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Tuesday, September 29, 2020

'My' Quennets from A TRANSLATED MAN published in The Penguin Book of Oulipo

Rene Van Valckenborch (see here for his credentials: talks to Robert Sheppard, as part of an occasional series of interviews, conducted when he turns up 'out of nowhere', like Bob McCorkle in Peter Carey's My Life as a Fake on my doorstep. (Thank God I'm not allowed to invite him in, thinks Sheppard.) 

VV: I’m pleased to announce that I have some of my quennets published in The Penguin Book of Oulipo.

 RS: That’s great news! That means I’ve got some poems in there too!

 VV: Well, not quite. They only appear under my name.

 RS: What!? I invented you. You’re a fictional poet like Alvaro De Campos or Simon Armitage!

 VV: Well, that’s what they appear as in the book. Me and Perec and Roubaud. We’re like that! (Intimates his fingers on big stubby hand.)

 RS: But it was part of my fictional poets project. You were part one …

VV: … and inventor of part two, ‘the co-created fictional poets of the European Union of Imaginary Authors (EUOIA)’. That’s what it says in Twitters for a Lark


RS: But the project is mine, and all your poems are mine. Everybody knows that!

 VV: The readers of the Penguin Book won’t! (Chuckles.)

 RS: I remember now. Philip Terry phoned me and said that he wanted to publish your, my, quennets in the book, and he thought it would be funny to publish them under your name. I suppose that makes you the clinamen of the collection.

 VV: Quite! So you agreed then?

 RS: In a way, yes. Of course, I’m delighted. But I doubt whether he thought he’d conjured you up from the mists of time, like a bad dream. Do you still drink that de Koninck mud-water?

 VV: It’s revenge, my revenge. Because you and Philip Terry decided to write those antonymic translations of my quennets. You don’t know how negative that felt!

 RS: It was one of the highlights of Twitters for a Lark:

 VV: I noticed you read them together.


RS: I also read the original quennets (the ones in the anthology) at the Bluecoat and performed them as a poetry reading-mime within an invisible cube. Quite a novel act-event.

 VV: So you ripped off Marcel Marceau as well as me, then? AND, don’t forget, you appeared as me at the North Wales Poetry Festival, didn’t you?

RS: (Bashful.) As an Englishman, I couldn’t possibly comment on that circumstance.  (See ttps:// )

VV: It's my name on the poster, not yours. Now, at last, I’m vindicated with this, possibly my most out-there appearance to date. I feel myself stirring, if you’ll pardon the expression...

RS: … I don’t …

VV: ... cracking the old poetic bone. It’s been a long time. Ten years since my supposed ‘disappearance’.

RS: (Carefully) Where did you go, then? There was a rumour you were writing in German.

VV: Ha! That title The Salad in the Wardrobe was a joke, dummy.

RS: Good to hear it. But don’t get any ideas. Talking about coming back won’t get you into part three.

VV: Oh, there’s a part three planned, is there? How do you want me, darling? Flemish or Walloon?

RS: Cease your waffle, Belgian. I might work on Sophie Poppmeier, give her a little more reality. I might get her to collaborate with a mannequin. (See here for her elaborate biography: )

VV: I made her up too, though, remember?

RS: I said you did, though I cooked up her burlesque performances. On the other hand, I might include my new work on the talking mongoose of the Isle of Man. Or Ern Malley, even, now I’ve been singing in the Ern Malley Orchestra.

VV: But Malley’s a fake!

RS: So are you. Didn’t you recently tweet, ‘It’s not my death I’ve faked, but my whole life’?

VV: Yes. I was feeling bad that day. Veerle Baertens won’t answer my letters, emails or Tweets. But the arrival of The Penguin Book cheered me up no end. It meant, poetry-wise, at least, that I am Somebody.

RS: (Silence)


VV: Hello? Are you still there?

 RS: You mean, you’ve been writing to Veerle Baetens? Again?

The Penguin Book has just arrived this afternoon, a big fat book, with lots of Oulipean standards (Queneau, Perec, Roubaud, Mathews), but also lots of precursors (such as Stefan Themerson, for whom I have advocated) and post-Oulipeans, such as Tom Jenks (ditto). There is a helpful and alphabetical introduction by Philip Terry. The paperback is out in November.    

See here for my earliest encounter – one might say, pre-encounter – with the Oulipo:

 and here for my co-presence with Jacques Roubaud in Translating Petrarch’s Poetry , my article on writing my 'Oulipean' Petrarch 3. Here: .


Thursday, September 24, 2020

Robert Sheppard: 4 Poems from BAD IDEA published in M58

My project ‘The English Strain’ has progressed through to its third book, but only Books One and Two are complete, and, indeed, will be published soon.

I’m pleased to announce that four more of the poems from book two, BAD IDEA, have been published by Andy Taylor in his online magazine M58. Although visual poetries are a speciality for this magazine, it also carries fair amount of lexical poetry, such as these of mine. Read the poems here:

I write about Book Two, Bad Idea here . (The final part of Bad Idea called ‘Idea’s Mirror’ is described here: ) These links will point you towards other online excerpts from Bad Idea and details about its writing. Do read more.


In short, it is worth pointing out that Bad Idea are transpositions of sonnets from Michael Drayton’s 1619 sonnet sequence Idea (Idea is the woman addressed in the poems, like Petrarch’s Laura.) The poems take a head on approach to the follies of Brexit. (No wonder I’m still at work on Book Three!)

 In poem 13 here, I deal with the very issue of transposition (‘scribbling over’) as I call it. Poem 17 is a meditation on Time, transposed to be about the Brexit timetable. Poem 18 was a problematic poem (I mean Drayton’s original was, because it was a poem about … numbers!) In poem 20 the person ‘Rut’ appears from other poems, where he is identified as a Tory MP and sexual predator, whose identity was (still is?) unknown. All four are quite difficult poems, not the most obvious in the sequence, and deserve their platform together.  Here's Poem 17, read by me.


 I am delighted to say that Book Two is due for publication soon, Bad Idea from Knives Forks and Spoons. Here’s an early draft of the cover, constructed by Patricia Farrell.

Here is a comprehensive post on the sequences that constitute Book One, The English Strain here .

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

A further version of a Keats sonnet for these troubled times (temporary post)

Now I have turned to Keats. I had some trouble getting going; you can read about that struggle here:


The source poem by Keats alludes to a poem by Wordsworth (and then is partly about Wordsworth) which is why I allude to my own version of that Wordsworth poem (which may be read here on the Poetry and Covid site: .


I feel angry that we are going back into a sort of lockdown, just I thought I might start venturing further than my (admittedly long) daily walks. I’ve been in a pub once, but it was so unpleasant. Keats’ Wordsworth, Hunt and Haydon and ‘others’ turn into Bo, Go and the Cum, and the back bench 1922 Committee. (My old mate Graham Brady: he and I were school governors together!) Keats’ sonnet famously has a half line (crossed out by Haydon, so in my transposition here, here’s a redacted line, censored by the Cum in my poem). 



Friday, September 18, 2020

Robert Sheppard: SIX poems from British Standards published as part of the Poetry and Covid Project (links, context and videos)

I began work on the book I am thinking of calling British Standards in pre-Covid 2020, but post-Brexit 'Independence Day'. Both ‘issues’ are important, but Coronavirus (to give it its more ‘poetic’ name, given that a ring of sonnets, usually seven or fourteen, like mine, is called a corona) dominates at various points (from March to August 2020, really).

I discovered the Poetry and Covid Project (see here quite late in their deliveries (but that meant my poems were oven ready, unlike Brexit, to add to the mix). I never wanted to produce ‘Covid’ Poetry or ‘Lockdown Lyrics’ but that is, inevitably, what these early parts of British Standards, in part, because of their socio-political focus, turn out to be.

I am pleased to say that three of the former and three of the latter have been selected for the website and they may be read here: (They say it's 'Five Poems' but there are actually six.)

The first section of British Standards, containing these ‘covid’ poems, was completed late March. For this, I transposed poems from Wordsworth’s ‘Poems Dedicated to National Independence and Liberty’, and retitled them ‘Poems of National Independence’. I write about that sequence here:

Then followed ‘14 Standards’, the lockdown poems, which are arranged non-chronologically, something I’d pre-decided for formal reasons, but which reflected the timeless quality of lockdown quite well! I write about this section here: . There are links to online publication of other poems too, via these links. 

Here is a video of me reading (chanting) the Wordsworth transposition, ‘O Friend! I Know Not which way I must look’, written on 13th March.


Here is a video of me reading the first ‘Standard’, an overdub of ‘To the River Tweed’ by William Lisle Bowles, written on 27th April but revised on 13th May. 👍 👍👍👍


The Project, funded by the AHRC, and led at Plymouth University, by Anthony Caleshu, and led at Nottingham Trent, by Rory Waterman, (thanks, guys) asks the question, ‘What role is poetry playing during COVID-19?’ They explain:

Our project proposes the writing, exchange, publication and discussion of poetry as a significant cultural response, benefiting the wellbeing of people from around the world during the COVID-19 pandemic. We invite you to join the conversation, to submit your own poems or to nominate others which speak to the idea of contemporary and/or historical pandemics. 

Every day, we’ll be featuring a new poem from our inbox, and each month we’ll feature new writing from one of the world’s leading poets as they think through their predicaments, find in language a way to connect to others, and offer and seek solace and consolation.

Do have a look.

Also, as to my sense of what poetry can do, or not, see here, for an earlier sonnet from ‘National Grandeur’, and my commentary on this issue:

An unpublished poetics piece, ‘Shifting an Imaginary: Poetics in Anticipation’ deals with the question: ‘A compassionate world, inspired by the great sacrifices of NHS frontline staff? Or…’ 


 Where did you find that beer, Mark, during lockdown? 


Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Practice-Led piece on 'Petrarch 3' from The English Strain published in Translating Petrarch's Poetry (Legenda)

I have a ‘practice-led’ essay in this wondrous volume, Translating Petrarch's Poetry: L’Aura del Petrarca from the Quattrocento to the 21st Century, edited by Carole Birkan-Berz, Guillaume Coatalen and Thomas Vuong, and published now by Legenda ISBN: 978-1-781886-63-2 (hardback)  RRP £75, $99, €85. (Ouch! Try to get a library copy.)

 This is an expensive academic hardback, but a paperback is due next year, ISBN: 978-1-781886-64-9.

And, ISBN: 978-1-781886-65-6, JSTOR ebook, is available… 

See here for the Legenda/MHRA page for full details (and contents) of the book:

Ranging through five centuries of translations, adaptations and imitations of Petrarch, the father of Humanism, this transcultural, transdisciplinary study considers the echoes of this major figure, whose reach goes beyond borders, eras and literary genres to resonate singularly into our times and in our own resonating ears. 

I'm pleased to be share these pages with one of my literary heroes, Jacques Roubaud, and his ‘Elements of the History of the Sonnet from its Italian Sources: Formal Aspects’. His axoim 'All sonnets are sonnets by Petrarch' is provocative for my own 'sonnets'. 

The rest of the book is grand too. There are chapters on the French and Spanish reception of Petrarch (the latter involving a Portuguese working in Peru!), as well as on illustrations to, and musical settings of, the text. I enjoyed the chapter on brother and sister team of the de Scuderys, he who abridged the sonnets like Reader's Digest and she who novelised (and satirised) Petrarch's and Laura's married life. The French tried to claim him as ... well ... French. There's a good chapter on Tim Atkins and Emmanuel Hocquard, and another on Geoffrey Hill. I am expecting the book to inform the rest of my Petrarchan project, ‘The English Strain’, which I’ll explain after I say a little more about this book and my part in it.  

Tim Atkins’ piece on his Complete Petrarch is also here, which is appropriate, since I owe a debt to him (and Peter Hughes), though they must be exonerated from blame. Let me explain.

My ‘“Era il giorno ch’al sol si scoloraro”: A Derivative Dérive into/out of Petrarch’s Sonnet 3’, in Translating Petrarch's Poetry: L’Aura del Petrarca from the Quattrocento to the 21st Century, ed. by Carole Birkan-Berz, Guillaume Coatalen and Thomas Vuong, Transcript, 8 (Cambridge: Legenda, 2020), to give it its full citation, if that helps with locating it, is an account of my writing the transpositions (as I now think of them) of my Oulipo-inspired variations of a single Petrarch sonnet, after making a ‘translation’ of a Petrarch sonnet to help me write a chapter on Peter Hughes’ and Tim Atkins’ full jobs on the Man, in The Meaning of Form (see here

) and finding myself drawn into the wonderful world of versioning. (There are 7 of the 14 poems complete in the piece, too.) It was quite a new thing for me, and with it came a new tone. In the process, I discovered my inner Byron and Steve Bell!

As I say in the piece:

Petrarch was pretty clear that translation implied more than faithful reproduction of linguistic features. He warned, utilising a conventional metaphor for translation drawn from apiculture, ‘Take care … that the nectar does not remain in you in the same state as when you gathered it; bees would have no credit unless they transformed it into something different and better.’ This essay involves attempting to trace the transformations involved in the writing of fourteen variations on a ‘translation’ I made of the third sonnet of Petrarch, Petrarch 3, a partly conceptual, partly expressive, sonnet sequence, made under the sign of Oulipo, but informed by earlier poetic interests of my own, even early poems. It is at once impersonal and personal. It is, arguably, both hugely derivative and original, though that last judgement is beyond the scope of my poetics as I define it as a ‘speculative, writerly discourse’…As a poet-critic, I believe that my literary criticism must inform my poetics – the mercurial writerly conversation that I have with myself in my journal, with others in explicit poetics pieces, and perhaps in this piece I am writing now – but I do not know how particularly, hence my use of the verb ‘attempting’ above… The creative story I … tell is one that criss-crosses poetics, literary criticism, translation and creative writing itself, and may reveal something about modes of transformation and translational processes.

 Read my ‘original’ translation (of Petrarch’s third sonnet) and a Scouse doggie Christmas version here.

See here for my first encounters with Hughes and Atkins and with the single poem I produced. You can read here about the famous map-format publication of Petrarch 3 from Crater Press   here and here . It is still available.

The version in the style of Wayne Pratt (one of my ‘early poems’ referred to above, and which I write about in the article, and Atkins mentions in his) may be read here with a short video of me reading the sonnet, less than a minute:

The final poem in the sequence (and a farewell to Laura’s aura, or so I thought) may be read here:

Here’s a rare outtake: the semiotic fringe removed from one of the poems:


Here I am seen reading 'The First English Sonnet 1401', the joke being 'I' got there before Wyatt and Surrey (and Chaucer; dig my Neville Coghill impersonation)!

Read the first review of Petrarch 3  here. The second review of the publication may be read here:

Peter Riley considers it sternly here:

Petrarch 3 is, as I say above, separately available from Crater Press Press   here and here but it now forms the first part of a much longer set of transpositions of ‘English’ sonnets, ‘The English Strain’, the first book of which, The English Strain, will be published by Shearsman later this year.

The English Strain is described here and as is Book Two, Bad Idea here . Parts of Book Three, British Standards, upon which I am currently engaged, are covered here:

And here:

That one workaday translation of Petrarch set off something huge. From the essay itself you will find how randomly it was ‘chosen’. But I also keep coming back to it. My first 'Keats' transposition takes me back to Peter Hughes' project to spur on my own:

‘Take care … that the nectar does not remain in you in the same state as when you gathered it; bees would have no credit unless they transformed it into something different and better.’ Pet. 

Monday, September 14, 2020

A version of Keats' poem on Leigh Hunt's release from prison: Bo is committed to prison (counterfactual poem)

I’m thinking of calling the new poems ‘Weird Syrup: contrafacts and counterfactuals from Keats’, and 'Written on the Day that Mr Bo was Committed to Prison' is a counterfactual (though possibly predictive?): the arrest of Bo on charges of being a liar. It’s a version of Keats’ ‘Written on the Day that Mr Leigh Hunt Left Prison’, and I resisted a serious poem on actual political prisoners (in Belarus, for example) and reversed the polarities of the original. I utilise some of Hunt’s offending words which landed him in prison as a political journalist. So, Bo shares one profession with Hunt; another with the Prince Regent. Brandon Lewis, of course, said: "Yes, this does break international law in a very specific and limited way". We have a government of brazen outlaws. No, I’ll save that thought for another experiment. Oh yes, I find the increased use of the phrase ‘the 4 nations of the United Kingdom' galling. I can actually only count 3. Surely Northern Ireland is not a nation, either for Unionists (obviously) or Republicans (even more obviously). I've removed the poem now, but I thought I'd leave this manic phot and the new contrafactual Government slogan.



(22 September: Sorry, abandon that slogan!)

Sunday, September 13, 2020

an overdub, an understudy, a version, of Keat’s most famous sonnet (and then a further version)

I have begun to write what I call 'contrafacts and counterfactuals' to some sonnets of Keats. This post (or rather posts) tells the story of how I began that task, and I also describe the larger project, the 'English Strain project', to which it belongs. This is an attempt at an overdub, an understudy, a version, of Keat’s most famous sonnet, which is first, rejected, then rescued, and amended. Thus: 

On Looking Again into Peter Hughes’s Petrarch (draft)

I’ve travelled a lot in Norfolk; I’ve seen
toffs with their guns eating their own packed lunches
in the pubs; bitten by the snippy crabs of Cromer
and the nippy Arctic winds of King’s Lynn; I’ve seen
threadbare Teddy Boys in Norwich Market (1975);
but never did I find a tattered fairground
blaring Stupid Cupid through a distorted tannoy
till I heard sly-eyed Hughes loud and clear; and I felt
like a consultant consulting the world’s worst piles;
or like watching Eric Morecambe on the telly
with his trembling glasses, stretching over a fence
on little un-Grecian Ern’s shoulders: and I’d hoot
at Eric’s wide-eyed speechless leer, as he beheld
unseen teams of nudists bouncing their balls.

20th August 2020

I wrote this poem on auto-pilot. The lines came to me and I saw the poem and its effects laid out before me as though it had already been written. In some senses it had: it transfers to Keats’ ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’, the technique of much of ‘The English Strain’ project (versions of canonical sonnets) and it returns me to the poetics of ‘Petrarch 3’, the first part, which arose out of some literary critical writing I was doing on Peter’s ‘Petrarch’ (and Tim Atkins’ too; see here: I like the poem but, like Roy Fisher, I distrust the poem in its (apparent) hour of success. Hadn’t my ghostly production of ‘Ozymandias’ turned the project (as though it itself was an enormous sonnet corona) so that it could not turn back to this sort of thing? Yes. I’d already decided that. I’d been looking at some poems of Robert Duncan, ‘derivative’ (his word) of Dante’s sonnets, which weren’t sonnets at all. (I mean they possessed none of the determinants of sonnethood; not even 14 lines.) And that throws it open to respond to a selection of Keats’ sonnets in an original way (possibly under the title ‘Weird Syrup’), vaguely thinking ahead to John Clare’s sonnets (which I am thinking of transposing into quennets) and the end of this project. In other words, to leave the hitherto guiding formal constraint (what’s left of it) behind. ‘14 Standards’ had me exercising my formal muscle, so that each poem was a different sonnety shape. And I’d almost left the Brexit theme, with its National Dogging Sites, behind with Wordsworth, up his knees in Kentish fluid!

 In short, I have developed a ‘technique’, a mode, that can take any sonnet by any writer, and transpose it (even here, where there is no approach to Brexit or Coronavirus). I am not programmatically wedded to formal innovation or investigation, but I need to prefer my will to my ease here, and push on, investigatively, formally. I have 14 sonnets by Keats selected, or randomly arranged (there are, oddly, 14 sonnets embedded in the selection of Keats’ letters, in Gittings’ edition), and ‘Chapman’s Homer’ isn’t one of them. I point you also to Robert Hampson’s work on that sonnet. Of course, I could use it alone as a model for 14 poems, replicating the work of ‘Petrarch 14’, but that seems inadequate, though suggestive! (On Looking Again into Tim Atkins’ Petrarch; On Looking Again into Petrarch’s Petrarch; On Listening Again to Dusty Springfield; On First Listening to Harish Raghavan’s Calls to Action; On Looking Again into the Shed at the bottom of the garden; On Looking Again at Boris Johnson’s Brexit; On Looking Again into the Dominic Cummings’ Eyesight; On Looking into Trump’s Tax Records…) In an Oulipean way it is, as it should be, potentially (I typed ‘poetentially’) plenitudinous. But I’ve three volumes of this stuff anyway (that’s over 200 poems!) and it needs to turn away from former models, but perhaps back towards contemporary political and social events. (The slippage back to the 1970s, as here, is there in ‘Petrarch 3’, in my versions of Charlotte Smith’s Sussex sonnets, and in one of the Wordsworth overdubs. That mention of ‘former models’ sounds coincidentally slightly sleazy!)

I think I shall have my cake and eat it (why not? It’s a very Brexity concept, as earlier poems suggested, where I used that as a title) as I have by turning ‘Ozymandias’ into a ghost of itself (and by offering my 2007 version of it, ‘for Stephen’, as an extra, in the notes to the notes). I might print this new poem as a footnote to my Keats variations, a phantom limb (rather than Keats’ ‘living hand’) sticking out and providing fake sensations, a false reading on the poetentiometer!  

UPDATE (two days later): Then this happened. As I was revising the half-abandoned poem, I half rescued it, as I continued to work on it, and ended up with (again) partly: a poem that looks remarkably like what I was intending to do: a poem coming out of a sonnet, which is not itself a sonnet. I also explicitly added a Brexit theme. (Upupdate: these posts are usually temporary, so while I am keeping the body of this post, I have removed the poem, which, formally speaking is 14 set of couplets. I read the revised version on the video, though. It is still called 

On Looking Again into Peter Hughes’s Petrarch

I’ve travelled a lot in North
Norfolk too etc etc

20th-22nd August 2020


The poem is not only set in the territory featured in Peter’s poems (which I did know, and travel a lot in, during my UEA 1970s and early 80s); it is also the site of a spectacular local vote for Brexit. So formally and thematically, this version is tougher, and belongs to British Standards, which is the working title of the part of the project to which these 'Weird Syrup' are planned, although it does dislodge the plans I’d devised for tackling Keats. Critics writing about Keats (because they don’t understand the nature of poetics as an anticipatory writerly discourse) are surprised that his letters indicate, for example, that one day he renounces writing epic, and the next day he takes it up again, but in a different way. I understand that. And I understand that writing what I wrote (above) and what I’m writing now, is part of the process. As is the blogging of these drafts each time. (It is not just because the poems are generally topical, but it is a part of the ritual of producing them. It is, we could say, part of the writing.) 

As I worked on the poem (and perchance into my hands came a CD with Stupid Cupid on it, I mean, literally, without me remembering that a man in a pub had once burnt it for me, there it was in a pile while I was searching for Tori Freestone or Ambrose Akimusire!) I wondered whether Keats and his sonnets might entirely defeat me, that I might be only able to this one. What a spur to do them – or to do something different! (23rd August 2020)

The book I am thinking of calling British Standards was begun in 2020, after Brexit Independence Day; the first section was finished late March. For its first section, I transposed poems from part of Wordsworth’s ‘Poems Dedicated to National Independence and Liberty’, and retitled them ‘Poems of National Independence’, and even more cheekily subtitled them, ‘liberties with Wordsworth’. I write about that sequence here:

Then followed ‘14 Standards’, and in turn, two additional ‘Double Standards’ about the Cum’s disgraceful lockdown infringements, and his elitist refusal of apology and regret. See here for information on all 16 ‘standards’: . There are links to online publication of some of the poems too. 

I’ve documented ‘The English Strain’ project as work progressed through its three books so far. There are two comprehensive posts to check out, one that looks at Book One, The English Strain here and another at Book Two, Bad Idea here . (The final part of Bad Idea is slightly different; called ‘Idea’s Mirror’, it’s described here: )

However, the big news is that Book One and Book Two are due for publication soon, The English Strain from Shearsman, and Bad Idea from Knives Forks and Spoons.

Meanwhile parts of Book One are still available in booklet form; look here for Petrarch 3, which is also co-dedicated to Peter Hughes (for it was partly his work that got this whole project going) in its fold-out map format, and here for Hap:

As might be gathered from what I have said, British Standards as a whole (not just the corona of ‘14 Standards’) aims to present transpositions of admired sonnets of the Romantic period, from William Bowles to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, stopping off at Keats on the way. Chronologically, they lie between those of Charlotte Smith, which I’ve already worked on here,

and those of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, that I’ve also worked on, both of them in the final parts of Book One: