Friday 13 January 2012

Innovative sonnets: the Reality Street anthology

The front cover of The Reality Street Book of Sonnets looks like the keyboard of an enigma machine for generating poems, and conveys more than a hint of the age-old obsession with 14 lines.  Flipping through the 350 or so pages, one glimpses plenty of 14-liners - thin, fat and normal; also some pictures, diagrams and collages; and a few totally non-sonnet shapes. 

In his introduction the editor, Jeff Hilson, sets out his aim: an anthology of “linguistically innovative” sonnets.  And the reason: these rarely make an appearance in contemporary sonnet anthologies.  Why?

As a form the sonnet is fiercely guarded… To disturb the sonnet’s form too radically.. is not just to disturb the sonnet itself, or the sonnet tradition, but to endanger the foundations of the wider poetic tradition. 

Fighting talk, for which Hilson offers some evidence (his intro can be read online, here).  At first I felt sceptical.  But the Reality Street anthology contains a lot of interesting, accomplished, inventive and exciting poems: why don’t they appear in the other anthologies?  This book itself is Hilson’s best evidence.  Whatever the causes, its publication means that future sonnet anthology editors can’t say they don’t know where to look for innovative sonnets.

There’s a lot to absorb: over 80 poets, many of whom I’d never heard of.  I’ve read every page of this book over the last few weeks, but haven’t taken in anything like all of it yet.  All I can do here is sample a few favourites:

Peter Riley’s sequence ‘Ospita’, formal sonnets whose language, dense and modern but with many ancient echoes, I like very much.  I wouldn’t say the form is innovative.  The opening sonnet below isn’t Petrarchan, as the extract might suggest; these graceful, elegiac poems move in and out of rhyme schemes and iambic pentameter. 

Seeking a bearing point on hurt I find
Hollows and rooms in the thick of the night,
A building hard at work flashing its bright
Offers into the star dome.  Consigned
forward I bring my name in a sealed jar
To the steps up, pay the slight fee, assent
to slow harm by the covering letter..

Mary Ellen Solt’s Moon Shot Sonnet, formed from symbols imposed by scientists on the first photos of the moon.  It consists of a 14-line pattern, octet + sestet.  Somehow it’s very beautiful: without words, it conveys the silence and vulnerability of the moon.  Its power comes from the reader’s association of it with an accumulation of sonnets read.  There’s a lovely explanatory note (could be by the editor or Solt herself) which refers to Philip Sidney’s ‘With how sad steps, O Moon’.  Here’s the first stanza. 

Jen Bervin’s greyed-out Shakespeare sonnets, from which one scattered phrase emerges in black type.  Sonnet 5 becomes “hours and bareness distill their substance”.  You can see how it works from the ending:

But flowers distilled though they with winter meet,
Leese but their show; their substance still lives sweet. 

Philip Nikolayev’s embedded sonnets.  I think these are among the most original poems in the book: who would think of embedding a sonnet in a piece of prose?  I’ve written about him before, see here, with example

Lisa Jarnot: here’s the end of her charming Husband Sonnet One.  Gender inversion: female poet looks at sleeping male.

a sheep’s mid-life is stout and good
like beer that ambers from a tap
or maple running wine tree sap
you sheep of silence play along
in dreams my husband sleeps among

Aaron Shurin: here the humour comes from a dialogue with the past involving theft of Shakespeare’s end rhymes.  VIII (see WS sonnet 8) begins:

I come to café, I sit, I bear
my part in the general cruise.  One, sadly
won’t look at me, another
won’t look away; ridiculous consumption and snarled consumer joy
in abeyance…

Robert Adamson’s Sonnets to be Written from Prison, in which he plays with the idea of being a suffering poet.  (He’s Australian.)  No.4:

I dreamed I saw the morning editions settle on the court -
emblazoned with my name, my ‘story’ so glib it made
no sense.  The judge said ‘emotional’ but I thought
of the notoriety.  This was the outward world, and my sad tirade
was ‘news’ - Though if I’d been rhyming sonnets
in solitary, my suffering alone, could make them art.

Sophie Robinson (youngest in the book): ‘geometries’, 14-line left-and-right-justified squares which I like for their wherever-next streams of consciousness, vivid language and metaphysical slant.  Here’s part of the second one:

Time  loops  around   itself  in  bold   &  able
Gestures  as  I  wander  around  the  Payless
On  Roman  Rd   &   think  of  you   grabbing
My  rarely  thinnest  hand  &  dragging  away
From   jealousy   now   hardened   now   lain
On  a  fridge  putrid  w/pollen  &  fashionable
Lipstick  &  you  &  you  are   made  of   dust.

Bernadette Meyer for her versatility and speed.  This is the sestet+ of Sonnet:

Nowadays you guys settle for a couch
By a soporific color cable t.v. set
Instead of any arc of love, no wonder
The G.I. Joe team blows it every other time

Wake up!  It’s the middle of the night
You can either make love or die at the hands of the
                                Cobra Commander

To make love, turn to page 32.
To die, turn to page 110.

Some innovative poetry can be hard for the mainstream reader, if not impenetrable, and occasionally with this book I feel my head’s filling with cement.  But the sonnet form offers brevity; and a way in, a way of reading.  The latter may be the opposite of what the writer wants, if the aim is to defamiliarise.  But both writer and reader are starting with the same thing in common: the sonnet tradition.  Some of these writers engage in a dialogue with the past, usually (or at least most obviously) with Shakespeare.

One of the good things about the anthology is that it allows the mainstream reader that way in, to try out less familiar stuff.  Another is that sonnet-writing offers a licence to be playful.  One mainstream criticism of innovative poetry is that it can seem humourless, but there’s lots of humour here. 

A glaring contemporary omission is JH Prynne.  Presumably he refused (or would have), or he’s very expensive - hard to imagine any other good reason for leaving him out.  The intro, which has lots of good background on the history of innovative sonnets, name-checks him but doesn’t explain.  It’s good on women breaking the male sonnet mould, but only around a quarter of the poets are female.  (I suspect that may be quite a lot for an anthology of innovative work, though.)  The poets are mostly British and American; ethnic origin can’t be worked out.

I wonder how many mainstream poetry readers know this book exists.  I didn’t until the Poetry Book Fair in London last autumn, when it beckoned from the Reality Street stall.  According to the intro, Pound and Williams both declared the sonnet as good as dead: if they could read this, they might change their minds.  They might not be altogether pleased to see how innovation can reinvent and perpetuate one of poetry’s great traditions. 

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