Residual sonnets by Mark Young / ma press [Finland] / 2019 / 100 pages / $5.00
Adjective: remaining after the greater part has gone
“’Bricolage,’ more than anything else, is the term I would use to best describe my poetry.” Mark Young
Mark Young is an internationally-recognized writer—creator of vispo and text-based poetry. He also is editor of the journal, Otoliths, publishing experimental literature and innovative visual art. A New Zealander living in Australia, Young is author of scores of Business Relationships, and his former blog, devoted to the Surrealist painter, René Magritte, was widely read. His new book, Residual sonnets, has been described as “experimental, stochastic poetry” in which Young uses a search engine in an iterative process for sculpting the sonnets—words chosen, primarily, from remaining pages left over from Google searches upon which earlier texts were composed. On page 100 of the present volume, the poet describes his method in greater detail; however, it is important to understand that Young’s method entails procedures based, both, upon chance, as well asintentionality. Furthermore, one notes that the poet’s approach depends upon “found” material afforded by the results of his online searches. Residual sonnets is a hybrid prose experiment whose sonnets comprise collages of found elements.
Sometimes, different art forms converge—or, seem to. At least that is what I perceived when reading this new book of semi-artificially-generated sonnets that share several features in common with the, primarily literary, Parisian faction of Dadaism [~1918-1922] and its successor, Surrealism. In particular, these traits comprise collage, renunciation of tradition, reliance upon subconscious processes, indeterminacy, ahistorical components, and liberation from artistic models. The sonnet, “the bondage of the soil” (p 55), exemplifies these features, thus:
“The most unheard of thing is that
her new band will be fronted by
the one & only alchemist linked
to the domains of synonymy,
polysemy, & cross-linguistic
semantics. Least-squares esti-
mation makes a big difference
when those Latin dances involved
in more mathematical areas like
image processing & weapon traject-
ory calculations are all dressed up
& chasing the circus trucks as if
they had some sort of deep meta-
physical connection with reality.”
In addition to his blog, several of Young’s prior works belie his interest in Surrealism, and he is aware that his writings reflect Dadaist characteristics as well. I asked the author how he became interested in these movements, and, via e-mail, he informed me that he “came across Giorgio de Chirico & Magritte’s paintings almost sixty years ago—de Chirico first, I think. Plus, the movies of [Luis] Buñuel which I first saw even earlier.” Young went on to say that he was first exposed to Surrealist journals while in high school at an “incredible secondhand bookshop in Wellington, New Zealand, across the road from the stop where I caught a bus.” There, he came across “collections of poetry by Paul Eluard & [Guillaume] Apollinaire & [Tristan] Tzara, & the novels Nadja by [André] Breton & Hebdomeros by de Chirico, none yet available in English. I spent long nights translating them, loving what I found, & trying to write poetry in French at about the same time I started writing it in English. I published translations of Eluard & Robert Desnos & Apollinaire in those early years.”
Curious about what features of Dadaism he thought were reflected in his work, Young stated that, “Most histories of Dada use terms like ‘anti-bourgeois,’ ‘irrational writing,’ ‘nonsensical,’ ‘anti-war.’ All those are characteristics that appear in my work.” While the Parisian Dadaist faction described itself as “anti-art,” Young noted that his “intent is not to be anti-art—these days I feel that the term ‘art’ is all-encompassing so the only way to be ‘anti-art’ would be not to participate at any level. That said, there is a mainstream that has been largely taken over by academia, & I have no time for that. Am happy to exist outside, away from what Ron Silliman used to refer to as the ‘school of quietude.’” Though Young disavows the academic “mainstream,” it is difficult for a writer to avoid Modernist conventions altogether. The poems in Residual sonnets display Formalist devices such as traditional form; emphasis of form over content; imagery (“this was a photo / originally taken by / my mom, who / walked blindfolded / and bare-foot over red- / hot plowshares….”); and what the poetry critic, Helen Vendler calls “interpretive power” (“Everything fuses. Or, maybe, it’s just / that everyone lined up for a turn at / the switch merges into the one person.”).
Furthermore, in addition to the sonnet form maintaining integrity throughout the volume, certain individual poems are integrated by connections between title and its sonnet’s text (e.g., “The politics of dogs” on page 98), though, like the Dadaists’ creations, Young’s compositions usually display a refusal of unity and coherence with no “center,” each element, as well as each sonnet, capable of standing on its own. Nonetheless, like the Dadaist poet and visual artist, Hans Arp, member of the Parisian faction, Young is a collagist, a topic that has been treated extensively by the poetry critic and academic, Marjorie Perloff, who points out that collage is a Modernist invention, “each element in the collage [having] a kind of double function: it refers to an external reality even as its compositional thrust is to undercut the very referentiality it seems to assert.” In collagist art, then, words and/or images are juxtaposed, forming a “concrete” whole “arranged according to the laws of chance” [Arp]. Young’s sonnet, “Accompaniment, as fancy took her,” exemplifies what Perloff means: “Boston planned its Perfect / Season victory parade down- / stream of an active beaver / dam….”
I am, admittedly, sympathetic with Formalism, secondarily with experimental literature. When reading Residual sonnets, I sometimes longed for devices that would turn a collection of seemingly opportunistically placed titles, phrases, and words into carefully-crafted creative arcs with features employed to unify the book from first sonnet to last. But, this is not Young’s or a Dadaist’s or a Surrealist’s intent. My vision would yield less stochasticity, indeed, less creativity, less potential to challenge the status quo and to break down barriers between Psychology, Nature, and Art. In this book, and others, Young realizes Viktor Shklovsky’s conception of experimental poetry as a technique for “making strange.” This characteristic, as well as others mentioned above, demonstrate how all avant garde Art shares commonalities. Any reader knowledgeable or curious about experimental literature should read these sonnets.
About Clara B. Jones
Clara B. Jones is a knowledge worker practicing in Silver Spring, MD, USA. Her reviews and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Entropy, The Fanzine, PANK, The Review Review, and elsewhere. Author of five chapbooks and one full-length poetry collection, Clara also conducts research on experimental literature, radical publishing, as well as, art and technology.