Monday, January 21, 2008

Sonnet 56

Sonnet 56 is a manuscript containing 56 versions of Shakespeare's sonnet. I'm going to display the first two of them today, "End Words" and "Noun Plus Seven," as well as the original. Each day I'll put up another in the series . This project began when I gave a writing assignment based on Aaron Shurin's Involuntary Lyrics; he retained the end words of Shakespeare's sonnets and replaced the rest. I chose Sonnet 56 because it has comparatively modern end words, no thous or thees, but replaced "allayed" with "red." The students were further instructed that they were not to imagine they were writing a sonnet; doing so might constrain the tone. An absurd bit of advice on the surface, but helpful if followed. The resulting student poems were brilliant, but I didn't save them. Then I wrote a work of my own using the same instructions, except for restoring "allayed." Sonnet 56 was also of interest because it's not notable, perhaps even a bit average, Shakespeare the plodder or what Kenneth Koch called "fellow paddler." It is therefore more susceptible to imitation and trifling. Then I realized that I could write other versions, as Raymond Queneau had done in Exercises de Style, published by Gallimard in 1947. His original is "Notation," which begins with the sentence, "In the S bus, in the rush hour. A chap of 26, felt hat with a cord instead of a ribbon, neck too long, as if someone's been having a tug of war with it." (Translated by Barbara Wright. New York: New Directions, 1981). Queneau then provides versions of the same: Double Entry, Litotes, Metaphorically, Retrograde, and so on. With the exception of "Haiku" and "Free Verse," they are prose forms. It didn't occur to me that there would be 56 versions until I had written roughly that many. I counted and, sure enough, I was at the perfect conclusion for the series. Many items in the series, like "Villanelle," are traditional poetry forms; some, like "Blues," "Jingle," and "Lounge Singer," are from popular culture; some, like "Noun Plus Seven" below, are of Oulipo origin; and others, like "Chat Group" and "Answering Machine" are forms of communication from daily life. The rule of "Noun Plus Seven" is that all the nouns of the original are replaced by the nouns seven forward in your dictionary of choice.


Sweet love, renew thy force, be it not said
Thy edge should blunter be than appetite,
Which but today by feeding is allayed,
Tomorrow sharp’ned in his former might.

So love be thou, although today thou fill
Thy hungry eyes, ev’n till they wink with fullness.
Tomorrow see again, and do not kill
The spirit of love with a perpetual dullness.

Let this sad interim like the oceans be
Which parts the shore, where two contracted new
Come daily to the banks, that when they see
Return of love, more blest may be the view;

As call it winter, which being full of care,
Makes summer’s welcome, thrice more wished, more rare.

End Words

The way she spoke was not to say but be said,
In a voice of yellow silk more peevish than appetite.
It is possible (all is) that her sad blood was allayed,
Her tall hair blonde. Bleed an orange that we might

See, hold, and eat it when we’re ready. No sponge can fill
With ocean, no blue with its sky, an ancient fullness
Older than water and stone. Beneath dim neon we kill
Two bottles, begin a third, with a tinge of modern dullness

Singing in our eyes. Be everything you’ll never be,
My father said and did, when the world was new.
It is new now, each time I think it. Words swallow me; they see
And feel for me. I want to place my eye where the view

Is what I came for, dropping from my mind. We care
About the ground we happen to walk on, when sun is rare.

Noun Plus Seven

Sweet love game, renew thy forecaster, be it not said
Thy editor should blunter be than apple-jack,
Which but today by feeling is allayed,
Tonality sharp’ned in his former mildew.

So love game be thou, although today thou fill
Thy hungry eyebright, ev’n till they wink with fullery.
Tomorrow see again, and do not kill
The spirochete of love with a perpetual dumbbell.

Let this sad interleaf like the ocotillo be
Which parts the shortcake, where two contracted new
Come daily to the banker, that when they see
Revelation of love game, more blest may be the vigilante;

As call it winter melon, which being full of carfare,
Makes sumpweed’s wellcurb, thrice more wished, more rare.


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