Every now and then I invite other poets to guest blog on Open Notebooks. I bumped into Matt at a reading I did last week and he told me about working on this sonnet. It was perfect timing and a perfect fit for Open Notebooks as the process IS very much the poem. I love the way it looks and I love the magical, almost divinatory wonder of discovering text within a text.
A couple of days ago, my friend Suki Kalsi, who is an artist living in York, visited my new flat in Camberwell. While walking along Bellenden Road we popped into the superb Review bookshop, host of the Peckham literary festival. This is not the time to mention the book of Egon Schiele’s paintings of Cesky Krumlov, or the fact I picked up a copy of 10 featuring our own Karen M-W, rather that Suki was amazed to find a copy of Tom Phillips’s A Humument, which she had studied during her fine art degree in Exeter. Not only that, she was amazed to find he was a resident of Peckham! (I later took to her Peckham Rye, where Blake saw the angels.)
An example from A Humument
Philips is an artist, and A Humument is his project which has been running for 40-odd years. Having read William Burroughs’s comments on cut-up techniques, which inspired David Bowie among others, in 1965 he purchased a forgotten Victorian novel, A Human Document, by W.H. Mallock, and began ‘treating’ it, blocking out parts of the text, and creating links between different words. He then painted the page too.
In its treated form, A Humument tells the often amorous tale of ‘Toge’ (who can only appear when the novel uses either the word ‘together’ or ‘altogether.’) The sheer amount of care taken to transform each page, and the beauty of the language, which often makes oblique sense as fragments of poetry, makes it one of those meisterwerks whose founding ideas are so simple, yet whose execution is meticulous.
Philips only ever worked on his project at night, unsure whether it was a folly. However, it has since become a cult, especially in France (where people like la vie amoureuse, perhaps).
I’ve recently started a course with Roddy Lumsden at the Poetry School on Form&Music as a spur to my own writing in form. This has worked, in so far as I have written a few conventional sonnets. However, for this week (week 4), we’ve each been asked to bring in an ‘unconventional’ sonnet of their own. Fresh with my exposure to A Humument I took an oblique conventional sonnet of my own about losing the sight in one eye, and began blocking out words to find patterns in the text. This is what I came up with:
It was a collection of monosyllables with vowel sounds: ‘o’, ‘eep,’ ‘ou’ (x4), ‘igh’ (x3) and ‘I’ (x3), and some monosyllabic ‘l’ sounds: ‘le’, ‘li,’ ‘la,’ ‘il,’ ‘el,’ ‘ol’ (which reminded me of ‘La Ilah Ila Allah’ – ‘there is no God but Allah’). I then thought the existing phrase ‘Lost my bearings’ fitted with this text well.
However, although I liked the sounds when I read them aloud, I thought it was doing too much. So I split it into two pieces:
I liked the latter better. This would do for my unconventional sonnet, I thought. However, having opened up the text, as it were, I realised there was a lot more going on (and it was fun!). The next close look revealed this:
I liked how the blocked out words resembled clouds out of which things were revealed. The ‘wo’ and ‘aw’ sounds seem to register pain at being ‘lost’ in the previous piece. While doing this I noticed the five ‘we’s in the text, which I would use later, and also that three of the capitals spelt the word ‘SON’:
There was a pun of sorts, with the SON revealing itself from behind clouds. I began hunting for other members of the family. I found:
I thought that the ‘we’ piece would fit well coming either before or after this list of family members:
It was at about this point that I realised my unconventional sonnet would comprise 14 of these treatments of the original poem. The sonnet perhaps lends itself to pictorial play, as readers of Don Patterson’s introduction to 101 Sonnets, with its comparison to the golden ratio, will be familiar. My sonnet also has a clear visual break into two halves, hinging on the word ‘Now.’ Given the fact that the subject of the poem is eyes, it is not surprising that I found themes of doubling and darkness in my ‘treatments’.
My next page was a contrast of adjectives and nouns –
The next two worked well together, as many facing pieces in A Humument do.
This latter was in full Tom Philips mode, and I was amazed to find it. How was I going to do six more?
For number nine, I blocked out the second half of the poem (fitting the title ‘One Pane’) imagining a second counterpart poem. However, it didn’t need one in the end, as it seemed to suggest its counterpart already.
Also, I didn’t want it to be possible to read the original poem in its entirety so easily.
The next three took the most trouble – I chopped the poem into words (NOTE always increase the font size before doing something like this, or you will go mad!) and followed the Burroughs method of rearranging the words into new forms. This made three ‘new’ poems.
First 'new' poem
Second 'new' poem
Third 'new' poem
I wanted to use every word of the original poem, so the title ‘One’ has a few addenda, and four words/pieces of paper were reversed and used as speech marks in the final piece.
That was enough for the evening, so I slept, thinking I’d broken the back of it.
The next two were done on the bus, and have a kind of narrative. The first is about an imagined Transylvanian.
Ideally, I would capitalise the beginning of the (three) sentences, but didn’t know how. I thought about getting out the caran d’ache and dividing the poem into three by different background colours, but somehow wanted to stay monochrome.
The last treatment (so far) repeats the trick of ‘SON’ and finds the word ‘OWL’ among the capitals. By scavenging for ‘owl’ words I found bough, thighs, down, squint, orbit, field, diving, hoot and wing. In Tom Phillips overdrive, one sentence gave me ‘wan rider.’
I was interested that two such nocturnal poems were in a poem that was initially about sight. It also followed that an owl can see in the dark, hence the poet/poem has somehow regained ‘its bearings’ since the first poem.
So the next step is to pretty them up, present them more clearly, add colour to the poems to show SON and OWL are titles, and then reproduce them for Monday’s group.
I have never previously engaged with poetry concrete before, but I like the space it gives each word, especially how there is a mix of the handwritten and typed in the resultant version (I’ve always preferred the look of my poems when handwritten). There is also the fun of the enterprise (the ‘ludic’ spirit which informs Philips’s work) – getting down on your hands and knees, rearranging words into phrases, scribbling things out. I look forward to seeing what my classmates bring, and learning whether they think what I’ve come up with is a sonnet at all. In some ways I can’t believe how much I found in the writing. On the other hand, I am aware that Philips has spent 46 years developing his initial idea, so am careful how deeply I tread.
All the pages of A Humument are available at Tom’s own site: http://humument.com/