After a little more work I’ve decided Saturday’s variations are a single poem, after all (how’s that for rough magic?), and posted the drafts. If you’re bored or obsessed enough to visit, you’ll discover it started out to be the sonnet I haven’t yet written. I read somewhere about 19th century parlor games in which the participants had to compose very quickly a sonnet from rhymes chose from random words or from lines of an existing sonnet. “Very quickly,” by the way, is serious—I seem to remember reading that D. G. Rossetti could do it in about 5 minutes. And I needed a fast sonnet. I still do, and though I failed at it this time, I intend to try again from time to time.
Somehow, concerned with various kinds of poetry mashups and link-chasing while I didn’t write a sonnet, I found myself reading this post at Simon DeDeo’s rhubarb is susan blog, wherein he takes Ron Silliman to task for his attention to David Giannini’s chapbook of tricollages, which consist of “three lines, each taken from the first line of a poem by another poet.” Silliman’s pretty good in his discussion of the form despite his usual tendency to make near-Parnassus out of anthills, as in his closing paragraph:
Giannini’s “dynamic triads” may not be quite the revolution in verse his own preface implies. But I don’t see how any close reader won’t come away learning a great deal about the potential in quotation, the distinctness of first lines & the possibilities of form.
But DeDeo thinks it’s outright thievery.
I’m agnostic. The commenters at rhubarb is susan point out that poems consisting entirely of other poems have a long history, and specifically mention the cento. Now, Sam Gwynn’s “Approaching a Significant Birthday, He Peruses The Norton Anthology of Poetry” is the best cento I’ve ever seen. To read it, click here, and choose the link to page 42 [Hah!]. (After you’ve read the poem, buy the book, dammit.)
The two tricollages quoted by Silliman are not enough to be seriously compared to Gwynn’s tour de force, though the chapbook as whole may well be. But at one point in his discussion Silliman asks “Why quote poems, say, rather than newspaper copy, advertising, things heard in the street?” and I suspect he means that the form shouldn’t be restricted to lines of poems, that there’s something still literary about the project: it “carries the air of the book,” he writes. But there’s another way that question could be asked: What’s so special about these lines of poetry that they should be selected for transformation into this new context?
Indeed, are they transformed at all? Silliman almost gets to that in his paragraph on the combinatorial possibilities of the form as he describes it: “any poem by any poet in any combination of three would seem to be the game.” From the two poems presented, it seems to me there’s more to it than that since the three-line groups appear to be chosen with the intention of being read as unitary utterances. But if Silliman’s right, then, so what? And if he isn’t and I am, then shouldn’t the quoted lines at least put up a little resistance, so that the reader knows from the lines themselves and not just from a preface that they have another life? (Do they?) In either case, why isn’t DeDeo correct about it being theft?
Gwynn takes what we once called the canon, turns it on its head, makes it rhyme and dance while upside down, and the whole point is that we know it at a glance. Again, those 6 lines of Giannini’s may not be a fair representation of the book—are they even consecutive verses?—but, on the evidence presented, Gwynn’s work is far more successful—and far more ambitious.