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Mike Snider's Formal Blog at the Sonnetarium

Monday, August 29, 2005

In my hurry to get ready to perform at the the Lucipo Hootenanny last Saturday, I carelessly overlooked a careless bait-and-switch from Kasey Mohhammad. I'd argued (here, last paragraph before the note) that one would unlikely to be reminded of a sonnet by Ron Padgett's "Nothing in that Drawer" or Kasey's "Fourteen" without the influence of post-modern literary theory, and Kasey replied that one didn't need post-modern literary theory to be "familiar with the idea that poems are words arranged in such a way that you can see that the author means us to attend not only (or not even) to their "meaning" in a standard referential context, but to their status as units of sound, image, and/or some logopoetic x factor" — to which, with some reservations, I agreed. I still do, but it doesn't reply to my claim, and it muddies the division between us: he says "it is next to impossible for any poetry-literate reader to see a fourteen-line poem and not think 'sonnet,'" and I say the population for which that may be true is vanishingly small, especially using his own definition of a "poetry-literate reader" (here, paragraph 8).

Now I need to go check out the new blogs Kasey mentions today.

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Saturday, August 27, 2005

Two points of agreement with Kasey, from his post last night:

  1. "[T]he category 'sonnet' designates a nominal kind rather than a natural kind." Otherwise it would still mean a "little song" and, presumably, be written only in Italian.
  2. "[M]y definition of poetry includes the stipulation that it is something done chiefly with words, or at least with characters from something that can be used or recognized as a linguistic or quasi-linguistic code." If I were king of the world I'd add that poetry must be written in verse, by which I mean words organized in lines. Since Kasey says "includes," it's likely he also has some further stipulations, and, indeed, he mentions one which I'll discuss downstream. But we're neither one of us king of the world.

My position that the difference between "poem that is a sonnet" and "poem that is not a sonnet" is not like that between "words that are a poem" and "words that are not a poem" is based on evidence that poetry, unlike the sonnet, is a natural kind. Every culture about which we know anything makes a distinction between poetry/song and other kinds of speech. It's not a brightline either/or distinction and there are many ways in which the distinction is marked, but Nahuatl, !Kung, Chinese, English, and Finnish speakers can all recognize each other's poetry as poetry, even when it's post-modern avant garde. Poetry is part of our biological heritage as much as is smiling. Ron Padgett's piece is a poem, whether good or bad, because he meant it to be an expression of an inborn class of behaviors. Note well that I'm not claiming there is "a gene for poetry" anymore than there is a gene for language or for how tall you are. All three are nevertheless profoundly shaped by our genetic heritage in ways that a sonnet clearly isn't.

Kasey's interesting hypothetical of a painting of a poem does not at all affect my claim that poetry is a natural kind (though I could still be wrong). Just as a painting of a person is not the person but a representation of the person, such a painting remains a painting, and the poem which is its subject remains a poem. In his particular example—an image of a page from the 1609 quarto—this is readily apparent. No one would claim that the poem is the painter's poem because of its representation in the painting, or that Shakespeare could take any credit for the painting, or that reading the poem in the painting is seeing the painting as a painting, or that admiring the brushwork is a way of appreciating Shakespeare's wit.

There's a third, lesser point of agreement: Kasey's entirely right to point out that the penumbra of the sonnet is far greater than that of the double dactyl (though I know of a Fool who loves them), so it wasn't fair of me to imply that the situation of a sonnet on a page of double dactyl's was equivalent to that of a short non-sonnet lyric poem on a page of sonnets. And I'm glad that he's specified what he means by a "poetry-literate reader": such a person is "aware on a broad level that there are different kinds of poetic forms that people write in, and able to name some of them, though not necessarily able to give precise details beyond this."

But that person, says Kasey, would know that a sonnet has fourteen lines. Would a person who knows that much not be expected to "know" that a sonnet written in English rhymes? Or that it's written using something more or less mysterious called iambic something-or-other-anyway-it-has-rhythm? The people I know who have Kasey's specified level of knowledge (and no more) do know those things as well, and fairly often don't recognize as poetry unmetered or unrhymed texts. I work with highly educated people, many of them voracious readers who would certainly qualify as poetry-literate by the above standard, and in my experience their only response to poems by Jorie Graham or Ron Silliman or things like Padgett's "Nothing in that Drawer" is "That's supposed to be a poem?"

A little later he adds to his reader-specification: such a reader would know Padgett's piece "would be recognized as [a poem] by anyone who is familiar with the idea that poems are words arranged in such a way that you can see that the author means us to attend not only (or not even) to their 'meaning' in a standard referential context, but to their status as units of sound, image, and/or some logopoetic x factor." As it happens, this is very like part of what I meant when I wrote about markers of an inborn class of verbal behaviors almost universally recognizable as poetry/song. But that class of behaviors is always expressed and experienced by writers, speakers, singers, readers, and listeners with particular personal and cultural histories, and I think damned few of them would buy into that parenthesized "not even" without a little help from literary theory. As I mentioned above, my educated non-literary friends, in many fields, certainly recognize that "Nothing in that Drawer" is supposed to be a poem. They're just not as generous regarding intent as I am.

As Kasey points out, poetry is not science. But, when he suggests that a certain type of reader will see "fourteen" as a sonnet marker to such a degree that it amounts to evidence for the ready permeability of the category sonnet among the selected readers, he's suggesting a scientifically decidable hypothesis. He rightly comments, however, that

[e]ven if the number of people who use this criterion are in the statistical minority, if there are enough of them, and if their point of view is reasonably coherent and influential, they constitute a palpable school of thought that is neither more nor less valid than the dominant school of thought.

Poetry's not a democracy, either. He's right. It is, however, a conversation, and in some ways a marketplace. If the above means that the minority has no vested interest in understanding why its point of view is relegated to minority status, then such an attitude all but guarantees that the influence of that minority will remain confined to its dwindling membership.

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Friday, August 26, 2005

Kasey Mohammad has posted his thoughtful and provocative full response to a question raised in comments to my previous post: Just what allows us to reasonably call some particular English-language poem a sonnet? Kasey says the answer depends on "things like intention, context, and self-consciousness," and I agree, and I think Kasey misinterprets my position as entailing "closed, static mode of taxonomy, as of birds or fisherman's knots" as opposed to his own "open, dynamic mode of functional ontology." We clearly do differ on just how open that functional ontology ought to be, and on how to weight the various factors, including "intention, context, and self-consciousness," which make something a sonnet or not (though I don't think that it's a simple binary).

Kasey starts:

Ted Berrigan's The Sonnets are sonnets because the title tells us they are, because they were composed with the idea of the form in mind, etc., regardless of whether they have fourteen lines, or more, or fewer. If I just happen to write a fourteen-line poem without realizing that I have done so (though that's highly unlikely in my case and in the case of most poets who are familiar with the form--let's say instead that it's written by a middle-school student or someone from a different culture or anyone else with no knowledge of sonnets per se), it's more problematic to make the identification. And yet even in this case, if the poem is placed on a page with other poems that clearly are "meant" to be sonnets, I would want to argue that it takes on an undeniable sonneticity. [emphasis in original, and I'll keep using 'sonneticity' below]

My first inclination was to agree entirely with the above paragraph. Intention does matter, and in the case of Berrigan's poems it's clear that "the sonnet" is something like a Platonic Idea informing those poems. I would argue further that when someone puts words in order and says (and means) about that ordering "this is a poem," it by god is a poem, just as, when someone puts paint on a surface with the intention of making a painting, the result is a painting, without any implication concerning the goodness or badness of the work in question.

Two things kept me from that agreement. The first, and perhaps less important, is the way Kasey treats context in his penultimate sentence. It's certainly true that we have learned that context allows us to appreciate as art objects things which were made for purely utilitarian purposes, and we didn't need Andy Warhol to teach us that: there are lots of wine jars in museums of art. (He may have been needed to teach us that art is what collectors will buy, but I'm not sure that's a good lesson. In any case, it's not one poets have learned.) But there limits to the power of context: if I, as an editor, put a sonnet in a page of poems clearly meant to be double dactyls, does that sonnet take on "double dactylity?" Why should the obverse be true?

The second reason is that three are also limits to the power of intention and self-consciousness. The difference between a sonnet and some other kind of poem is more like the difference between a still life and a landscape than like the difference between some group or words being or not being a poem. I can call my painting of daisies in a vase on a table "Landscape With Cows" and it doesn't make it a landscape, not even a bad landscape. At a coarser scale, I can call that painting a poem, even reproduce it in a book of poems, and it won't be a poem; nor would calling a poem a painting make it a painting. And I already know that I've just banished a fair amount of "visual poetry" from the slopes of Parnassus. I'm comfortable with that.

Kasey goes on to formal principles, giving a number of examples of poems arranged in decreasing resemblance to the usual sonnet forms, and I think his analysis of their sonneticity is spot on. For example, I can only think of handful of formalists who might object on formal principles to including Gertrude Stein's "Stanzas in Meditation II" in an anthology of 20th century sonnets (though I don't think many more that would think it's very good or interesting).

It's only at the very end of his remarks that Kasey and I truly part company, when he claims "it is next to impossible for any poetry-literate reader to see a fourteen-line poem and not think 'sonnet.'" I think he's very wrong, and the question is decidable, though I doubt anyone is going to fund the study.

Considering any number of sonnet-features — number of lines, presence and (if present) location of the turn, myriad matters of meter and rhyme — it would be possible to survey suitably selected literate English-speakers to determine whether and to what degree particular poems are recognizably sonnets. The results of such surveys could be graphed as probability distributions* of how likely it is that each of those features confer sonneticity.

My guess is that, in the case of Ron Padgett's "Nothing in that drawer" and Kasey's own "Fourteen" (a for-the-occasion-knockoff he almost certainly doesn't mean to be taken seriously as a poem), those who are even remotely reminded of sonnets, or, for that matter, of poetry, would be represented by a very short, vanishingly thin tail — unless "poetry-literate reader" is defined to mean "reader educated in a late-20th century university literature or writing program dominated or strongly influenced by post-modern literary theory."

*Every literate person should be at least as familiar with probability distribution curves as our putative respondents should be with the canonical forms of the sonnet in English. That is, they may be able neither to write a sonnet nor to perform statistical analysis, but they should be able to recognize deviations from a normal distribution (often called a "bell curve") as well as they can recognize, say, the difference between Italian and English sonnets.

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Wednesday, August 24, 2005

One common misconception about the West Chester Conference is that everyone there is a strict metrist who looks down on poets who never count on their fingers, or even on those who don't always write scannable lines. Maybe that's the reason Moira Egan more than once apologized for a fine free verse poem as she read from her book Cleave during this year's First Book panel discussion. "I came late to form," she said, but most of us do. Hell, she's about 10 years younger than I was when I started seriously studying metrical form.

And she's tearing it up. Consider the beginning of the sonnet "EKG":

My mother watched her heart beat on a screen,
a clenching fist unclenching, shadowy,
its faulty backbeat traced in spiky green.
The heart's home movie: what else did she see?

or the end of the terza rima "Cliffhanger":


is the wrong word, my dictionary says,
but it works for me, dangerous and steep
and fast and one more look at your dear face

looking back at me, eyes serious and deep
with what looks so like love I have to say,
Take my hand, this isn't falling, it's a leap.

The last line shouldn't work as pentameter: TAKE my HAND, this ISn't FALLing, IT'S a LEAP. That "it's" would ordinarily get a metrical accent (though not much in speech), but somehow she makes what might be a glitch into a reinforcement of the line's meaning. Other things shouldn't work in that poem — "precipitous" rhymes with "trusting" and "rusty," and "precipice" with "nervous" — but once again there's a near magical resonance in how the rhymed words reinforce the poem's action.

Similar risks don't work as well in a few of the other poems, but more often they do. You can read the delicious "Dear Dr. Merill" in its entirety here, and the sestina "Love and Death" begins and ends like this :

Looking back, I presupposed love,
I suppose. At least, I felt whiff of death
each time she left. She had a theory: that sex
was the only path to the truth. Philosophy,
religion, physics—the other,
traditional pursuits—had it all wrong. Only poetry …

When we last made love, you left another
scar. And philosophy feels like death to me,
and I can't feel any poetry in sex.

I love the first two lines, especially the line break, and the movement she accomplishes in a form so naturally static. Cleave is a first book, sometimes uneven (why do people insist on calling any 14-line poem a sonnet?), but the successes don't feel like luck to me. I'll leave the end the to end of the poem I started with, "EKG":

The miracle's the heart's ability
to break like that, and sing iambically.

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Sunday, August 21, 2005

The Welsh ae freislighe (no clue about pronunciation) is the second named form in Lewis Turco's original Book of Forms. My mother has the Bible which belonged to my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, and his father, Thomas Philips, came from Wales. Apparently that's too distant a connection for something like this to come easily to me:

A Cup of Kindness

Lily spurned all meagerness.
She loved her whiskey neat, her
Lovers wan — their eagerness
To please her made them sweeter.

When they'd ceased to lavish her
With lust and verse, she burned all
Poems meant to ravish her —
With whiskey Lily spurned all.

For those of you who who don't have Turco's little orange book (or the later big black edition still available), here's the schema:

x x x x (x x a)
x x x x x (x b)
x x x x (x x a)
x x x x x (x b)

Like most Welsh forms, it's syllabic, seven syllables per line. Lines 1 and 3 end-rhyme on three syllables, and lines 2 and 4 on two syllables. As in many Gaelic forms, an ae freislighe should end with the line, phrase, or word which began the poem.

I've put the drafts up at the Draft House. Did I say this was hard? I'll need a cup of kindness before I move on to alcaics.

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Friday, August 12, 2005

Breast. There, I said it.

Now I'll use it in a poem:

When I lie down to take my rest
I lay my head on my wife's breast.

WUKY, the radio station at the University of Kentucky (alas, my home state) will cancel radio shows featuring that daring poem. Just ask Garrison Keillor, whose Writer's Almanac was cancelled for using Amber Coverdale Sumrall's "Reunion," in which she "refused to get high," and Donald Justice's "Thinking About the Past" and Edward Field's "Curse of the Cat Woman," both of which use the word breast.

I don't know the Lexington Herald-Leader's policy on archived news, but for the next few days, at least, you can find the article here. I learned about it from the New Poetry mailing list.

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Wednesday, August 10, 2005

I heard Kent Johnson read "Baghdad Exceeds Its Object" last March. He is a powerful performer, but, as I noted at the time, the text (go to the archives of Octopus and find issue 3 — horrible design for navigation) gives little clue to that performance. I'd go hear Johnson read at any convenient opportunity, but I haven't the slightest inclination to buy or even read a borrowed copy of his Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz (available from effing press, if you feel differently).

Look, my major problem with Bill Clinton is that he was a little to the right of Richard Nixon on many issues I care about. I despise the incompetence of the current administration as much as I am appalled by its arrogance, and I'm bitterly angry at the apparent lies told to the American people and to the UN in an effort to legitimize our invasion of Iraq.

But to imply an equivalence between Bush and the disaster in Iraq, on the one hand, to Hitler and the Holocaust, on the other, is ludicrous and shameful. To attempt to lend seriousness to such tripe by borrowing the empty posturing masquerading as thought in Adorno's infamous pronouncement is intellectual cowardice. Those on the left who do so — and Kent Johnson is far from alone and far from the worst offender, especially among poets and other artists, especially among the self-styled avant garde — they are on no higher moral ground than were Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson when they claimed that 9/11 was their god's punishment for American toleration of homosexuals.

Travel tomorrow, and back to poetry on Friday.

Update 8/11/2005: At Stormy Petrel, Harry doesn't like the title either.

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Tuesday, August 9, 2005

Intelligent Design? So what's to shock?
Consider his designs to free Iraq.

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Monday, August 8, 2005

Steve Schroeder, in a comment to Saturday's second post, suggested that his own deliberate approach to metrical rhyming poetry (as opposed to his approach to free and accentual verse) might be the result of a relative lack of skill. My reply this morning was that deliberate "writing to order" was actually something only a skillful poet could reliably do, and that he should be encouraged by his approach. In a sign of the end-times, Kasey Mohammad agreed, at least about skill and writing to order.

The point of mentioning all this is that I wanted to cite Coleridge on Pope in my reply, but I was at work and had neither the Biographia Literaria nor my locally searchable archive with me (I'd cited the reference before), so I googled Coleridge Pope Iliad and there, in the first 10 results, was my previous citation.

I'm not bragging.

I'm appalled.

Nearly two hundred years of scholarship on one of the most — no, the most important theoretical document of English Romanticism, and my half-assed ramblings on Coleridge on Pope are there right beside the Bryn Mawr Classical Review.

Update 7:06 pm: It may in fact be the end time. I nodded yes to every statement.

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Saturday, August 6, 2005

I gather poetry is seldom a deliberate business for most writers, including most formalists — even Richard Wilbur says he only discovers the form of a poem as he's writing it. But it is for me, and so, although I've only written one other acrostic poem, this morning's effort is not atypical.

Last Monday I said I'd be writing a series of poems using, in order, all the forms Lewis Turco listed in his original Book of Forms. I knew then I wanted to make the first one an homage to Turco, using his name as my acrostic. That suggested two five line stanzas, and while I was in Princeton earlier this week I decided to rhyme those stanzas abcba deced, envelope stanzas linked by their middle lines.

I farted around with it a little bit on the trip, but time was short and I was immensely tired (I don't sleep well in hotels), so until this morning nothing happened. I've been trying to write tetrameter lines (and shorter) since I've written so much pentameter, and I tried this morning. While I was trying I did come up with the argument — you do what you need to do; I'll do what I need to do — but I couldn't make the rhyme-scheme work with both short lines and the initial letter constraints, and after three hours of frustration I decided to fall back on pentameter. Two hours later this version was done.

If this poem survives (meaning I one day decide to try to publish it), it will likely be only after a good deal of revision, though I really can't tell just after I finish a first draft. It may also be a long while before I try: in the last 25 years I haven't deliberately thrown any draft away, and computers make it absurdly easy to find ideas I've forgotten I'd had.

btw, Yeats sometimes wrote down the rhymes he wanted to use before he wrote a line of the poem.

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"Acrostic" comes first in the original:

Letting a poem happen may work for you —
Exceptions prove, that is, they test the rules.
What poets do to make a line or a verse
Is mystifying to everyone but fools,
So do your work: Ignore how others do.

That's not for me. My poems need designs.
Until I found The Book of Forms, their phrases
Ranged from just OK to much, much worse:
Considering that, I have to sing the praises
Of him whose name begins these grateful lines.

Neither the meter nor the rhyme scheme of the above, of course, are part of the specification for acrostic poems.

In another fit this morning, I found the Uncyclopedia wiki's article on poetry, which led me to Guy Wetmore Carryl's "Bluebeard," as it's (incorrectly) named there. Considering the source, I googled the poet's improbable name and found a little treasure trove of ingeniously rhymed retellings of fairy tales and fables told in impossibly intricate stanzas. The rhymes are worthy of Don Juan. Fortunately, the first "serious" poem I found of his, When the Great Gray Ships Come In, sent me back to the work I needed to do today.

The 3rd edition of Lewis Turco's The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics, for which you don't have to write your own examples, is available.

Should the last line of that acrostic begin "Of he"?

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Thursday, August 4, 2005

Back from Princeton NJ, where I got lost looking for my hotel and found a small sign saying "Princeton Institute for Advanced Study" and was almost unable to keep driving, blinded by tears, on a street near near where Albert Einstein and Kurt Gödel walked together. No sleep while I was gone, so no brain — but what kept me up last night was Glyn Maxwell's The Sugar Mile. I heard him read from the manuscript at the 2004 West Chester Conference, and I can't imagine anything else that might have held the stage with Marilyn Nelson's crown of sonnets for Emmett Till. There are three of the book's poems and an intro from Maxwell here.

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Monday, August 1, 2005

I fully intend to make this month more bloggy than last, and have a few projects to help the cause:

  • I haven't forgotten Dana Gioia, and I'll get at least one post out of each of his books of poems before the month is over.
  • I bought many books of poetry at West Chester this year, and I think it's high time I read them and said something about at least some of them here.
  • Lewis Turco's The Book of Forms has been popping up in conversation a lot lately, and I propose going through the original ugly orange paperback (Turco thinks it's ugly, too), making a stab at each separately listed form in order, and posting the results, however miserable. What a treat, huh?

I'm traveling (jobs suck) the next two days, so the fun may not begin till Thursday. In the meantime, the Lucifer poets, returned from their triumphant tour, have yet to recover sufficiently to say anything about it (maybe I ain't so old after all). There is news, though: Gregor Delisle, who did a one-nighter with them in Ithaca, has pics from that show; with permission from Matthew Shindell and Reb Livingston (who's gallivanting around Paris), I've posted a pdf of Pardon my dragon here; and our wonderful Dead Roses conscript Carly Sachs is melting glass at the No Tell Motel. Permalink here.

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