Thursday, October 09, 2008

The Reality Street Book Of Sonnets

To The Cloud Garden

I was delighted to receive a note to collect a parcel last week (parcels are almost always welcome). I guessed it was The Reality Street Book of Sonnets (edited by Jeff Hilson) which Ron Silliman had blogged about a couple of weeks ago, and which I had subsequently ordered from Alibris. But I was surprised that it got here so quickly, barely a week after I ordered it.

As I suspected, I will probably find most of it unreadable, since it is chock-full of the kinds of poets who are horrified by more than a slim whiff of 'referentiality'. So, for example, there is a good helping of "visual sonnets", some of which are clearly abstract paintings/sketches (so one wonders why they would wish to be anything else) and others which are painstaking assortments of words/letters, sometimes in different fonts, like a child playing vacant games of scrabble with nobody.

David Miller's three 'visual sonnets' ('Untitled', naturally) are composed of a series of loose, horizontal brush-strokes, like stand-ins for text. Hilson remarks on their "affinities with Chinese brush-painting" in his introduction (they remind me of Pound's self-censored lines in The Cantos). No harm in allusions, intended or otherwise, to Chinese art, Pound or, for that matter, the sonnet. If I found these in a gallery I could take or leave the sonnet reference, as a witticism perhaps, while judging the paintings on their own merit as visual artworks. But in a supposedly ground-breaking anthology, whose serious introduction makes clear Hilson's poetic/political bias, I trust I am being asked to consider these works as "linguistically innovative" sonnets, despite the absence of anything vaguely linguistic. I'm reminded of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore's one-legged Tarzan sketch: "Need I say with overmuch emphasis that it is in the leg [i.e. text] division that [these] are deficient?"

But I am always curious as to what the advance-rear-guard is up to. After all, the efforts of its practitioners present a kind of funhouse mirror to what my kind are slogging away at, poor benighted fools that we are (imagining that poetry has some primal allegiance to meaning/song: pathetic really). Also, I remain fascinated by the sonnet, and the way different poets work with it, or against it.

So far, I have only leafed through the anthology, but already I have found four which may well prove to be my favourites (if only because they set out their stalls so clearly). Two of these, by Ron Padgett, simply repeat the first line, without variation, 13 times. In the case of the first sonnet, the title, 'Nothing In That Drawer', is also the first line, so there you have it. Or do you? Well, it does make a different impression if you see the whole sonnet printed on the page, like a stack of empty drawers, so here's the first nine lines, including the title, just prior to the turn (the drawers with the Emperor's invisible spare socks, underwear and porn mags):

Nothing in That Drawer

Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.

The second,'Sonnet/Homage To Andy Warhol', is harder to quote from properly. As I have said, it replicates the first line 14 times. This should give you an idea what it looks like on the page:

Sonnet/Homage To Andy Warhol


Behold: the sleeping sonnet (Warhol's seven and a half hour film, 'Empire', might well induce this state). I am afraid my quote may contain typos, as I find it very difficult to count the actual number of zeds in the original, so there may be a few too many, or too few. My apologies to the author.

I also enjoyed the two prose-sonnets by Harryette Mullen. As with Padgett's, this was partly because I was able to comprehend them, or at least tell where they derived their original structure from. They are both variations, riffs on one of Shakespeare's 'Dark Lady' sonnets (my favourite as it happens):

Sonnet 130

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun,
Coral is far more red, than her lips red,
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun:
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head:
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks,
And in some perfumes is there more delight,
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know,
That music hath a far more pleasing sound:
I grant I never saw a goddess go,
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.
And yet by heaven I think my love as rare,
As any she belied with false compare.

And here are the first seven lines from one of Mullen's sonnets, called, appropriately,

Dim Lady

My honeybunch's peepers are nothing like neon. Today's special at
Red Lobster is redder than her kisser. If Liquid Paper is white, her
racks are institutional beige. If her mop were Slinkys, dishwater
Slinkys would grow on her noggin. I have seen tablecloths in
Shakey's Pizza Parlors, red and white, but no such picnic colors do I
see in her mug. And in some minty-fresh mouthwashes there is
more sweetness than in the garlic breeze my main squeeze wheezes.[quote ends]

Both of Mullen's sonnets are twelve lines (or eleven and a bit), perhaps because the long prose sentences bulk out the form so much. Apart from Shakespeare’s sonnet, her variations were apparently influenced by the Oulipo method. Oulipo stands for Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle or Potential Literature Workshop. Among a number of procedures developed by the Oulipo school is the “S+7” method, where each noun in a given text, such as a poem, is substituted by the noun to be found seven places away in a chosen dictionary. Mullen has taken the idea of substitution, but, rather than adhering to the dictionary, seems to have carefully chosen many of her own words and phrases for comic effect, perhaps lifting a few of them from ads, etc. Both sonnets are from her recent collection, ‘Sleeping With The Dictionary’. Her second, 'Variations On A Theme Park', carries the comic deconstruction (or demolition) further. It begins with the lines: "My Mickey Mouse ears are nothing like sonar. Colorado is far less / rusty than Walt's lyric riddles..." and continues into a traffic pileup of images and metaphors, some of which may make more sense to American audiences. However, the sense of humour is maintained, partly because the narrative skeleton remains intact: we know where she is going, but we want to go there anyway, if only to see how see how wild and unwieldy it gets. Unlike many of the other sonnets in this anthology, both of Mullen's made me grin, something I will always salute.

So this is one book I'll be returning to again, and again. Who knows what I might find in there? There might even be sonnets that I like enough to commit to memory (ignoring their vociferous protests).

By the way, the photograph above is, in case you hadn't guessed, a sonnet: a vispo Shakespearian – note the rhyming couplet.