Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Sonnets

Berrigan, Ted. The Sonnets. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2000.

Berrigan's sonnet cycle consists of seventy-eight poems (numbered one through eighty-eight, due to the fact that he cut several that did not measure up to his standards) and, outside of their fourteen line structure and oblique references to lovers, do not overtly resemble traditional sonnets. As Alice Notley mentions in the introduction to this updated and annotated addition, Berrigan used “collages and assemblages” (viii) to compose most of these poems, as well as “aleatory methods of composition” (ix) based upon the theories and writing of musical composer John Cage. Furthermore, his sonnets investigate Whitehead's theories regarding time; or, as the poet himself writes: “Whatever is going to happen is already happening” (47). Other methods Berrigan constructs poems with involve chance operations and systematically selecting lines from previous sonnets, for example, using the first lines of the previous fourteen poems. Likewise, since he also extracts material from sources that are not his own, and these sources cover a wide expanse of time and context, the diction is at once colloquial and academic, modern and antiquated. The overall effect of such procedures produces sonnets that contain highly disjunctive imagery, narrative, and linguistics. Additionally, Berrigan writes meta-poetically of these results in lines such as “I strain to gather my absurdities” (4), “Meanwhile, terrific misnomers went concocted” (5), and “Its patterless pattern of excitement” (16). Other aesthetic devices Berrigan employs are the use proper names of friends, family, and personalities he admired (a technique that Notley mentions in the introduction is “at least as old as Dante's work” (xv)), strategic use of white space, and, perhaps most importantly, the accumulative effects of repetition. For instance, regarding the latter of these traits, a line such as “There is no such thing as a breakdown” occurs many times throughout the collection. With each instance, the context alters and creates a new meaning for the line. But, in addition to understanding the specific meaning of that instance, the overall meaning of the line throughout the entirety of the book mutates through augmentation. In the end, the radical aesthetic choices that Berrigan uses within the sonnet form seeks to buttress the claim that “the sonnet is not dead” (14), but in fact can be a redistribution of human experience where “Everything turns into writing” (53) so as to prove that the “logic of grammar is not genuine” (64); even so, “Meaning [still] strides through these poems just as it strides through” the poet (45). But meaning, of course, has itself been dislodged and re-oriented.

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