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Thursday, September 01, 2016

Robert Sheppard: The sonnets I write

My acquaintanceship with the innovative sonnet is a long one. I am represented in Jeff Hilson’s anthology Reality Street Book of Sonnets (2008), which puts an excerpt from Warrant Error (2009), my book of 100 innovative sonnets concerned, as the title suggests, with the so-called ‘War on Terror’ of the early twenty-first century, alongside many others, from Ted Berrigan and Tom Raworth, through to my contemporaries Tim Atkins and Adrian Clarke. But my use of innovative sonnet forms, which usually means sonnet aspirant, sonnet approximate and sonnet deviant forms, poems that would not qualify as sonnets under the usual normative ‘classroom’ description, harks back to earlier work.

I write about the innovative sonnet in The Meaning of Form, in a chapter that is a much revised version of the 14 part rambling Hay-on-Wye lecture on the (Petrarchan) sonnet that I posted here via a sonnet frame of links!

(The eighth 'line' above is an earlier account of the sonnets I have written.)

Indeed, my long network TwentiethCentury Blues (2008) contains many 14 line poems and I even invented a new form, the 100 word sonnet (a two word ‘title’ is followed by 14 lines of 7 words each, centre margined, as in my example, below), which hailed from noticing this structure in one of Adrian Clarke’s isoverbalist poems of the 1990s, which he had not recognised as such, and adapting it for my poems and sequences. Coincidentally, I have returned to this form this summer, one dictated by a lack of punctuation and caesura and that develops a rhythmic celerity amid linguistic mix, in writing some poems that brood upon the disastrous vote of Britain to ‘Brexit’ the European Union, the Turkish coup, post-truth politics, and the self-immolation of the Labour Party. All that stuff.

In my journal I note of these: ‘The impaction suits the claustrophobia of political oppression, and make a wonderful contrast to ‘It’s Nothing’ (my 14 domestic-realist sonnets: 'Last Look', appeared in The International Times: here). A largely rhythmic celerity and linguistic mix, with occasional passages of normative discourse, though dictated by context (place in the flow and the effects of enjambement). That’s the poetics. It’s a poetics that gestures and doesn’t gesture at the same time, interruption and connectivity balanced. The frame of the sonnet also now and again becomes not just a ‘frame’, but it pivotal for dividing the flow into semantically organisable stretches, whether normative or – as is more normal – not.’

Here is one of the ones from the 1990s, one that didn’t get into History or Sleep, my selected poems, here, though it’s still available in TwentiethCentury Blues.

Small Voice 2

for Tim Woods

Twentieth Century Blues 39
For Scott Thurston 3
Hundred 3.10
Turns 8

lightness blooms

do not interrogate the taillamps’s eradicated drone
voice within vision musicates, released ears entune
its captive turn, the others no longer
fixed in the totality of permanent waste

this pleasure animates a knot of rapturous
ruptures mass graces follow me dirt from
itself: erotic or aesthetic it prises each
permission without distinction tinkles in shivered delight

We don’t live in Utopia but glimpsed
it for one moment: the daily catastrophe
anchors an epic ethos in liminal illumination,

audial; orchestration of things covered by
a grating the ‘utensils’ remain compound;
windows spring black roses in en-

visaged articulation

June-July 1997

Indeed, an essay I’m writing at the moment, ‘Era il giorno ch’al sol si scoloraro’: A derivative dérive into/out of Petrarch’s Sonnet 3, is in some senses a poetics for my on-going project of making a sequence of innovative sonnet sequences, including Petrarch 3 (the poet and publisher Richard Parker, who has taken on Petrarch 3, declared this to be a ‘corona of coronas’ when we were talking about it). It’s what I was toying calling Song Nets but I decided against it. (See here and here about Petrarch 3). 

My predilection for the sonnet may be found even earlier, as I say in the Hay-on-Wye lecture. The opening poem of my first non-self-published booklet, Dedicated to you but you weren’t listening (1979) is also a sonnet of sorts. Using titles from recordings by the seminal British band Soft Machine as the start of each line (the book’s title is also one of their compositions) the poem claims, in its subtitle, to be ‘influenced’ by the sonnets of Raymond Queneau and Jacques Bens, two members of Oulipo. In fact, in 1978 when I wrote the poems, like most Britons, I knew little of the Oulipo, other than what I had picked up via the fortuitous possession of Simon Watson Taylor’s French Writing Today, which anthologised both poets. Detailed knowledge of the Oulipo evaded me until the mid-1980s, but the construction of innovative sonnets is obviously rooted deep in my practice, and the memory of my first brush with three of Queneau’s ‘Thousand Billion Sonnets’, for example, and Bens’ mathematical use of pi as a determinant of rhyme-schemes, must have lain dormant.

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

So I have a number of sonnet-like forms (including several not listed here) and I am amassing a collection, no longer Song Nets and no longer wedded to a strict 14 rows of 14 sonnets structure. This allowed me to dismiss a couple of poems II thought didn’t work in the usual way.

I read some at Raygun Gramophone at the Everyman Bistro on September 15th. I read the new 100 word sonnets and ended with some from Warrant Error. See here for set list. 

Note: See another recent sonnet in International Times here:

(‘Avenge’, another sonnet, a contrafact on Milton’s ‘Avenge O Lord…’, and featuring elements concerning the (female) Yasidi resistance to IS, is not from 'It's Nothing', but belongs to a connected sequence, 'Overdubs'.)