18 May 2012

Fun with sonnets

About a month ago I started filling a notebook with "over-written" sonnets, spending an hour every day or two writing the 16 lines, starting the process of lodging the poem in my memory. They were taken from Poems on the Underground and so should be fairly well known: Donne, Michael Drayton, Keats, Edna St Vincent Millay, Milton, Wilfred Owen, Shakespeare (2), Wordsworth (2).

The notebook is now full - if ten poems can "fill" a book! - and the project has taken on new dimensions.
These strange pages may well look off-putting, unappealing, incomprehensible -- they need some explanation. Yet ... they should speak for themselves...

Looking at the punctuation (always a troublesome aspect in memorising poems) led to the "stitched sonnets", using a four-sided stitch for each syllable and a vertical line for a punctuation mark -
Stamping in the actual punctuation mark simply didn't work. To add interest to the collection, I'm using a different thread (from my wide-ranging thread collection) for each sonnet. Drayton, on the left, is variegated perle, Owen in the centre is variegated rayon, Millay on the right is also cotton. Currently I'm doing a bit of Milton in linen. They take about 3 hours each to stitch; though I've pulled them out to work on when travelling on bus and tube, it's best to be sat at my table (the one with under-table heating), listening to Radio 4, looking up occasionally to see birds in the tree outside.

Here's the Milton - that's the last line being stitched: "They also ..." What's missing from this "before and after" pic is the important intermediate step - the printout of the poem that I follow carefully -
Next step is to scan in the stitched version and print it out with the (typed) words on the back. These two attempts show that lines and words have to be carefully aligned both vertically and horizontally -
The one on the left was printed on typing paper and waxed; the one on the left, on onionskin and not waxed.  Once more are ready, they can be put together into a concertina book.

Another possibility for the over-writing (and help with memorisation) is line-by-line, using the words in each line. Since each line of a sonnet has 10 syllables [though some don't!], five can go each side of the gutter. I have some larger sheets of graph paper with faint squares, and aligned the type to fit the other side of the pages, aiming to make a series of two-sheet sections, each with the largely-illegible sonnet in the middle and a nicely legible version before and after it -
The size comes to 9.5cm wide and 21 cm tall. The mock-up shows a problem with the grain of the graph paper - the way it curls inward shows that it needs to run the other way -
This means rethinking the height of the page to fit the printed poem the other way round. Either the title or the author's name will have to go ... which could be a problem, or could be an opportunity ...

Questions I ask myself - how do sonnets fit in with my theme of everyday journeys? is this project interesting in any way to anyone else, or am I simply having an indulgent time, enjoying writing, memorising, and stitching (and problem solving)? is this worth continuing with, and if so, where's it going? how did I get started on this in the first place?

The starting point, or what I remember of it, is my concern with failing memory. The erasure of forgetting, and the unfelt absence of what has been forgotten; as well, the horrible realisation that a chunk of memory had disappeared for a while and the unwelcome thought that other chunks may have disappeared without trace. As we get older these memory-experiences are very real, yet even while we are younger, remembering and forgetting are things that happen to us every day - they are signposts on our everyday journeys. How better to exercise the memory-muscles than by learning a poem or two? (Even people with mild Alzheimer's are able to memorise poetry, I've been told ... and in trying to check this, have found there's an Alzheimer's poetry project. To be investigated...) Also I'm intrigued by how the process of memorisation works, on the practical and the psychological level.

The over-writing represents the jumble of possibilities as we try to reconstruct the memorised poem. In repeatedly writing a line, you become the poet, in a sense, as you become more familiar with the words. In trying to write the line from memory - and making a mistake - you become aware of why the poet chose the words that finally make up the poem. The length of the re-writing process, and the slowness of handwriting, give you time to consider these things.

Now I have 10 poems half-memorised. Trying to keep track of them as they accumulated day after day was confusing, but each time I revisit them they become more embedded and feel more like "friends". Stitching the poems without any distraction (talk on the radio) is most helpful - I wonder whether music would be a  distraction or helpful in some way.

Things to do to continue or finish this project:
1. add title page and  Index of First Lines to the book of overwritten sonnets; scan pages in, print out with typed version of poems on the back, make into concertina book
2. stitch enough sonnets to make a concertina book; scan them in, print out on appropriate, make into book (possibly by stitching pages together rather than gluing)
3. revisit the punctuation (somehow)
4. can the stitching be done in a different way - on cloth? with a different stitch?
5. think about why, or how, stitching fits with sonnet (or poetry in general)
6. if any of this is going to be waxed, find the right paper; if it's not going to be waxed, find the right paper
7. reconsider fonts for the (computer) printed version
8. write out the line-by-line version along with the printed version; make into a book (consider paper, cover, etc)
9. think/write about how memory "works" as an everyday journey

Desired outcome: several books that complement each other. (What will they be "about"? How can they be "read"? What would make someone want to look at, figure out, know more about them?)

No comments: