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A New way of Reading

From: American Book Review
Volume 34, Number 5, July/August 2013
p. 23 | 10.1353/abr.2013.0099

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Mark Rutkoski’s Words of Love is “an index of the words and their frequency in the complete sonnets of William Shakespeare.” Prefaced with lyrics by John Phillips taken from its namesake song by The Mamas and Papas, the book opens with a message: “Worn out phrases and longing gazes / Won’t get you where you want to go.” What follows are Rutkoski’s lists of alphabetized words set in columns that run the length and width of narrow pages, capturing the sonnets in a mass exodus:

  • oaths

  • oaths’

  • object

  • objects

  • oblation

  • oblivion

  • obsequious

  • o’er

  • o’ercharg’d

  • o’ergreen

  • o’erlook

How far the column line extends depends on the length of each word, showinAlthough scholarship isn’t the purposeg graphically their careful “measure.” An initial response to Words of Love raises the question of whether or not the index is supposed to be read or referred to. If read, do the words have meaning or does their separation from the “sonnet whole” bare enough poetic appeal to be poetry? In an attempt at answering this question I found Adam Jameson’s recent posting on HTMLGIANT, “The difference between a concept & a constraint, part 1: What is a concept?”, extremely helpful for explaining the basics of conceptual writing, using the words of Kenneth Goldsmith:

The best thing about conceptual poetry is that it doesn’t need to be read. You don’t have to read it. As a matter of fact, you can write books, and you don’t even have to read them. My books, for example, are unreadable. All you need to know is the concept behind them.

Words of Love isn’t unreadable (I enjoyed reading it more than once), nor does it have to be read. For me, Rutkoski’s index illuminates how many ways there are to read and extract meaning from words. Motivated by the strangeness of the “do I read or don’t I dilemma,” I started from where it seems the most natural: at the beginning. My attention quickly turned from reading left to right to a loose style of column surfing focused on word frequency, form variations, and the inevitable interpretation of meaning behind their selection. Rutkoski spares no room for explanations, and conceptually, the work yields exactly what it set out to do.Here, “worn out” words will take you places if you want to go. In pieces, language isn’t so plain.

Rutkoski’s idea “to do something to the sonnets” using the Dover Thrift Editions Complete Sonnets Unabridged because he “liked the way the edition looked” resulted in a thin volume published by Les Figues Press as book 4 of 6 in the TRENCHART Surplus Series. In his words, “the index was compiled by typing each word into a Word document and then crossing out that word in pencil in the book.” To offer a glimpse, the word “a” occurs 163 times, “I” 344 times, and “love” 160 times. After reading several columns top to bottom, my response was to notice and then record each word occurring once only (“always apple beautiful bell chaste chance”), ignoring the root words and their repeated form variations. By “C,” I had compiled 143 words for future use. When following the structure vertically and by reading aloud, I saw that the alliterative qualities found in sonnet end words (“woe woeful woes”) echoes a sound poetry reminiscent of the Dada.Grouping lines read horizontally into nonsensical phrases formed unexpected and revealing subtleties in meaning “labouring league leisure let life lilies / lace lean lend let life lily” compared to “Love is not love / Which alters when it alteration finds.” The great surprise in Words of Love is finding meaning without meaning to.

Although scholarship isn’t the purpose of Words of Love, Rutkoski’s approach speaks to a new way of reading and studying the sonnets. Annette Gilbert’s outstanding essay “Exact Research And/As Poetry,” translated from the German by an impressive Vivien Knussi, both introduces and provides a contextualized framework useful for examining the merits of Words of Love as a textual “analysis.” Dismissing the question, “Is it poetry?”, Gilbert remarks on the gamut of related scholarly literature devoted to...

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