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Mosaic Press - October 13, 2006 - 17 Comments

Ricochet

Ricochet by Seymour Mayne

Reviewed by Liam Ford

Ricochet is a slim but impressive volume of word sonnets by the form’s pioneer, Seymour Mayne.  A word sonnet is a fourteen line poem, where each line contains a single word: the process of reading becomes a meditation, an expansion.  Its reader quickly grasps the similarity to haiku, where the beauty of the poem lies in simplicity and succinctness.

But where a haiku creates a scene, universal and eternal, like cycles of life and death, or of the seasons, these word sonnets choose different themes and lack an inherent, comforting circularity.  Furthermore, constricted by rigid formal rules, the syllabic structure of haiku ensures that no word is used superfluously.  Here, the universality of the haiku is superseded by an intensely personal but unspecific representation of feeling and circumstance, enforced by the strictness of form and the accompanying reliance of the author on traditional narrative syntax that fills space with words that do not contribute visually or thematically to the whole, but limit the poem to the sum of its parts.

The resulting difference between the forms is both a benefit and a downfall.  Because of its structural limitations, the word sonnet allows the poet to mask his feelings through the use of pragmatic, necessary words, and to be unconcerned with person or perspective, yet simultaneously allows the most seemingly insignificant personal observation to explode and find great meaning on the immense blankness of the page. 

In “Hail”, we are witness to a funeral scene, where an anonymous “you” is lowered into the earth.  Who is the “you”?  What is his or her relation to the speaker?  What is left out is as compelling as what is put in.  The poem expresses hope in the falling of the titular hail, that falls “like / seed” (5-6).  It will plant itself in the frozen ground, and though nothing could possibly sprout, the inevitable melting of the hail (into rain water, symbolizing disembodied tears) and thawing of the ground permits the fertilization of the soil, and eventual rebirth.

At his worst, Mayne uses the form to deliver punchlines better left in comics, as in “Cat”:

You
look
up,
trying
to
figure
me
out.
I’ve
been
at
it
for
years.
(53)

At his best, Mayne eschews narrative structure in favour of insightful and descriptive diction.  “Dust” captures a brief moment of tender intimacy, invoking the senses of smell, sight and touch, and the result is like a sepia photograph come alive:

The
dust
of
afternoon
fragrance
settles
on
your
skin
and
limbs
grainy
with
touch.
(23)

“December Flight” rejoices in the reckless thrill of movement of birds flying south:

These
starlings
swerve
in
flocks,
turning
their
frantic
wings
towards
the
sun’s
slanting
light.
(27)

The word sonnet is a form that Mayne fits effectively to the Canadian landscape; both the poems and the country are marked mostly by open space, yet both are populated by maple, crows, lakes, toboggans, and are confused by snow in April.  Alternately mournful and exultant, Mayne’s poems reveal beauty in the great melancholy spaces that divide us as a country, and as people.

Liam Ford lives in Coquitlam, BC.

Comments

On October 13, 2006, Ian LeTourneau said:

I’m unconvinced that these so-called “word sonnets” are anything but decent first lines of poems spread out over 14 lines. What makes them a sonnet? Are the words grouped in sestets and octaves? Three stanzas and a couplet? Do they challenge the traditional form in any ways other than one word per line? This review (which doesn’t go much beyond merely describing what a couple of the poems are about) certainly hasn’t convinced me.

What would interest me is if Seymour Mayne would write a defense of these word sonnets, parsing out his poetics convincingly. Has he done such a thing? Only that or a reviewer who delved a little deeper into what is going on in the poems. Maybe i’m exceedingly grumpy today, but I don’t buy the argument (finally made at the end of the review) that the word sonnet’s existence can be justified by its effective fit to the open spaces of the Canadian landscape. there must (or should) be more to them.

I applaud Mayne’s effort to reinvigorate a well-used form, but my guess is that unless some technical mastery exists which i am missing, the word sonnet will not last.

On October 13, 2006, Shane Neilson said:

I’m with you, Ian. I reviewed Mayne’s “Hail” on the Danforth site and came to the conclusion that Mayne was writing what used to be called, at least where I came from, sentences. The “word sonnets” he wrote sometimes constituted what might have been a nice line from a poem, not an entire poem.
  As to your challenge for Mayne to convince us with a manifesto, I don’t really think that’s necessary. I wouldn’t be the least bit swayed if he was the most persuasive fellow on earth. I’ve looked at the real thing, the poetry, and it failed to convince me.
  I mean, it’s basically a formalistically exploded line. The arrangement of the words is meant to justify the conception of it as a sonnet. I don’t buy it.
  This is not to say that I don’t think the word sonnet as practised by Mayne is some kind of a poem; it resembles haiku in length (at least in terms of syllables) and it does have a haiku-like mysteriousness. But a sonnet? I rebel against the very idea. Which is, perhaps, Mayne’s intention.
  Finally, I fear there is not much technical mastery inherent to Mayne’s form. But that’s true of most poetry nowadays, no?

On October 14, 2006, Zach Wells said:

No,
Shane,
that
is
not
true?
Canadian
poets
are
masters
of
gardening
and
moaning.

On October 15, 2006, Shane Neilson said:

Hey-
lookit
me,
I
can
do
that
too,
poetry
I
mean.
You
know.
Type.

On October 16, 2006, Liam said:

word
sonnets
are
insubstantial;
revel
in
space,
like
snow
flakes
carousing
in
wind
storms.

On November 14, 2007, M. Kei said:

They aren’t haiku-like. Haiku has some requirements above and beyond brevity; suffice it to say ‘mysteriousness’ is not one of them, although there are plenty of so-called haiku poets who take refuge in obfuscation which they like to pass off as Oriental mysteriousness.

I’d call these word sonnets ‘tanka-esque’ rather than haiku-like; formatted in five lines they’re decent (but not excellent) tanka. Whether they qualify as sonnets doesn’t much interest me?I’m a tanka poet. 

I will disagree with the notion that they are merely ‘sentences’ or ‘first lines.’ These poems contain what we in the tanka world call ‘dreaming room,’ which is a trait we prize highly. ‘Dreaming room’ is the quality of a poem to be as complete as a stone thrown into water, but capable of generating ripples formed from the reader’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences.

But isn’t all poetry supposed to do that? No, it isn’t. Poems ranging from the Norse sagas to Burns’ ‘To a Louse’ have a different aim. We can narrow the argument to “Isn’t all modern English language poetry supposed to do that?” Perhaps so, but it seems to me that the ‘average’ modern poet is much more intent on transmitting his idea of what the poem is supposed to be about, or else leaving the reader absolutely baffled (which is why some of them get so offended by reviews ? the reviewer didn’t agree with them, and The Poet Is Always Right).

While I wonder myself whether the poems fit the Canadian landscape, I do accept that fitting the landscape is sufficient reason for a poem’s existence. Then again, I edit a journal of poetry of place (Atlas Poetica), so I’m biased. Still, these poems aren’t quite focussed enough to be poetry of place ? there is no sense of a particular place that expands to the universal; like many poets, Mayne has aimed for the universal and achieved the generic.

Had this work come over my transom, I probably would have viewed the writer as an ‘emerging poet’ and accepted ‘starlings,’ then written a few comments to help him understand better what I look for in poem.

~K~

On April 07, 2012, jay said:

I think Liam actually showcased a pretty lovely word sonnet in the comment. I also do agree with M. Kei that the sonnets create “dreaming room” in some cases and are certainly commendable in that respect. whether or not they justify the name “sonnet” does not interest me in the least; what a pointless thing to argue. conceptually, I support it, though.

that all said, I do agree that the examples of Mayne’s work seem basically to be sentences. a more fragmentary approach might give it a different, less self-indulgent feeling. I don’t see haiku or word sonnets really having all that much potential for depth though, so I’m not sure what anyone is really expecting.

On January 11, 2013, Steph said:

Now, I’m one of those people who say “yes” to everything, and I do think that words sonnets are meaningful and worthy of being more than just “a first line spread out over 14 lines.” I mean you can’t really define poetry and you can’t define what a sonnet truly is, so you can’t say that a word sonnet isn’t poetry or a sonnet. Plus, poetry is about, in my opinion, being free and open and erasing any trace of boundaries, so I urge you, even if you don’t personally LIKE a poem, don’t tell anyone “you can’t do that.”

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