Friday, May 04, 2007

Sonnet Boy Comes Out: Reflections on the End of the Sonnet Project


by Scott Standridge, aka "Sonnet Boy"


(photo by David W. Quinn)


Number 365 fucked me up.

I hadn't really expected it. In the days leading up to that sonnet, that goal I'd been working toward so tenaciously for almost exactly a year, of course I'd begun to feel nostalgic for the daily writing experience in which I was still involved but to which I would shortly say adieu. I wondered happily what it would be like finally to reach that goal; whether I would feel its absence when I stopped, like a hole in the fabric of my day that used to be patched by cloths of various colors--sometimes gray, sometimes black, often brown, but occasionally a surprising splash of color that made the whole swath seem more brilliant.

Yes, I was feeling pretty pleased with myself.

And why not? I was close to completing a project that, though I'd started it more or less on a whim, had grown into a fairly monumental hunk of work. By challenging myself and being unforgiving about the rules I'd set at the beginning (a new sonnet a day, every day, no matter what; no piling up sonnets to give myself a day off; posting online required, no matter how bad the final product), I'd assembled, amalgamated, and otherwise conglomerated what amounted to a poetic journal of my internal life for one entire loop around the sun. By holding myself to it, there near the end I had already written more than twice as many sonnets as Shakespeare--Shakespeare! Allowing the obvious quality vs. quantity argument, I still couldn't help thinking that was something to be proud of.

(Side note: it's a complete coincidence that the last day of the Project fell on April 23, which is generally considered to be both Shakespeare's birthday and date of death. I'd love to be able to say I planned it that way, but I didn't. Sometimes you're just lucky.)

So as The Sonnet Project drew to a close, I was pretty comfortable with the idea that, whatever the quality of individual sonnets, I'd more or less managed to prove my professor's point: I hadn't written 365 bad sonnets in a row. Oh, I'd written bad sonnets, lots of them--they're not hard to find, a few clicks on the "Go to a Random Sonnet" link should be sufficient to prove that...or hell, even a scroll down the front page--but I'd written a lot that were not too bad at that, and even a few that I thought might actually be pretty good. And to be fair, not all of Shakespeare's efforts were masterpieces either.

They can't all be gems. Even when you're the Bard.

(A quick aside about that professor: I've always attributed the offhand comment about writing a sonnet a day as a good method for mastering the form to the University of Arkansas's Skip Hayes, a novelist and short story writer of well-deserved reputation who taught a couple of classes I was lucky enough to take. However, I've come to recognize the attribution as problematic, since a) I'm not sure now I was ever in a writing class he taught, and b) if I was, I'm pretty sure it wasn't for writing poetry. Still, somehow he's become the avatar of the idea for me, and it's still possible he said it. I'm blaming him, anyway, justified or not.)

(Another quick aside, this time about the project's genesis. Readers of the blog who are not in fact people I see regularly in real life--I think there might be one or two of you out there--might well ask the question a few of my RL friends have asked long since: why sonnets? Well, the fact is I've always loved formal poetry, for a couple of reasons. The first is, I like the idea of poetry as song--and while I admire people who do free verse well, I haven't read very many I can dance to. Sound good? Well, it's half a lie--the fact is, I do read and enjoy free verse, all the time--you pretty much have to, if you want to read much poetry these days--and I read plenty that's exuberant and musical--though it still seems to me the difference between a structured blues tune and free-form jazz. I admire creative improvisation, but I also like a good 1-4-5 chord progression; it's comfortable, and it still gives you room to bare your soul. And to paraphrase a great poet, Jack Butler, "you don't have to invent the guitar while you're playing it."

(But the real reason I chose sonnets is b) I can do them. I've tried free verse. I filled notebooks with it in high school, notebooks that still sit bundled in the attic of my parents' house, their duo-tangs rusting, dusty and accusatory as buried bodies. Maybe someday I'll pull them out and look at them, but most of the time I figure it's better some things are forgotten. The fact is, I suck at free verse. I know it. I can prove it. I can't solo over an instrumental break. But--BUT--I can hold down a rhythm. I can strum. I know the chords. And what's more, I like to. No six-string pyrotechnics for me--just comfortable blues.

(I have a lot more to say about form--how the openness of free verse so often leads to over-indulgence and bloat--many poets, bad ones mostly, use the lack of structure as an excuse to explode; and while this can be beautiful, more often it's just messy. I could talk, for instance, about how the restrictions of a metric line force you to be creative and critical, both of words and of the ideas under them, in ways that you wouldn't be otherwise. My favorite sonnets in the Project--and this happened A LOT--were ones where a metrical or rhyme requirement forced me to rethink what I was trying to say, and through that rethinking I discovered something deeper and more truthful that would have remained buried otherwise--something that fit. There's a reason formal poetry has survived so long, in my opinion, and this is it. But this quick aside is too long already, proving my point about the danger of overindulgence when there's no restriction.)

Over the course of the year I felt I'd done just about all I could. I'd written a lot of so-called "light verse," even though I think that term is a little denigrating, as if poetry that makes you smile is somehow less useful than that which makes you cry. (Jack Butler, with whom I've had the honor of corresponding, compared the poet to a singer, and pointed out that singers are entertainers--therefore, why shouldn't a poem entertain? Why is that not a sufficient goal for the poem? Life is funny--or can be, if you let it.) I'd written a great deal of love poetry, and more than my share about sex. I'd written narrative poems, short stories in 14 lines, that when they came together made me feel like a storyteller as well as a poet (and in a variety of genres too: horror, of course--here's my fave of those, the one I think was most successful--as well as noir [another fave], science-fiction, and Southern-fried mainstream/literary [its own genre, with conventions as rigid as Romance]). I'd written painfully revealing personal memoirs, celebrations of nature, a political protest poem, and even attempted to raise cubicle life to the level of poetry. Plus many other experiments--mostly failed--that I couldn't categorize. I even created my own goddamn sonnet form! My point is, I'd covered a lot of ground.

And it hadn't always been easy. I remember one night, on vacation, sitting scrunched against the bathtub in a tiny hotel bathroom at 11:45 p.m., scribbling madly in my notebook to beat the midnight deadline (resulting poem here, for better or worse). One poem I wrote in a car between my best friend's house and the restaurant where we were having dinner--a friend I see maybe once a year, and who I'd rather have been visiting with--but by then I knew that when inspiration struck, I had to grab it (resulting poem here; whether worth it or not). And the hardest, when I was nearly delirious with a bacterial infection that made me so dizzy I could barely sit up, producing by any standards one of the worst sonnets of the year (here--but I wrote one, damn it!). And then the days the poems just wouldn't come--inspiration nowhere to be found, the muses buggered off to Greece, and me slamming words together like mismatched blocks. It was tough, sometimes.

But then, sometimes, everything just clicked and in less than half an hour I'd have something I thought was a little jewel, and that made me feel like a real honest-to-God poet. Like that swatch of fabric that ties the whole day together. There are a few. I'll let you find them, if you're interested enough to dig.

They can't all be gems; but then again, well--some of them can.

So as I approached #365, I did so with a mix of nostalgia and relief. It would be nice to be finished. It would be relaxing, not worrying all day long about where my material was coming from. It'd be cool, for a change, to be able to kick back after dinner and turn on the tube rather than breaking out the notebook. I'd no longer have to run from the kids to the silence of our bedroom, nor shush my wife until I was finished with the day's offering ("I just have the couplet to go, Hon, honest--just, please, just give me a few goddamn minutes here..."). The Project was practically done; I'd done it. I was looking forward to the end.

And then it came: the Last Day. I'd been turning over ideas for the farewell sonnet for a while (not writing it--that'd be against the rules, as I said--but still thinking about options for how I might attack it). I wanted it to be good, but I knew that if I tried to make it Super Special, I'd likely just end up ruining it. I hadn't written 364 sonnets in a row thinking I had to knock it out of the park every day, after all. Stick with the method, I told myself--do your best, get it down, and get it out.

In the end I settled on making it a little song--which those who know the man's work can clearly see owes more than a little to Tom Waits's "Take It With Me" from the monumental Mule Variations album--as a way of saying goodbye to my readers, goodbye to the Project, and goodbye to that part of myself that I'd invested in this curious endeavor.

It came to me rather quickly. I probably wrote and revised the whole thing in about twenty minutes. I logged in to my Blogger account, typed it in, spell-checked it, and hit "post."

And then I started to cry.

Seriously. Out of nowhere, the tears were running down my cheeks. I had posted during my lunch hour at work--yes, I did some of my writing at work; when inspiration struck, I had to get it down--and suddenly I was on the verge of becoming a sobbing mess. I left the building, mustering as much composure as I could, went out to my car and sat in the front seat, openly weeping. I felt kind of silly--even as I sobbed, I couldn't pin down what it was exactly I was crying about. Maybe part of it was the maudlin sentiment in that last quatrain, the farewell that could be for lost friends, or dead relatives, or your own squandered youth. But that wasn't all of it. I mean, I like #365, but even when I wrote it I knew it wasn't that good. And while I am a big sentimental softie, I think I'm immune enough to my own stuff not to blubber every time I think of a lost puppy in the rain.

But I couldn't stop. For maybe ten minutes I surrendered to the tears, the last lines of The Project running through my head. Eventually I regained my composure, straightened myself up, and came back inside to finish my day at work.

In the days since, I'm still a little mystified by my reaction there at the end. All I can figure is that the Project--which I really did start more on a whim than anything, a "let's see if I can do this" dare with myself--had achieved such a place of importance to me that coming to the end was really like saying goodbye. I'd experienced a similar crying jag only once, when on my last day of my junior year abroad in Cambridge, England, literally in the middle of a sentence about something meant to be funny, I was ambushed by sobs and broke down in my college friends' arms. And while the reason then was easy to understand--many of those people, dear friends and companions all, I knew I would never see again--the way it surprised and overwhelmed me was the same. Because I guess in that case I'd been concentrating on not thinking about leaving, because otherwise I'd have been unable to pack and go.

The happy ending is that I did go back to England, two years later. (Even wrote a poem about it.) And while it's true you can't really go back, I did see some of my old friends, which was sad in its way but also wonderful. And if The Sonnet Project has held a similar place for me emotionally--this effort into which I'd put more of myself than I'd realized until that last moment--then maybe I'll come back some day. Maybe even today. Or tomorrow.

Life since the end of the Project has been surprisingly unsurprising. It's rather amazing, really, how easy it was to fall out of the habit of writing every day; how quickly other things rush in to fill that space where the poetry used to be. And disheartening too--but then again, it just proves that if you want to be creative, it doesn't come easy. You have to struggle for it. At least when you're an adult, with kids and a day job and the sundry all-consuming responsibilities everyone somehow manages on a daily basis. When you're a kid, a student, it's easier.

So don't grow up, kids. It sucks.

Funny thing is, I still don't know if I'm a poet. I don't really feel like one; I just feel like a guy who wrote a bunch of poems. In my mind, that's a distinction.

But I am proud of what I've done. I think I've got something here. I think I might be able to do something with parts of it. But whether I do or not seems kind of extraneous right now--the creating of the stuff is one thing, the doing stuff with it is a separate thing. They're not the same process. Obviously--I mean, we don't live in a society where you can write to a waiting audience when you're a sonneteer. It's a solitary thing, something you have to do for yourself. And I did it. I did it. It's done.

But it's not, really. I'm still doing it.

And that's the best thing, really. Still to be doing it.

7 comments:

JP said...

Love the blues-jazz comparison. I have sonnet envy, man. Awesome work.

Sonnet Boy said...

"It was more jazz-blues, really." ;)

Serena Joy said...

Wow, you're outed. Scott. I'm sorry to see the Project come to a close, but I know you have plenty more poetry in you.

ThatGreenyFlower said...

Wow--what a thoughtful end-of-project wrap-up.

There are some projects we're happy to see the end of--painting, for example--I'm always happy when a room is DONE and I can clean up the crap and move the furniture back where it was. Then there are the ones we miss dreadfully once they're gone. I've all-but-finished hooking a rug, and I've LOVED that process. It's been soothing for me, and it's bought me time alone inside my own head, which is very important to my survival. I have two more steps to complete the project, and I just can't make myself do them because I don't really want to be done. I've also read books I haven't wanted to end and listened to songs over and over and over again. These kinds of things fill a space in us that needs filling. (That's my theory and I'm sticking to it.)

All that's my wordy way of saying, of course you're grieving, bonehead.

C said...

I am totally in awe and humbled by The Sonnet Project. Tenacious indeed.
As a former English student I also much prefer structured prose. You've put a lot of soul into this and in your finale. I hope it helps clears the 'dregs' from conclusion.
Look on the bright side; you could always spend another year editing. And maybe another; or publish for real. It need never have an ending.

JP said...

blues-jazz! Ha. Nicely played Tap reference.

Mike Fan said...

OH GOD. Guilty, depressed, and happy...

Guilty:
"a new sonnet a day, every day, no matter what; no piling up sonnets to give myself a day off; posting online required, no matter how bad the final product"
This was my original goal; have abandoned it long ago due to time restrictions and crappy quality. (2+ hours of piano a day) + (school) = (time? what's that?)

Depressed:
Please see above.

Happy:
Happy I'm not alone. I'm so glad you attempted this! Believe it or not, I developed the idea independently. I would say great minds think alike but it's a) a stupid cliché that's wayyy too overused and b) I'm not a great mind.

Great work; I love your sonnets. They're magnificently ordinary :)

Oh...two more things...

First...about this...I've tried free verse. I filled notebooks with it in high school, notebooks that still sit bundled in the attic of my parents' house, their duo-tangs rusting, dusty and accusatory as buried bodies.
It's funny; it's more the opposite for me ... "I've tried metred verse. I filled notebooks and napkins with it in high school (still do), notebooks and napkins that ended in the garbage in favour of a laptop. But I LOVE IT!" haha

Second...I like comparing "classical" music, which I perform and learn according to the (Canadian) Royal Conservatory of Music, with modern music. I often comment on its magnificent complexity and difficulty and academic tendencies versus the stupidly simple V-I progressions of pop (I will not say jazz/blues because it's a)incorrect and b) very untrue and c) you seem to enjoy it so I will not insult). Is it any wonder that there are so few classical musicians versus folk or pop “musicians”. Duh. Modern music is far simpler and easier…sounds like the sonnet versus free verse? However, it’s much more different in poetry; sonnets and free verse are far less removed and equally as valuable. However, metred verse tends to be more enigmatic due to the nature of its historical background and literary quality. A lot of free verse is extremely wonderful as well, but the nature of its freedom lends itself to very shallow exploration due to the fact it’s so accessible to read and write. Alas, there are geniuses everywhere who can manipulate anything to their whims.

But still, Mozart and Bach will always be greater than Avril Lavigne (God, I’m fifteen. I’m so weird.).