26 October, 2015Issue 29.2Literary CriticismLiteraturePoetry

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Directionality, Space, Sense: The Semiotics of the Word Sonnet

Pierre Antoine Zahnd


Ricochet: Word Sonnets
Seymour Mayne
Mosaic Press, 2004
152 pages
ISBN 0 88962 837 8




In the late sixteenth century Marc de Papillon de Lasphrise, a love poet and formal innovator known for his ‘Sonnet in an unknown language’—a poetic cipher ostensibly directed at a mistress—also wrote a series of sonnets consisting exclusively of monosyllables. In the nineteenth century Jules de Rességuier adapted de Papillon’s relatively untouched template and compressed it into a sonnet made up of one word per line, each of them monosyllabic. ‘Á une jeune morte’, named after an earlier sonnet by Pierre de Ronsard, is still notorious for the economy with which it depicts, in fourteen syllables, the titular dead woman (with far more detachment than might be expected of a form so closely linked with love poetry). However, it was not until the contemporary Canadian poet Seymour Mayne published Ricochet: Word Sonnets (Mosaic Press, 2004) that a more general interest in the form was sparked. Yet although the word sonnet is an offshoot of the wider sonnet-prototype, we do not tend to associate it with the tradition from which it derives. I argue that this is because the ‘word sonnet’ format operates in ways that drastically differ from most poetry that we read and write.

In practice, a word sonnet consists of fourteen lines of one word each, with no established requirements of rhyme, meter, alliteration, or subject matter. The other main form to which it tends to be compared is the haiku: the specific pace of a word sonnet does not follow the mental rhythm of a haiku, but the connection has been made so vigorously (fourteen words; seventeen syllables: close enough) that I wonder how much thought we actually put into the forms in which poetry is written. Not content with only finding similarities between the word sonnet and the haiku, American poet Ada Jill Schneider has written that some of Mayne’s poems “read like Chinese fortune cookies.” When a poetic form is compared to pastry, the time may have come to re-evaluate it.

In the painfully rare reviews of Mayne’s work, the consensus is that the word sonnet is a short poem of pythic and vertical proclivities, yet very little has been said about how this verticality affects the speech it carries. Fellow Canadian poet Ian LeTourneau, in the comment section of one such review, is “unconvinced” that these so-called ‘word sonnets’ are anything but decent first lines of poems spread out over 14 lines”. In her introduction to the bilingual edition of Ricochet: Word Sonnets Sabine Huynh, Mayne’s own translator into French, terms them “monostichs split into fourteen lines.” The real issue, I feel, is that word sonnets cannot be thought of as monostichs– they are fourteen-line poems, structured around the same tension of black and white with which every page poem has to concern itself. Mayne’s poem ‘Ground’, also from Ricochet: Word Sonnets, displays an acute awareness of this tension:


Who claims this honed silence where ice and rock have ground each other down?

When read horizontally, as above, the poem loses most of its muscular potency when laid out as a standalone line. This, I think, has much to do with directionality and how we think and feel about visual movement. In the ninth century BCE, the Greek alphabet introduced left-to-right (LTR) directionality in script. Although ink had already been in use in China for fifteen centuries, the Greeks mainly resorted to wax tablets at the time, so whether LTR became conventional to accommodate the right-handed majority remains a moot point. In any case, the mark of LTR on the Western psyche is that we conceive of time as moving from left to right. A strikingly obvious example of this is the layout of timelines, which almost all follow this template:

Even before that- Before- A little later- Later- Even later- Nowish- In the future


This also permeates technology. Old cassette and videotape players feature “forward” and “next” buttons to the right of “rewind” and “previous” buttons. We can observe uses of LTR in other art forms, especially film: Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, which unfolds on a train and mostly in lateral fashion, associates “left” with the protagonist’s origins and “right” with the direction he struggles to go in. In Lawrence of Arabia, David Lean’s shots follow a character travelling on a LTR journey. The app Tinder itself intuitively follows the dual pattern: left swipe for retraction, right swipe for progression. On a profound level, we associate LTR horizontality with development, accrual, and impetus, and most page poetry abides by the same principle. Sharon Old’s long line with risky enjambment is often about a situational tension between verbal control and emotional fear; in Sylvia Plath’s ‘Berck-Plage’ the sea picks up a dramatic rhythm as it

Creeps away, many-snaked, with a long hiss of distress.

Consider also Arthur Golding’s heptametric oomph in his translations of Ovid:

Now have I brought a woork to end which neither Joves feerce wrath,
Nor sword, nor fyre, or freating age with all the force it hath
Are able to abolish quyght […]

None of these effects can feature in a word sonnet. Of necessity, the way each line breaks and drops down with every new word enforces a different reading: mist your eyes in front of a poem, Glyn Maxwell writes, to have an idea of how the layout of lines plays off the blankness of the page. In the present case, the thin bar of vertical black (presence) against a pageful of white (silence) tends to look and feel strongly like a struggle for thought and verbal expression. Mayne’s ‘Ground’ is one of my favourite of his sonnets because of how much, through diction, it makes of the constraint: he shores up the poem against the stretch of white by loading it with heavy stresses (ten out of fifteen, the last four weighing so much) and long, diphthongal syllables. Four out of fourteen words are dynamic verbs linked with possession, conflict, and power. For a poem dealing with silence, it is fairly stentorian. The invocation of elemental forces gives the piece a vaguely epic feel, and Mayne’s very act of speech sounds like it is being wrenched out of silence. Consider for contrast his ‘June Heat’:


Five nouns, two adjectives, two determiners (“A”; “this”), and the same preposition twice (“of”, used both times to create equivalence by linking two nouns, which I would argue is an overused way of making metaphors in contemporary poetry anyway). Overall, the piece feels limp because it sags under the weight of its diction: the long string of conjunctives and qualifiers fails to clasp the poem’s associations together as quickly and tightly as it requires (visually distancing qualifier from qualified also distances them semantically). Put simply, the poem’s diction fails to engage interestingly with the format in the way sonnets like ‘Fossil Fuel’ do:


The poem expresses a deep ecological concern in the face of our brash, immediate squandering of resources that took eons to materialize, and is fraught with the tension between its opening and closing time frames (A million years/ one short weekend). Mayne fully engages with this tension here: it is striking how, once more, because of the way we conceive of script, a fourteen-word poem about “one short weekend” can take so long to drip down. Visually (eyes misted or not) the shape on the page is reminiscent of a slow “convoy,” and there is something ponderous about the constant downward shift from line to line, which Mayne combines with the paucity of his diction. Just like driving means burning off the fuel that we will ultimately run out of, words such as “A”, “of”, “in”, “for”, and “one” enact thinness and erosion, as though the very act of reading and writing, of moving down to the next line, were whittling away at his own resource: language. Would the painful temporal shift that shapes the poem’s thought process (the leap from a million years to overnight escapade), or anything else that the poem is doing, come across so fully and densely in a horizontal line?

A million years of beetles take us north in convoys for one short weekend.

That is when, I feel, the ‘word sonnet’ really comes into its own: when thought and emotion are inbuilt in the format that delivers them, and when that format becomes a full part of their expression. Consider Susan Robertson’s ‘Foreplay’:


Reminding us of the voyeurism inherent to any act of reading (we are meant not only to “look”, but also to “listen”), the poem rides on its own verticality. If the string of words resembles the teeth of a zipper at the back of a dress, it is the reader’s gaze that operates the disrobing. One of the poem’s main achievements, I think, is the subtle and erotic tension that it establishes between composition (sonnet writing) and laying bare (undressing). Meaning discloses, meaning unclothes.

The question remains: why aren’t more word sonnets being written and read? One reason, perhaps, is that they are uneconomical. On the page, word sonnets are not “good value for space”, and the steep up-down visual trajectory is more draining on the eye than a succession of longer lines. Poetry is hard enough as it is; reading it vertically is even worse. Secondly, I am tempted to say that beyond its name and the fourteen-line requirement, the form doesn’t actually have much overlap with the broadly traditional template of what a sonnet is, which still informs most modern sonneteers. The volta (the turn that structures the 8-6 division of the poem) is a noticeable absence¬¨— the word sonnet simply does not have the space for one, which might make it harder for readers and writers of sonnets to relate to it (I don’t see why the format could not take a shorter or longer line count and remain relevant anyway, and the sonnet appellation does seem almost unmotivated at this point. I like to see the “vertical” poem as a method rather than a form).

Besides, the one-word-per-line constraint drastically narrows down the range and the effect of techniques that longer lines offer, including caesura, meter, rhyme, or enjambment—the standard tricks of the trade to which every poet intuitively resorts. Word sonnets are challenging to write and tricky to read sense out of. But when they engage productively with constraint, as I think some of the poems discussed above do, they illuminate an issue that is vital in any page poetry: how one organises the verbal around the non-verbal. Of course, this shifts the form closer to concrete poetry, which is an animal best left for another article. But as far as the tension between word and page is concerned, the word sonnet gives us a glimpse of what the black brings into the white, the echoing space.

Pierre Antoine Zahnd read English Literature at St Andrews and is now in the first year of an MSt in Creative Writing at St Anne’s College, Oxford.