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Review - "The English Strain" and "Bad Idea" by Robert Sheppard

Alan Baker

“The English Strain”, by Robert Sheppard, pub Shearsman Books, £12.95, 136pp.
"Bad Idea" by Robert Sheppard, pub. KFS, 102pp.

This is Sheppard's own account of the aims of the project of which these two books are a part:

"...they present the capering of Bo and Go and other clowns across the post-Brexit dogging site that newly-independent 'Bressex' has become, or... the subtler story of the English strain of the sonnet form'.

Among contemporary poets, only Sheppard could have achieved this unlikely synthesis; his poetry is learned, scholarly, satirical, outrageous and innovative as well as - most importantly - political. Much poetry produced now - possibly most - is in the form of the personal lyric, and it is difficult to broaden this out from the personal, and from issues of identity, to the wider political arena. The pandemic is undoubtedly political, and in Britain it coincided with a historic rupture marked by the departure from the European Union and the coming to power of a populist, nationalist government. It's difficult for the personal lyric to address these things in other than limited ways. Robert Sheppard has found a solution by sweeping aside current modes and engaging in a project which is literary, satirical, funny, and which harnesses the riches of the English poetic tradition by making it new and re-imagining canonical works in the light of contemporary politic protest.

As well as being an important poet himself, Sheppard is a great appreciator of others' work and has assisted or launched the careers of many contemporaries, partly through his work at the University of Edge Hill. In this project, he extends this appreciation to poets from the past, clearly enjoying their work, featuring their poems in the books and no doubt introducing some readers to new poets, particularly to under-appreciated women poets like Charlotte Smith and Mary Robinson.

Here is Sheppard's description of the first of these two books, "The English Strain": "the project begins with Petrarch, slowly picking up the Brexit theme in a number of sonnets of my own until Milton, Wyatt, Surrey, Charlotte Smith and Elizabeth Barret Browning provide frames for me to hang my boots on." Sheppard's own sonnets include two in memory of Lee Harwood, and dedications to fellow poets Peter Manson and Peter Hughes, the last of whom (along with Tim Atkins) provided a model for the project with his versions of Petrarch. Sheppard's invented Belgian poet Rene van Valkenborch makes an appearance, as does another alter-ego, Wayne Pratt. So his own work is irreverent and intertextual like his converted sonnets. There is also a poem entitled "Semantic Poetry Translation" to the memory of the Polish writer and inventor of "semantic poetry" Stephan Themerson which raises the whole issue of whether what Sheppard is doing with his re-envisioning of classic English sonnets is a form of translation, which would require a whole essay to explore...

The fifth section of "The English Strain" focusses on Sir Thomas Wyatt, who, as a courtier and amabassador in his own day, is re-purposed as a Brexit negotiator. The sonnet based on Wyatt's "Caesar, when that traytor of Egypt" begins:

      Theresa, when grasped by the tiny hand of the tyrant,
      presented on a plate the guts of the NHS, and smiled,
      as his long red tie tickled his glans, though she sweated
      beneath a grand's worth of leather trousers, unaroused. 

The tiny hand, of course, belongs to Donald Trump. The depths to which British politicians were ready to stoop to deliver their Brexit can really only be encompassed by this sort of invective and ridicule, and it's hard to imagine another contemporary poet who could wield it so effectively.

The second book in the project (a third is forthcoming, engaging with sonneteers of the Romantic era) is called "Bad Idea"; a reference to Brexit as well as to Michael Drayton's 1619 sonnet sequence "Idea", which the book is solely focussed on. Sonnet XIX gives an idea of Sheppard's technique. Here is the opening of Drayton's original:

      YOU cannot love, my pretty heart, and why ?
      There was a time you told me that you would ;
      But now again you will the same deny,
      If it might please you, would to God you could!
      What, will you hate ?

And here's how Sheppard converts this conventional love-sonnet:

      You cannot simply say leave. No deal. Know why?
      There was a time once for give and take;
      but now the research group with no research papers,
      the bile of those who hop from hot to cold, stays.
      Will you remain then? 

This respects the integrity of the original while converting it hilariously and turning it into political satire. It’s interesting to compare the originals of all the transposed sonnets with Sheppard’s versions; the latter are purposed very differently, of course, but they somehow make this reader, at least, appreciate the beauty and skill of the originals.

Many of our most important poets were, in one way or another, political radicals; Shelley, Clare (in his opposition to Enclosure), Milton, the young Wordsworth and Coleridge, and of course female poets who were radical simply by being poets. So it's good to see the English poetic tradition reclaimed and re-envisioned in the light of this, as if Sheppard were enlisting them in a common cause. Sheppard's work in these volumes is closely tied to the poets he is parodying, paying homage to and updating, and this sends the reader back to read the originals in a new light.


Copyright © Alan Baker, 2021

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