On this blog I’ve documented ‘The English Strain’ project as work has progressed, through to its current third book, British Standards, and I've now [I'm updating this on 4th March 2021] finished my transpositions of the brilliant sonnets of John Clare, a sequence I shall entitle ‘Unthreading Clare’ or ‘Unth(reading) Clare’, if that doesn't seem too arch. I will also record here where poems from that ‘corona’ are published as a hub post.
The 'Clare' poem ‘What a night’ appears as a film-poem (really one of my short weekly videos) on the Writers Kingston Online project: Pages: A lo-fi lockdown videopoem: An overdub of John Clare's sonnet 'What a night!' posted as part of Writers Kingston Online (robertsheppard.blogspot.com).
Hopefully, others will follow and you will be directed to them from here.
For your guide, the ‘books’ of ‘The English Strain’ are:
1. The English Strain (Shearsman, now published. See below.)
2. Bad Idea (Knives, Forks and Spoons, officially out April, but available now; also see below).
3. British Standards (work in progress, as of this posting)
There are two ways of looking at the project: as an account of 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. I hope I will send readers back or away to the ‘originals’. Part of my poems’ meaning has to lie in intersectional reading between one of Clare’s sonnets, say, and mine. That’s one role of the reader here, although general knowledge of transposition will be enough to see what’s going on. I’m not dismissing tradition; I’m invoking it. Book one is called The English Strain: the project begins with Petrarch, picking up the ‘Brexit’ theme in a number of sonnets of my own, until Milton, Wyatt, Surrey, Charlotte Smith and Elizabeth Barratt Browning, provide the frames for me to hang my boots on.
This continues in book two, Bad Idea, though there I stick to Shakespeare’s contemporary Michael Drayton, a fine sonneteer. I’ve spent almost as long on this project as on Twentieth Century Blues.
There’s another post on Book Two, Bad Idea here . (The final part of Bad Idea is slightly different; called ‘Idea’s Mirror’; that’s described here: https://robertsheppard.blogspot.com/2019/12/my-last-ideas-mirror-post-election-poem.html ).
I am delighted to say that Book One, The English Strain is available from Shearsman; see here:
I am also delighted to say that Book Two, Bad Idea is available from Knives Forks and Spoons, so you may buy it HERE and NOW: https://www.knivesforksandspoonspress.co.uk/product-page/bad-idea-by-robert-sheppard-102-pages
Back to (or onto) Book Three - and my responses to John Clare as an important part of it.
‘Unth(reading) Clare’ poem 14, the final one, is currently unpublished (It was here for a little while.) . It was another mad one, where Clare becomes an anti-vaxxer (through insanity), but it is faithful to Clare’s tenderly-observed poem about the gypsy camp in Epping forest near the asylum. Here’s Clare’s poem, and a link to Carol Rumens account of the poem.
The Gipsy Camp
falls deep; the Forest lies alone:
The boy goes hasty for his load of brakes,
Then thinks upon the fire and hurries back;
The Gipsy knocks his hands and tucks them up,
And seeks his squalid camp, half hid in snow,
Beneath the oak, which breaks away the wind,
And bushes close, with snow like hovel warm:
There stinking mutton roasts upon the coals,
And the half roasted dog squats close and rubs,
Then feels the heat too strong and goes aloof;
He watches well, but none a bit can spare,
And vainly waits the morsel thrown away:
’Tis thus they live – a picture to the place;
A quiet, pilfering, unprotected race.
These 'mad' sonnets at the end of 'Unth(reading) Clare' I've called the 'Don Juan Sonnets', which will be explained a little later. It ends with the conspiracy theory line: 'Bill Gates pilfers profit from my Don Juan' , an allusion to the ridiculous notion that a microchip is included in every vaccine.
In these last few 'mad' poems, I make reference here to Clare’s famous walk from Epping Forest to his home in Northborough, of which he wrote a remarkable memoir. This features in many accounts of Clare (or mythologies of him, perhaps I should say), including Sinclair’s Edge of Orison (about which I was a bit sniffy in my critical book on Sinclair, unnecessarily it strikes me now), and Andrew Kötting’s film.
You can watch Kötting’s film about John Clare here: BY OUR SELVES MASTER STEREO on Vimeo
I’m interested in Clare’s music collecting, and that enters one poem, though minimally: Clare played the fiddle and could notate anything that he could play on the instrument – and often did. (Critics seem more interested in settings of his poems to his own music, not the same thing.) But here’s a beautiful and not much perused video rendition from ‘Hertfordbristolman’. You can play it while you read the rest of this post!
Two John Clare hornpipes - YouTube
John Clare’s poems haven’t proved as easy to transpose as I first imagined, since they are so unmetaphorically direct and sensually replete. Here is what I wrote in my journal (adapted a little) on 9th December 2020, to get me going:
Clare has posed problems. I have selected 15 possible sonnets (there are dozens of other possible sonnets, but needs must be) and they form a nice corona. But I can’t think of how I might utilise them, which is why I thought, again, last night, to return to Wordsworth (later political poems, even his dreadful ones on capital punishment, one of Brexit’s hidden prizes, I am sure). But it seems retrograde, an evasion of Clare, even though the Wordsworth poems are well-suited to the sudden last-ditch Brexit madness that has re-emerged with all the 2016 arguments intact…
Clare, in the asylum, wrote ‘as’ Byron, in a text called ‘Don Juan’; at the same time, he also claimed not to be Byron, since the poem says: ‘I think myself as great a bard as Byron’. (He’s right.) He was the author of ‘Don Juan’, if we take the text he called ‘Don Juan’ to be ‘Don Juan’. Could I transpose the chosen sonnets into a mode that derives, not from Byron himself, but from Clare’s satirical mode in ‘Don Juan’, which is certainly consonant with my variations of EBB in Book One?
I feel protective about Clare, even more so than in the case of Mary Robinson, (see here: https://robertsheppard.blogspot.com/2020/09/my-transpositions-of-mary-robinsons.html
) because Clare’s achievements are not yet recognised fully, and there is no consensus over the oeuvre, a corpus, a mini-canon, bar a few well-known poems. Hence very few of the sonnets I’ve selected from Bate’s anthology appear in the Major Works!...
Kövesi quotes Gadamer on the fusing of horizons in writers who ‘transpose’ (my term for what I’m up to) Clare into their own times and terms. This he thinks is fair game for the ‘creative’ writer, but he seems dead against it in the practice of critics who impose a method. (I remember teaching new historicism, which I thought was useful to understand Iain Sinclair’s work (see here: Pages: Robert Sheppard: Everything Connects: The Social Poetics of Iain Sinclair ) but not so good to follow in its own right.)
I finally got round to the ‘Don Juan’ front in the final three, separated into a ‘part two’ in a way I thought I might avoid; sane poems/mad poems.
Poetics often works like this for me, perversely: I propose something, and immediately do something different. Even: the opposite. I knew I might have to return to ‘Don Juan’, but not namecheck this in the final two words of the sequence. The follies of Brexit and Bo’s abandoned ‘Gerontocidal Yuletide rules’ demand a satirical voice, rather than the poetics of dispersed subjectivities among people and animals, though I’ve enjoyed that aspect of Clare, and in my versions (taking my ‘own’ work down uncharacteristic channels). ‘Don Juan’ probably damages the ‘beauties’, as they would have said in the 1820s, of the originals. So far from ‘Clare’ taking the project’s final poems from Book Three into a post-Brexit (even post-virus?) world with a new tone, I adopted his borrowed ‘Don Juan’ voice to deal with Bo and Go and their deals and dealings, and to bring the sequence to a conclusion.
OR [I find myself characteristically flim-flamming in poetics dialectics] I imagined the first x poems might be mainly one thing; the last x could be, for example, Sheppardian quennets (as I’d long planned for the end of this Project); but that didn’t happen! Everything was fluid, but it became a little late in the sequence for Oulipean forms to re-assert themselves.
After I had completed seven of these projected 14, I wrote the following in my poetics journal:
18th January 2021: Writing yesterday’s diary I reflected upon ‘plagues’ (Shakespeare’s and our own) and how they are negotiated by writing (and whether, as I’d assumed, wrongly in the case of plague-response, but probably right in the case of the Spanish ’Flu …, that art did not reflect previous plagues). The thought that such a production might be shunned. Will we want novels set in lockdown (X threatens one)? Or, when will we want one? Not immediately.
And so, as I reflect upon the final 7 ‘Clare’ sonnets, it is worth bearing this fact in mind… The other thought that strikes me is that the ‘final 7’ need not be sectioned off from the first. That is a pattern of The English Strain (the book) that is repeated in Keats’, but – hey! – it doesn’t have to be repeated for this set. The 14 poems I’ve selected don’t separate in any way (and I want no phony division such as ‘sane’ poems and ‘mad’ ones. Or even punctuated and unpunctuated (since that is responsive, or would seem to be, to literary politics regarding Clare’s ‘revisions’)). How do I feel about 1-7?
(Read them. [Snuffling noises for several minutes.])
Fine as they are, they neither feel like a ‘grouping’, nor do they not. It think it best to simply continue with them.
Brexit bequeathed Bressex [the post-Brexit nation state: possibly an Anglo Saxon kingdom with no Celtic colonies…]. They are not going to start re-writing all our laws or bring back hanging yet (not within the writing-span of the English Strain project). Yet neither will The Virus be ‘over’. In fact, it might never be ‘over’ in the sense of the WHO declaring the disease eradicated (like polio was, last year). So, it looks like neither will ‘end’, not with bang or whimper, at all. Any British glory (the vaccine) is declared the ‘result’ of Brexit. And yet the phenomenal (highest in the world some weeks) death rate (even as infection rates are falling, even on Merseyside) will slowly abate. There’s no end to Bo and Go either. These poems need to leave that world without concluding it. Not all war novels end with the Armistice. [It strikes me now, none do.] What I’ve been wanting all along is a way to hint at (rather than expound) some positive projections for the future. And utopianism (vaguely riffing on Bloch), ‘prefigured the never-/believed in the un-(yet)- /known’, miming the Not Yet of Bloch and the difference between often empty belief and necessarily incomplete knowledge ([see] the quote from Dirty Bertie [Russell] in [one of the]‘Curtail… [Song Nets from Junkets]’’).
Maybe it might be good to roll out of Bressex and Coronavirus as themes, in the arms of a loosely-defined ecologically-minded awareness of ‘Ecocide’, as in Dave [Whyte]’s book – but muted, muted, muted… As with all the poems anyway, there’s the leading reading of Clare’s poems (though that ‘leading’ is heavily willed. It’s a choice to have streets of ‘peeling/NHS rainbows from last spring’ rather than Clare’s blankets of snow transforming the fields the shepherds think they know so well).
Let it go, let it roll – with the same periodicity…
Note how I rejected the 'mad poem' theme, and adopted it. Typical again of poetics as a partly self-deceptive, developmental discourse. To finish British Standards I was also tempted to write some ‘euro-sonnets’, Baudelaire – Mallarme – Rimbaud – Verlaine – but I know I must adhere to the ‘End your solo before you’re done’ principle of Miles Davis. Though I’ve gone on so long, it’s more likely to require Miles’ exasperated plea to Coltrane after one 45 minute solo: ‘Take the saxophone out of your mouth!’
So: what's next?
What I did do was to make a list of all the possible plans for the continuation of the sequences, to see what felt good. Back to the journal, an entry for 25th January 2021:
I have investigated various ‘endings’ of ‘The English Strain’ project. Stop at Clare. Or add one Shelley. Find another 14 ‘standards’ (possibly in clumps: 4433: 4 by Hartley Coleridge, 4 by Rossetti, 3 by Tennyson Turner, etc). Or ‘Laura to Petrarch’. Or Rossetti’s early Ur text of ‘The House of Love’, 16 poems. Or 2 Byrons. Or any other, listed above.
Maybe that’s all I need: the knowledge of the existence of ‘other’ plans to bring the thing to rest (because Covid won’t be ‘over’ by March, when Clare runs out), a variety of exit plans to neither fret over nor add to…
Clare ran out in February, actually! I have recently decided to write a Shelley interlude as I have between each sequence and add another 14 poems to end British Standards and to turn to the very accomplished sonnets of Hartley Coleridge. The more one looks, the more accomplished he seems. I have selected the poems from his 1833 collection. I have a collection of his letters, which I am reading. This allows the project to extend into summer, at least. But I am not sure how I shall ‘place’ him, or whether I shall invent some scenarios for him. I toyed with the title ‘Partly Coleridge’ for a bit. The Labour Party seems to have escaped this work since Jeremy was buried, and Kier Starmer doesn’t appear at all. Maybe he’ll say something worth satirizing! I don’t think he will, though: he reminds me of a Madame Tussards of himself. I might make my narrator a Red Wall Tory (since HC himself was a Tory and an acclaimed anti-Democrat).
So it’s onwards, but near I’m the end. You have two volumes to be getting on with, while I finish these. I might not hurry, but I shall continue the posting of the poems here (that’s all become a part of the ritual of producing these poems, as well as a way of dealing with their contemporary content). It is, I can tell you, quite invigorating to write poems that I don’t engender in this way.
I began work on the book British Standards in pre-Covid 2020, but post-Brexit Independence Day. Both of those ‘issues’ are important to it. And the first remains so, even with the fact that several vaccines are on their way, and have been delivered into your author’s aching arm, though they now have to fight against a stronger strain of the virus, the ‘English Strain’ one might even call it, though I take no pleasure in that pun (and less in ‘the Liverpool Strain’ that appeared briefly in the news. That caused my one lockdown breakdown).
The first section of British Standards was finished late March 2020, just after the (first) lockdown was belatedly, fatally for some, announced. For this, I transposed poems from 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: https://robertsheppard.blogspot.com/2020/03/the-last-of-my-wordsworth-versions-in.html. There are links to online publication of some of the poems too (as there are in many of these links).
Then followed ‘14 Standards’, the lockdown poems (quite a few online now, some of those coming out in the States soon, and one in Tears in the Fence 73\:Pages: Two new poems from British Standards published in Tears in the Fence 73 (robertsheppard.blogspot.com) , and in turn, two additional ‘Double Standards’ about the now-departed Cum’s disgraceful lockdown infringements – I transposed a couple of Shelley’s sonnets – and his elitist refusal of apology and regret. See here for all 16 ‘standards’ (and links to online publication): http://robertsheppard.blogspot.com/2020/05/robert-sheppard-14-standards-from.html . Shelley’s poems are threaded singly through British Standards,
‘Tabitha and Thunderer’, interventions in the sonnet sequence ‘Sappho and Phaon’ by Mary Robinson, followed, and they may be read about (with video) here: https://robertsheppard.blogspot.com/2020/09/my-transpositions-of-mary-robinsons.html
The Keats poems are called ‘Weird Syrup’. The first 7 are entitled ‘Contrafacts and Counterfactuals from Keats’, the last 7, ‘Curtal Song-Nets from Junkets’.
This post operates as a hub post about the Keats transpositions: https://robertsheppard.blogspot.com/2020/11/weird-syrup-final-keats-variation.html
As might be gathered from what I have said in this post, British Standards, as a whole, presents transpositions of admired sonnets of the Romantic period, from William Bowles to Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Chronologically, they broadly lie between those of Charlotte Smith, which I’ve already worked on here, https://robertsheppard.blogspot.com/2019/07/more-english-strain-poems-overdubs-of.html