top of page
  • Writer's pictureRyan Nowlin

Sonnet and Sonnet 8 1/2

Sonnet and Sonnet 8 1/2

                                 Published on the Chicago Review Online Edition

         I owe the thematic material at the outset of this sonnet to the late critic Joan Acocella’s well known article "Blocked" in which she references Paul Valéry’s famous hiatus from poetry among other poets and writers who have suffered from “writer’s block” at some point in their writing lives including S.T. Coleridge who wrote in a diary at some point, “So completely has a whole year passed with scarcely the fruits of a month—O Sorrow and Shame…I have done nothing.”  To this list one might add Baudelaire’s ill fated stay in Brussels, Belgium where he hoped to reestablish his career, but failed to do so before his untimely death.   Sometimes at 5 a.m. I can hear James Joyce chuckling to himself as he continued to work on Finnegan’s Wake, a novel that took him 17 years to write, and in which at times he also developed periods of writer’s block.   

The final lines of this sonnet were derived from a procedure produced in grad school at Temple University in which certain stanzas were generated by using a procedure invented by Jackson MacLow known as the diastic.   What it requires is that I choose a “key phrase”.  For the purpose of this procedure I chose the title of an early poem from my first year of grad school called “Chat and Chew”, which was the name of a restaurant chain in Manhattan in the early 2000s.   The first word of my experiment will be the first word in the text where the first letter is “c”.  The second word will be the next word in your text where the second letter is “h”.  The third word will be the next word in text where the third letter is “a”, etc.   The diastic than falls into endless loop of the last two stanzas.  The nonsensical nature of it makes me listen to it more carefully.  

             I hear “endangered candles share queer.”  I can imagine that snow endangers (lit) candles, but somehow in the world of this poem, fire and water have found a way to share the space.  I’m also amused by Chagall and Cher sharing the same stanza.  The silly repetition of chatting and chewing communicates a lot-isn’t chatting and chewing how we spend our days in a way?  I’m reminded of Eliot’s “in the room the women come and go/talking of Michelangelo. “   Finally there is the Volta or turn in line 10 upon which hinges the world of literary and self referentiality as they bleed together in a subconscious state before sleep and turning off the lights.   


    — There is an interesting backstory to how I came to write Sonnet 81/2, the companion piece to the first sonnet.  Several years ago a fellow writer and friend named Andrew and I attended a writer’s anonymous group in central New Jersey.   After the meeting we would usually have dinner together and discuss our projects and aims in life.  

During one such dinner conversation, Andrew mentioned to me that he had had an idea called sonnet 81/2, but had not yet been able to write it.  

       This idea for sonnet 8 1/2 took hold in my imagination and several years later (and after many attempts) I came to write the sonnet 8 1/2 that was published by the Chicago Review On line Edition in the fall of 2022.     In writing sonnet 8 1/2 I felt like I was  “channeling” a historical person named Marcello Mastroianni, a famous and debonaire Italian actor of Fellini’s new Italian Cinema much like the way Yeats or Madame Blavatsky had “channeled” their spiritual automatic writing.     I am using “channeling” in scare quotes.   What I really mean is that I was performing a complex exegesis of a historical film called 8 1/2 and paying homage to Shakespeare’s sonnets.   The success of this experiment resulted in a fascinating interplay between between mission vs. omission, and a humorous portrayal of an actor playing a director at odds with his environment and social set.   These two sonnets  make up a patchwork of temporality even though there are gaps in the seams of the historical record.   

            A few summers ago my friend Lorraine Lupo asked if I enjoyed the poetry of Allen Ginsberg after sending me a postcard of a famous picture of the poet.   I think I went through a few periods where I read him quite extensively.   I became interested in a concept important to his work which he called the “Eyeball Kick” (eg.  Hydrogen jukebox”) similar to what Pound maintained about images as “planes in relation” or what Alfred North Whitehead would term “presentational immediacy” in his much celebrated philosophical work Process and Reality.   Over the past couple of summers I’ve been studying up on the sonnet form esp. Edwin Denby’s sonnet sequences, Clark Coolidge’s sonnets as well as those by Bernadette Mayer et al.    I remember a lunch I had with my mom nearby the Prado in Madrid—a delicious tapas of fried egg plants drizzled with honey dipped in humus.  Now I thought I sort of finally got the opening lines to John Ashbery’s Leaving the Atocha Station:

    “ The arctic honey blabbed over the report causing 

darkness/and  pulling us out of there experience it/he

meanwhile…And the fried bats they sell there/dropping from 


              The poem Leaving the Atocha Station, which as per Richard Howard reaches a “pitch of distraction”, was written after Ashbery’s first trip to Spain with Frank O”Hara.  Of “Leaving the Atocha Station” Ashbery states in an interview published in the Michigan Quarterly, “my poems aren’t usually about my experiences because I don’t find my experiences very interesting as a rule.  When they are about them, they are so in a very oblique and marginal way… but it strikes me that the dislocated incoherent fragments of images which make up the movement  of the poem are probably like the experiences you get from a train pulling out of a station of no particular importance….”

                  Interesting to think about the idea that a search for a core is itself a core meaning.     A feeling that everything is slipping away or being reimagined or what the reclusive and eccentric Joyce scholar Joyce Jon Kidd termed “an infinite loop of revision”. 


3 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Notes from an Open Channel

Notes from an Open Channel Sonnet and Sonnet 8 1/2 — I owe the thematic material at the outset of this sonnet to Joan Accella’s well known article "Blocked" in which she references Paul Valéry’s famou

Some Notes on Versification

Some Notes on Versification ---Shakespeare’s sonnet 18 is deservedly the most famous of all the sonnets, sometimes so much so that one takes it for granted and/or one fails to see it afresh; to this e

The Cathedral

The Cathedral 1 In Central America’s leafy parenthesis some sliver of light appears from that magnificent jungle edifice, the famous submerged cathedral These are the gauchos roaming the pampas and th


bottom of page