‘All of human life in a poetic instant’
Saturday 23rd April 2016
o mark the quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s death, Hannah Crawforth and Elizabeth Scott-Baumann invited 30 leading contemporary poets to respond to Shakespeare’s sonnets in their own form, voice and style. The resulting book is, they say, a unique poetic celebration of a writer whose work ‘contains multitudes’.
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE died on April 23 1616, which may have been his birthday. That his life should seemingly end on the anniversary of the day it began is apt, for Shakespeare’s death represents the start of a long and vibrant afterlife for the poet’s works.
Shakespeare’s plays and poems have continued to be read and performed around the world, translated into every language imaginable, and reinterpreted in every possible way.
Our book seeks to continue the tradition of reinventing Shakespeare, while also serving to commemorate his writing in the year of the quatercentenary of his death.
The poems they produced appear alongside the sonnets with which they engage most closely. At times this engagement is detailed and sustained; at others a single word, phrase, metaphor or fleeting feeling prompted their imaginations to take flight. In all instances it is Shakespeare’s language, his verbal brilliance, the dazzling way that he crystallises all of human life into a poetic instant, which our poets respond to.
While such virtuosic qualities are on display throughout his works, they are perhaps most potently captured in his sonnets; 154 poems of 14 lines of interwoven rhyme, first published in 1609, that form a loose sequence.
Shakespeare’s sonnets are at once the apex of the form, representing the heights of what it can achieve, and also an afterword to a poetic tradition that had dominated literary fashion some 20 years earlier: the 1590s saw sonnet sequences by Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, Richard Barnfield, Samuel Daniel and others and it may have been during this period that Shakespeare first worked on his own poems.
An element of belatedness is central to our understanding of the sonnets, and to this book. Our poets, like Shakespeare himself, are returning to a form that is itself propelled by the logic of return, as its rhyme sounds constantly bring the reader back to preceding lines, making the past vividly present in the current moment.
One of the preoccupations of Shakespeare’s series is with how the poet and his lovers will be remembered after they are gone. As such, the sonnets make a particularly fitting place at which to pause and commemorate Shakespeare himself.
The themes of loss, grief, the passing of time, mortality, and posthumous remembrance that pervade the sequence have proved enduring. Our own poets frequently take them up and, like Shakespeare, explore such terrain as a way of thinking about what poetry itself can do.
When Shakespeare imagines his own poems as “the living record of your memory,” he speaks of each reader’s ability to bring life to his verse, as well as his verse’s ability to memorialise the beloved.
There is a knowing bravado there too and these new poems respond to the cynical competitiveness of the sonnet as well as its capacity for more reverent celebration. A concern with inheritance — the transmission of ideas, values and even words from one generation to another — often guides the writers assembled in the book, who look to the past and its literary riches as well as to the future and their own legacies.
This past is at once a source of inspiration and a shadow any writer must step out of. Shakespeare felt this acutely and now he himself casts perhaps the longest shadow of all.
The desire to emulate and surpass the writers of the past drove Shakespeare to new literary heights, while rivalry with his contemporaries prompted some of the most astonishing theatrical and poetic experiments ever known.
This potent combination of past tradition and individual innovation makes Shakespeare’s voice unique. His metaphors, in particular, deserve comment for their power, aptness and sheer unexpected beauty.
Shakespeare remakes the language afresh, and our poets in turn rework the imaginative landscape of poetry.
Sleep is figured as the sea, ebbing and flowing to its own rhythms. A fragile flower or plant comes to hold the weight of the universe. A storm summons up all the forces of nature and human invention. The sonnet form requires that each poem is often built around one such image — or conceit — exploring a metaphor by turning it inside out.
The “volta,” or turn, that comes in the latter lines of each sonnet gives this particular force, allowing a poet to radically rethink his or her own ideas within the security of a tightly constrained form.
Our contributors have seized this imperative and often borrow the logic of the Shakespearean sonnet, even where they do not choose to write in this form themselves.
The skeleton of such poems, which are usually structured in two units of eight and then six lines, but which retain a sense of quatrains and a couplet, prompts numerological play and allows a writer to create a counterpoint between the movement of a poem and the differing rhythms of the ideas it contains.
Again, Shakespeare does this to a superlative degree and our poets have internalised this aspect of his writing, giving it new life in their own verse.
The sonnet is at once the most compressed of literary forms and also one of the most expansive. Like Shakespeare, it contains multitudes.
We believe the poems in this collection do the same.
On Shakespeare’s Sonnets: A Poets’ Celebration, edited by Hannah Crawforth and Elizabeth Scott-Baumann, is published by Bloomsbury in association with the Royal Society of Literature and King’s College London, price £12.99.
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments; love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no, it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
Pull between earth and moon, or chemistry,
carries the swallow home from Africa
to perch again on his remembered tree,
the weeping birch by the pond. A star
will guide his mate home in a week, perhaps,
to the old nest in the barn, remade, mould
of spittle and pond-sludge in its cusp
as the new year in the mud-cup of the old.
Loss broke the swan on the river when winter
stole his mate when he wasn’t looking. Believing,
he waited, rebuilt the nest, all summer
holding their stretch of river, raging, grieving.
So would I wait for you, were we put apart.
Mind, magnetism, hunger of the heart.
Gillian Clarke, National Poet of Wales 2008-2016, was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry 2010 and the Wilfred Owen Award 2012. Her recent books include Ice, shortlisted for the TS Eliot Award 2012 and The Christmas Wren, 2014. She is currently working on a new collection Zoology and her New Selected Poems is to be published by Picador next month.