(This is the second of a pair of bloggy, drafty, experimental posts, in which I play around with the ideas at the heart of a forthcoming essay. (The first one, “Dispatches from the Sonnet Mines,” is here.) These posts may vamoose as their ideas become more refined elsewhere, but for now, it is helpful writing for an audience.)
The 18th sonnet of Ross Goodwin’s collection meditates on the idea of sequence, “distill[ing]” the tyranny of its “trespass” on Shakespeare’s Sonnets into the startling observation that “desire is pattern”: that we “shall/will” (with the customary pun on “Will”) “in others works…see/the judgment that arise[s]” from ourselves. We interpret the material through the bevel lens of our own desires. But rather than rejecting such fantastic interpretation—our “nimble thought story”— the poem courts it, describing a sort of “good slander.” Not least in its pun on “render”— meaning both to transform and to represent—the sonnet imagines readers and texts might improve each other, making both “worthier” and more splendid.
To offer this reading is partially to indulge myself: Goodwin’s sonnet is one of ten thousand written by a program named Sonnetizer.py that rearranges the language of a textual corpus—here, Shakespeare’s Sonnets—into poems of fourteen lines of ten syllables, rhyming in the traditional pattern. The patterns I trace are not authorial—not even intentional—save in the play of my mind against the algorithm, a nimble thought story of my own creation. Rather, bits and pieces of Shakespeare’s text have drifted together, billowing up into dunes of association. We might say, in fact, that the very volatility of these elements in Shakespeare’s text infuses this poem with meaning against its Will.
After all, Shakespeare’s sequence does interrogate the relation of desire to pattern, repeatedly finding a type of loving anachronism in which desire transforms the meanings we make of the world. Goodwin’s (or Sonnetizer’s, or Shakespeare’s) sonnet asks that we read with the same loving eyes that enable—for example—the speaker of Shakespeare’s sonnet 98 to find all of nature “but figures of delight, / Drawn after you, you pattern of all those” (98.11-12). We find that same time of loving reading in 114:
Or whether shall I say, mine eye saith true,
And that your love taught it this alchemy,
To make of monsters and things indigest
Such cherubins as your sweet self resemble,
Creating every bad a perfect best,
As fast as objects to his beams assemble?
Goodwin’s sonnet, we might say, weaves together several strands that run through Shakespeare’s lyric in a way that admits and even prompts reading them together: the sonnet speaker’s idolatrous reading of his beloved in the world melds with the Sonnets accounts of loving interpretation (as in, for instance, poem 32). Rearranging sense (and even syntax), we invent a pattern that precedes our making.
One of the facts of the reception of Shakespeare’s sonnets, from its very first moments, is precisely this desire to rearrange them, to find in and make of them what we want to hear. Jaggard in 1599, Benson in 1640, quite possibly Thorpe in 1609 move, combine and change poems. Subsequent anthologizers made habits of pulling the poems into new contexts, while a long line of re-arrangers set out to find the true order of the sonnet sequence. Nor are we innocent of this urge: the clusters by which we understand the poems (both the binary division between Young Man and Dark Lady and the more tentative splitting off that forms groups like the Rival Poet series) are distinctly modern ways of threading our minds through the text. So, too, more ambitious writers: Goodwin’s Sonnetizer, of course, but also K. Silem Mohammed’s brilliant Sonnagrams, which each contain every letter of their source poem while producing a strange and unexpected new creation.
To be sure, the process of reordering Shakespeare’s sonnets now seems both old-fashioned and misguided: we have taken Annemarie Jagose’s point (in Lesbian Utopics) that both efforts to defend and to revise the sonnet sequence are “structured by the closet” (89), positing a true (and inevitably sexual) meaning at the heart of the seqence only made visible by reading right. Even the notion of a ‘true’ or ‘secret’ meaning seems somewhat outdated, accustomed as we are to thinking about texts as distributed networks of significance that shift somewhat under the weight of interpretation. But Goodwin’s example suggests another way of thinking of such strategies: as experiments in bringing out the dynamics of an interpretive field. How different, I wonder, is my building a reading of one of Sonnetizer’s sonnets from my developing an argument from the results of a “full-text search”? Or, for that matter, from Arthur Acheson’s assembly (and subsequent reading) of a group of poems containing “mine eye”? In what follows, I want to read a pair of contemporary poets’ engagements with the sonnets as a means of thinking about critical practice, juxtapostion, and associative reading.
Paul Hoover’s Sonnet 56 is a series of riffs on Shakespeare’s poem in a variety of forms, from the Oulippan (noun plus seven, homosyntactic) through the traditional (villanelle, sestina, limerick, haiku). Most interesting, I think, are those in which tight constraints transpose Shakespeare’s imagistic and conceptual density into a thick linguistic materiality, as this moment, from “Alphabetical I” (“and as again allayed although appetite”):
love let love like love love
more might more may makes more
of oceans of
In compressed form, we see the insistant pleading of the Young Man sonnets, the potentiality they conjure up to figure desire as abundance (“more might,” “more may”—“makes more”), and their omnipresent worry about death and time. Against the pretense of novelty implicit in the sonnet form, with its constant new beginnings and new metaphors, we are reminded that this is “not new,” rather a swirling sea that recombines and juxtaposes the same fragments.
My point is not the appeal of the now-familiar poetics of fragmentation, parody, and distortion: it is the value of a criticism of reassembly and recuperation, of trawling through the “oceans of perpetual parts.” In the blogpost with which Hoover introduces this volume, the poet alludes to Pierre Joris’s Nomad Poetics, which distinguishes between (on the one hand) “collage,… an aesthetics of the fragment…” and a “material flux of language matter, moving in & out of semantic & non-semantic spaces, moving around & through the features accreting as poem.”
(Joris’s description of what it means to read such a poem reminds me of Andrews, Acheson, Butler and Mayer in my last post:
The lines move freely & the reader cranes her neck, twist herself around in order to follow the contour of the lines of writing, then steps back to grasp a figure, moves in again to read — & while reading can no longer “see” the organised, striated space of the figural volumes which themselves now dissolve into lines-of-flight…
I’ve got a lot to say here, and were this post not on the verge of disintegrating under its own centrifugal force, I’d say it. So let me grab back onto my thesis: what is crucial about the sonnet sequence, as a genre, is its contantly shifting affiliations among poems, the resonances and dissonances that let one poem reappear momentarily in another. But to read such affiliations, to trace such connections and hold them up to the light, is always partially creative, picking and choosing among many possibilities. It is “invention,” finding what may or may not be already there.
One image for such reassembly comes in Jen Bervin’s volume Nets, which erases words from Shakespeare’s Sonnets to create new poems. The original text is printed in a light gray, with a few words bolded to make a new poem. Sonnet 8 thus turns into the following lyric meditation, in part about this fragmentary volume itself:
In singleness the parts
Strike each in each
speechless song, being many, seeming one.
Where Goodwin’s algorithmic sonnets maximize the horizontal extensivity of Shakespeare’s sequence, stretching it out into a vast landscape of perpetually re-arranging parts, Bervin maximizes their vertical intensity, finding in a single composed moment. As her Sonnet 130 asserts:
the whole, and yet I am not
Here, too, there’s a poetic history that’s being engaged: Ronald Johnson’s beautiful erasure of “Paradise Lost,” concrete poetry, early work on cyberpoetics. But what seems really striking is the way these poems resonate with recent work on digital editing.
The web versions of Bervin’s poems look similar to the book’s versions, until you mouseover, at which point the grayed text disappears, leaving only the small version. As such, they resemble the visualizations Alan Galey constructed for Shakespearean cruces for his Visualizing Variation project: animated text boxes that allow readers to read multiple versions of a given line, like Hamlet’s “Oh that this too, too sullied/solid/sallied flesh would melt…”. Drawing on many of the same traditions that seem to have influenced Bervin, Galey proposes that digital techniques enable readers to encounter textual variation “not as a problem to be solved, but as a field of interpretive possibility.” (http://individual.utoronto.ca/alangaley/visualizingvariation/) We need not, of course, limit ourselves to textual variation: Bervin’s animations open up a still broader field of possibilities, within the “interpretive field” of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.
And indeed, among the affordances of digital editions more generally is their availability for sequence-breaking, for deformative reading, and data-mining. These contemporary poets help us to think through the possibilities of such strategies, what they can tell us about Shakespeare and ourselves.