Sonnet Fever

July 2, 2020 § Leave a comment


Screen Shot 2020-07-02 at 2.12.05 PM My review of Sonnet L’Abbé’s Sonnet’s Shakespeare is online at

In Shakespeare’s Sonnets (1609), the object of desire, whether “fair youth” or “dark lady”—diseased, venereal, degrading—is erased by the poet’s own practice of representation. In Sonnet’s Shakespeare (2019), Sonnet L’Abbé uses a reverse erasure method on her namesake, cannibalizing each sonnet, absorbing them within her own prose poems that flicker with aural ghosts of the originals, retaining words in the same order within her overwriting of them. Similarly, each original sonnet’s syntax, argument, theme, iambic rhythm, pattern of imagery is reworked, worked over, metabolized, raged against, ravaged…….

poem as cloth

May 26, 2013 § 2 Comments

She strung crude country wool across a loom
(The purple threads pricked out against the white);
She wove a tapestry of her sad story.
— Book VI, The Metamorphoses, Transl. Horace Gregory

The story of Philomela and Procne has been read as paradigm for the production and interpretation of texts by women within a context of patriarchal culture. A silenced group which desires to speak encodes its texts in some manner, so that the message remains in plain view, yet is read differently by different target audiences. Once Philomela’s message, woven into a tapestry, is received by Procne, the story of these sisters ends violently as they seek retribution for the crime committed against Philomela. So does the weaving competition between Arachne and Pallas Athene, in which Arachne weaves scenes of the gods’ transgressions, largely sexual violence against women; for producing this ‘text’ she is severely punished.

Saussurean models of language also lend themselves to the trope of text as cloth, with its conception of parole as combination of paradigmatic and syntagmatic selections; Barthes developed the distinction between work and text, where text becomes texture, an interwoven tissue of signs (text etymologically derived from texere, to weave).

The trope however tends towards a static conception of text, over process. The poet Rachel Blau DuPlessis in The Pink Guitar and in her own poetry (“Drafts”) developed the idea of feminist writing as process, as continual draft. In part she does this by offering multiple versions of a poem; by bleeding text into margins; ‘contaminating’ the white page with hand-written signs; and including midrash-like commentaries to her poems. But however much white space on a page is creatively approached, print tends to fix signs, like a specimen or sample fixed to a glass slide.

There is, however, the interesting concept of the “veil of print” with reference to Shakespearean studies — the way in which multiple copies of Shakespeare’s plays in folio and quarto versions, compiled by different compositors, have been thought by some to obscure or ‘veil’ the ‘original’ intentions of Shakespeare. If only this veil can be lifted away, we might see his true hand. This suggests print as a kind of tidal flux — multiple possibilities for a given word choice, line, scene — print itself as unreliable and contaminating.

This also makes me think of Emily Dickinson’s manuscript fascicles where she might record multiple selections for a single word in a line of one of her poems,  as if anticipating Saussure’s paradigmatic axis. Critical work has concentrated on this concept of choosing/not-choosing (see my earlier post on Emily Dickinson’s “Fascicules”) … why choose only one version? Why not hold multiple versions simultaneously in mind? Or choose one now, a different one later? Or why choose at all?

But back to cloth as text. I am thinking here of a more basic comparison between poem and woven cloth, not so much in terms of the poststructuralist trope or of the feminist models of production and interpretation, but from the perspective of the poet/maker/weaver, where writing a poem is understood as material practice. This is more closely aligned then with DuPlessis and her work on the idea of process, although I am less convinced by the older poststructuralist version of predestination, of having already been written, presented in The Pink Guitar.

In my experience, much of the pleasure of writing a poem or making a piece of cloth (I imagine, never having woven cloth) comes in the actual making, in the moment of putting down one word and then another and then another, watching as inked lines accumulate under fingertips or as lines of weft are tamped down along the warp threads and a pattern begins to emerge. (Wayland Barber: “The threads of the warp are those lying lengthwise in the finished cloth, and the most tedious part of making a new cloth comes in stringing these onto the loom, one at a time. Once you begin to weave in the cross-threads — the weft — you can see the new cloth forming inch by inch under your fingers, and you feel a sense of accomplishment.” p.17)

The production of cloth — spinning, weaving, sewing — through history is largely, although not exclusively, women’s work. Elizabeth Wayland Barber has documented this in her Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years — Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times, and in The Mummies of Ürümchi, where she describes the textiles of the 4000-yr old Beauty of Loulan and her people of the Taklamakan desert; felt, plain weave, twill. She has a wonderful description in Women’s Work of her first attempt to make her own woven copy of a piece of cloth from the Hallstatt salt mines she had seen displayed in the Natural History Museum in Vienna.  The scrap of cloth, a piece of green and brown twill, about 3000 years old, had been preserved by the salt. She decided to try to reproduce it. Her own mother had learned to weave in a weaving school in Denmark, at a time when women had been expected to make much of the cloth for their households and so Wayland Barber knew something of the techniques involved. She describes in some detail setting the warp with the help of her sister:

For nearly eight hours we had been working on the warp […] In the morning we had wound off the requisite number of green and chocolate brown threads of fine worsted wool, stripe by colour-stripe, onto the great frame of warping pegs — pegs that hold the threads in order while measuring them all to the same length. By lunchtime we were ready to transfer the warp to the loom, tying one end of the long, thick bundle of yarn to the beam on one side. Then began the tedious task of threading the ends through the control loops (heddles) in the middle on their way to the far beam. It would have been simpler if we had intended to use the plainest sort of weave. But because we were setting up to weave a pattern — the fine diagonal pattern called twill that is used typically today in men’s suit material — it was taking far longer. p. 17-18

She learned about the textile she so admired by trying to recreate it, learned things from the errors she made in setting the warp, and in the actual on-going practice of weaving the cloth, the sudden conceptual leaps made as her fingers came to understand something about the process.

The pleasure she describes in its making is much like that of writing a poem: it can take time, patience, care, requires knowledge of earlier techniques and processes; is often a question of trial and error; we learn from earlier innovations and incorporate these into our own work. There are also some structural similarities, in the lines of a poem which we might think of as the poet’s weft woven across the warp threads of culture and language. A new pattern emerges. The end result — a poem, a piece of cloth — is a human artefact that now exists in the world, and is made for others.

This is beautifully expressed in Emily McGiffin’s “Swadeshi,” in Between Dusk and Night (2012), which begins: “And because words, if they were possible at all/were illegitimate, tawdry,/I spoke to you in yarns.” The speaker in the poem describes the process of choosing to make a blanket for someone she — I’ll call the speaker a she — loves. Yet as we read, we sense that this person does not reciprocate this love, perhaps is not even there. It’s as if the beloved is a ghost: this is a thread that runs through the collection and results in some of the most intimate and moving poems, of love which is offered, not taken, but offered nonetheless — this is the nature of a truly unselfish love, a complete giving of the self, without thought of return.  Throughout, we hear the speaker’s doubts (“But you might actually have found me ridiculous”, “You were warm enough. I was redundant.”)

The speaker carefully documents each stage of the making of the blanket, from shearing the fleece, to cleaning it — picking out twigs and burs, soaking it in water, spinning the wool into yarn that can then be woven, dyeing it. Then comes the intricate task of setting the warp on the loom, the mechanics of this and its effect on the body, the descriptions of which remind me of Sean Borodale’s Bee Journal, for its technical precision which ballasts the poem’s metaphorical flight:

Bird’s-eye twill, six hundred ends. So intricate was the work
that its details crowded out all else. The old beech loom
stood patient as an aging draft horse
as I moved around and over it, climbing onto its heft frame
to straighten all the harnesses and check the lines.
Six hundred threads to keep untangled, to align, one by one in orderly sequence,
from the back beam through six hundred heddles, six hundred
separate slots in the reed. By the time I had finished and knotted them all down
and wrapped the warp onto the front beam at the ready
I was like an old woman: my back
would not straighten, a web of tense lines
had deepened at the corners of my eyes.
But I slid under the loom like a mechanic
to tie up the treadles in the last hour before midnight.

The passage is replete with technical vocabulary (bird’s-eye twill, harnesses, heft frame, beam, heddles, reed); the loom is described as a machine the speaker works on, and the speaker/poet as mechanic. This is in itself pleasing, to hear this particular register incorporated into a poem. Yet this setting of the warp is also offered metaphorically, as model for poetic practice, and as emblematic of the speaker’s relationship with the person for whom she is making the blanket. The speaker realizes, when she is done, when the warp lines are all set, all parallel, that they embody the problem of her relation with the beloved: “the nature of our conversation/all the threads ran one way”.

It is only when the work of beginning to weave the blanket, just as Barber describes above, of bringing in the weft, which crosses over the warp, that there is real communication — even consummation, in the mechanical song of making, in the clanking of cranks, gears, break and beater: “But when I began to toss the shuttle, as the cloth grew/under my hands, colloquy blossomed into cacophony…”  The speaker finds joy in the process.

And when she is done, having worked all night:

I worked clear through the frog-song night and when dawn came
I cut it free. Unfurled it from the loom. It billowed out
the way a sail climbs a mast in a few quick halyard pulls,
snapping open in the morning light — that quick instant
the story of our kind. Ingenious capture. The way into a whole
civilization and its ugly deceits. But there is also a way
of being careful. Here, spread in soft folds across the floor:
only the labour of my own attentive hands.

This idea of capture, of our human ingenuity in the making of artefacts often used for negative ends carries traces of the violence embedded in the tapestries of Philomela and Arachne. Philomela is taken, her tongue cut out so she cannot speak. It carries traces of the ways in which we capture or take the natural world, and others, carelessly, without thought. But I like the insistence here on an alternate understanding of making — a way “of being careful,” of hands that are “attentive.” This cloth the speaker has made, which can keep a body warm, intended for the one she loves, will last many years beyond the time it took her to make it, the attention and care she placed in it will perhaps outlast her; it was made not for herself but for another; and in the end, it was freely given:

This entwinement of yarn:
all the words that lived in me, the finest
I could craft. I gave them to you.

the DNA of Shakespeare’s Sonnets

January 25, 2013 § Leave a comment

“TAGATGTGTACAGACTACGC…..”   (Thou art more lovely and more temperate...)

An article in The Guardian today described DNA as a memory/archival system to store texts. The most recent experiment, by Nick Goldman and Ewan Birney of the European Bioinformatics Institute in Hinxton, tested DNA’s potential as an archival system by using it to store Shakespeare’s Sonnets, as well as an audio file of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “I have a dream” speech, and Francis Crick and James Watson’s paper describing the double helix of DNA. The texts were first translated into binary code, and then into the four “letters” or acids of DNA (CGAT). More on this below.

I’ve been thinking for a while now of poetry as the DNA of language, ever since I wrote a long sequence called “Karyotype.”  Initially I had only the idea of writing a poem about DNA, and a liking for the word ‘karyotype.’ In the end, I modelled my sequence on the 23 chromosomal complement of the human genome, writing each of the 23 poems in tercets, a gesture towards the three-letter codons or words that form our genetic code.

So how might poetry be the DNA of language? A poem carries the condensed storehouse of language and the knowledge that language holds; a poem inherits and recombines rhythms, cadences, words, sometimes whole lines, from other poems, from a body of world poetry, and carries this knowledge into the future. Each reading offers access to this knowledge, reembodies it, generates new meaning. Which brings me back to Shakespeare. Joyce comes in here, too, I think: both writers work at the very heart of this generative process, the scene of writing itself. But I don’t love Joyce as I do Shakespeare and the early modern period he was writing in—English itself at its embryonic—no, genetic—beginnings.

This leads me back to Sonnet 5 from my post on Dickinson. I like this sonnet, and disagree with Don Paterson’s dismissal of it as a “rather tedious poem” in his Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets (a great book I’m reading during my office hour these days, trying not to laugh too loudly at his jokes so as not to disturb my neighbours).

Then were not summers distillation left
A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glasse,
Beauties effect with beauty were bereft,
Nor it nor noe remembrance what it was.

Shakespeare’s opening sonnets of course urge the Fair Youth to reproduce his beauty—his pattern; at first, he is encouraged to find a woman for this, else he “unblesse some mother” by not ploughing her “un-eard wombe” (Sonnet 3). That is, he is told to reproduce himself in the flesh; but then Shakespeare becomes proprietorial—he’ll reproduce and preserve the Fair Youth instead, in his verse (sonnet as womb? Shakespeare’s words as genetic code which combine/recombine with the Fair Youth?); his sonnets will preserve this pattern of beauty, a knowledge of the youth, even from beyond the grave.

The earliest forms of poetry also carried practical information—poems do things:  Hesiod’s Works and Days;  perhaps Virgil’s Georgics, but by then he’s after imitating the feel and style of Hesiod, and is maybe more show than substance. Beyond this more didactic understanding of a poem, which 21st century readers are turned off by, to call poetry the DNA of language is to think of poetry as the crucible where language is in the process of generating itself: so inevitably we always come back to those writers who seem to be at the very heart of this production/scene of writing/genetic workshop—Shakespeare, Joyce.

And now here’s this lovely twist: Shakespeare, who promised to preserve the Fair Youth’s pattern in the very genetic imprint of his sonnets, now has his sonnets translated into genetic code by Nick Goldman and Ewan Birney in order to demonstrate how we might preserve information, including the sonnets themselves, for the future.

The Guardian article explains how the encoding takes place:

“Digital files store data as strings of 1s and 0s. The Cambridge team’s code turns every block of eight numbers in a digital code into five letters of DNA. For example, the eight digit binary code for the letter “T” becomes TAGAT.

To store words, the scientists simply run the strands of five DNA letters together. So the first word in “Thou art more lovely and more temperate” from Shakespeare’s sonnet 18, becomes TAGATGTGTACAGACTACGC.”

This sounds like Shakespeare meets L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry. Definitely something of the mellifluous original is lost in translation.

Then the DNA is stored in a dry, cool, dark place.

A few years ago I taught a course called “Writing the Human Genome,” which considered the metaphors being used today to describe the human genome: genome as alphabet, as language, as history of the human species that records our migrations, as scripture, as soul. Thinking of the genome as a book, we begin to apply the language of that register: editing, rewriting, drafts, writers, readers, with some fascinating, and disturbing, implications. How easily a single dropped letter authors disease and results in an individual’s cruel fate, so that we are tempted to think of the editing of “corrupt” genes/texts.

But these scientists were more interested in exploring DNA as archival system. There’s too much information in the world, and physical forms deteriorate.  Shakespeare knew this: “When fortie Winters shall beseige thy brow,/And digge deep trenches in thy beauties field…”  Books, digital and analogue storage devices, the need for more and more space, automatic retrieval systems; books are now housed at my university in a sort of High-Security Penitentiary for Books—if one gets misshelved  in those Area 51 metal boxes stacked to infinity, or is miscatalogued or its record erased, it will never be found again. So the idea of being able to store millions of books on slips of DNA— is tempting: go into a library and check out a blue vial of DNA you can slot into your reader. But of course with information storage technologies it always comes down in the end to readers.

In order to read Shakespeare’s Sonnets encoded on DNA, Nick Goldman and Ewan Birney took the encoded DNA and “mixed it into a solution and ran it through a gene sequencing machine. From that, they were able to read the complete files again.” Sometimes there are errors when DNA is copied; Goldman and Birney’s experiment has built-in redundancy—multiple copies of words are recorded so that such spelling errors can be caught (a genetic version of Shakespeare’s editors agonizing over variant quarto/folio editions). But you need to have the technology to ‘read’ the DNA, just as you need special readers to read digital and analogue files. So this DNA archival system will work as long as we have faith that the necessary technology will be around to read DNA, (or CDs, LPs, cassettes, 8-tracks) if or when civilization breaks down and then resurrects itself again….but here I’m getting apocalyptic. James Lovelock in the Revenge of Gaia insists on the importance of a simple but long-lasting technology: the book, as long as it is printed on durable, acid-free paper, with colour-fast inks, and lots of copies are made. Maybe some poems can survive too—some of them, passed on in an oral tradition. But I think printed books have a longer survival rate. The best readers are human.

Emily Dickinson’s ‘fasicules’

January 24, 2013 § Leave a comment

fascicle   1. a separately published instalment of a book, usu. not complete in itself.  2. a bunch or bundle.  3. Anat. a bundle of fibres                                    —Oxford English Dictionary

Emily Dickinson never used the word ‘fascicle’ to describe the bundles of poems she made in the years 1858 through 1864. It was her friend Mabel Loomis Todd who referred to them as “little fascicules” when she was attempting to sort through the poems for publication. Dickinson makes oblique reference to these booklets (perhaps) in poem 675 (No. 772 in Franklin’s Reader’s Edition of 1999):

Essential Oils — are wrung —
The Attar from the Rose
Be not expressed by Suns — alone —
It is the gift of Screws —

The General Rose — decay —
But this — in Lady’s Drawer
Make Summer — When the Lady lie
In Ceaseless Rosemary —

I love the word ‘Attar’ here, and the sudden shock of ‘Screws’ — as if torture methods are applied to the rose petal flesh to produce the essential oil. There may also be an allusion to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 5:

Then were not summers distillation left
A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glasse,
Beauties effect with beauty were bereft,
Nor it nor noe remembrance what it was.

I haven’t checked if Dickinson was familiar with Shakespeare’s sonnets, but whether or not she was, the connection is strong between these two poems. The fair youth is being encouraged to reproduce in order to preserve his beauty in (and for) the next generation—a distillation or preservation of his essence. But in Shakespeare’s sonnets the flesh is soon abandoned for the poems themselves, which can offer a different kind of preservation in words.

Similarly, the fascicles—the poems—in the poet’s drawer—will ‘Make Summer’ when the poet is dead (‘In Ceaseless Rosemary’—when she lies only in memory, when only the words remember her—Rosemary for remembrance). There’s the same kind of allusion as well to the treatment of prisoners—screws, pent in walls of glass. The words of a poem imprison but also preserve.

This is how Dickinson made her fascicles.[1] She copied her poems onto sheets of stationery, which came prefolded from the manufacturer, to form two leaves. Once a fair copy of a poem was made, she destroyed earlier drafts. To make a fascicle, she took anywhere up to 6 or 7 folded sheets with their copied out poems (12 or 14 leaves) and placed them one on top of the other—that is, she didn’t insert one into another, which is the more common way today to make a chapbook. She then stabbed two holes from front to back through the pages along the folded edge, and then threaded a string through the holes, tying the pages together at the front. She gave individual poems no titles; the fascicles had no labels or page numbers; her name didn’t appear anywhere either. Franklin notes that her unit of poetry was the sheet—she would begin a new poem on a new sheet, often leaving the end leaf blank, rather than begin a new poem; if the poem was long and she ran out of room on the sheet she would pin another leaf to it (does this suggest that she wrote out these poems earlier, and then chose which ones to place in a given fascicle?). After 1864 she continued to make good copies of her poems onto sheets, but didn’t bind them—we don’t know why. There is endless speculation about both the artistic ordering of the poems within these forty fascicles, and the many textual variants she recorded for words and lines.

Shortly after Dickinson’s death the fascicles were discovered by her family, but then taken apart and disordered in order to prepare them for publication (another long complicated story). It wasn’t until the late 20th century that Franklin used material evidence to reconstruct the original order: stains, smudge patterns, paper type, soiling on the first and last sheets, pin marks, paper wrinkles, the “puncture patterns of the binding holes,” even stress effects visible on the paper as a result of the fascicles being browsed.

Why did she make these booklets, and why did she stop with less than half of her complete output of poems bound (there were 1789 known poems in total at her death)? Franklin thinks that she began to bind her poems in fascicles in order to organize the poems which had become unruly in their large number—with fascicles, she could flip through the booklets, browse, select; he argues they helped her to order (and constrain?) them. Once she stopped binding them into fascicles after 1864, there was unruliness again—poems copied out on all kinds of scraps: “When she did not copy such sheets and destroy the previous versions, her poems are found on hundreds of odds and ends—brown paper bags, magazine clippings, discarded envelopes and letters, the backs of recipes.”[2] He argues that she made no attempt to group the poems in particular orders according to aesthetic or thematic design.

Other scholars disagree with Franklin, and see these gatherings of her poems into booklets as conscious artistic choice—some fascicles containing narrative arcs, others thematically linked, one poem illuminating the next and revealing new meaning once placed side by side. Her lyrics are short, riddling, numerous. Wanting the lyrics to be bound into fascicles according to a higher aesthetic principle satisfies our own desire for order and pattern. And it is not unthinkable that a poet would be tempted to group her poems into particular patterns as she bound them—why not? But we can’t ever know if this was her intention.

Still others emphasize her indeterminacy: why choose only one word or one version of a poem when they can exist simultaneously on the page, like a palimpsest, just as every word carries a diachronic memory of its past? This is also appealing.

Yet I like Franklin’s idea that the fascicles (and the later, unbound fascicle sheets, known as ‘sets’) functioned as a workshop for Dickinson. When she wanted to send a poem to a friend, she would consult the relevant worksheet or fascicle, choose the word or line variants appropriate for the receiver of her poem, and copy out a fair copy for them. This makes sense to me. We might think of the fascicles as the equivalent of today’s computer folder or file. And as she chose never to seek publication beyond this kind of private self-publication, there may also have been pleasure in creating these distinct bundles, like jars of preserves or rose attar in glass vials.

I like Emily Dickinson. I like her riddling poems, and I like her choice not to publish, but to take refuge (if this is what it was) in a manuscript culture. Like the circulation of blood within our bodies, she let her poems exist for themselves in their own dark life.

(Wed. 27 June 2012)

[1] I take the details of her technique from an essay by R. W. Franklin, “The Emily Dickinson Fascicles,” published in Studies in Bibliography 1983. You can also see images of her fascicles at the Emily Dickinson Museum.

[2] Franklin, “The Emily Dickinson Fascicles,” p.16.

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