Friday, February 26, 2010

Volkman sonnets

I think the first post on poetry should be something from Karen Volkman's Nomina, published by BOA Editions in 2008. The book is a sequence of Italian sonnets, although the appreciation of these sonnets does not come from understanding of what they are about, but rather how they sound, the language Volkman calls forth, often quite startling in its beauty. For the reader, Nomina is about allowing the line, the rhyme and meter, to have its play.

Here is one of my favorite sonnets from the sequence:

[One says none is nascent, noon is due]

One says none is nascent, noon is due
when two's bleak blinded hybrid twins the light.
None says no one numbers less than two,
the one who days, the one who darks all night.

Noon's cold name is cloven, frigid height,
a one-division in the random, fault
split in fusion's faction, no one's bright
eyeless acme arching - cohesive vault.

That one were none's skulled infant, second sight
of two's twained woes, and tangled toxic root,
near to nothing, nameless, sequent blight,

as two's black use slits mind a riven fruit.
These sumless parents, two and null, make one
Queen of Quotient, who adds her x to none.

Almost like the riddle of the sphinx. I have had multiple theories of what the subject is - which might have something to do with the clock between the hours of 10 and 2, but also just a working and a metaphysics of the mathematics between 0, 1 and 2 (which, I note, are the only numerals between the hours of 10 and 2). But although I have never been able to truly wrap my mind off the riddle of how "one says none is nascent, noon is due" (except in the anticipation of the 1 and 0 making ten o' clock, the 0 coming into existence for the first and only time in the hours of the day), but even without this I fall for the line break rhythm at "a one-division in the random, fault / split in fusion's faction . . ." the comma, the single accented syllable, and the line break creates a regular pause (like a tick-tock) that is fun to sound out. Likewise are the phrases "eyeless acme arcing" and "Queen of Quotient."

In my previous post, I quoted one of Shakespeare's sonnets and how schoolteachers ask their students to interpret rather than listen. For much of Shakespeare can be put into context with an interpretation. Even if the line "Let not the marriage of two minds admit / impediment" asks the reader to go over it again, it is eventually understood. But could we ask a high school student to take a Volkman sonnet and do the same? It would be best, instead, if we focused on music and let the student return to the line for its sound and not its meaning. After all, a rereading will always help improve a person's understanding of the poem.

I'll end this post with another Volkman sonnet, for fun.

[Now you nerve. Flurred, avid as the raw]

Now you nerve. Flurred, avid as the raw
worm in the bird's throat. It weirds the song.
The day die darkly in the ear all wrong -
all wreck, all riot - the maiden spins the straw,

the forest falters. Night is what she saw,
in opaque increments deafening the tongue.
Sleep bird, sleep body that the silence strung,
myrrh-moon, bright maudlin, weeping as you draw

white tears, pearl iris in a net of eyes.
The spinning maiden quickens her design.
Cold cut spooling, integument of awe,

a baby's breathing as a bird is wise
(the bird-bright heart that flutters like a law)
which eats the excess. The strangle in the shine.

Beginning Thoughts

Well, here I go, I suppose.

Currently I am at work on a number of reviews of some poetry books I think people would like (particularly Joan Houlihan's The Us), so this first post is something of a mystery to me. A public record that everyone is keeping? Is that what a blog is? A public diary? That's interesting. So then a bit about me (rather than those interests, favorite music, and all that).

This is a blog about poetry and literature, specifically American poetry, my chief interest. While there are some depressing figures about the institution of poetry and the amount of people within that institution who incestuously work together - how many MFA blogs like this one are there? - I'm trying to think up ways in which the public can once again be interested in poetry. I suppose what this blog might be are just some thoughts on particular poems I've been reading, with the hope that those laymen who don't read poetry will take an interest.

Because the problem (I see) with the lack of poetry being read (while the amount of poetry being written is rocketing - the number of MFA programs has never been higher), is that 1) we are taught a classical poetry in school - Shakespeare, Tennyson, Frost is usually the farthest we go - and 2) we are asked as students to "interpret," rather than absorb. At least the school I went to was focused on the ideas buried within the line, not the line itself, not the music of the line. So when a student reads:

"and sable curls all silver'd o'er in white"

we are asked to interpret what the "sable curls" are and what the sonnet means for age and time and love, rather than focus on the beauty of the iamb and the ending stress of the "t" in "white." We are asked to write essays rather than look to the beauty of stanzas like this one from "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,"

"I have seen the riding seaward on the waves,
Combing the white hairs of the waves blown back,
When the wind blows the water white and black."

The stoicism of this teaching approach, the absolute puritanism of it which is called "appreciation," has damaged people so much that when they read a poem such as Hugo's "White Center," they say "It's nice . . . but I don't understand it." My theory is that the reader has been caught up in a line, in trying to "interpret" the line - because a poet to this reader has always been hiding meaning rather than giving it to the reader with tea and scones in the afternoon - and have read it with only half an ear, too caught up in meaning to hear the piece itself.

My posts will then be looking at poems for their beauty and not necessarily for their meaning, and hopefully those that follow along will be all the more enriched for it. And I, too, hope to gain some interesting information from others and engage in this strange dialogue that is the blog.