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Sonnet 56, Paul Hoover. (Les Figues Press) $15

Hoover’s exploration of Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 56” (“Sweet love, renew thy force, be it not said/Thy edge should blunter be than appetite,…”) inhabits the experimental space between Peter Davis’ Hitler’s Mustache and Christian Bök’s Eunioa. Though I originally approached it with some skepticism, I quickly came to appreciate its Oulipian exploration of form. In Ian Monk’s brief introduction he frames the work well:

[Hoover’s poems] range from standards of the Western repertoire, such as the villanelle or the limerick, to more exotic examples such as the Arab qasida or the Japanese haibun, while also taking in such recent inventions as the web-inspired flarf. In this group, I would also include such versions as “Free Verse,” written in unrhymed couplets which are rather reminiscent of much of what now passes for “standard” lyric poetry. What Hoover succeeds in doing by adopting this approach is to present us with another important insight: there is no poetry without form, and a failure to think this point through simply leads poets to adopt the prevailing forms used in their place and time while mistaking them for something natural and inevitable.

Indeed Hoover’s collection does just that. It manages to question the naturalness and inevitability of free verse in the most elegant mode of criticism, art itself. Like Bök, the work demonstrates an Oulipian rigor unusual in contemporary poetry. Like Davis, the work is simultaneously humorous, self-conscious in the best sense. The collection includes classic Oulipo exercises, translated into English, like Noun +7, in which every noun is replaced with the seventh noun following it in a chosen dictionary, as well as more contemporary and playful forms, like Class Description (“Formalist readings are not allowed. All papers and class discussions must relate to the historic collapse of dominant systems of sense making in the post-Soviet period.”) and the Workshop, set at Skyline Community College.

Instructor: Anyone else? Come on, don’t be shy. Nobody? OK, let’s think it through. We all know that love can lose its force and begin to grow dull. The edge of the knife grows dull through use and has to be sharpened again. Right? So love is like a knife in constant need of sharpening.

Randy: Love’s not a knife. That’s stupid.

Instructor: Have you ever been in love?

Randy: Don’t think so. But I always keep it sharp, if you know what I mean.

Instructor: That’s enough, Randy. To class: And when you’re hungry, you can become irritable and sharp with others. So it’s not as inconsistent as it appears.

Sonnet 56 is a great addition to the Les Figues Press TrenchArt series, available by subscription only. The 2009/2010 series, entitled Maneuvers, “explores the possibilities of re-ordered time and content, framed with the understanding that one cannot separate content from time, and that to shift the form or the order is to shift the subjectivities of the text.” Hoover’s collection of 56 poems does just that, while raising other important questions for contemporary English-language poetry. It’s intelligent, well-humored, and refreshingly unnatural. In the end of his poem “Preface,” which explains the genesis of the project, Hoover writes that “Nature has forms, but culture is replete with them.” Contemporary poetry culture is a perfect example, with form less inevitable than we tend to think, and Hoover’s exploration of the theme is exciting and worthwhile.

DS

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