Friday, March 22, 2013

The Emaciated Sonnet

Forging right ahead from the previous post...

Hecht continues:
"In 'Pied Beauty' Hopkins wrote what he called a 'curtal,' or abbreviated sonnet.  Elizabeth Bishop first, and later Mona Van Duyn, wrote sonnets with strikingly short lines, Bishop beginning hers with the (complete) line 'Caught––the bubble,' Van Duyn calling hers 'minimalist' sonnets.  But these were neither the first nor the last to attempt such artistic parsimony and spare ingenuity.  As far as I am aware, the first truly emaciated sonnet (with each line confined to a single syllable) was composed by Arthur Rimbaud.
     Coucher Ivre






"Roughly rendered, this means: (The) Slob / Drinks: / (The) Pearl (of a girl) / Sees (what's coming): // (The) Bitter / Law (of gravity takes effect), / (The) Carriage / Collapses! // (The) Woman / Tumbles, / Loins // Bleed: / Whimpers. / Pandemonium!"
It is not enough to identify this quotation with the title of the book where it appears, Melodies Unheard, along with the usual page reference (p.53-4), because Hecht's chapter & section titles reveal immediately what he is about here. The chapter is "The Sonnet: Ruminations on Form, Sex, and History"; the section is entitled simply "The Form."

It's here that I begin a journey attempting to understand––or at least illuminate––the role of subversion in questions of musical form, and from there to questions of the relevance (or lack of relevance) of music analysis.  The contemporary musicologist will likely find this journey mostly irrelevant with regard to au courant agendas: it will––for the most part––elide the sex and ignore imaginary linear histories.

Right now, what I ask of the reader is to consider the puzzling fact that "Coucher Ivre," in the judgment of Rimbaud at least, and surely many others (Hecht provides several examples), is a sonnet.

Most of us––I at least––grew up with an "acceptable" idea of just what a sonnet is, and so also of what it cannot be.  A good summary of what an acceptable sonnet is, along with minor acceptable variations, can be found in many places––even on the web, for example, >here<.  But of course, there must always be 14 lines, traditionally divided 8 plus 6––octave followed by sestet. The lines in "Coucher Ivre" have a rather dull rhyme scheme (abab abab cdd cc d), but I suppose this is barely acceptable within the tradition.

But the heresy is immediately obvious before even reading (or hearing) the sonnet.  14 lines, yes––but just one syllable per line?  What happened to iambic pentameter?  And once you push this far in allowing "experiment, variation, violation, alteration," at what point does the initial, generating form cease to exist and become something else?––perhaps ceasing to be an intelligible "poetic form" at all, devolving into prose or nonsense.

Amplifying the questions posed in the previous post, if you had never heard of "Coucher Ivre" before, and you were to hear it read aloud, would you guess that it was a sonnet?  If you knew Petrarch and Shakespeare sonnets, would that help identify the Rimbaud poem as a sonnet?  Does it matter or not if you know/hear/read it as a sonnet? If not, why not? Why does Anthony Hecht spend so many words demonstrating (justifying, almost) that this is a sonnet? Why does he, a poet, care?  Finally, now that you know it's a sonnet, does that spoil the magic of the poetry for you?  If the poem didn't "speak" to you before you were told it was a sonnet, does knowing that it's a sonnet create the magic for you.  Or would you just rather not know?

Next up: The Form –––>