Friday, March 28, 2008

What Flip Side?

As a matter of habit, I posted this poem to one of the discussion boards on Slate magazine’s forum The Fray. I thought it was a decent attempt at the loose-fitting sonnet form, as practiced by Ted Berrigan and featured in Gerald Stern’s engagingly gangly book American Sonnets. The distinction between these efforts and the Elizabethan sonnets one parses in college courses is that the “loose-fitting” form (my phrase) is an attempt to bring the particularly American instinct to confess and promote one’s idealized personality in free verse, ala Whitman and Charles Olson , with the limits a more formal structure. The results satisfy nearly no one but those who appreciate perversions of form, with the hope something new emerges. Sometimes something does. I was hoping for comments on this slight effort:

Sonnet 16

A sign of the cross and a sign on the door or just sign
yourself out if it’s a weekend pass you’re dealing with,

sign yourself up for a moment in the sun when you
have your tax refund check in hand, give us some cash for

the diversions that approach the distraction level
of morons who get their exercise reading the labels

on records as they go ‘round and ‘round on the
phonograph, signs of life in a living room, your parents

house and sofa, I am hiding behind a chair before the light
switch is flipped and a panic like business plans that come

undone where you signed a dotted line that ends up
being a perforations around your wrists, like you see

on butcher’s charts, you know, under the sign that reads

Interesting, and as often happens on the forums, the first response to the poem brought something else in the poem to think about other than how well it works as an amateurs attempt at more structured verse. A poster with the moniker Th Paine asked

How many people will understand what you mean when you refer to record labels spinning around on a phonograph?

Good question. Who would have thought that LP's would be something that reveals your generation? I remember years ago talking to a young man , twenty years younger than I at least, about various matters. When it came time to say goodbye, I said "I'll see you on the flip side". He looked puzzled as we shook hands as asked me what I meant by "flip side". In an instant I realized that he was too young to remember long playing albums, vinyl, and briefly explained that before CDs records had two sides, side A and side B, and that the phrase meant the other side of the record. It was no big deal , of course, but it was informative that I was now old enough that some of the cultural references I'd been using for decades were now potentially incomprehensible to younger adults. The larger irony is that my poems, whatever I think of them, most likely strike adults, young or less young, as incomprehensible in turn, and that it ought not surprise me that someone who read the poem above responds to a detail they recognize and have a good question about. Some years ago I was enamored of "reader response theory", promoted by Stanley Fish, which had as one of it's implicit ideas was that a text wasn't particularly "finished" until a reader had read it and interpreted it with the resources and associations their unique community would afford them. There is a finer, more subtle theory than I've let on, but let us say that the fancy that someone's response to a poem is , no matter what it is, is as interesting (and important) as the poem itself is under a momentary reconsideration.

1 comment:

  1. My comment on the spinning record was triggered by a recent encounter of my own. An immigrant employee who is learning English asked for help understanding some of her assigned reading. The reference was to a record player, and at first I assumed it was the English words she did not understand, but I realized she had never encountered, never even heard of a record player. Once I explained that it was something like a CD player, she understood.

    The thing is, she was what I would describe as middle aged, or at least approaching that state. To me, it seems that CDs are a recent introduction, and the realization that adults with children of their own do not recall a time when they were not the norm made me feel really, really old.

    (I did not even try explain to her that I remember when most of our records were 78s!)


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