The English Strain and Bad Idea by Robert Sheppard: A Review

The English Strain, Robert Sheppard, Shearsman. 2021, ISBN: 9781848617469, £12.95

Bad Idea, Robert Sheppard, Knives Forks and Spoons Press, 2021, ISBN: 9781912211746, £11.00

‘What is badly needed at the present moment is some small Malherbe of free verse to sit on the sonnet and put it out of action for two hundred years at least. Perhaps Mr Pound…?’

So wrote Samuel Beckett in 1934, but sadly Mr. Pound declined and the sonnet continues, if not exactly to flourish, at least to be written and has, in recent years, undergone something of a reinvention at the hands of what we might loosely call ‘linguistically innovative’ poets, including Robert Sheppard.

The two Sheppard books under review here form part of a trilogy of volumes in which he works through the ‘English strain’ of the sonnet and the influence of Petrarch on its development. Given that the books were both written in and about the emerging Brexit shambles, a bad idea if ever you saw one, the emphasis on Petrarch reads, to me at least, as implicit comment on the long-standing interpenetration of British and European culture, with the great flowering of the Elizabethan age stemming from Wyatt and Surrey’s ‘discovery’ of the Italian poet’s work. In fact, much of the first volume consists of versioning the versioners’ versions, with Sheppard writing through translations from Petrarch by Wyatt, Surrey and Charlotte Smith, alongside some radical reworkings of the Italian’s Sonnet 3, ‘Era il gorno ch’al sol si scoloraro’ and of original sonnets by Surrey, Smith and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. There are also a number of original Sheppard sonnets

The versions, and ‘original’ sonnets here are peopled with BoJo, May and their assorted advisors and ministers in a kind of carnival parody of the Tudor courts in which many of the originals were written, and these distortions work both ways, with, for example, Wyatt’s career as a diplomat across Europe being repurposed as an involvement in Brexit negotiations.

I’m taking the rap (again) between these sheets (alone)

or undercover in Brussels. My mind presents present promise

against the presence of the past, which is expiring faster than

my EU passport. (When I speak like that I wish I were dead.)

Meanwhile, Smith’s connection with Sussex leads to meditations, not quite the right word, on connections with France, and Europe, across the sea:

Are they grey EU gunboats firing on our freighters,

our entrepreneurs smuggling flammable cladding,

the dead and the dying dumped in the English Channel

as France dowses England’s chalk redoubt in cheep cheese? No.

With echoes of Elizabethan sea piracy folding into the contemporary news. Similarly, in the ‘Brazilian Sonnets’ versioning from Browning, the forfeiture of the family estate in Jamacia in the wake of abolition folds into the Brexit narrative of international debt, while the poet herself stands as a physical reforging of the link to Petrarch and direct English entanglement in a cultural Europe.

If the first volume jumps from the Tudor roots of the English sonnet strain to its revival in the Romantic and Victorian eras, Bad Idea bridges that gap by bringing us back to the form’s Renaissance pinnacle via Michael Drayton’s ‘Idea’ and ‘Idea’s Mirror’ sequences. Sheppard’s title folds Drayton’s into the Brexit narrative immediately (a definite bad idea), but an epigraph quote from Gregory Bateson that begins ‘There is an ecology of bad ideas, just as there is an ecology of weeds, and its characteristic of the system that basic error propagates itself’ opens out into a much wider field of failed thinking that underpins the rise of the so called ‘Alt Right’. Incidentally, the opening sonnet of Drayton’s sequence, an unnumbered address to the reader, is the source of Sheppard’s overarching title:

My Muse is rightly of the English strain,

That cannot long one fashion entertain.

As may befit writing that delineates a world that revolves around the twin poles of Boris and Donald, the poems here frequently deploy the language of hard sex, of porn even, as part of its rhetorical armoury, and this finds echo in an accusation of lewd behaviour made against Drayton in the London Consistory Court in 1627, which is used as epigraph to Sonnet XXI in the ‘Bad Idea’ sequence, which opens:

The shitless scumbag Member, Rut, entreated his ‘tart’

To a filing-cabinet knee-trembler and implored me

To draft his chat-up (as a sonnet)!

The obvious level on which this works is the simple notion that Brexit was a way of the Tory elite to fuck the rest of the country for their own benefit, but I also read it as a kind of study of the commodification and instrumentalization of sex; to adapt a slogan of Sheppard’s (and my) youth), the interpersonal is political.

There is some inevitable tension between Sheppard the ‘avant-garde’ linguistically innovative poet and Sheppard the apparently insatiable sonneteer, a tension that he addresses head on in Sonnet XLII of the ‘Idea’ sequence:

Some like my multiform methods,

and commend my social poetics.

Some say I’m a funny old translator,

‘expanded’ like a supersized codpiece.

Some that I excel in explicit vitality.

But others call this strange ventriloquism

‘unsuccessful and overheated, loud and repetitive.’

Ignore my grudge over the ‘esquire’ thing. Now

Duffy’s off, poets leave the laureateship alone.

Am I not best remaining bard for Brexit’s long betrayal,

the ‘better spirit’ that even Shakespeare envied,

before I drank him to death with fat Ben?

             I’ll knock one out for the local elections. Free.

             Flick through the only Companion I need: you

Reading this sends the diligent reader back to these lines from one of the ‘original’ sonnets near the beginning of The English Strain, in a poem addressed to the memory of Lee Harwood:

I searched everywhere for your letter

that I know says something like You’ve

got a special language for poetry,

Robert, and I haven’t. I didn’t find it

but I’m trying to lose that language now

For me, this attempt to lose his ‘special language’ through the ‘strange ventriloquism’ of versioning is perhaps the most interesting part of these two books. When the politics pales, as politics always will in the end, we are left with some wonderful patterns of sound. Take, for example, the first four lines of the Drayton version just quoted:

Some say I’m a funny old translator,

‘expanded’ like a supersized codpiece.

Some that I excel in explicit vitality.

But others call this strange ventriloquism

Other readers may place the stresses differently, in an attempt to force the lines to match the rhythm of an iambic metronome, but I’m taken with the idea of a kind of mad ballad metre being imposed on the sonnet form. More interestingly, the patterns of assonance and consonance that Sheppard weaves here, primarily the sibilant alliteration and the predominance of short vowels in stressed positions, with an exception for that vital ‘strange’ marks a kind of departure for Sheppard, a move away from his ‘special language’ towards something of a new departure.

So, with Beckett in mind, does the world need what promises to be in the region of 300 new (or ‘new’) sonnets? I’m not sure, but the fact is that the two instalments of Sheppard’s trilogy are endlessly fascinating, both for their rumbustious handling of the surreal reality of Brexit and as an instance of a poet doing what poets do, deploying technique to make poetry out of the matter that is given to them. As a sonnet sceptic, I find myself wondering what he’ll do with the morass of the Romantic sonnet in the final volume.