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1. Text 


The Pataphysical Sonnet


                                                after Raymond Queneau and Jacques Bens

Returns to the bedroom, out of his head,
Out of tunes fragments come rocking his bed
Between order and chaos, freedom and …?
Ever, I see order’s rule in the edge
Riff between sound and silence. Out of hand
The moon in June security has led
So boot if at all to the point of dead
Hope for happiness. For beyond the land,
Every sea must ordain its religions in the edge.
Priscilla leaps from bed, surveys her life
Plus belle qu’une poubelle (just) in a cold sweat.
A certain kind of order, edge-of-knife,
provokes her (13 is unlucky) strife.
DADA was here, but I have no regret.


1978 (2020 version)

First published in Dedicated to you but you weren’t listening: Homage to the Soft Machine (London: Writers Forum, 1979)


2. Anti-Commentary


When my friend Sandeep Parmar asked me whether my younger self would have been surprised to be now re-working the sonnets of the English tradition, as I am, I didn’t immediately respond by mentioning this poem. It might not have answered the question, but it is curious that this poem is a sonnet, though an odd one, like all of mine. It was written right at the start of my writing career and, although it has not been republished (and neither have its fellow poems from the booklet it shared), it has remained a talisman, as my ‘earliest poem’ (while slightly later, sounder, but less experimental poems, have occasionally filled that role). My younger self would not have been surprised at the re-functioned sonnets of ‘The English Strain’ project, which now consists of two completed books, The English Strain (Shearsman, forthcoming), Bad Idea (KFS, forthcoming) and the work in progress (with a title in progress) British Standards. Long ago, I modelled a sonnet on somebody else’s. 


My younger self had found Queneau and Bens in Simon Watson Taylor’s anthology French Writing Today (1968). I bought my copy in the summer of 1974, when I was continually listening to the Soft Machine, the official orchestra of the College of ’Pataphysics (of which Watson was a part). He might have been surprised how long it took (until about a decade after its composition) for the Oulipo movement (of which he did not grasp the existence, even, from Watson Taylor’s book) to be revealed as a formalist model for British innovative poetry. And about twenty to thirty years for its procedures to become widespread in the alternative poetries. Or even forty years to get into Penguin, as it were. He would have been most astonished to have presaged his inclusion in the 2019 The Penguin Book of Oulipo (under the guise of his fictional poet René Van Valckenborch), having been long prepared by the careers of older innovative writers for a life of exclusion and derision. The title of the Writers Forum volume may have been a Soft Machine track, but it was also an unconscious projection of anticipated neglect (which hasn’t quite been the case).  


What the poem does anticipate is my later contention that formal features may become largely a poem’s content. It is a construction of formal constraints. An acrostic on my name (though with a 13th unlucky line, which is what the Oulipo would call a clinamen, a carefully placed spanner in the works, although I didn’t know it at the time), the poem uses titles of Soft Machine tracks at the start of most lines. Its rhymes reflect those of Bens, derived from the number π. (I return to this forming in ‘For the Numbers’ in Bad Idea!) Pataphysics pointed towards the Oulipo without me knowing, but DADA pointed to the Soft Machine’s procedures (and to my contemporary interest in Dada and Surrealist visual art, which again evokes that summer of 1974). 


Of course, the modes of linguistic or formal innovation, experimentalism or the avant-garde, changed between this 1970s sonnet and the work of the 1980s, when ‘linguistically innovative poetry’ was narrowly defined by Adrian Clarke, Gilbert Adair and myself, to exclude quite a lot of work that is today happily included in that category, if it is still used at all. Modes of indeterminacy and discontinuity dominated, not for their own sakes (and certainly not to mime the informational and existential chaos of neoliberalism) but in order to stimulate the reader into becoming an active co-creator of the poem, together with a resistance to, though not a prohibition of, scripts of self-hood. The important self in the poem was that of the reader. There was a definite prohibition of the kinds of socially-defined self-hood represented by the limited ‘suburban mental ratio’ of the Movement poets and their continuing but ever attenuated ‘orthodoxy’, with its inflexible notions of ‘form’. This found its release in certain spoof poems I wrote, gifted to ‘Wayne Pratt’; I could thus have my cake and eat it! His re-appearance in ‘Petrarch 3’ at the beginning of The English Strain was a surprise. 


But ‘Petrarch 3’ itself was the greater surprise, as, influenced by two contemporary Petrarchan sonneteer versionists, Peter Hughes and Tim Atkins, and one Oulipean, Harry Mathews, and one of the ‘anticipatory plagiarists’ of that movement, Nicholas Moore (in his Spleen), I set this three volume formal investigation going. I’ve outlined this in detail in ‘“Era il giorno ch’al sol si scoloraro”: A derivative dérive into/out of Petrarch’s Sonnet 3’ (in Birkan-Berz’s Translating Petrarch’s Poetry, Oxford: Legenda, 2020). I needn’t repeat its account of influences, procedures and caprices. Suffice it to say, I’ve had a fascination with the sonnet, and all of its formal instrumentations of its materials, for a long time. Of course, the interest is shared, as Jeff Hilson’s anthology of the innovative sonnet, The Reality Street Book of Sonnets (2008), proves. My need to re-investigate the sonnet tradition as well as its form, is part of that, though I have always engaged with the history of poetry – that great repository of formal investigations which shows us where our innovation has come from, and more – usually tacitly rather than overtly. ‘The English Strain’ is nothing if not overt. 


I still believe in the core values of linguistically innovative poetry, but it has broadened out from the necessary closed poetics of a developing writer (‘operational axioms’ was a term I used, rather stiffly) into a more relaxed sense of poetics (which has become an object of enquiry for me in its own right) as an anticipatory writerly discourse. (In essence, it’s just writers talking to themselves, as here!) It provides a set of counters to think with, to test, to reverse, and – wondrous relief – to transgress. One axiom I do have is provided by the opening words of my critical book, ‘Poetry is the investigation of complex contemporary realities through the means (meanings) of form.’ (The Meaning of Form, Palgrave, 2016) This is echoed in the dedicatory poem to volume two of this project, Bad Idea


I hang out inside these sonnets, punching

echoes into new shape, because I take 

poetry as the investigation

of complexity through the means of form.


Yes, that’s a shadowy ‘me’ talking. The shifting terms I have adopted for the central mode of these poems (‘overdubs’ or ‘understudies’, ‘contrafacts or ‘counterfactuals’, ‘translations’ or ‘versions’) is deliberate to reflect the restless and various modes of their engagements with their ‘originals’, to use a word I’d rather avoid. I am happiest now with the word ‘transposition’. Whatever I’ve called them, I’m activating a force field between the ‘standard’ text and its transposition, which is where active readers will now be located (whether they know the ‘original’ or not). 


I have a resolution to write no further sonnets (and even to avoid 14 line poems). There are enough already, including those in my own invented forms, like the 100 word sonnet, which dates back to the 1990s (2 words + 14 lines of 7 words each), and the ‘twittersonnets’ featured in my book of micro-poems Micro Event Space (14 lines of 10 characters) and a whole previous book of innovative sonnets (arranged in stanza permutations of 5,4,3, and 2 lines) about the war on terror, called Warrant Error. (Other forms, such as the half-pint sonnet, I have abandoned before I’ve used them!) I have already abandoned the sonnet frame, while continuing to work my way through the sonnets of Keats (utilising 28 lines in couplets). I read one of Robert Duncan’s ‘versions’ of Dante’s sonnets and was impressed that he didn’t mime the frame at all. Projecting ahead to the sonnets of John Clare, I am planning to transpose them as ‘quennets’. This has a wonderful circularity, since the quennet form was invented by Raymond Queneau, as a kind of haiku-sonnet. I am represented by Van Valckenborch’s quennets in The Penguin Book of Oulipo. (Come to think of it, he ‘invented’ the twittersonnet too.) Like a corona of sonnets, my end is also my beginning, formally speaking.


Formalist though I am, ‘The English Strain Project’ has found its ‘complex contemporary realities’ in Brexit (and, within the third volume, which I am currently writing, in the Coronavirus pandemic), off which the poems have to feed. Remember, I’m also balancing the ‘original’ poems and contemporary events. Perhaps the satirical mode helps; satire has to take a social view. More fragmented forms of response would make it less possible to accommodate humour, which would be collaged, cut up, chopped out of existence. (I’m not being funny, but I like being funny!) These poems have to be close to the grain of experience, which may be an odd claim to make of poems which are contrafacts of – for example – Michael Drayton’s 1619 sonnet sequence ‘Idea’ (earlier editions were called ‘Idea’s Mirrour’) which is the case with the poems in volume two, Bad Idea. But that is how I see them, until they are finished, finished with, or are finished with me. 


Perhaps all poetics should end in the words with which I concluded a recent poetics piece: ‘I cannot say what comes next and I’m saying it now.’    


                                                                                           ––Robert Sheppard  (October 10–11th 2020)


Robert Sheppard’s two new books are from his ‘English Strain’ project, The English Strain from Shearsman Books, and Bad Idea from Knives Forks and Spoons. Shearsman also publishes his selected poems, History or Sleep, and The Robert Sheppard Companion, a series of essays on his work. KFS also publishes his ‘autrebiography’, Words Out of Time. Also a critic (The Meaning of Form), he lives in Liverpool. He blogs at      

ISSN 2632-4423


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