Excerpts from a Reading Journal, 2014
‘Poetry and Marriage: the Use of Old Forms’ (1982), Standing By Words, Wendall Berry (Counterpoint, 2011)
I suspect I shall be referring to the Wendall Berry essay quite a lot over the coming months so I am not going to blitz through it just now – suffice to state that I have begun reading it and quietly nodding in approval to myself at various moments and points throughout. As a quick overview, Berry is drawing parallels with the marriage act and form – as the title supposes – by making a poem’s form inseparable from its meaning, in the way that the act of union in marriage is inseparable from the content of the relationship; he is saying that marriage is a traditional act – and by no means the only authentication of a couple’s union – and poetic form thus links the poet with those who’ve come (and written) before; that breaking of a form (he uses the example of Walt Whitman) becomes a new form in itself – a reader will recognise a particular form as that of a particular poet. We’re not talking here about free-verse; that is something else – which Berry refers to as akin to courtship.
A breaking of a form is still referencing the form (this is me talking, not Berry) and thus is recognisable as maintaining that link with tradition and the expectations, difficulties, freeingness and recognisability of that form. So if I write sonnets – which I have – and keep a strict metre and rhyme and the volta between the octave and the sestet, all well and good. If I begin corrupting the form – by not rhyming or by shortening or lengthening the line lengths – it still has recognisable sonnetness, though not by a classic definition. So I go a bit further, place the volta in a different position, perhaps even switch from 14 lines to 15 lines (as Michael Symmons Roberts has done in Drysalter – dubbed ‘super-sonnets’ by Kate Kellaway in the Guardian) or down to 10 lines (Andrew Johnston) or 9 lines (as I am doing with the 9×9 ‘sonnettes’).
So, form and sticking to and not sticking to it is going to be a preoccupation over the coming months. I like the sonnet form: I like the call and response; I like the mathematical rigour; I like the intellectual precision; I like how it looks on the page; I like the history – Donne, Herbert, Shakespeare, Manley Hopkins, Elizabeth Barrett Browning etc; I like the recent loosening – Simon Armitage, Symmons Roberts, John Dennison, Seamus Heaney. And I am keen to explore the ‘roughed-up’ New Zealand sonnets of Andrew Johnston, Dinah Hawken, James K Baxter, Michele Leggott, Leigh Davis, David Beach and others.
Just, then, to kick off the whole sonnet thing, I read a couple of the Jerusalem Sonnets by Baxter – of particular relevance following the meditations on Walk (Series C) of last week. The two sonnets that grabbed me are among those written to Colin Durning: ‘2’ and ‘3’. I preferred ‘3’. There are lovely hints of John Donne (‘love bade me welcome’, some disturbing images of self-flagellation, and images picked up by a different Colin – McCahon – and a good friend of Baxter in his paintings – the aeroplane, God. And the images: hippy, belt, grapefruit, long hair, stars, dream and so on. Presented in seven pairs of lines, the volta happening with four lines to go in ‘2’ and a more traditional six in ‘3’ (well, actually halfway through the eighth line…).
“Old man, how can I,Smoking, eating grapefruit, hack down the wall of God?”
“By love,” he answers, “by love, my dear one,By love alone,”
These are still sonnets. 14 lines, broadly similar line length, not iambic pentameter (why the hell not?!) nor one stanza. But sonnets nonetheless (because the title of the collection tells us so? Maybe…). These are conversations – and Colin is directly addressed in line 9 of ‘2’ (more a sonnet to Colin than for Colin) – and they are dialectical, explorative, meditative and take in ideas and themes, a juxtaposition of concrete and intangible, metaphysical and real, spiritual. A sonnet ain’t a rhyme scheme. Looking back at definitions of English and Italian sonnets with their strictures and constraints, it is easy for critics to be haughty about anything that poses itself as a sonnet but doesn’t conform to that straitjacketing. However, a sonnet is a poem that is greater than the sum of its parts, in many ways, and so the volta and dialects are the key ingredients. Stating facts or entertaining discussions and then making that leap.
Why should I move away from strict sonnet form? Um, because I want to. I think it’s as simple as that. Knowing I can write and have written traditional forms makes my wanting to condense or concentrate the form (in the 9x9s) or free up my word choice (as in the ‘Raumati’ ones) more credible.
I am super-excited this week with arrival of a hefty number of poetry books; books that are from suggested poets and authors for my recommended reading list.
It’s a long list. Here goes… Czesław Miłosz, Robert Hass, Ted Hughes, Alice Oswald, James K Baxter, Zbigniew Herbert, Don Paterson, Simon Armitage, Charles Simic, Paul Muldoon, Sinéad Morrissey, Seamus Heaney, Andrew Johnston, Paula Green, Vincent O’Sullivan, Cliff Fell, Robert Crawford, John Donne, George Herbert, Kate Camp, Christopher Reid, Dinah Hawkin, David Beach, Leigh Davis, Edward Thomas, Dylan Thomas, John Burnside, Michael Symmons Roberts, Philip Larkin, John Updike, Carol-Ann Duffy, Brian Turner, Harry Ricketts, Sarah Jane Barnett, Ashleigh Young, Leonard Cohen, Witi Ihimaera, Toni Rolleston-Cummins, Grace Nicholls, Robert Macfarlane, Jen Hadfield, and the Bible (in various translations). Some these I’ve already referenced and mentioned; and there’ll be more to come, I’m sure…
The overwhelm (hmm… that may make an appearance at some point as a title!) has already begun, though. Where to start? How to read? What to record? Which to choose? I made the confession in workshop last session that I’m a terrible reader of poetry – often skimming over pages until something – a word, phrase, title, shape – catches my eye and then I’ll stop and read. Once I find a way in I will gladly explore – forwards and backwards – in a collection or oeuvre and get to know a poet’s work. Until then, though, I need the hook for my eye.
Reminds me of a Margaret Atwood poem:
You Fit Into Me
You fit into me
like a hook into an eye
a fish hook
an open eye
Boards of Canada have that warmth of analogue synthesisers, and a lulling glitchy beat. But behind all that is a complexity borrowed from syntax and mathematics – something that Autechre do, too, but with far greater emphasis on rhythms (layer upon layer of twitchy, computer-only-playable, broken beats) and sitting firmly on the divide between listenability/unbearable. Electronica is, inherently, a complex and complicated music because of its reliance on software to create, realise, mutate (and mutilate), transmit and produce it. But electronica’s use of samples and subliminal messages, fadings in and out, glimpses and half-seeings, warmth and coldness are all areas that I am exploring/want to explore further in – particularly – my 9x9s.
And this returns me to the (my?!) main subject. Form. How can something calculated, structured, software-driven (not cold per se) contain such strong emotional bonds with the reader/listener. Is structure – a sonnet, a 9×9 ‘sonnette’, a sonata, a glitchy techno or electronica piece – somehow transcended to communicate truth? I think particularly of someone like Terry Riley or Steve Reich or Jonny Greenwood or Krysztof Penerecki who’s minimalist modern music represents something, communicates, builds bonds and bridges, in spite of the complexity and ‘unlistenability’ of the music. Reich’s Different Trains covers difficult and raw emotional subject material of Jews taken by rail to concentration camps. His guitar piece Electric Counterpoint a complex and melodic – though at times hard – listen of guitar loops, built up layer upon layer. Riley’s In C is a famous brush of a piece that is an interconnection of 53 music phrases playable, simultaneously, by as few or as many musicians as can be gathered in one space (though someone should try an online version and millions could play!) – Riley himself recommends about 35 (53 by 35, a nice palindromic thing – an idea that surfaces in any number of electronica pieces – not least in Boards of Canada’s Tomorrow’s Harvest where the second and penultimate tracks are visit and revisit, and the centre track ‘Collapse’ is a palindromic hinge for the whole album).
Electronica allows for sampling (much like a glosa poem), remixing, subliminal messaging, adherence to structure, achieving of inhuman complexity of composition and performance, melding of different instrumentation and voice, precise reproduction, transmission of the finished piece (though, with remixing, one could argue that a piece is never really finished – an organic state of an inorganic structure). How can this happen in poetry? How can this happen in my poetry?
Tom Raworth offers a clue. His poem ‘Never Entered My Mind’ (which is itself referencing a Rodgers and Hart piece from the 1940 musical Higher and Higher, later performed by such musicians as Chet Baker, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Miles Davis) is, at first read, a list of almost – but out-of-reach – things that make sense. It’s a furious mix of familiar and not, scientific and banal, biological and household, natural and profane, remixed and presented to the reader in fourteen lines. A sonnet?! Oh joy of joys…! Here it is, but that’s not why, primarily, I’m interested. We’ll come to the structure, form and ideas shortly:
Never Entered My Mind
delights my introspection
but bubble massive armour
fermentation magnet arc
geek motherfucker instinct
fix mitochondria a
generous martini ice-cream
further messages arrive
germ mail illustrated
flashes medical alert
gone mental incandescence
flames melodically around
glitz mercury illicit
What fascinates in this poem is the use of g, m and i, and f, m and a. Raworth has, with a couple of reversals and changes, stuck to this idea: three word lines, the same letters in the same order, seven couplets. As Carol Rumsden, writing in The Guardian, says, “On an even cursory inspection, the poem conveys a minute orderliness of structure”. It reads like electronica, the hooks and bleeps and repeated phrases giving a coherence to the whole even if individual phrases and sounds (the words) have no – or infinite – meanings in and of themselves. This is a piece of music, this poem, and multiple ideas of war, birth, song and home are thrown up on multiple listens. Beyond the seemingly random choices of words is a keen architecture holding it all together.
Gavin Bryars’ pieces Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet and Sinking of the Titanic use repeated phrases – like Raworth’s musical notes g, m, i, f, m, a – and build up entire pieces around them. Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me is built around a recording (sample) of a homeless man in London singing part of a hymn of the same name; Sinking of the Titanic contains snippets and longer sections of the hymns ‘Nearer My God to Thee’ and the hymn tune ‘Autumn’ as well as ragtime drum patterns and popular tunes. As a composition technique it comes closer to found poetry.
Sorry, I know I’ve taken a little detour into some elements of contemporary electronica and modern minimalist classical music, but all this raises questions about originality and creativity – something dealt with in this week’s reading packet; dealt with by Jenna Gavin in her ‘Cut and Paste’ digital art concept. As Jenna Gavin says “the underlying message of [an] artist’s work is that new concepts stem from existing ideas and this is the nature of creativity”.
The Boards of Canada piece ‘a is to b as b is to c’ from their 2002 album Geogaddiwas one of the starting points for my own remix poem series, which I’ve tentatively called, at this stage, ‘a is to b as c is to d’ – the phrase itself an analogous cognitive process: kitten is to cat as puppy is to…? The meta-narrative is, I suppose, that poetry is both the event and writing about an event (or thought or idea or concept) and so a poem is the analogous concept as well as being the thing. And to make the whole thing work structurally I’ve employed – again borrowed from electronica – a mathematical idea based around the number 9: poems that are 9 units (syllables or punctuation marks) by 9 lines (each line taken from the acrostic of ‘a is to b as c is to d’ and, if that wasn’t hard enough/structured enough, I’m writing 81 of them (!).
Where does this leave me poetically? Aside from the 9×9 series, I am still wanting to investigate the potential of the sonnet – in all it’s broken, roughed-up and glorious, complete splendour – and I dipped into Czesław Miłosz’s collection at random and found ‘On The Road’ (leaping out at me for two reasons – the Kerouac connection; the size, shape and length of it):
…Fata morganas of coppery scales on the fortress of maritime provinces,
Through a smoke of vines burning over creek beds or through the blue
myrrh of dimmed churches…
I had to look up ‘fata morgana’. It’s a type of mirage that sits just above the horizon. The more I read this poem, the more apparent disconnect in the images starts to melt and the ideas – religious, atmospheric (in the meteorological sense), bucolic – morph. God is shrunk, brought through his creation – beautifully and controlledly described, through the gilded haze that religion may or may not give – to where the poet sits eating (itself representative of Holy Communion). The natural, the tree, the real and tangible are greater and stronger than impermanent, intangible and abstract. Religious ideas – the fruit of the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, prophecy, the field where Judas hanged himself, churches and myrrh (redolent of the completeness of things with Jesus’ birth and death) – transcend and are transcended by the natural world. God is met in the consubstantiation (and/or transubstantiation: both work here) of communion – Emmanuel, God with us. Of course, Holy Communion, or Eucharist, is a construct, a repetition, a form that is both constant and alterable (forgive the pun) – something that is entirely full of meaning, a poem in and of itself. Holy Communion is the event, but also the echo of The Event.
Where does this leave me?! I love the openness of the form of ‘On The Road’; I like that it suggests and (almost, obscurely) answers; I admire the religious imagery without it becoming too dense or too much to bear (the mistake I made in ‘This Is Not A Piece Of Religious Art’). It is has a fluidity and breathiness to it, an afternoon languor that belies its complexity of thought and argument.
Only two poems this time, but a whole lot of music, structure, religion, Holy Communion, remixing, tradition, warmth, mathematics (I suspect there’ll be a lot more of that to come), dipping my toes into the sea of the avant garde, and I’m excited to discover that a form can be represented, and be representative of, and point to all sorts of possibilities.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ben Egerton is a teacher, poet and new-to-the-game installation artist from Wellington. He recently completed the MA in Creative Writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML), Victoria University. Ben’s work has appeared in broadsheet: new New Zealand poetry, SWAMP Journal, BANG BANG BANG, Cordite Poetry Review, visualverse.org, the Times Educational Supplement, Education Review, and in installation art/poetry works at the Auckland Writers’ Festival and at LitCrawl, Wellington. When he’s not writing, Ben likes to ride his bike up and down Wellington’s hills.