so portable, and yet so conservative/constrained in origins.”
So yes, the Jackpine Sonnet. “The fiddle’s incomplete without the dance,” Acorn writes, “Let’s hook fingers to complete.” Without some kind of constraint, verse Acorn suggests lacks luster, and in general, I would agree. There is little sign of a struggle, perhaps. Form or constraint puts pressure on the idea behind the poem, on the original gesture. The sonnet form, Acorn argues, is “realisant.” It’s an organic, not fixed form. “It grows to any shape that suits the light, suits the winds, suits itself.” The Jackpine is a tree that grows in all sorts of conditions. It is resilient and as Acorn appreciates, each tree grows and looks very differently.
Of course each is a member of the same order of tree too, which might be problematic. In 2010 we might see a hybrid Jackpine, part cedar or with strands of tomato for fun. I am being facetious, but not only. I want to think Acorn’s enthusiasm for the form would include all of the above and interpretations we have not yet imagined.
But perhaps that is not so? I’ll end with a provocative little poem from Acorn, poet of the people, but also, it turns out, a poet quite savvy about the poetry biz.
The Craft of Poetry’s the Art of War
Attack! Don’t think yehr poetry aint war.
Them warbling noises be no kind of birds.
They zing—they fly—they smack. They’re bullets
And any minute one of them or something
Even rougher on your balls might score.
Put on your hardhat of proletarian scorn;
And when you throw roses—never mind how sweet;
For sweet life’s sake don’t omit the thorns.
Attack! Those clutching fingers of dawn
Will bundle themselves, soon enough into fists;
Punch you into gargage, put a lid on the can.
You’ll get dropped from this or that love-list
By reason of hate—by reason of fear…or another
But if you think this aint war you’re dead brother.