Friday, March 19, 2004

I've tuned in a little late to the discussion of formalism, new or otherwise, between Kasey, Jonathan, and Mike Snider, and am not sure how much I have to add; it's kind of a no-brainer for me to jump onto the Kasey/Jonathan side of the seesaw, and I don't find much at all compelling about the Rhina Espaillat poem that's under discussion.

But I don't think it's at all the case, as Snider suggests, that his antagonists are "offended that anyone would want to write a sonnet at all." As Kasey points out--and is brave enough to demonstrate--darn near everyone tries to write sonnets at one time or another, and contemporary poetry would be utterly impoverished if Ted Berrigan or Bernadette Mayer hadn't given us their versions. But, of course, Berrigan's and Mayer's sonnets don't sound anything like New Formalist work.

The real issue, to my mind, in using a form like the sonnet is belatedness, and how one deals with it. Everyone agrees that Espaillat's poem doesn't sound anything like, say, Shakespeare or Wordsworth; for Mike Snider this is a sign of its contemporaneity and strength, while for Jonathan and Kasey it is likely a sign of its vacuousness. For the most part, I'd probably say that what Espaillat does is take the low-key, free-verse contemporary style and "set" it into pentameter; in this sense, no one would mistake a "new" formalist poem for an old one, since new formalism is emphatically post-rhetorical, in its own way just as shy of grandiose statement as the most militantly deconstructive avant-garde writing.

But that this setting is not quite a perfect fit--that the form carries something of its own history embedded within it--is evident in some of the funny, anachronistic phrases Espaillat finds herself pushed into: "he feels like such a dunce," "dead these eighteen years." While a critical reader might fairly reject such lines as padding, I'm going to make a leap of good faith and understand these as moments of self-consciousness in the poem, places where the sonnet understands itself as a sonnet, as a form that is emphatically not contemporary--signaling, in effect, that a "new formalism" is always going to be a paradox. (I think this is why it's so hard to write contemporary formal verse that isn't at some level humorous or, well, just plain goofy; an intelligent formalist poet has to approach the task of adapting [or opposing] the slack, free-verse, post-confessional style with a healthy dose of irony.)

Sonnets like Berrigan's and Mayer's register this kind of belatedness much more directly--and maybe, I'd even venture to say, honestly--by using a pastiche of anachronistic language, "thee" and "thou" and the whole nine yards, but juxtaposing that very sharply with quotidian detail and frank, funny eroticism. In fact, the contemporary "formalist" verse that interests me most is less adaptive than frankly imitative, reveling baroquely in the charged and worked-up language of a writer like Shakespeare while consciously acknowledging how distant that language is from us.

Thus I don't find Mike Snider's argument that Jonathan "doesn't know how to read contemporary metrical verse" convincing, because it suggests that such a mode of reading contemporary formalism exists in isolation from the methods we would use to read older formal verse. In other words, you can't defend Rhina Espaillat--or, for that matter, Ted Berrigan--by saying that reading their sonnets is just different than reading Shakespeare's. No one can write a sonnet in English without having that weight on their shoulders; Milton and Wordsworth knew it too.

Since Kasey's stuck his own neck out on this one--and Mike does it weekly--I suppose I'll now have to offer my own venture into sonnet-writing. I wrote this poem about two and a half years ago; like so many of my good ideas, it's really Bernadette Mayer's: "Type out a Shakespeare sonnet or other poem you would like to learn about/imitate double-spaced on a page. Rewrite it in between the lines." I chose Shakespeare's Sonnet 113, one of my favorites, honestly, because of its sheer incomprehensibility, which I thought maybe gave me a little wiggle room, but also because no line was familiar enough to be immediately recognizable by a casual reader, providing at least (so I was arrogant enough to think) even a half-second of doubt as to whether a given line was mine or Shakespeare's. My attempts at Shakespearean rhetoric seem at most points to be fairly cringeworthy, but maybe not in a totally uninteresting way.

Shakespeare: Sonnet 113

Since I left you, mine eye is in my mind,
That ravish'd word which, memorized, is thought;
And that which governs me to go about
Moves mildly, like a horse who, rudely taught,
Doth part his function, and is partly blind.
The cut string in its fraying to the eyes
Seems seeing, but effectually is out-
Side showing, which in thrusting, signifies.
For it no form delivers to the heart,
Holding hard blazon to its foundered breast.
Of bird, or flow'r, or shape which it doth latch,
It finds no purpose. Yet in speaking's test
Of his quick objects hath the mind no part?
His wit exchang'd for a current wrong.
Nor his own vision holds what it doth catch:
Gulled fire flashing in the voice's long.
For if it see the rud'st or gentlest sight,
The fevered brim shall hardly hold, despite
The most sweet favour or deformed'st creature,
Whose empty hand shall soon find force to right
The mountain, or the sea, or day, or night,
Mocking motive. And if by chance it grasp
The crow, or dove, it shapes them to your feature,
Redeeming bone to leveler and hasp.
Incapable of more, replete with you,
Washed in the wane of periodic light,
My most true mind thus maketh mine untrue
Words live again, in the flood of hearing's height.

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