Q & A: John Tranter
Are these poems part of a sonnet sequence?
Well, yes and no. They are part of a sequence of one hundred and one similar poems, all fourteen lines long. I published a book of fourteen-line poems thirty years ago titled Crying in Early Infancy: 100 Sonnets, and many readers were annoyed that I called them “sonnets,” as only a handful of them rhymed. So I don’t call fourteen-line poems “sonnets” anymore. I should invent a short word for them: ronnets, perhaps: “rhyme-free sonnets.”
All of this group of 101 “ronnets” were arrived at by this process: I spoke the words of poems by Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Baudelaire, and Verlaine, in French, into a computer equipped with a microphone and a speech-to-text recognition program. This program had not been designed to handle French; that is, its dictionary consisted of only English words. Nonetheless, it made valiant attempts to “make sense,” in English text, of the French it was given. And indeed, some of the lines that resulted are quite reasonable: who could argue with the statement “No one wants an incontinent hostage”?
These rough drafts were very rough, and went through a lot of rewriting. In fact I don’t recall ever working as hard as I did on these poems, dragging them toward meaning. A further restraint was imposed late in the rewriting process: each of the poems contains one or more lines or phrases from poems by John Ashbery.
Your shaping of stanzas (octet followed by sestet) follows the Petrarchan sonnet form, but the poems don’t rhyme. Why, then, is the octet-sestet division necessary?
I think the sonnet form is more about that division than about rhyme. After all, if the sonnet is defined by its rhyme scheme, how come we have lots of different rhyme schemes for sonnets? That eight-line/six-line divide beautifully accommodates setting up a scene, twisting it around, and wrapping it up. Then of course playing with that form, distorting it, even mocking it, has the long history of the sonnet to play off of, so even an inconsequential fourteen-line poem carries some of the sonnet’s gravitas in its baggage.
Is Jim Gott a sort of embattled Everyman?
I guess old Jim is partly the product of computer malfeasance and transcultural incomprehension, and partly a pastiche of human characteristics gleaned from real life and books and movies and popular songs and television programs. He is a cultural construct, that is, not a human being—and mainly incomplete, like The Shadow or Banquo’s ghost.
The last sentence is unexpected. Can you say a little more about it?
I wish I could. My own poems are always surprising me. I guess that last sentence is related to the interpersonal conflict that sticks its head up now and then in the rest of the poem. It’s also a way of allowing the reader to put the poem aside and get a coffee.