On the Elasticity of the Sonnet and the Usefulness of Collective Experimentation

Written by

Laynie Browne
Contributor Page

Year

2010
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Where is the serious playfulness in form? As writers, or explorers of consciousness, what materials do we have? The material within which we are operating is time. So in a sense life is already a time-based experiment. All form is time. I think of the modern sonnet as an increment of time within a frame. Something that often physically fits into a little rectangle (but not in thought). Something you can utter in one long convulsive breath or hold in your palm. When my hand covers the page it disappears. It's a controlled measure of sound and space within which one can do anything. An invitation.

When you begin to write sonnets I invite you to think about writing series of sonnets. One reason I like to think in series and sequences is that it tends to pull us out of the problem of preciousness. In other words, if I have written ten poems or one hundred poems it becomes easier to cut one up or throw it away, or to see how a particularly bad poem I have written might have been necessary as a means to moving toward something more interesting. We also learn how poems talk to each other by writing and thinking in batches (think poems for immediate consumption). If you write slowly, perhaps you'll write a batch of fractional sonnets. The idea isn't density, but movement and momentum. Working in series also creates a big field in which to spread out, get comfortable, and mess up. We don't really learn anything by doing what we already know we can and do. Therefore, I invite us all to wake each other up and begin something untried. If it feels uncomfortable, this is all to the good. The poem won't necessarily be good, but the process is essential. I say that because there is a potentially infinite number of poems you could write. Language is a medium we are continually awash within, always available.

The process of collectively taking on an experiment is very different than doing so on one's own. The sense of collectively writing and reading, in my experience, is much more important than applauding or critiquing each other's work. From this perspective I could argue that all of us have written each other's poems. Everyone's success or failure belongs to all of us. This isn't just true for writing, obviously. It is a way of looking at endeavor as an offering, less in an individual sense and more on a level of sound or cell. Of course it's also true that these are my words, and those are your words. But the problem is, we already know this to be true. We don't need to practice it. And thinking collectively might change the way you speak about someone else's poem. I'm not suggesting that every poem should be rewritten to be the one you would have written. Just the opposite actually. Try to read the poem with the intent to help fulfill the vision of the poet, not your vision. In an ideal world the poem and language belong to no one. And no one knows exactly what they are setting out to do because poetry is a living transmission whose evolution is linked to other bodies in time. I approach all writing as the unknown. I am constantly returning to the question: can I do something I haven't done? Process is intimate, messy, and hopefully surprising. Sometimes I'll abandon something or hear it incorrectly but years later it arrives very strikingly as a possible way of reading, listening, or writing.

Here are two approaches to writing, two common modes that come to mind. One is deep immersion in a field of words, which might involve reading and editing something already somewhat formed, whether that be an aesthetic approach or an actual draft of a poem or manuscript. The second is what I'll call a rash impulsive generative mode. Try the second, or generative mode as a means of discovering some new territory. Both modes are necessary, and we can get stuck in either. There is a false assumption that unless we dwell in deep serious immersion or intentional mode we aren't doing real serious writing. However, most adult people spend all too much time being serious and as a result approach things the way they have always approached things. Generative experimentation is all about discovering permission to expand from the borders of the known. As in Duncan's "Often I Am Permitted to Return To a Meadow."

The generative mode encourages permission and fluency. Fluency encourages getting comfortable with process (rather than product) oriented endeavor. Why are we writing? If the answer is to arrive at a predetermined idea or location we are missing a considerable amount. The "meadow" isn't a place or an accomplishment; it is a way of experiencing and perceiving all that is available to us regardless of our circumstances.

What is our job as writers? Hannah Weiner writes, "If you are a poet would you have the three obligations work on yourself to become more conscious, work in the world to change it free and equal, include ecological survival, and work in poetic forms that themselves alter consciousness." She continues, "techniques of disjunctive, non-sequential, non-referential, writing can directly alter consciousness, whether by destroying long habits of rationality, by surprise tactics to which the brain responds differently, or by forcing a change to alpha level by engaging both hemispheres of the brain, choose your science." (Open House, "If Workshop" (161)

Form is a container, a direction for words, a frame. Think of form as different ways to direct your lens of vision. Something to try on, walk into, a temporary dwelling, a borrowed manner or means of locomotion. One form may be a bicycle and another a current of air or movement of thought. What is the sonnet? (What is the sonnet for you this minute, today, and what is it tomorrow?) Try moving about in fourteen lines, take notes and let us all know.

SONNET EXPERIMENTS
(with gratitude to Bernadette Mayer)
 

1. Time experiments: Write a sonnet during a limited amount of time. Begin with one- or two-minute increments, lengthen to five or ten. Try writing a sonnet every day at the exact same time. Or write one word or line or one stanza a day for fourteen days. Try writing a sonnet in an unlikely circumstance. For instance, if you wait in line every day for five minutes write a sonnet then, on a bus, waiting to buy coffee or before or after brushing your teeth while standing at the sink. The idea is to write not in the usual spaces or circumstances where you fall into a habitual pattern. Standing up trying to write on the wall or on a little pad can be part of the experiment. Try dictation into a recorder. Have someone write down what you are saying. Try writing upon waking or before sleep. Set a certain number of days to try a practice, such as a week or more.

2. Create a sonnet through erasure and/or palimpsest from/upon another text. As an example of erasure, look at Jen Bervin's from the book Nets.

3. Write a sonnet by lineating found text or prose or a prose poem. Write several versions of the same poem, experimenting with line length, breadth, prose. You can use found material, a poem you have already written, a piece of prose, etc.

4. Write a dictionary divination sonnet. Open the dictionary at random. Write a poem using only the text that appear on the facing pages in front of you.

5. Write an I see sonnet by writing using only words for things you can literally see wherever you are. Try this in different settings (indoors, outdoors) and at different times of day and night. 6. Write a sonnet in response to a sonnet. Some ideas on how to do this: a) Use a line from a sonnet as springboard or as the first line of your own poem. b) Use the text from a sonnet to cut up and create your own sonnet. c) Use end or beginning phrases or words from another sonnet in your sonnet (see Aaron Shurin's Involuntary Lyrics). Use a chance operation to rewrite or create a new version of a sonnet by yourself or anyone else. Write a sonnet which repeats a mood, rhythm, or idea in a poem you admire. For example, see Jarnot's "O'Hara Sonnet" and O'Hara's "You Are Gorgeous and I am Coming." d) In all of this writing from another poem, consider the following possibilities: i. Write a sonnet inspired by another sonnet. ii.  Write a sonnet inspired by a piece of writing that is not a sonnet.
iii. Write a poem inspired by a sonnet that is not a sonnet.iv. Invent a new form that somehow begins with reading or writing a sonnet, then morphs into something else.

7. Write a mock historical sonnet, a sonnet you are writing as if some other (living or dead) person has written it. Experiment with voice, tone, assuming authority, meekness, antiquated or futuristic speech. How do you imagine someone else would write your poem?

8. Write a homophonic translation in the form of a sonnet. Experiment with online translation dictionaries such as babblefish. Read from Jackson Mac Low's French Sonnets and his explanation of process.

9. Translate a sonnet as a commentary on a sonnet. In other words, read a sonnet or any text, then write your own version of the thrust or intent of the poem. This can be done with poems you like or dislike. Don't think of this as paraphrasing but another way of reading. And also possibly a way to reversion, or re-vision, responding in writing to a poem. Read Sparrow's "Translations from the New Yorker" in America a Prophecy.

10. Write in someone else's voice, kids' voices, borrow from children's iterature and media, or write in overheard language, particular professional language, code, or character. Be someone else for the duration of fourteen lines. Be anyone (for the sheer liberation of it) and see what happens.

11. Write a collaged sonnet composed of one or various found texts. Experiment with cutting up text, picking words or phrases at random from a series of books, limiting yourself to a limited found vocabulary, and so on. Try this: Go to a library, pick fourteen books at random (preferably from different areas/subjects, include a reference or technical book). Place the books in a stack. Systematically open each book and randomly point to a sentence or phrase. Transcribe one sentence or phrase from each book. Then translate your found sonnet by writing a line responding to each found line or phrase. Include some of the text you have found in your poem. Or practice getting lost in the accidental relationship created by the juxtaposition between the lines. And write from that place of collision/adhesion. This experiment works well to supplement/enliven any text you are working on. It works in bookstores, waiting rooms, dumpsters, Goodwill, the street, etc. Enlist a friend to help you rewrite their sonnet and have them rewrite yours.

12. Write a collaborative sonnet. You can do this in person as an exquisite corpse, via email, voicemail messages, various ways.

13. Write a sonnet in a gallery or museum in response to something you see: art, people, noise, etc. Intersperse found text—art titles, catalogue copy, segments on the history of art—into your poem.

14. Write a sonnet while doing something else, such as listening to a poetry reading, a concert, watching a dance performance, etc., and allow the experience to filter into your writing. This can be done while doing dishes, waking up—don't discount any activity as material (though writing while driving can be hazardous). The idea is to allow the outside to be filtered into your work. Experiment by writing while listening to Ted Berrigan read his sonnets online. Explore rich resources for listening to other poets read their work online. Let poetry fill the air while you do other things as a means to inspire. Try listening while not trying to listen. How is this different? How is it different on more than one listening or reading?

15. Create a visual sonnet.

16. Write a sonnet that defines your vision of a sonnet. Your definition can include: the purpose of the form, affirmations and prohibitions, a list of reasons to write sonnets, comments on favorite or despised sonneteers, new thoughts on rhyme, meter, lineation, and themes.

17. Write a fractional sonnet, for instance, one-half sonnet, 6/14th sonnet, one-and-one-half sonnet, etc. Experiment with the number of lines written, implied, missing, added. How does this change the form and the intent of form?

18. Write a sonnet in which each line functions independently, serves as a title for another poem, or refers to another poem or cycle of poems.

19. Write a sonnet that hinges on associations and definitions of one word. Explore word play, various spellings, families of words, etymologies, sound.

20. Write a sonnet, then write several versions of the same poem from memory. Or rewrite the sonnet as a homophonic translation: from English to English (based on sound) or to any language you like. Do this collaboratively or independently.

21. Experiment with repetition (read Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons or Lyn Hejinian's My Life). Pick a word, a phrase, or a line to repeat through a series of sonnets.

22. Write a sonnet composed entirely of questions, or composed entirely of answers.

23. Write a sonnet or a series of sonnets addressed to a person, or for a particular occasion.

24. Write a sonnet that is a series of guesses to an implied, mysterious, or stated riddle/question.

25. Write a sonnet that is a list poem: list of days, list of reasons, calendar, list of favorite or most despised something, etc.

26. Write a sonnet or a series of sonnets using the daily news (print, Internet, radio) as source material. Write a commentary on a commentary. A response to a news flash or editorial. Consider how poetry is legislation or propaganda. Rewrite an article in the form of a sonnet or series of sonnets.

27. Write a sonnet over and over again in various styles such as in Queneau's Exercises in Style.

28. Write a sonnet in love with numbers. Explore the number fourteen, equations, counting, numbers of letters, or the qualities you associate with numbers, significant historical years, sums, numerical questions.

29. Create a poem by mishearing or misreading. One misreading experiment: You need three people: a speaker, a scribe, and a text holder. If you wear glasses or contact lenses this experiment is easier. Begin by taking off your glasses. Have the text holder hold any text just far enough out of your visual range that you can barely make out the letters but not exactly read them. Begin to recite what you see, not reading, but guessing and speaking. The scribe will transcribe your creation.


SUGGESTED READING AND WORK CITED
Hilson, Jeff, ed. The Reality Street Book of Sonnets. East Sussex, UK: Reality
   Street, 2008.
Weiner, Hannah. Hannah Weiner's Open House. Ed. Patrick Durgin. Chicago:
   Kenning Editions; 2007.