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…and Univocalic Sonnets September 22, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Creative Writing, Just for Fun, Philosophy, Poetry, Through the Looking Glass.
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(Part 2…for Part 1 and lipograms click here!)

In his Ton Beau de Marot, Hofstadter also mentions a book of univocalic sonnets by the Italian writer Giuseppe Varaldo. Each sonnet uses only one vowel, while summarizing a famous work of literature (e.g. Dante’s Inferno or The Arabian Nights) in 14 lines. Though Hofstadter considers these poems “untranslatable” (i.e. one can’t retain both their content and the vowel constraint in translation) writing another univocalic sonnet on the same theme, like Dante’s Inferno, might (he can “dimly imagine”) be possible. A few years later I ran across Brian Raiter’s webpage in which he took up Hofstadter’s challenge, and produced an excellent (and very humorous) sonnet on Dante’s Inferno, containing only the vowel “i”. *

Well, as a longtime Dante AND linguistics fanatic, how could I refuse this challenge? I began writing a univocalic sonnet on the Inferno (I won’t tell you which vowel it uses, as I still hope to complete it soon). But in the process, I found myself thinking of ideas for a Purgatorio sonnet as well…and then a Paradiso one. So I worked on all three. The Purgatorio one, containing only “e”, was the first to be completed – probably as this is my favorite book of the three 🙂 Enjoy! **

He left Hell’s nether clefts, emerged – he’s freed!
Then Seeker trembles, heeds the next set test:
Steep steps meet seven levels, then the crest;
He reels, yet Helper sees; enters with speed.

Ledges where kneel men’s essences (sex, greed,
Pelf, spleen, these ever tempted; erred, yet ‘fessed)
“Be better! Perfect!” Keen, relentless zest –
Redeemed yet flesh, hence blessed end decreed.

Steeds, elders, wheels he sees creed’s secrets tell,
Scents Eden’s breeze; bereft, deserted, weeps.
Green eyes’ stern strength he meets; repents deeds, meek;
She – tender, sweet – then cedes; refreshed, he sleeps.
Wet Lethe’s creek he enters, gentle spell;
Then, reverent, ten spheres’ endless depths they seek. ***

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

* Also enjoyable are his “Short Words to Explain Relativity” and “Notes on Writing a Monovocalic Sonnet“, which gave me some ideas and inspiration. I do wish to state, however – though my respect for Brian’s creation is immense – I did not resort to Perl script-generated lists, though I admit to running some rhyming dictionary searches. 🙂

** One of the thorny parts of writing a univocalic sonnet is: does “y” count as a vowel, or a consonant? The rule tends to be to leave it out when it has a distinct vowel sound (e.g. “party”, “gypsy”) but include it when it acts as a consonant (“yes, yellow”). But what about words, such as “eyes” and “they”, when it’s entirely silent? In the end I decided to include those two – mainly because they were an intrinsic part of my two favorite images in the poem and I couldn’t bear to remove them. Take that, purists :D)

*** For the Dante keeners: Yes, I fudged a little re “ten spheres” and counted the Empyrean 😀



1. Ella Minnow Pea (Or, the Advantages of Missing a Bus) « The Contrapuntal Platypus - October 4, 2010

[…] doing research for my posts two weeks ago on lipograms and univocalic writing, I ran across a reference to a novel (“progressively lipogrammatic epistolary fable”) […]

2. Just for Fun: Lipograms… « The Contrapuntal Platypus - October 16, 2010

[…] is Part 1…don’t miss Part 2 containing a univocalic sonnet! […]

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