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Sunday, November 06, 2011

Robert Sheppard at the Bluecoat 2008

Here is a reading (courtesy of poet-cameraman Ade Jackson) of a reading I did at the Bluecoat Arts Centre to launch Twentieth Century Blues in 2008. Reminded by the fact that I read there again a couple of weeks ago, I decided to post this version of the first 'Blues', 'Smokestack Lightning', in which I used some carpet tapes I'd made in the early 1990s for a SubVoicive reading.

There is a also a sound version of it here, made soon after, which uses the second verse paragraph. Ekleksographia Wave Two, ed. Philip Davenport at March 2010, at

The text for the Bluecoat version which isn't (deliberately) clear is drawn from the first verse paragraph of the poem.

from Smokestack Lightning
a mythology of the blues

for Tony Parsons

Twentieth Century Blues 1
History of Sensation 5

Let it all go. As I sing I drive my
dynamite for some strange machine
of this nearly spent century;
the big city calls its sinful
numbers heaven. My fast rolling
kisses are for the stern
lady, dodging me, back of the beat.
Our harp player’s dead - when Pete
told me, we laughed. A quick shimmy
was Elzadie’s goodnight; buttons and
belt loosening, Arvella’s swift farewell.
Pete’s 12 string steam whistle leaves town;
I want you to take my place in this song.
Elzadie lifted her hem and smiled, as he
tuned to an open chord. Bending G on the E,
the dog jumped into the horn as
the KC moaned, with a mocking beauty
mating rabbit foot dreams. Arvella slumped in
the shade, feeling contempt, thinking: give me
the train’s shake. Sweat rolled off
transport as delight, a nervous fix
in this thief’s paradise of form and
necessity possessed by devils. He’d
rehearsed all morning, restless,
couldn’t wait to start again, to howl
out, temporal and grounded, ‘We’ll never
get out of these blues alive’ -
above the frets, trembling. Inside:
shared diction, dancing voices, mojo stomping,
good book palms together in prayer. At night
she wedges the chair against the door,
feels evil thrashing outside the room,
but can’t connect the pose of his
arpeggio muscles above her, de-tuning
slackening; sings down the phone:
‘Take my lonesome love in hand.’
Dancing with her to the juke band,
his tense fingers practise chord shapes
up and down her spine; to be a real person:
a girl adjusting her skirt, singing Twentieth
Century Blues, a pearl on her lips, - her devil
astride two chairs, playing slide
with a Coca-Cola bottle. She
is about to say something over the
gossamer telegraph line, to survive
his strong hands rambling through.

Kid Bailey’s the name I travel with, kidding
around: the name on the only phonograph;
walked up to the shop window, the glitter
of the diamond-fretted Dobro a death squad
tuning up. My handkerchief shields
the chord shapes from
your thieving eyes. Just pull the razor
and shave him. The gun in the guitar case was
no use - jealous man stepped up to Charley
as if to ask for Pony, retuned. Bill-
boards tell women what
to be: a circle of music-stands
dreaming thrills, dancing the Shimmy-She-Wobble -
some guy called it a dry fuck -
the guitar dances too, spins
above Charley’s head. I could see
my own rapt reflection in the shine,
an invisible piano whose pedals are moody
bendings. Love my suitcase and the road....

I can be seen reading some poems from Twentieth Century Blues at part of the Other Room Readings in 2008. (On the first clip I read ‘A Dirty Poem and Clean Poem for Roy Fisher’, ‘From a Stolen Book’ followed by a selection from ‘Empty Diaries’, the sequence with which I continues on the second video.)

I can also be seen trying to read the poem along to the blues band, The Blind Lemons, here

Complete Twentieth Century Blues is available from Salt Publications and the full text of 'Smokestack Lightning' is available also in the earlier Salt volume Tin Pan Arcadia.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Innovative Sonnet Sequence: Fourteen of 14: 'Ending, with strong pressure towards epigram or witticism'

(Top: Scott Thurston and me at Hay; below: Anthony Mellors and me at Hay; photos: Anthony and Scott)

I have argued that the chief influences upon the contemporary innovative sonnet include the examples of Berrigan and Raworth, the radical conceptualism of Oulipo with its use of tailored ‘constraints’, and the postmodernist release of the form from the repression of modernism. I may be confused in this, having identified these also as influences on my own sequence. But there can be no doubt that there is another influence, post 2008, and that is The Reality Street Book itself. Hilson’s sequence was co-terminous with its production, indeed mentions it. Other sequences, possibly Monk’s, were written as the event of the anthology appeared on the horizon. Terry’s sequence missed the boat, having come to Hilson’s attention after Ken Edwards declared the hold full. Many sonnets (sequences or singles) have appeared after; Anthony Mellors’ The Gordon Brown Sonnets (2009), for example, continues the political edge found in so many of these sequences; Milton is the god of the innovative sonnet, not Shakespeare.

A mere flick through the anthology reveals visual sonnets, ghost sonnets where the shape of the sonnet is played with, along with others that expose the frame of the form, as outlined in part twelve of this lecture. There are prose sonnets, fairly conventionally lineated sonnets, Chinese sonnets and non-sonnets, some in sequences, many not, many more than I have time to deal with today. Anybody embarking on a sonnet today has the benefit of the anthology as a textbook of form(s). There are dangers in this, of imitation and derivation, rather than influence and deviation, of mere production, of ever-thinning effect and affect (or affectlessness), but these have been dangers throughout literary history of the prominence of any form. The same could have been said of Tottel’s Miscellany in 1560 which gave the world the exemplars Wyatt and Surrey.

I’m not bold enough to call time on the innovative sonnet, to declare that we have reached our 1610 – imagine declaring the whole show over in 1608, what a difference a year makes! – but I wonder what forms will emerge next. I think Hilson is right in seeing the attraction of the sonnet as a refinement of the draw to the sequentiality ingrained in British innovative practice, and the sonnet-sequence-like frame can be felt in many non-sonnet sequences, Scott Thurston’s Momentum (2008), for example, where the repeated stanza is quite different, but whose formal repetition facilitates variation and contrast as a formal constituent that becomes a kind of content in a way I have been arguing throughout these postings. (His Internal Rhyme (2010) has the same feel, though with poems that are more open in terms of reading, horizontally and vertically.) But no other traditional form (however torqued) furnishes the opportunity for this kind of innovation; the innovative sestina, for example, feels like a rolled out carpet, not a ‘little room’ that offers resistance to the impulse to unlimited expansion, a pliant, plastic pre-determined frame, through which the life of form may be lived convincingly, to make for us, forms of life. To make it re-new.

To quote Hilson’s formal articulation and dis-articulation: ‘I (line-break) fucking love you sonnets.’


Final Notes: As can be seen from the above, I wondered about trying to call a halt to the sonnet as an innovative form, but new ones keep coming. See the K. Silem Mohammed pieces in the Dworkin-Goldsmith anthology. Or here. Or get a peek at nine of the stunning stunted sonnets of Richard Parker at Intercapillary Space (which I heard read in Amsterdam; see posting for May 24th 2011). Since musing earlier on my own next creative moves, my contrafacts on Milton’s sonnets seem plausible and I also surprised myself by writing a half-pint sonnet, in the middle of a Quennet as a 7X7 syllabic structure. The Quennet (which I should have mentioned before now) is the sonnet-like structure invented by Raymond Queneau and used also by Philip Terry, Queneau’s translator, and by Rene Van Valckenborch, my creature.

Just a few thoughts on the Hay Poetry Jamboree itself. It was a celebratory occasion – and mine was the only excursion into critical prose and pose – and there was much good company in Scott and Anthony (as can be seen above), the organisers Lyndon Davies and John Goodby, participants Gavin Selerie, Frances Presley, Carrie Etter, John Freeman, Paul A.Green, Carol Watts, Zoe Skoulding, Maggie O’Sullivan, Ralph Hawkins (who had much to say about Berrigan) and Allen Fisher (who worried away at the formal designation ‘sonnet’), and audience members Geraldine Monk, Alan Halsey, and many others, Steve, for example, who managed the electronics. Thanks to all.

For links to further posts on The Meaning of Form click here.

My 'Petrarch 3' is now in print, see here and here.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Innovative Sonnet Sequence: Thirteen of 14: Three Sonnetized Accounts

I’d like to show three of my sonnets from Warrant Error, from across the sequences, but having in common an intertext in Shelley’s marvellous meditation upon political terror and time, ‘Ozymandias’:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away".

Shelley’s sonnet might be thought innovative in that it strains against the restraining order of the form, while making a new form with its insistent improvisatory utterances (we know it was written quickly, against the clock in fact). My forms attempt to make new forms and meanings through allusions and borrowings (sometimes of resonant single words) from the poems, but also have their own foci. The intense logopoeia of the second derives from the puns I collected and from the quotations, not only from Shelley but from Arendt and Deleuze (at least) as well. The third poem refers to the metronome in the image above (a photograph taken and manipulated by Patricia Farrell).

Carpets woven with jargon surrender
monkey ground level realism pumps
a Kalashinikov before the gold cupola
a tight wrinkled lip of double-stitch

Every night you fall asleep invaded
by this market target couch drill

an embedded journo pillowed on gas
buys a free full monster with an
empty promise your night vision
goggles catch the first line of his
collateral excised scribble ‘barging

in on targets..’ struggling with his war
poem the dark god of his sonnets
freeze framed death tools downed

29 March 2003

They scoured the news and erased the story
The liar the witness and the lawyer

The hand that mocked us scarred
Or scared soured the newscasts
Their oblique attacks now roar overhead
The naives are restless during the rapid raids

Compassion is one of the passions
After a regular
Tory system of lower tax nothing beside remains

Species solidarity and its dispersal
In this borrowed shell function as love but
This is the real thing as she
Bends towards him
Not to be unworthy of what happens to them both

for Stephen

The red metronome on Letná hill
sways like a lucky drunkard
on its pedestal above the spires
a restless reminder of rust and wreck.
Or an antique windscreen wiper

describing its arc
upon a plane of smear and rain-wash
heroic in a monochrome movie, tinted red

With each wipe across the screen
the determined visage of the driver clears.
It’s Josef Stalin the giant blocks with his pocks
long blown to shatters but he’s still there

waving yes and no
to anyone who can see him

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Innovative Sonnet Sequence: Twelve of 14: Put them in the Margins

Sophie Robinson above; see her blog here.

Sophie Robinson is the youngest poet in the anthology, as she is also in Carrie Etter’s Infinite Difference, where she describes her attitude to innovation: ‘I don’t believe that an experimental poetics must necessarily be devoid of emotion, sentiment, biography, self-expression, &c’, and she names Frank O’Hara and Bernadette Mayer as two ‘cherished’ exemplars (the latter being one of the most accomplished of post-Berrigan sonneteers). Nevertheless her 10 poem sequence ‘geometries’ is one of the obviously radical texts in the Reality Street Book, in that it plays visually with the sonnet form. In this she is not alone: there are many texts in the book making formal play in ways in which the frame becomes its own content, and many of these ways are defined in terms of visual rather than verbal or metrical innovation. Allusions to the frame occur in Bob Cobbing’s concrete poetry inkscape ‘Sunnet’, where the white space of the Petrachan turn becomes the horizon on the landscape (or inkscape) hinted at in the title. (frontispiece) The moon is caught in May Ellen Solt’s ‘Moon Shot Sonnet’, where the empty grids of lunar cartography pun with the divisions of the Petrachan sonnet. David Miller’s sequence of horizontal Chinese brushstrokes (‘Untitled (Visual Sonnet)’ each is called) obviously mimes the frame of the sonnet, but also, with their varying thickness, texture and curves, they hint at the varying content that is carried across the traditional sonnet sequence, here represented by the uniqueness of Chinese brush-work. Jen Bervin’s conceptual writing project ‘Nets’ (the title itself cuts the word ‘sonnets’ down to size) presents Shakespeare’s Sonnets in greyscale and highlights certain words to configure a new text over them. This is a much-used technique (John Gibbens uses it for ‘Underscore’ here), but it rare to leave the original text legible alongside (under) the variations to foreground their material; like Terry, Bervin operates upon the most canonical sonnets. Paul Dutton’s ‘so’net’ sequences uses anagrams on, and other words derived from ‘sonnet’ – as does Keith Jebb in his title ‘tonnes’ – to contrast a text that hovers between sense (‘on sense sonnets not sent to text’) and non-sense and pure sound concrete poetry for performance. Visual recognition of ‘sonnetness’ is important to the aesthetic effect of these examples, which in various ways involve the simultaneous use and unravelling of the historical frame of the sonnet (and by extension many of the meanings that have accrued to it), to turn the adventures of its form into its own subject while embodying its latest adventures in formal investigation and innovation.

Robinson’s ‘Geometries’ takes the frame of the sonnet and makes it square, more radically than Hilson’s but less consistently formal than the above examples, utilising the justified margins of the WP package to ensure a ‘geometry’ that has nothing to do with metrical contour or word count or the temporality of delivery. The resultant squares work against our reading patterns; continuous margins suggest the forms and conventions of prose. The 14 lines are ‘stretched’ in ways unrelated to notions of lineation or layout, open field or otherwise. (I have unfortunately not been able to reproduce that effect here; the absence of this formal adjustment demonstrates just how significant, even signifying, this is. Wihtout this formal constraint the poem below looks wrong, but unavoidable.) However, Robinson’s reluctance to abandon reference and significance, let alone the personal, rather than undermining this formal play, creates a tension between reading for form (which is unavoidable in these geometries, particularly when 3 words ‘arms and head’ become one, for example) and reading to catch the teasing but often angry voices of the poems, one of which has a literal lower case ‘i’ recommended by Kathleen Fraser to represent its reduced subjectivity (at the start of a line where most of the other lines carry a capital), although the inverted commas point to its artifice also:

Beauty is nothing is nothing is a
Gently disgusting residue of all
That burps and smiles & life is terrible &
Holds back & swallows itself whilst 25
Birds that might’ve perched on your arms&head
Can now fly in expanded air and yeah
the autumn’s going to need you w/
head like a broken toy & got no stable
‘i’ got no stable now all is fluttering
Around & the boredom of death O how
We breathe you out like blah sad & longing
For an airy exchange amongst urgent
Squeaky-clean majorities & CITY BOYS
Those smug wankers we put them in the margins.

The margins into which mainstream culture is ‘put’ are in some sense the margins of this poem, but the voice is angry enough here, however unstable the ego. If ‘Beauty is nothing’, a ‘disgusting residue’, at least it is ‘gentle’. Terrible life consumes itself, the boredom of death results in meaningless ‘blah’ and the ‘sad & longing’ mourning that lies behind this immediate anger (the poems are bitterly elegiac). Only the birds (which appear in other ‘geometries’) offer transcendence, an ‘airy exchange’ that is longed for.

The true liberation here is formal. These poems are prosodically arbitrary, constitute even an ‘aprosody’ (as Agamben puts it rather suggestively in what is virtually an aside on the poetry of Caproni). Yet they are still forms which work by de-forming accepted reading assumptions in the ways I’ve just described. Perhaps they register the gradual re-forming of contemporary forms of poetry from the temporal axis to the spatial axis.

See the links to The Meaning of Form here.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Innovative Sonnet Sequence: Eleven of 14: Sonnets and Other Ghosts

Women are often said to have been disenfranchised by the courtly conventions of the love sonnet, its content patriarchal, its form in need of reclaiming. Women innovative writers have maintained a suspicion of the form, particularly through its assertion in the courtly love tradition, of a male ego. ‘Our sonnet … seems different,’ writes Kathleen Fraser hopefully. ‘It has a small i in it instead of a big one.’ But she is also aware that forms carry near-indelible meanings as much as contents, and that ‘perhaps any sonnet at all is a big i. That’s something I have to fear.’

The history of the sonnet furnishes important examples of female sonneteers, such as Charlotte Smith or Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and in fact, the earliest sonnet sequence in English was written by a woman, although it took a religious theme rather than an amorous one: 21 sonnets by Anne Lock composed in 1559. ‘Her ear is faultless – better than Surrey’s’, remarks Spiller.

One of the best contemporary sequences excerpted in The Reality Street Book, Geraldine Monk’s Ghost and Other Sonnets, shows no Electra complex before the form, and indeed emphasises the (usually unrhymed) Shakespearean couplet by printing it as a separate stanza. It often operates as the ‘epigram or witticism’ that the form of the frame imposes: ‘Strange ones this token is for you./ If you’ve danced with me you must be true,’ the last poem ends, rhyming but not utilising regular metre. Ghost and Other Sonnets is often about ghosts (‘strange ones’) and often (as at its end) about the demands of the other. (As often in sequences, they are also about many other matters, topology or domestic anger, for example.) Of course, the sonnet frame is a kind of ghost form and its subject matter haunts it as a kind of other of form, ‘Ghost of her ghosts’ as one poem puts it. This haunting necessitates Monk subduing her characteristic textual and performative exuberance in deference to the frame; the internal pressure this causes results in 66 poems of concentrated power. As Spiller says of Milton, but it applies to Monk too: ‘The sonnet is still the place where Desire confronts its Other, and in a small room fixity is given to the restlessness of being.’ These confronted others may be ourselves in mirrors (the ghost of our ghosts), as when ‘his face staring at/His face’: ‘Each/ Passenger waving at their doppelganger/ Each not knowing which is for real’. Or, as when the letter box rattles repeatedly, the other is an imagined ghost: ‘Seeing nobody in repeat tires the heart:/ Out-fears the stranger stranger’ (where the word occurs once as adjective, second as noun). One sonnet deals with the ‘stranger stranger’ in a powerful way, moving from a familiar situation to questions of otherly encounter that one might rather avoid, through to nightmarish horror:

What makes you look in at the
Exact window where someone is
Looking out? Inexplicable encounters
Traduce unknowns with wary
Other. What is behind that sticky girl one
Step stunningly away from heaven? Tossed.
A thing of beauty in a room so ordinary.
Mindless kicks. Burns. Bite hard words
Mocking back-broke loveliness. Ape
Ghosts. Rape-ghosts reel on little
One. Well below a Restoration rake-hell
Humans shouldn’t figure. Let alone … let alone …

Neglected screams in a field of unwashed forks.
Far crying buried in gust of shush-love.

A barely human (ape) rape has occurred amidst this ordinary scene against ‘stunning’ ‘beauty’ and ‘loveliness’ (together the words suggest a woman is violated by ‘rape-ghosts’), though it might only be sexual stimulation, ‘tossing’. ‘Mindless kicks’ suggests gratuitous sexual play as well as violence, or both. Lamentation is obscured by the intimate but threatening ‘shush-love’ that both extinguishes love and could also signify the love of an unhealthy secrecy. The poem is the more powerful for not revealing its content in a narrative unfolding, but through an excess of compressed and detailed violent imagery.

The form fixes the restlessness in each sonnet in this sequence, until it launches us into the next. No wonder we need the familiar bumpers of a rhyming couplet to bring this formal trajectory to rest. We are told: ‘If you’ve danced with me you must be true,’ that is, not a fable or a fiction, but also we are ‘true’, i.e. held in fidelity to the spell of these forms.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Innovative Sonnet Sequence: Ten of 14: Philip Terry's Shakespeare's Sonnets

(This is Terry speaking about the sonnets at Edge Hill University to the Poetry and Poetics Research Group earlier this year.)

In a nutshell, Shakespeare’s ‘argument’ and one of Philip Terry’s major techniques are both exemplified by the respective first lines of their sequences. In Shakespeare’s Shakespeare’s Sonnets (!) the theme of carpe diem is expressed in terms of the threat and regret of vanishing potential beauty (‘From fairest creatures we desire increase’), whereas Philip Terry’s Shakespeare’s Sonnets opens with a comic echo of that ‘desire’, an epigrammatic imperative of our postmodern age of ageless celebrities enhanced by cosmetic mummification or permanent genetic modification: ‘Clone Kylie.’ However parodic they might be, Shakespeare’s central theme of the impermanence of beauty shows through these poems: ‘We test the best non-surgical skin fixers/ With time’s injurious hand,’ begins another poem. (At least they aren’t tested on animals!) A further version of this sonnet, number 63 of Shakespeare’s, which originally opened, ‘Against my love shall be, as I am now,/ With Time’s injurious hand crusht and o’erworn’, becomes in Terry’s adaptation: ‘Against my love shall be an immense ballroom,/ With time’s injurious hand jive’. Anyone can see that Terry is ‘updating’ the sonnet with regards to the entropic nature of Time, but not everybody knows that ‘Up to Date’ is one of the simpler Oulipo constraints. These poems are also examples of the ‘Chimera’ constraint where one text is filled with the vocabulary of an alien one. Terry has taken on most of Shakespeare’s sonnets (some in multiple versions), with a variety of techniques, which owes much to Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style in which one event is re-narrated endlessly and to Harry Mathews’ ‘Trial Impressions’ in which one Dowland song is re-versioned. (When questioned on my ‘favourite’ poem, I cite this example from Mathews.) My exposition could turn into a list of the Oulipo techniques Terry has used (but Terry provides his own. See also his own account of the project here). More important than enumeration is the fact that built into the Oulipo venture is the ‘clinamen’, the Lucretian swerve that throws an irrational spanner into the rational literary work, in short, something that fucks up the system. I asked Terry recently what his clinamen was; he replied, ‘I don’t use any of the constraints consistently.’ System does a duck-rabbit flip into invention.

Here is a straightforward but irresistible re-writing of a well-known sonnet, one also taken on by Harryette Mullen in the Reality Street anthology. Already parodic in Shakespeare’s hands of the worst rhetoric of the sonnet craze, sonnet 130, ‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun’, re-appears in Mullen’s versions as: ‘My honeybunch’s peepers are nothing like neon’ and ‘My Mickey Mouse ears are nothing like sonar’. (I always think of Nicholas Moore’s Spleen when I see this level of versioning.) And, of course, Shakespeare elsewhere gently mocks one of the seven ages of man: ‘the lover/ Sighing like a furnace, with a woeful ballad/ Made to his mistress’ eyebrow.’ For Terry, then, the demand is to be particularly inventive and to aim lower than the brows:

My mistress’ eyesores are nothing like stalagmites;
Copper is not as green as her teeth.
If sodium be white, why then her brie is blue;
If hairs be wires, pylons grow on her head.
I have seen rot, dry and wet,
But no such rot as I see in her cheeks;
And in some petrol is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I can’t stand her jabbering,
The dentist’s drill hath a far more pleasing sound.
I never saw her get off her fat arse
Except to go and stuff her face.
And yet, while I hate her, I can’t let go,
I’m in deep shit, like those dudes in the Inferno.

All of the poems exist against their Ur-text; the ‘by heaven’ of Shakespeare’s final couplet becomes the antonymic reference to Hell in the version. The originals are de-formed, they loose form in the restless versionings of Terry’s book, and the new form that emerges in our encounter with the page is actually the perceived and received difference between the original (or what is recalled of it, or what it assumed of it) and the version. Form keeps the meanings spinning. The version never quite feels the final word, the total content, but a manifestation of a formal choice that could have been otherwise. After all, the Oulipo is a workshop of potential literature.

My sonnet’s form is nothing like its likeness.

See the links to The Meaning of Form here.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Innovative Sonnet Sequence: Nine of 14: Kick Him in the Assarts!

(Jeff Hilson reading from In the Assarts in Amsterdam earlier this year)

If Berrigan’s sonnets are about themselves, Hilson’s In The Assarts are sonnets that take as burden the history of the form, including Berrigan’s. The excessive brio, the collagic inconsequentiality, the use of strategic repetition and variation, are indebted to Berrigan, but many of the poems are haunted by Sir Thomas Wyatt and the narrator uneasily identifies with him. All these points are demonstrated in poem 32 (out of the 71):

When I grow up I want to be
I Thomas Wyatt & hang around
the stately homes of England.
I am not in this dance
the little necks of England
slipp’d & crown’d
so long Anne Boleyn you spoil’d
my holiday theory of value.
How to explain the flowers to
I Thomas Wyatt when I was rescu’d by
her falling
head on my moustache.
O Anne Boleyn was there room in
the room that you room’d in?

The concluding question (a couplet) is one of Berrigan’s most famous repetitions, itself a repetition of one of Gertrude Stein’s own repetitions. Of course, the room here may be the cell Boleyn is confined to before beheading, an act comically referred to, or the space of the sonnet itself. Wyatt ‘seems to have become involved with’ Boleyn at Court around 1525 ‘until warned off by the obvious infatuation of Henry VIII with her’, and indeed he wrote her love poems in prison (as Spiller says). The ‘holiday theory of value’ seems to hint at the leisured luxury of the court, which her death ‘spoil’d’ by complication. The sonnet is a courtly form in both ideal and real senses: ‘O Anne Boleyn I made your head/ into an Italian sonnet’ poem 34 boasts or laments.

The ‘terrible terrible assarts’ of the title refer to forest clearances (with attendant dispossession) to create the ‘lovely moats’ and the ‘shiny turret(s)’ of courtly tat. ‘Farewell, Love, and all they lawns forever,’ Wyatt is misquoted in the epigraph to the sequence, a posthumous slip of his tongue which equates love with court more materially than his original word ‘laws’ (not ‘lawns’). But this is a cleared landscape (‘yr grim square poems’ suggest a topological equivalence) that depends upon language for its construction; ‘look at my dead misspelt horse’ is yet another of the sequence’s studied imperfections, badnesses. Grammatical de-cohesion is another. These cleared spaces fill with the detritus of the modern world, often in transformative sequence: outdated pop stars Donovan, the Kinks, Mike Oldfield, appear in what looks like a decontextualised autobiographical pageant. In a knowingly post-Language poetry environment (‘my home is in thy American tree/ (language realism poesie’)) anything can happen; Wyatt is confused with James Bond (presumably playing on the fact that Wyatt may have spied for Henry): ‘O to go to London to recreate 1966’, or: ‘that’s the sound of Cromwell kissing/ not a genuine face’. In the beautiful Veer edition of 2010 the poems are indeed square on square pages, the faux-renaissance typeface materially emphasising anachronism and misfit: is it King Stephen or Stephen King who is described thus: ‘he was the worst Bond my lord.’

These external intertextual references of uncertain value and the Berriganesque intratextuality are the semantic shapes (again form can be made with meanings and hints at meanings) which make these poems form in our cumulative encounter with their reiterations. Unstable content is draped parodically across the ghostly historical frames of the 14 lines, and forms can be made even with mistakes and bad lines. As another epigraph to the book states: If ‘a poet comes across with “perfect” sonnet after “perfect” sonnet for any length of time, a sonnet sequence is a bore’. We are never bored in the assarts.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Innovative Sonnet Sequence: Eight of 14: My Own Sonnets

(Image: that's me at Hay reading Philip Terry's sonnets as part of the lecture. Geraldine Monk's book folded on the desk before me. Photo: John Goodby)

POETICS. My first sonnet was an Oulipo offshoot, though I didn’t know it at the time, 1978. ‘Pataphysical Sonnet’ was formed from the examples of the combinatory ‘Thousand Billion Sonnets’ of Queneau and the ‘irrational sonnets’ (using pi to determine stanza shape and rhyme) of Jacques Bens both of which I found in the New Writing from France Penguin anthology.

G – The Pataphysical Sonnet
Returns to the bedroom, out of his head,
Out of tunes fragments come rocking his bed
Between order and chaos, freedom and …?
Ever, I see my order’s rule in the edge
Riff between sound and silence. Out of hand
The moon in June security has led
So boot if at all to the point of dead
Hope for happiness. Beyond the land
Every sea must ordain its religions in the edge.
Priscilla leaps from bed and surveys her life
Plus belle qu’une poubelle (just) in a cold sweat.
A certain kind of order, edge-of-knife,
provokes her (13 is unlucky) strife.
DADA was here, but I have no regret.

in Dedicated to you but you weren’t listening (London: Writers Forum, 1979)

The first few words of each line were drawn from the titles of music by The Soft Machine, to which it paid homage. The poem uses the rhyme scheme of one of the Bens poems and I worked out that my name furnished an acrostic in reversed 6+8, a device I used (without the accidental clinamen I adopted here) in Twentieth Century Blues, when I returned to the sonnet over a decade later. Meanwhile, I’d enjoyed teaching the form, particularly where coherent but variable units formed parts of a more or less coherent but differentiated whole or extension, and slowly this formal intelligence permeated the poetics of sequences I was writing.

Most recently my poetics journal articulates this in terms of the tension between two modes of organisation:

The isolate poem as the construction of a centrifugal engine, pulling itself together to centre its energies in nodes of impacted attention, supported by a vocabulary of completion wholeness closure structure shape. The danger of saying or doing only one thing…

Or the centripetal: a sense of continuation dispersal openness unfinish

processual structure with evolving forms or even entropic systems…
WORD. I’ve also felt drawn to creating my own structures for sonnets, and I’m proud of having invented the 100 word sonnet in Twentieth Century Blues. Actually, I didn’t invent it; it came from a serendipitous misreading of an Adrian Clarke sonnet with a two word title and 14 lines of 7 words. Adrian hadn’t noticed that that added up to 100 but I wrote a number, eschewing punctuation and using a centre margin (a form that seems to drive the long lines to vertical completion).

LINE. By the time I began Warrant Error, which appears in the Hilson anthology, I had abandoned word count and devised a 2/3/4/5 sonnet stanza, a form which offered 24 combinations. I have since found that Andrew Crozier used the form in the 1980s (?) . Warrant Error was influenced by Berrigan (I thought of modelling them on his and calling them ‘The Poems’, a title used by Berrigan within the poems). But I’d also written on Raworth’s sonnets by then (and on Allen Fisher’s Apocalyptic Sonnets from the 1970s), Adrian was writing his own Skeleton Sonnets and Ken Edwards was publishing parts of his 8+6. Something was in the air. Believing with Rosmarie Waldrop that ‘collage is the splice of life’, I found the ‘little rooms’ of my shifting stanza forms ideal for forming works from the mass of material I was collecting (by 2003 various takes on the War on Terror, human unfinish and other subjects!). As ever with collage, the formal action and the pre-determined shapes meant a lot of the poems gathered their content through formal working. I wrote 100 poems in all, in 4 sets of 24, with 4 extras. I’ll present some in a later posting.

CHARACTER. My Belgian alter-ego Rene Van Valckenborch, more modish and technologically advanced than I, has used Twitter to write his Twitterodes, but the first (or is it the last) is a (Petrarchan) ‘twittersonnet’: 14 lines of 10 characters instead of syllables. (They are here on Pages, November and December 2010; click on those dates to the right.)

SYLLABLE. I have an unused form, adapted from Pierre Alferi’s sequence OXO: 7 lines of 7 syllables, though I call it the half pint sonnet (perhaps in deference to these straightened times). Place a proportional Petrarchan break after line 4, add a one syllable title to bring the count to 50 (which suggests a sequence of 50 of them). I haven’t used this form yet, and there’s another question nagging at me: isn’t it time to stop writing all these sonnets? I’m a great believer in Miles Davis’ advice: ‘End your solo before you’re done’, that is, before every bitter drop has been squeezed from the (arguably) desiccated form. While there’s still life in it.

(NOTES: The title of this posting is meant to allude to Jeff Nuttall’s journal: ‘My Own Mag’, by the way, but the resonance is muted. These last two heading-paragraphs were written for the Hay on Wye lecture but weren’t used due to time constraints. I feel it very unlikely that I will write the syllabic half-pint sonnets now, but I have a notion to do one (last?) sonnet sequence, perhaps based on Milton’s 24 sonnets and perhaps called ‘Bad Sonnets for Bad People’, or that’s what I’m telling myself in my poetics journal today. I am also revising this lecture into a strictly literary-critical chapter for a monograph on Form (ennobled by the capital); that too is feeding into a stirring desire to write a completely different kind of (non-)sequence. I’m also reading the anthology Against Expression, the anthology of conceptual writing, edited by Craid Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith, which contains one brilliant tour de force using anagrams from Shakespeare: K. Silem Mohammad’s ‘Sonnagrams’.

I was also reminded in reading the anthology of Stephen McLaughlin and Jim Carpenter’s Issue 1 of 2008. It's very large (warning: it’s a pdf of over 7000 pages but the link I tried to insert here doesn't work, but I found it through ubuweb), and it contains a poem by me, ‘Small-scale lives and low alarms’; well, it has my name under it but a nice computer program called Erica wrote it. I sought it out again and have plans to ‘do something with it’. I’ve alphabeticalised it for a start. It looks like this now:

- , , ? ? ? a a A a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a b b b B b b b b b c c C c c c c d d d d d d d d d d d d d d d d dd e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e ee e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e e f f f f g g g g g h H h h h h h h h h h h h h h h h h h h h h h h h h h h i i i i i I i i i i i i i i i i i i j k k l l l l l l l ll l l l l l l l l l l l l l l l m m M m m m m m m m n n n n n n n n n n n n n n n n n n n n n n o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o p p p P r r r r r r r r r r r r r r r r r r r s s s s s s s s s s s s s s s s s s s s s s s S S s S s s s s S S s s s s t t t t t t t t t t t t t t t t t T t t t t t t T t t t t t t u u u u u u u u u v v v w w w w w w x x y y y y y y y z zMaybe that doesn’t quite do it justice. But worst of all I noticed that this poem (it’s at p. 35) is actually a kind of sonnet; it has 14 marginalised lines.

The ‘Pataphysical Sonnet’ above was only alluded to (dismissively) at Hay on Wye, but I thought to recover it here to see what it looked like. It seems relevant now to all the projects I have been looking at and describing here.

OK. Back to the lecture: In the next four sections (my daily postings), I’m going to be looking at the four contemporary British sequences as promised in the last posting, asking questions about how the frame of the sonnet is used to facilitate aesthetic encounter, how the poems individually and in sequence take form and make form.)

There is a later post about my sonnet writing here.And about my published Petrarch 3 here.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Innovative Sonnet Sequence: Seven of 14

Fourteen British innovative sonnet sequences written in the 21st century and featured in excerpt in The Reality Street Book of Sonnets presented chronologically:

1. Giles Goodland A Spy in the House of Years (2001): a conceptual documentary project formed by 14 (acknowledged) quotations from each year of the twentieth century.

2. Adrian Clarke Skeleton Sonnets (2002/2006): structured by word count and/or phrasal clusters avoiding syntactic cohesion, these collages require readerly forming, exhibit suspicion of the many classic sonnets alluded to.

3. Ken Edwards Eight + Six (2003): formal variety is the rule, restlessly working through political and aesthetic concerns but obsessively dealing with the ‘I’ that appears almost concurrently with the sonnet form.

4. Ian Davidson Harsh (2003): ‘the harshness intentional’, abutted in long lined relentless found material sonnets, often angry with political and social realities.

5. Tony Lopez Assembly Point D (2004): a conceptual sequence using found materials, prodigal with its (unacknowledged) sources like Berrigan, deliberately affectless and cool like Raworth.

6. Carol Watts brass, running (2006): focussed on the year 1391, using Chaucer as intertext, these sonnets, richly sutured, form a woman’s life from fragments.

7. Robert Hampson Reworked Disasters or: Next checking out the Chapmans’ Goya (2008?): riffing on Keats’ sonnet on Chapman’s Homer, each poem is addressed to an artist, and alludes to the Chapman Brothers’ violent art work and relating that to repressive state apparatuses.

8. Keith Jebb tonnes (2008) – the title an anagram of ‘sonnet’ – balances political statement (‘tony is a fascist’) with formal play ‘[this line is missing]’, where the latter defamiliarises the former.

9. Richard Makin Rift Designs (2008): balances a diaristic impulse (the narrating I) with a textual dispersion that owes something to Raworth.

10. Tim Atkins Petrarch (2008): an ongoing project to ‘translate’ all of Petrarch’s work using seven different techniques. Funny and poignant, conceptual and cool, I predict this work, produced as a practice-led PhD, is going to be important.

11. Chris McCabe The Transmidland Liverpool to London Express (2008): a lively sequence tracing the contrasts between McCabe’s two cities (and mine).

12. Sophie Robinson geometries (2008);

13. Geraldine Monk Ghost & Other Sonnets (2009);

14. Jeff Hilson In the Assarts (2010): see later postings (each will be discussed in detail).

(Note: Remember this lists sequences, and so many fine sonneteers get left out. Also there are more than 14 sequences in the anthology and here are more left out of the lecture: Johan de Wit: Palm Stories (2008), Kelvin Corcoran sequences in Your Thinking Tracts or Nations (with Alan Halsey) (2001), Harry Gilonis North Hills (2008) and Piers Hugill From II Canzoniere: A Songbook 1 (2009?).)

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Innovative Sonnet Sequence: Six of 14: Fleet Negotiations

Tom Raworth’s sonnets 'Eternal Sections' (all 153 of them, one fewer than Shakespeare’s) owe to Berrigan’s, though the tone of excess and the use of repetition across the sequence is eschewed in favour of affectlessness. They use one of Berrigan’s techniques exclusively: the ‘juggling’ of separate lines as in the Joe Brainard collage homage, but they often seem to use only one source each; they are similar through formal means not through content. I’ve written about these 14 liners a number of times, including in my book When Bad Times Made for Good Poetry.

Here is a ‘sonnet’ of extracts:

1. Raworth has made a poem, not attempted to reconstruct an experience.

2. He rearranged the lines in such a way that few traces of the ‘context’ remain.

3. A recognizable semantic field, but its syntactical connections are unclear.

4. Not by its statement, but through its technique, the collision and conflict of creative linkage.

5. As Raworth transforms his materials, he sabotages intentionality.

6. If they are ‘sonnets’ they exhibit a volta in nearly every line.


even though the jazz feeling
the collaborative aspects
make a significant statement
until we’re all happy
the artificial sound of tape
from one block to another
edits real fast
individual moments
layering and moulding
approaches to their instruments
where he could burn
wandering across
type time dimension
keys, tempos, etc.

8. Raworth’s fleet negotiation of material, which almost by-passes the reader’s ability to process it, exposes the saidness of the text to an openness of performance, a saying.

9. The difficulty of this poem is precisely troublesome, and is more troublesome the more precise our attempted readings become.

10. To know that they are fragments does not lessen the will to coherence and cohesion.

11. An orchestration of interruptions, a percussive and hinged punctuation of themselves. They are empty and full.

12. The poems cohere more by a reading of their formal means than by attempting to chart the semantics.

13. They turn content to form, and turn form into the content that is read.


was the length I’ve been happy with for a while,’ says Raworth.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Innovative Sonnet Sequence: Five of 14: The Code of the West De-coded

One of the pleasures of Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets is that we read them as form. Part of this comes from the fact that the major, but not the sole, technique – collage – is foregrounded and becomes the formal theme of our reading. They are ‘built rather than written’ Ron Padgett says, quoting Berrigan; he used glue. One sonnet is a complete re-arrangement of another line by line. In poetry, repetition usually provides thematic emphasis although (in choral and anaphoric instances) it can provide musicality and structural form. But in Berrigan’s Sonnets, ‘Dear Marge, hello. It is 5.15 a.m.’ is pleasurably encountered four times; it is one of the instances where form is made from meanings. But we also encounter variations entangled with other variations. ‘Dear Chris, hello. It is 5.15 a. m./ I rage in a blue shirt at a brown desk' is just one appearance of stark colours attached to various objects across the 88 poems. Later we read ‘my dream a crumpled horn/my dream DEAR CHRIS, hello. It is 5:15 a.m./The academy of my dreams is opening its doors’; this last sentence is a repeated (mis-)quotation from Ashbery. (73) ‘My dream DEAR CHRIS hello. It is 3:17 a.m. ‘(74), leads to the valedictory ventriloquism of Prospero’s renunciation in ‘A Final Sonnet’ (for Chris):

I’ll break
My staff bury it certain fathoms in the earth
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book.
It is 5:15 a.m. Dear Chris, hello.

(The spacing is inaccurate in this posting.)

We track these phrases “‘taking form”, “forming”, “loosing form” in Derek Attridge’s words, and finally making form. But the wildness of collage is undertaken in the ‘little room’ of the sonnet to concentrated effect. The very repetition of the sonnet sequence contains the repetitions and variations we find within each poem and we experience the traditional sonnet pleasure of aesthetic encounter with an overall structural rhythm (however staccato in this instance) of presentation and silence, presence and absence, like listening to Bach’s Goldberg Variations all the way through. The frames take form, form before our eyes from fragments, and loose form (one ‘sonnet’ bears little resemblance to the frame). ‘The line enjambments, the twisting of syntax, the “push-pull” of meaning, the abrupt changes of tone, the dislocation of punctuation, the fading in and out of prosody, the intentional misuse of parts of speech, the aesthetic decisions as to when to accept the results of a chance operation or to discard them,’ as Ron Padgett inventorizes the inventions of the sequence, –‘these should not be overlooked in favour of colourful subject matter, a subject matter that (like Shakespeare’s) involves a love-triangle. Never mind the sex, or the Libbie Rifkin line that the poems were motivated by Berrigan ingratiating himself before the first Generation New York school through homage, quotation and obliteration. (Remember that Gerard Malanga photo with Ashbery? Berrigan has his hand over Ashbery’s face!) Whatever the concern with ‘the micropolitics of the New York poetry scene’ The Sonnets are ‘a series of “machines”, selections from found materials organized by the mechanics of Berrigan’s inspiration,’ notes Renny Pritikin. One inspiration was the work of his friends. One sonnet opens: ‘In Joe Brainard’s collage its white arrow,’ (14) but collage effects (cut up) interrupt the poem at this point (the lines are clearly re-arranged, or juggled because another sonnet presents the ‘correct’ version.) He plundered Brainard’s journal, he cut up his own poems, including traditional and parodic sonnets, and was influenced by the whole eclectic ‘tradition’ of Dada-New York art practice that could be accessed in the early sixties, including the chance procedures of Cage. No wonder ‘his method is notable for its combination of intuitive and arbitrary procedures’. All this contributes to the sequence’s glorious self-referring quality. The sheer power of this often casually constructed sequence probably derives from the casual belatedness of Berrigan’s position. When Frank O’Hara began a poem ‘It is 12:10 in New York’ it probably was. By the time Berrigan is cutting up text, it wasn’t ‘5.15’ or whatever. We know that Berrigan was drawing structural homologies from science, Whitehead’s process philosophy in particular. But this relativity of time appears as an arguable encoding of space-time at the structural level of collage which, I argue, is not simply form at all, since it is the subject of the poems. They are sonnets about sonnets taking form, loosing form, finding form, making themselves in front of us. I know of no other sonnet sequence where we feel the excitement of its forming as we per-form it on our reading.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Innovative Sonnet Sequence: Four of 14: Convention and Constraint

Remove formatting from selection

The attraction of the sonnet sequence for British linguistically innovative poets is that it provides a perfect answer to the tension between the long poem and the lyric.‘Linguistically innovative poets seem on the whole to opt for the sequence over the stand-alone sonnet and I think this can be explained by their historical preference for the accumulative and speculative poetic “project” as opposed to the singularity and poise of the discreet lyric,’ writes Jeff Hilson in his introduction to the Reality Street Book of Sonnets. This is true though perhaps he is denigrating lyric poise a little too much. (anthol 16) While there is a contemporary push towards the long poem, particularly in the sequence form that Jack Spicer called the serial poem, there is a contrary pull not only towards the lyric (which is another story) but towards various techniques of constraint and limitation, one seen in its strictest shape in the work of the Oulipo, who innovated widely, even wildly, with sonnets, and in other procedural and conceptual poetics. The Oulipo insist on the distinction between conventions which are sanctioned by tradition (one of the reasons for the frequent return to the sonnet in literary history is for the continuity and authority afforded by simply plugging into previous manifestations of the form) and constraints which are freshly invented for the occasion, and of which innovative sonnets provide a prime example. The sonnet is the one stanza form, with its internal divisions, that may translate into free verse: it is a visibly recognisable form. The sonnet provides a consolidating restraint for the practice of non-metrical poetry, which risks dispersion in long poetry projects, and the innovative sonnet can be put beside other alternative structurings: prose poetry, isoverbalism, concrete poetry and other spatial practices. However, as it always has, the sonnet sequence offers a flexible vehicle for extension and contrast.

It is hard to imagine Roy Fisher or Lee Harwood writing sonnets in the sixties, even though Harwood mixed with New York poets known to favour the form; an early poem praises Edwin Denby. Edwin Morgan’s brilliant ‘Glasgow Sonnets’ (1973) are not innovative in the sense I propose here despite coming from Morgan’s most restlessly innovative collection, From Glasgow to Saturn. Gavin Selerie’s sequences of the late 1980s and early 1990s seemed isolated and out of place among the free and open forms abundant in the London scene. When he ventriloquises Goethe, ‘I’m used to carving from a whole block/ and now, it seems, I need to use glue’, (p. 9 Tilting) he expresses the contrast of writing longer forms to the fiddly small object-poem. Peter Riley and John Welch offer equally isolated examples of sonnets in the 1980s. Paul Evans’ ‘Two Sonnets’ (1979) indeed used glue, and are cut-up sonnets – matching innovation with tradition – but read now as a part of his drift to an inexplicable traditionalism, the kind of formalism of which I’m not speaking here. (See my edition of his work for Shearsman).

There are three practices that permitted the innovative sonnet sequence since as collected in Hilson’s anthology: Berrigan, Raworth and the Oulipo. As Hilson himself says: ‘It’s no exaggeration to say that Berrigan’s poems have been responsible for something of a latter-day sonnet renaissance amongst linguistically innovative poets’, including for an early moment Evans and most recently John Goodby, in his 2010 Illennium. (11) Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets had been anthologised regularly but were out of print until Penguin published a definitive edition in 2000. Collage in form, there was plenty of glue in evidence; Berrigan contrasted his sonnets to his ‘open’ poems. (nice 79)

Around 1986 Tom Raworth abandoned open sequences and wrote 14 line poems, the first 42 published as ‘Sentenced to Death’ in Visible Shivers in 1987. The continuing and concluding 111, written between 1988 and 1990 were published in 1993 as Eternal Sections. More glue: more collage.

The already mentioned Oulipo interest in sonnets, in Queneau’s Thousand Billion Sonnets and in other numerically ordained sequences such as Jacques Roubaud’s Some Thing Black, may have fed into the innovative sonnet craze of our own day, as they rode alongside other Oulipo works – prose texts by Calvino and Perec – which became domesticated in Britain from the late 1980s onwards.

Finally the force of postmodernist play to release the historically-repressed form cannot be underestimated. The sonnet revival was bound to happen. Modernists reviled the form. Williams said ‘All sonnets say the same thing of no importance,’ by which he was negatively confirming my more affirmative sense that forms think because form thinks. But the formal torquing of innovative sonnets ensures that they do not say the same thing, because formal constraints are not ordained conventions.

Note: e.e. cummings and Rilke apart, Williams’ friend Louis Zukofsky was busily writing ‘A 7’ in the 1930s, entuning Marx (and later Spinoza) in sonnets with mathematical values placed upon repetition that prefigures the Oulipo.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Innovative Sonnet Sequence: Three of 14: Sonnet Mania

Historically the sonnet is the perfectly formed bastard child of Occidental troubadour ballads, and it comes to early maturity and fecundity in the hands of Petrarch in the fourteenth century, whose name we now give to one of the two characteristic forms of the sonnet, the 14 lines in the proportion of 8 to six, with a volta or turn at line eight. The form came into English through the adaptations of Petrach by Sir Thomas Wyatt in the early sixteenth century, (See his portrait above and poems here.) . The fame of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, and whose name is given to the form where the turn moves to the concluding couplet of the poem, obscures the widespread practice of the sonnet in its heyday between 1580 and 1610. It reached the level of a craze in the 1590s, following the posthumous publication of Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella (1591) which, according to Jonathan Bate played a ‘foundational role’ in the craze. Some of Shakespeare’s ‘sugared sonnets’ were published unauthorised during the craze; others may have been written later, but Shakespeare (or his publisher) waited until the theatres were closed by plague in 1609 to prepare a full volume. The sonnet has remained a popular form with a dip in its use during the eighteenth century and its virtual prohibition under Modernism, a fact to which I shall return.

‘We’ll build in sonnets pretty roomes’, writes John Donne (no mean sonneteer himself), punning on the original meaning of stanza as room, and pointing out, by analogy with architecture, the sonnets neatness as form. A ‘prescribed form’ whose ‘duration as well as the structure of the whole poem is predetermined,’ as Michael Spiller puts it, the sonnet is asymmetrical like the haiku, the turn torques the discourse after midpoint. In its 8+6 (octet and sestet) form, Spiller says, ‘The verbal recognition of’ what may have originally been ‘(a) musical alteration is first of all syntactic: a new sentence at the change, or perhaps a medial pause in a long sentence. But this in turn begets a conceptual alteration, turning proportionality of lengths into consequentiality of thought. Six to eight as conclusion is to proposition, or as development and summing up is to statement.’ Even in this abstract frame one can see how this form at least thinks, in terms of its predisposition to contentual structure: ‘consequentiality of thought’. One can even see that form here is a kind of content. Spiller adds, underlying this point, turning to the other major sonnet frame: ‘When the final couplet became popular in English sonnet-writing, the alternative 4+4+4+2 grouping emerges, to drive British poets into a rhyming couplet ending, with strong pressure towards epigram or witticism.’ Bate summarises the difference in effect: ‘Whereas the Italian style favoured a single thought with a turn in the middle, the English encouraged more playful variation: three thrusts and twist in the tail. The very form offered an incentive to multiplication and digression that encouraged sonnets to be expressions of their authors’ wit and ingenuity as much as – perhaps more than – outpourings of their real feelings.’ The sonneteers at least ‘respond(ed) to forms as a kind of content’ (as Wolfson puts it).

The sonnet became a courtly form, first as ‘the voice of the articulate citizens of the city states’ of Italy, and in England through the ‘courtly makers’ as Puttenham calls Wyatt and Surrey : ‘They greatly polished our rude and homely manner of vulgar Poesie,’ he opined. ‘Wyatt and Surrey created an intimate relationship between the arts of courtship and courtiership. This made it possible to read apparent love poems as coded bids for patronage and preferment at court.’ Every courtier was expected to bash out a sonnet.

Petrarch’s longing poems for Laura, Surrey’s for Geraldine, Sidney’s for Stella, all place their ‘pleading or praising or lamenting’ narrators as heirs to a Neoplatonic ethos, ‘that love is at once the most dislocating of human feelings and the one which most strongly impels the heart to “gentilezza”, that quality at the centre of ideal courtly behaviour’, whereas real courtly behaviour and its actual sonneteers gave a ‘performance’ of wit: ‘One is performing for an audience, moving in and out of a series of poses, and watching one’s own performance … The aim is not truth, but delight.’ It did not delight all who beheld this ‘behaviour’: When the Earl of Essex should have been concentrating upon Irish genocide as bidden by his sovereign at the height of sonnet-mania, Henry Wootten complained that he ‘spent his time “evaporat(ing) his thoughts in a sonnet”.’ It is ironical that this last vestige of English chivalric behaviour died when Essex’s courtly plot ended ignominiously in his execution. His reading for form, we might say, with irony but not without some justification, was fatal!

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Innovative Sonnet Sequence: Two of 14: Forms and Forming

If poetry is the investigation of complex contemporary realities through the means (meanings) of form, then the investigation of form itself is of paramount importance and comes with a certain methodological liberty and verve: ‘The vitality of reading for form is freedom from program and manifesto, from any uniform discipline,’ says leading new formalist Susan J. Wolfson. Indeed, this formalism has been fighting against instrumentalist readings of literature, the kind of quasi-sociology that passes for a lot of English teaching still. As Wolfson says: ‘My deepest claim is that language shaped by poetic form is not simply conscriptable as information for other frameworks of analysis; the forms themselves demand a specific kind of critical attention.’

I want to argue that the attention of any formal study of contemporary poetry must be dual. It must focus on form in the technical sense, on identifiable forms in play, the ones identified by Veronica Forrest-Thomson in her prescient Poetic Artifice as enjambment, line, rhythm, rhyme, etc., and on form in a general, more performative sense, that prioritises acts of forming and our apprehension of their coming to form. Forms and forming I call this pair for ease. Associating one with the other, Derek Attridge argues that form is the force that stages a performance of any text: we need to apprehend ‘the eventness of the literary work, which means that form needs to be understood verbally – as ‘taking form” of “forming”, or even “loosing form”', but he insists that the devices of artifice ‘are precisely what call forth the performative response’ of any engaged reader, directly connected to the event of singularity which is the irruption of an inventive otherness in our productive reading.

Both types of form are capable of carrying a semantic or cognitive charge, demonstrating that forms think. They contain or envelop meaning(s) of knowledge(s) and might demonstrate how new meaning and (non-propositional) knowledge might be formed and formulated. As such, aesthetic form carries a force operating on the individual (or collective) reader or viewer, which – in the case of poetry – means that the reader is the site where such meanings are staged by form, so that reading is formulating form, and formulating it into fluxing semantic and cognitive forms as a ‘performed mobility’. Wolfson even writes that literature lovers ‘respond to forms as a kind of content’. Formal considerations of both kinds (forms and forming) are engaged by active reading and enact meanings that moderate, exacerbate, subvert (or on rare occasions reinforce) the kind of extractable meaning that Forrest-Thomson and Attridge both decry as ‘paraphrase’. Paraphrase is amnesia of form.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Innovative Sonnet Sequence: One of 14

This lecture was delivered at the Hay Poetry Jamboree 2011 at the Oriel Contemporary Art Gallery, Salem Chapel, Bell Bank, Hay on Wye on June 4th 2011. The organisers were John Goodby (who also took the above shot) and Lyndon Davies (whose website is linked to below). See also Van Valckenborch's latest prose on Lyndon's magazine Junction Box.

Here are some links to photos of the event and here is the lecture. It is in 14 parts, in deference to the sonnet, and I will post the parts one a day for the next fortnight, also with gestures toward the form.

One of 14
This lecture is in 14 parts, in homage to, and in parody of, the sonnet, which is its subject. It therefore formally encodes the ambivalence towards the form found in the sonnet-like and sonnet-aspirant and sonnet-deviant productions of its most recent avant-garde practitioners and pasticheurs (many of them collected in The Reality Street Book of Sonnets, which appeared in 2008, edited by an admirable collector and producer of the species, Jeff Hilson). In drawing attention to the central defining numerical feature of its structure this ‘sonnet-lecture’ is emblematically drawing attention to form itself, and to notions of forms and forming with which I am currently working as a critic. The sonnet seems an obvious place to ask questions of such a kind, because the forms of individual poems are formed within (or at least in readerly expectation of, or in relation to) a particular (and historically determined and available) form. My use here of ‘forms’ to refer to the shapes of individual poems, of ‘forming’ to refer to the process by which a literary work happens, and of ‘form’ to refer to the quasi-Platonic form of the sonnet in general, I hope, is enough to warrant my interest in, and my dwelling upon, such formal questions, in what otherwise could have been an uninhibited romp through the undoubted glories of the innovative sonnet. I shall be asking questions, sometimes theoretical, sometimes speculative, about form in general, and certain forms in particular; I shall be focussing briefly upon the sonnet sequences of Berrigan, Raworth, Jeff Hilson, Philip Terry, Geraldine Monk and Sophie Robinson.

As a poet I’ve innovated in the sonnet form in ways I’d like to share in the hope that I’ve got things to say from the inside, as it were. About 136 of my poems – to my surprise – might be considered sonnets and certain others take 14 lines to exhaust themselves. This brief sortie into ‘practice-led research’ is cognate with another of my interests, the discourse of poetics as a writerly and speculative twin to practice, and as a new object of study for criticism itself. Hilson’s anthology alone indicates that the recent pull towards the sonnet has been international but I shall be mainly concentrating upon British linguistically innovative poetry.

Here are raw links to the posts, arranged themselves as a sonnet:

Update September 2016: For those who can buy The Meaning of Form in Contemporary Innovative Poetry, in which there is a chapter on the innovative sonnet, or who can order it for libraries, here are the places

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


I’m just back from a reading (and conference) in Amsterdam on Thursday 19th May at the ABC Treehouse in Voetboogstraat.

Part of the ‘Poetry and the Unpoetic Conference at the University of Amsterdam, I read with Jeff Hilson (reading from In the Assarts, his stunning collection), Jane Lewty (reading unpublished work including a great sequence about the Hilsborough Disaster), Louis Armand (reading from his new collection Letters from Ausland, which I enjoyed greatly), and Richard Parker reading a shuffled pile of new sonnets, which was excellent).

(Pictures above: Amsterdam, me impersonating a picture of myself on Jacket magazine (photo: Peter Barry, incidentally, the cause of my Jacket appearance!), Richard, Louis, Jane and Jeff.

I read both from Warrant Error and from Berlin Bursts (the latter I’m launching at a Shearsman reading soon), including this sonnet from the former:

for Patricia

The young couples in the crushed Amsterdam bar
dance to Barry White in the old-fashioned way

Later, aloft on Belgian beer, I murmur that I
love you, but then slip away, like the dancers,
into the night, knocking over bicycles chained
to bollards, and singing; into my reverie so far
in which we sit again drinking under the wooden ape

Almost human it grins at us both with more teeth
than the accordion it fumbles. This is all times
becoming a new time which is a now time
becoming all, a swoon through cracks in the paving

where vanished children crouch over hidden play.
Next day, a narrow canal house lips at its reflection;
we stand in front of it to stand for ourselves

Louis was alos carrying VLAK 2 / MAY 2011

edited by Louis Armand, Edmund Berrigan, Carol Watts, Ali Alizadeh, Stephan Delbos,
Jane Lewty, David Vichnar

ISSN 1804-512X

424 pages of new writing & visual art,

VLAK 2 is available from the Litteraria Pragensia Books website at:

(It includes a sequence by my fictional poet Rene Van Valckenborch as well as work by Louis and Jane).

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Poetry Beyond Text

Pete Clarke and I are just back from a day trip to Edinburgh to see the Poetry Beyond Text project opening at the Scottish Poetry Library. We have some work in this exhibition, and there is plenty of good work to see, online if you can’t get there. Check out the Guy Begbie-Lawrence Upton collaboration for something quite different.

Also check out the review of Berlin Bursts on Stride

Saturday, February 05, 2011



These new poems feature territories as dispersed as Sheppard’s local Capital of Culture and the global city of division and political murder of the title poem. Yet a series of metapoems brings agency and wonder to the idea of the poem, always seeing the world as well as itself, in perceptual double-takes that tease away at the meaning of the poetic act At the centre of the collection is 'Six Poems Against Death' whose lyric imperative hovers before the portals of the unknown to embrace human unfinish as the condition of our survival.

Ian Davidson in Poetry Wales called Sheppard's Complete Twentieth Century Blues 'a major poem of serious intent'; Alan Baker in Litter called Warrant Error 'political poetry of the first order', and John Muckle wrote of ‘this brilliant, disquieting book.’

"Robert Sheppard . . . composed a few words around Liverpool's status as City of Culture. 'Their shit's verdure but that's OK/ This isn't a nature poem.' Sheppard's near twenty-year epic, Complete Twentieth Century Blues, outweighed the Ringo returns, the showbiz art: he cooked slow and long, with tangy sauces and bits that break the teeth. The city averted its eyes . . . As if it were the poet's fault that we want our meat pre-chewed." —Iain Sinclair

Order from the Shearsman online store and read more at:

A Passion for the Real

After Solomon Nikritin’s The People’s Court (1934)

Both of his fists

over the spread pages
of the stiff book,

sporting a smock
of black smoke

across the stage
upon which I will make

no show, he
is the People playing

its part. His guards
glance aslant

from the table’s skirting
shadow. His clerk

is a fog of fingers
fixing his script with prompts.

But his deputy
twists round:

extemporal knocks
on the door

which yet may quicken all
of our exits.

Read a review at


This study presents an episodic history of an epic period in British poetry, when bad times forced political subversion and textual impaction upon its central figures and provisional institutions. Episodes cover the Poetry Wars of the 1970s; the centrality of Bob Cobbing as poetry activist and the SubVoicive poetry scene in 1980s London; he also writes individual chapters on the poetry and poetics of Allen Fisher, Tom Raworth, Iain Sinclair, John Hall, Ken Edwards, and Maggie O'Sullivan.

"A landmark study." —Benjamin Keatinge reviewing The Poetry of Saying in The European English Messenger

Order from the Shearsman online store and read more at:


Introduction: The Life of the Writing

1 Informing the Nation: The Manifesto of the Poetry Society (1976)

2 Allen Fisher’s Apocalypse Then: Between Place and Gravity: Technique and Technology

3 John Hall: The Price of Houses the Cost of Food: The Poetics of Not Writing

4 ‘Whose lives does the government affect?’: looking back at Tom Raworth’s ‘West Wind’

5 When Bad Times Made for Good Poetry: Iain Sinclair’s Autistic Poses

6 Ken Edwards’ The WE Expression

7 The Colony at the Heart of the Empire: Bob Cobbing and the Mid 1980s London Creative Environment

8 Beyond Anxiety: Legacy or Miscegenation

9 Poetry and Ethics: The Saying and the Said in Tom Raworth’s Eternal Sections

10 Talk: The Poetics of Maggie O’Sullivan

11 Facture and Fracture: Resisting the Total in Allen Fisher’s Gravity as a Consequence of Shape

12 Everything Connects: The Cultural Poetics of Iain Sinclair

Epilogue: What I regret about the poetry scene at the moment

from the Introduction: The Life of the Writing

I have long held the view that the power of poetry is precisely that it both reveals itself – its poetic artifice is its undeniable facticity laid bare – and conceals itself, leaving the reader feeling that he or she has not finished, could indeed never finish, the work of reading. The text is inexhaustible in terms of both form and content and in terms of the unstable relationship between them. The writer is also strangely both present – as artificer – and simultaneously absent, from the poem; once the poem is read the only agent in or around the text is the reader. Any poem is thus a site of human unfinish twice over. I have long suspected that under, within or around, the language of a poem, lies another language, or aspect of language, perhaps a rhythmical energy, that is not reducible to discourse. As such, the poem seems to withdraw from social and historical comprehension, but this is only apparent. On occasions these aspects of otherness suggest alternative readings of reality, and reading poetry becomes an imaginative and transformative act, with political and ethical import. Poems evoke in the attentive reader a permanent state of potential astonishment. Analysis does not distil that thrill; it turns it to knowledge, something communal (and historical, because subject to change and revision), to be shared.