On Shakespeare’s Sonnets

On Shakespeare’s Sonnets

Event: On Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Poets’ Celebration 

Venue: Great Hall, King’s College London 

Report by Robert Selby

To mark the quatercentenary of his death the Arden Shakespeare has published On Shakespeare’s Sonnets: A Poets’ Celebration, a handsome volume in which thirty distinguished contemporary poets respond in their own way – “imitation, homage, critique, parody and pastiche” – to one or more of the great bard’s 154 sonnets. The volume’s launch event, held in the Great Hall at King’s College London, was part of the ongoing King’s Shakespeare Festival, itself part of a season organised by Shakespeare400, a consortium that includes, among others, King’s and the Royal Society of Literature (RSL).

“We are pretty certain that in the 196-year history of the RSL this is the most of our fellows that have been on stage together at once,” said RSL director Tim Robertson. Ten of the new volume’s contributors were present to read the Shakespeare sonnet that inspired them, followed by their own poem: Gillian Clarke, Imtiaz Dharker, Jackie Kay, Mimi Khalvati and Jo Shapcott went first; Paul Muldoon, Bernard O’Donoghue, Ruth Padel, Don Paterson and Fiona Sampson second. Margreta de Grazia, event chair and Shakespeare scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, explained the division:

“Shakespeare’s sonnets were published in 1609 but then they’re not read with any kind of frequency or appreciation until around 1800, when they’re read because there’s an interest in the only work Shakespeare wrote ostensibly in the first person ‘I’. The sonnets start being read as autobiography at a time when Shakespeare’s biography was so coveted. His internal and external life is looked-for in the sonnets. However, no sooner does that start than the whole project of autobiographical reading meets with a great embarrassment: the first group of sonnets are addressed to a beloved who is a very young man; the second are addressed to a woman who is adulterous and promiscuous. So I thought it would be interesting to group the ten poets into two: the first group use the first person singular – ‘I’ – and the second do not.”

The sonnet as a small drama 

Perhaps the highlight of the opening half was Jackie Kay, whose contribution to the volume is a poignant love sonnet to her elderly mother. So named after the ward in Glasgow Royal Hospital in which her mother recently stayed, ‘Thirty-Five’ is a response to Shakespeare’s sonnet 11, which reasons that one cannot die if one passes on their genes through procreation: ‘Thou shouldst print more, not let that copy die.’

“I chose the poem because of the idea of not letting ‘that copy die’ and the sense of something unique and original passing,” said Kay. “So I wanted to write a sonnet that honoured the originality of my mum. People often talk about adoption” – Kay was born in 1961 to a Nigerian father and a Scottish mother, then adopted as a baby by a Scottish couple – “as if something wasn’t passed down and I wanted to put that idea right at the heart of the poem. I kept the idea of ‘cherish’ and ‘perish’ because that seemed to me right at the heart of it.”

Without this love, nothing could ever be well.

A gift the heart wrapped early in this life.

The more you give the more you have to cherish.

If I could offer you my veins, I’d gladly use a knife.

At times it seems if you go, I too will perish.

A mould broke made a new mother of you.

Blood, water, sealed with a kiss: all true.

Arden Shakespeare

‘Imitation, homage, critique, parody and pastiche.’

Kay charmed the audience by describing how a hospital porter would carry letters between her mother and her father, also hospitalised in a separate ward; how after he was discharged first, her father would visit her mother and kiss her a lot “because it’s all I can dae for ye” – “she’s eighty-five and he’s ninety and they’re still able to ‘dae kisses’.”

Jo Shapcott then read her sonnet ‘2014/2015’ which, she explains in the volume itself, “bows” to Shakespeare’s sonnet 73 “somewhere in every line and spins round it in grateful celebration”. Interestingly, when introducing her poem Shapcott referred to its ‘I’ as a ‘he’, mischievously subverting the division to which the evening’s line-up had been subject.

“I referred to the ‘I’ as a ‘he’,” Shapcott said, “to remind us that the sonnets are a small drama, there’s a whole little movie or a piece of theatre there, and all of us here have created that and made it with parts of ourselves and parts of other things, everything’s in there. I guess what the sonnet allows us to do is make that shape so we can pour everything in that is of ourselves and what we know and perhaps something else as well.”

The sonnet as a motor skill 

A highlight of the evening’s second half was Fiona Sampson’s reading of her contribution ‘Drowned Man’, accentuating as it did the poem’s hypnotic repetitions, internal rhymes and propulsive enjambments that conjure the swoon of love and the sea of sleep. ‘Drowned Man’ was written in response to Shakespeare’s sonnet 143, in which the narrator compares himself and his attempts to gain the attention of his beloved to a “poor infant” chasing after his mother who has briefly “neglected” him in order to fetch a chicken “broke away” in the yard. In Sampson’s poem the chase becomes a mutual one between lovers, and begins:

Look how they sleep first he turns

away and then she turns

after him or now she turns

her back and he follows

rolled by an old imperative

deeper than sleep

he rolls over like a wave

that turns itself over

sleepily with the sea’s deep

breathing with its rhythm

pulsing far out from land pulsing far

down in the dark

“Although I was thrilled by the commission, I was very daunted by it,” said Sampson. “I felt quite clearly that although in past years I’ve obsessed over sonnets and written a lot of them, if I tried to write a sonnet for this commission I’d end up writing a pastiche as that Shakespearean music is so infectious. So I ran in the opposite direction and chose quite a different form, but I use a turn; the turn is the fetch of the wave.”

Don Paterson – who with fellow contributor John Fuller is probably the leading authority on the sonnet form among contemporary British poets – read ‘Two’ from his recent sequence 40 Sonnets (Faber and Faber, 2015) and echoed the statement he first made in the introduction to his 101 Sonnets anthology (Faber and Faber, 1999) that the sonnet is “first and foremost: a small square poem”, its approximately square field of black text on a sheet of white paper visually appealing and “impossible to resist”.

“I think what one can learn as a poet from reading Shakespeare’s sonnets is seeing someone take a form and learn it so well it becomes a motor skill,” Paterson said. “I think he’s writing some of these very quickly, he’s improvising within the form just as a musician might improvise within the form of a twelve-bar blues. The twelve-bar blues is actually very similar to the sonnet in its emotional contours and cadences. But the point of both is to render invisible to the participant, with such fluency, the form, and I think at the end the sonnet for Shakespeare is a form he can think inside.”

The editors of On Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Hannah Crawforth and Elizabeth Scott-Baumann, write in its introduction that the sonnet is “the most compressed of literary forms” yet “contains multitudes”. After this fascinating evening it was hard to disagree with their assertion that the poems in this fine new volume do the same.

Report by Robert Selby

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