To celebrate Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary, Live Canon invited 154 contemporary poets to respond to the 154 sonnets. Each new poem sits facing the sonnet from which it took inspiration.
The resulting anthology is a stunning collection of contemporary work in its own right, and a fitting celebration of the inspiration Shakespeare has given to latter poets over the last 400 years.
Robin Houghton was one of the poets selected to respond to a sonnet and having read hers I asked her about the process.
“In autumn 2015 Poetry News had a call out for poems responding to one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, and I wrote two in response to Sonnet 86, the last of the ‘rival poet’ sequence in which the writer bemoans how another poet is attempting to outdo him in the affections of his muse. It’s addressed to the youth – ‘all too precious you’ – and although it seems to praise the skill of the other poet who he claims writes ‘above all mortal pitch’ no-one is fooled. The sonnet is crammed with sexual innuendo and thinly disguised slurs, with a morose if slightly whiny ending:
But when your countenance filled up his line,
Then lacked I matter, that enfeebled mine.
In terms of writing a response, the sonnet appealed to me partly because it wasn’t one of the obvious ones to choose, and because I enjoy the wit and melodrama – the sonnet is addressed to the muse and yet meant for the rival poet to read, and we (the wider audience) get to see dirty linen aired in public for our entertainment. We can also speculate on the identities of the characters and the hidden meanings in the verse. Opinions on the poem are split, different arguments offered, sides taken. Reality TV for the Elizabethan era.
My first response poem was in the voice of the ‘ungrateful’ muse, accusing the poet of professional jealousy rather than love. It was straightforward pastiche, in Shakespearean sonnet form but conversational language, a bit jokey. I wasn’t surprised that this didn’t appeal to the Shakespeare scholar who judged the Poetry News entries!
The second poem, from the point of view of the rival poet, was first entitled ‘Sharing the Muse’. I kept to fourteen lines, but in couplets as part of the binary theme. I had in mind the Biblical test of maternal love in Solomon’s offer to split the baby. Each stanza works through the body parts of which there are pairs, until we reach the heart of the muse.
This poem didn’t make the Poetry News cut either – but I subsequently received some insightful feedback on it in a Hastings Stanza workshopping session, which resulted in some fine tuning. It was thanks to Antony Mair, the Hastings Stanza rep, that I was invited to submit to the 154 anthology. He had been at a Live Canon event and Helen Eastman asked if he would contribute a response to a Shakespeare sonnet for a forthcoming anthology – and he kindly suggested she invite me too. So I submitted the worked-up version of ‘Sharing the Muse’.
The final poem clearly owes a debt to Swift’s ‘A Modest Proposal’ and I hope the change of title reflects this. If the poem conveys a modicum of dark humour in the spirit of the original sonnet, and even a tiny fraction of its sly wit, I’d be very happy.”
A Suggestion from The Rival Poet
I see you are in pain, but no-one needs
a pair of anything, it’s too much. So – let’s share
his beauty. One all too precious blue eye
each, I’ll take the right, since the plan is mine,
and you are (as you say) the lesser poet,
so you shall have what’s left. Likewise his hands –
I hear your own preferences verge on sinister,
and he may stroke me all the better with
his right. Let him stand on one leg for you,
the other for me, for he is – oh! – a mean
hopper. Then the body’s long lean muscles:
fillet his thighs and scythe his chest apart,
let’s watch the dark life of him quiver as we
fight over and feast on his splintered heart.
Robin and a number of poets are reading from this collection on Monday 28th November at The Troubadour.
Isobel Dixon also contributed to the anthology and she explains her involvement:
“I love commissions and the way the imagination is fired in the crucible of a deadline, but in a very busy time after agreeing to the 154 commission, I dithered about my choice of sonnet, until there were only a few of the lesser known options left. Castigating myself for indecision and my hubris in accepting the task and way too close to the deadline, which I was also now cursing, I sat down with Sonnet 148 and its opening lines: “O me! what eyes hath love put in my head,/Which have no correspondence with true sight!” – and then that mysterious force of the subconscious did the rest, more swiftly than I anticipated. If only it were ever thus.”
“What use is the eye to the one who loves?”
On Sonnet 148
What use is the eye to the one who loves?
May as well stumble blindfold from the first,
knowing how keenly light and shape deceive
when the heart is gripped, how much what’s wished
is what’s perceived. The line of a wrist, his crisp,
white sleeve – whole cities have fallen for less
than this. And wandering, lost, in ardour’s mist,
you miss the vital signs: that sigh, curled lip,
how ready suddenly he is to up and leave.
But that’s to come. This rumpled sheet
flags your surrender, you breathe the cleaving
essences – for now, love, ignorance is bliss.
The steady gaze you once believed you had
is just a fallacy. You close your eyes to kiss.
O me! what eyes hath love put in my head,
Which have no correspondence with true sight!
Or, if they have, where is my judgment fled,
That censures falsely what they see aright?
If that be fair whereon my false eyes dote,
What means the world to say it is not so?
If it be not, then love doth well denote
Love’s eye is not so true as all men’s: no,
How can it? O how can love’s eye be true,
That is so vexed with watching and with tears?
No marvel then, though I mistake my view;
The sun itself sees not till heaven clears.
O cunning love! With tears thou keep’st me blind,
Lest eyes well seeing thy foul faults should find.
Mark A. Hill, Antony Dunn, Doreen Hinchliffe, Michael Kelleher, Seán Hewitt, Lorraine Mariner, NJ Hynes, Miriam Nash, Mel Pryor, Becky Cullen, Ali Lewis, Christopher North, Andrew Rudd, Miranda Peake, Andrew George, Maeve Henry, Tim Richardson, Abigail Parry, Peter Kenny, Konstandinos Mahoney, Jon Stone, Rosie Shepperd, Marcus Smith, Conrad Kemp, Mark D. Cooper, William Wyld, Pat Borthwick, Anita Pati, Oliver Mantell, Mike Di Placido, Eoghan Walls, Becky Edwards, Matt Barnard, Marilyn Daish, Charles Evans, Sue Wrinch, Nick MacKinnon, Sophie Reynolds, Arji Manuelpillai, Iain Batchelor, Gordon Fudge, Graham Goddard, PJ Heinz, Robert Powell, James Nash, Kelley Swain, Jo Reed Turner, Richard O’ Brien, Liane Strauss, Bill Haugse, David Bowe, Francesco Aresco, Mark Leech, Anthony Fisher, Edwina Attlee, David Underdown, Matt Riker, Antony Mair, Matthew Stoppard, Mark Fiddes, Stephen Sharkey, JL Williams, Rachel Barnett-Jones, Di Slaney, Miles Salter, Sarah Diamond, Jacqueline Saphra, Simon Scardifield, Jonathan Davidson, Arrianne Destiney, Henry Stead, Paul Helliwell, Tim O’Leary, Jane McCarthy Wilkinson, Hitomi Yu, Kesha Sandon, Jo Brandon, Joshua Ip, Deanna Rodger, Rachel Plummer, Katy Evans-Bush, Emer Gillespie, Theophilus Kwek, Alexander Velky, Robbie Burton, Robin Houghton, Kate Venables, Sue Rose, Richy Campbell, Pooja Nansi, Nick Makoha, Mary Jean Chan, David Clarke, Mandy Sutter, Hilary Watson, William Doreski, Aileen La Tourette, Geraldine Clarkson, , Mark Huband, Helena Johnson, Van Badham, Hamid Khanbhai, David Attwooll, James Peake, Penny Boxall, leoemercer, Rebecca Russell, Ann Kelley, Gus Simonovic, James Penn, Shomit Dutta, Anna Kisby, Amy Neilson Smith, Simon Barraclough, Stav Poleg, MD Anson, Lesley Saunders, Charlotte Amos, Mo Jones, James Miller, Siobhan Harvey, Oz Hardwick, Fats White, Rosie Johnston, Nona Charles, Natalya Anderson, Valerie Darville, Mab Jones, Loraine Saacks, Charles Barber, Brian Deen, Emma Stirling, Jaz McKenzie, Nick Eisen, Gillie Robic, Muhammad Salim, Jo Sanders, James Trevelyan, Anne Smith, Josephine Corcoran, Arthur Fox, Debby Grayson, Charley Alldridge, Tessa Foley, Isobel Dixon, Nick Alldridge, Suzannah Evans, Barney Norris, John Challis, Rosamund Taylor, Emma Simon