Saturday, May 2, 2009

Sonnet XVII

May is sonnet month here at Robert Frost’s Banjo. Last year I promised to write about poetic forms, & I’m kicking that off by devoting this month to sonnets. Not only will all the Saturday Weekly Poem installments be sonnets, but I’ll be posting a four part series about the form each Wednesday. I’ll focus a fair amount of attention to modern interpretations of this form, but I’m sure there’ll be a few visits to the past as well. In addition, starting on May 23rd I’ll start posting a series of sonnets I wrote in San Francisco—they were the last poems I wrote before a 12 year hiatus from poetry that began in 1996. Why May 23rd you may ask? Because the poems are titled simply by the date on which they were written. I wrote seventeen between May 23rd & August 1st of 1996. The sequence was called “A Few More Fold-Out Postcard Sonnets”; I’ll provide more information when I begin posting the poems.

Although my method of composing sonnets was much different from Ted Berrigan’s, there is no doubt that Berrigan’s Sonnets were much in my mind when I wrote that sequence. One of the first poems posted on Robert Frost’s Banjo was by Berrigan—he remains a poet whose works I enjoy reading & whose works inspire & move me. I love & admire a lot of poetry, but there’s only a handful I find inspiring at that level: Apollinaire, certainly, Berrigan, definitely, Patchen at his best, much of Wallace Stevens, & Vallejo (sadly, only in translation, tho).

Of course, those who are familiar with Berrigan’s work might object to posting single sonnets from his sequence—there is no question that the Sonnets are best read as a piece. This leads naturally to a discussion of the way many of them (tho not all) were composed. Berrigan used a “scissor” method—he cut up poems & re-assembled them into 12 line poems (I believe he actually did this in units of six & six). He’d then add a “couplet” (almost always unrhymed) to the resulting collage poem. Because of this, phrases & images flash & drift thru the sequence keeping the poetic ground constantly moving under our feet (according to Berrigan’s wife Alice Notley, he was extremely interested in poetic “pace”).

It’s interesting that Berrigan’s method grew from his conviction that the "the [sonnet] form sort of [stultifies] the whole process [of writing]." However, in a way that seems typical of Berrigan, rather than turn his back on the form because of the sense of stultification, Berrigan re-made it. It’s interesting to me how a general sonnet pattern emerges in the lines. You can visual a poem of three stanzas plus a couplet (for instance, 1-4, 5-9, 10-12) or a poem of two stanzas plus a couplet (1-6 & 7-12). The couplet itself, although gnomic, is also a summation, somehow capturing an (if not “the”) essence of the ground we’ve already traveled.

Sonnet XVII is a gorgeous & haunting lyric. I hope you enjoy it.


for Carol Clifford

Each tree stands alone in stillness
After many years still nothing
The wind’s wish is the tree’s demand
The tree stands still
The wind walks up and down
Scanning the long selves of the shore
Her aimlessness is the pulse of the tree
It beats in tiny blots
Its patternless pattern of excitement
Letters birds beggars books
There is no such thing as a breakdown
The tree the ground the wind these are
Dear, be the tree your sleep awaits
Sensual, solid, still, swaying alone in the wind

Ted Berrigan


  1. This certainly warrants a second reading after the closing lines.

    I would like to be so presumptuous to say, that as poets, we re-make the language every time we pen a poem!
    (Or we should at least attempt to. And writing free verse, the challenge is ever greater....)

  2. Hi T:

    The best poems I think are looking to say just a bit beyond language, & thus there's a need as you say to re-make the language to capture that.

    Glad you liked this.

  3. I appreciate your passion for poetry, John. As a child, poetry was a refuge for me and I've had a life-long ever-changing relationship with it. I haven't known Berrigan before, but I like this sonnet very much. And I love the idea of how he collaged them together. For a while, I was creating collage poems, with words and images. It was very freeing.

    By the way, I have Wallace Stevens' poem "The House Was Quiet..." here on the wall behind my computer.

  4. Hi Rene:

    The type of collage poems you're talking about are interesting to me, but I've never tried them; perhaps I'll give them a whirl some time down the road, because I think see how they might be a freeing experience.

    I also love that Stevens' poem.

  5. Good morning, John. I followed the link back to your Sept. 13 post, and I listened to Berrigan read 'Buddha on the Bounty'. "...wings sprout from the shoulders of the slave". I felt as if that line were the centre of the poem, that all the other lines grew from it, like branches from a tree. Similarly, the beautiful "The wind's wish is the tree's demand" felt like the centre of XVII. Neither of the poems felt like a collage to me, so it surprises me that that was his technique. Which is to say, I hope you'll talk more about collage poetry, because obviously I'm not clear on the concept!

  6. Hi Sandra:

    Berrigan didn't always use collage technique in the Sonnets, & I'm not sure he used it in XVII, tho the line "After many years still nothing" recurs throughout the sequence. I'll be happy to talk about collage technique more, but should clairfy Berrigan didn't always use it. He was always big on a sort of fragmentation however (one kinship I feel with him), & besides the "scissor" technique used for many of the sonnets, he also used phrases from diaries, friends' letters, etc.


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