Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

"I Sing the Sonnet" by Duncan Gillies MacLaurin (Snakeskin, 2011)

My feelings about sonnets are ambivalent. I like poems of that length which elegantly pursue an argument. I like the image compression that the constraints encourage. I like sonnets by Geoffrey Hill ("Two Formal Elegies") as well as Carol Ann Duffy ("Prayer"). I'm less keen on the "punchline" structure of some Shakespearean sonnets, and the traditionally poetic imagery/trajectory that some sonnets gladly inherit. Also I'm wary of the effect that rhyme and rhythm can have on the assessment of content - it doesn't have a nice ring to it for me at the moment; I'd often rather have a prosed version with less padding, predictability and more flexible rhythms.

These 36 sonnets (in a free e-chapbook format that compares well with any paper competition) all have 14 lines and are tightly rhymed. Just occasionally (e.g. in "Presence") a line's initial unstressed syllable is missing, otherwise the rhythm closely follows the metre. It's the syllable count that varies from poem to poem. "Busker" alternates 6-syllabled lines with 8-syllabled ones. "Misfits" begins by alternating 8-syllable and 9-syllable lines. "Still Life" has quatrains whose lines follow a 9,8,9,7 syllable pattern, ending with a final 8,7 couplet. "Lucky Charms" has 14-syllable lines, "Remorse" and "Hope" have 8-syllable lines. Some poems are Shakespearean, though many are not. There are other patterns too - the lines of "Lucky Charms" begin alternately with "The" and "I", the line-beginnings of "Vagabond" and "Who Needs an Easy Love?" nearly follow a pattern, and there are acrostics.

I often read quickly straight through a book the first time to get a feel for the work as a whole. On my first reading what struck me was the certainty of the poet, the trust in language, compared to the uncertainty of so many poets I was reading concurrently. Here's the first stanza of "Mama's Little Boy"

A tearaway with golden curls,
he'll always be a darling boy,
your little pet, your pride and joy,
the odd one out amongst the girls.

I assumed that we'd get more about how wonderful the mother thought her boy was, only for the final stanza to surprise us. And so it came to pass. Yes, there are only so many plots available, but here the details are too generic. The persona tells us what s/he knows or has recently realised - there's no process, no enactment of discovery. I'd prefer "Mum's the Word" in prose, with more anecdote or observational detail, more irony or imagery.

I like "Horror Vacui", about Venice's dark side. "Hope" ends with

that wild old whisper still wakes spring,
still ushers rivers into flood,
and we still feel the rush of blood
each time we hear the blackbird sing.
You walk beside me in a blend
of soul mate, sweetheart, muse and friend

The "wild .. whisper ... wakes ... usher ... rivers ... rush" stream of sound impresses, but arrgh, those last two lines! "Presence" probably has more allusions than I've noticed. However, that too ends flatly with

Essential beauty is divine;
truth is, I'm yours, and you are mine.

I like "I Sing the Sonnet". Like "Hope" it has a passage of sustained imagery

Later on you knew
you'd heard the oystercatchers long before
you saw them round the river's corridor
at lightning speed, their destination you,
the listener whose needs must be addressed,
my silent partner whose assent has willed
this elevated song, who's just been thrilled
by carpe diem at its all-time best.

The final two sonnet series contain some of the best material. The sonnets are acrostics where the 1st words (rather than 1st letters) of each line form a sequence.

"The Acrosticist" and "The Lessons Learned from Vietnam" are 2 versions developed from the same material. Such dual poems are an interesting idea. The poems share many lines as well as an epithet ("The singer, under all circumstances, must be more interesting than the songs he sings" - David Craig) that lists the 1st words of the lines. The epithet is a counter to the collection's title, which in turn alludes to Whitman's "I sing the body electric"

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