Monday, October 07, 2013

ModPo 2013 #29 The Place of the Sonnet: On Bishops' "A Recollection"

Image from

John Peale Bishop, "A Recollection"

Famously she descended, her red hair
Unbound and bronzed by sea-reflections, caught
Crinkled with sea-pearls. The fine slender taut
Knees that let down her feet upon the air,

Young breasts, slim flanks and golden quarries were
Odder than when the young distraught
Unknown Venetian, painting her portrait, thought
He'd not imagined what he painted there.

And I too commenced with that golden cloud:
Lipped her delicious hands and had my ease
Faring fantastically, perversely proud.

All loveliness demands our courtesies.
Since she was dead I praised her as I could
Silently, among the Barberini bees.

I will not give away any spoilers (how peculiar to talk about spoilers with regards to a poem!). Just one delicious clue about the poem above: things (aka the commentary of the poet about this poem) are best hidden when they are in plain sight.

Is the time of sonnets done in the world today? I don't think so. There would be no poetry today if there were no precedents. There would be no cliches if the cliches were not first so respected in the first place. The composition of a sonnet is no mean feat. It takes discipline, it takes some musicality, it takes a certain mastery of language. I am tempted to accuse those who outright reject sonnets as lazy. I'm sure even Bishop didn't take a few seconds to pen the satirical sonnet above. I detect a certain respect for the form even as Bishop takes a mighty dig at the sonnet.

But the thing is, the modernists are right too. Sonnet as expression is dated. It reflects the times and the sentiments of centuries past. 2013 is different from 1975 is different from 1948 is different from 1932 and so on. The writing of a sonnet is a healthy exercise in playing with language, the way a painter will probably start with a realist sketch before he departs into the realms of the Cubist and the Abstract movements. It has to start from somewhere.

As they say, before you break the rules, you need to know the rules first. That's why I really appreciate this class (ModPo). I've never taken up poetry so intensely before. Imagine: 10 weeks of just poetry (even if the poetry is a mere dip in the endless well of available poetry). While the modernists are confusing (purposely so)...I appreciate their attempts at pushing the boundaries. Each movement is audacious, I'm sure. Each movement delineates a previous movement. I like witnessing this history and I look forward to experimenting and writing some more, given the context of what has come before.

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