... let's talk about Shakespeare's sonnets!
Well, let's start with a totally non-academic fact - my Mum, Margaret Fox, shared her birthday with William Shakespeare (23rd April not the year, obviously). This may not seem very important in the great scheme of things but it mattered to me because Margaret (1924-2010) was a huge fan of the one they call 'the bard' (the one by whom all poets in English shall be judged... 1564-1616). She particularly loved going to the Royal Shakespeare Company theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon - she would go for a few days whenever she could, see play after play after play and think she was in heaven. She was a bit of a culture vulture (and a some time snob, it must be said) and so the RSC was her idea of top entertainment (well, that and Saturday night TV... ). Part of the reason she loved the RSC and all that went with it was that she'd had an odd, and in many ways hard, upbringing in the 1930s without a lot of cultural content and I know she loved to experience that 'look at me, enjoying Shakespeare, this is life as it should be lived' feeling. I used to gently take the piss out of her for it ('my snobby mother, ha!' - easy target) but she was perfectly entitled to her feelings and really I could have let it go (though of course she got me back regularly by making faces at what she saw as my own low culture tastes and life choices... she once said 'I think you could do better than poetry, dear'! Ouch...).
Anyway, this spring, in the last week or so of Mum's life, I kept trying to read to her when it got to the point where she was restless and fed up but couldn't read to herself any more (she'd always been a devoted reader). After several false starts I realised that just a page or so of a Shakespeare play would do it (the nearest one on the bookshelf was 'Twelfth Night') and as soon as I started to read it aloud her face relaxed and I could see that it was just the thing she wanted to hear. I could see that it made her happy ('my life still has culture! I may be dying but I still have this and I am not in an old people's home listening to “Eastenders” or bingo numbers'). Also it reminded her of happy times and it helped her to fall asleep (very quickly – she was hardly sleeping at night). Overall I'm pleased I thought to do it – it is a happy memory from a pretty difficult time.
Like my mother, I too have loved Shakespeare's plays (well, the tragedies certainly). I studied several in school ('Macbeth', 'Hamlet', 'Measure for Measure') and I went to see those (and loads of others) when I was 16-18 and living in London. I was lucky enough to have good English teachers who really encouraged a love of the plays and though I've rarely gone back to Will's work since then I should think that the love of Macbeth's torments and Hamlet's confusions will be with me forever... in some form or another.
Shakespeare's sonnets though...all 154 of them... I've never really seen the attraction and therefore the new Faber & Faber edition of them (complete with commentary throughout from Scottish poet Don Paterson) was aimed precisely at people like me (oiks what are a bit cultured but not as much as they could be...). I bought the book a little while back and have been reading it steadily (I love Faber books... could lick them... though this one, I note with shock, has more typos than any book I've read in years! Disgraceful really.). The front cover looks like this:
So, what's my position now? Have the sonnets and all their talk of love found a place in my heart..? Or in my head..?
Well, for a start I must warn you that Paterson guides the reader in a very particular way and from the reviews it is apparent that some people like his approach more than others. The marvellous Adam Mars Jones (in the Guardian here) is pretty scathing but other reviews (here, here and here) are more positive. For me, the approach was... OK, quite more-ish, certainly not dull. He's slangy and funny about... 70% of the time... and then erudite and high-powered for the other 30% (but I managed to skim a lot of the latter... whenever he said 'anorak alert' I confess I did press fast-forward on the eyes hating, as I do, so much of that poetry-as-science-and-here-look-at-the-length-of-my-terminology business). As for the jokes, some were funny, some weren't but that is the way with jokes, I find, no matter who's tellin' 'em. Overall his chatting-to-a-mate-in-the-pub style worked for me in the simple sense that it got me through the book and that without it I'm not sure the sonnets themselves would have kept me reading (and yes, I do know you don't have to read them all at once but, on this occasion, I did... it was all or nothing). I was glad, I must admit, that Paterson had done all the background reading (so we oiks don't have to...) because lit. crit. has never been a place I've felt at home. Plus he's good with the vocabulary of the time (vital so you don't get the wrong end of the innuendo...) and in a good number of cases I found the explanations (just literally 'what the hell is this sonnet about?') necessary and helpful (even if I didn't always agree with all his decisions and directions). Now I come to think about it I disagreed with him fairly regularly but I suspect a lot of that is just to do with taste, life experience and the fact that I'm about as arrogant and temporarily overconfident as he is sometimes (or as his writing persona is sometimes anyway). As for where I disagreed... well, for a start I wasn't hugely keen on all the 'what poets do' and 'what poets think' that the commentary contained... as though they/we were all one happy band of campers working in the same way (I'm not sure that that could be any further from the truth...). Also he often hated the end couplets (last two lines) of the sonnets and found them unnecessary, whilst more often than not they were my favourite bit. Finally he wrote a lot about the whole 'Will's gay, Will hates women but still dabbles with them now and again' thing (for context purposes) and whilst I didn't necessarily disagree with what he said on that score I did feel he spent a lot more time talking about it than I really wanted him to (and I LOVE gays... and women...). The more he pondered 'who Will was shagging when' the more I found I just didn't want to try and come up with a 'what Will was doing at this point in this life' scenario (because we just don't know so it's like a game with no rules, no point, no end... and I'm a person who's interested in people, on the whole...). I know why he banged on about the gay content and issues so much (he feels other critics/commentators have ignored it, got it wrong etc.) but still it felt a bit forced to me at times... or a bit too matey somehow (in a 'hey, we all know what relationships are like, don't we, got gay friends, haven't we, eh?'). It's hard to explain why but this did get on my nerves and even a bit under my skin. Maybe DP and I just think about people and relationships in very different ways... or maybe I should have read the book more in snatches here and there... or maybe I moan too much (and not in a sexual way). Bloody readers - always moaning about something.
As for the poems themselves - Paterson is very clear in his 'some are good, some are not so good' commentary but try as I might I couldn't get very excited even about the ones he INSISTED were beyond compare. On this reading at least, I found again and again that I just didn't like these sonnets very much (the odd line here and there but not many whole poems). They seemed so nowt-but-showy, so in-the-knowy, so woe-is-me-oh-woey (must stop this now...). In fact I got so restless that I found myself playing a little game called 'give the sonnet a silly subtitle' (some of them 20th century song lyrics...). The more I read the more they made me long for the plays, for some substance, for some direction, for something (anything!) other than all this whining and obsessing with looks and beauty and 'oh, how time will ruin you my young bunion, but I'll still love you and commemorate you in me lovely verse' (and am I judging them by my own 21st Century silly sensibility... well yes, it appears so... but I can blame Paterson and his constant use of 21st century silly language and catchphrases throughout for that... innit though?). Perhaps one of the things about reading the sonnets was that I found them, as a whole, quite depressing, strangely hollow. For me, there seemed to be very little love in them at all (or at least little that I could recognise as love... and love has kind of been my life's work - we talked about love poetry back here, remember... though I suppose it could be partly the several hundred years time difference...). Or maybe it's that Shakespeare just didn't love anyone very well (men or women). Or maybe no-one loved him (that might explain the great tragedies...). Or maybe he just loved himself (that wouldn't be unheard of for a writer now would it?). But I'll stop there because, as I said, we'll never know. This may shock you but I struggled to find even one sonnet in the book that I'd like to copy and paste for you here – and that helped me understand why every time a newspaper has one of those 'print some famous people's favourite Shakespeare sonnets' I'm always bemused by all the choices (and yet I could print excerpts from his plays till the coos come hame). It's not even that I don't like sonnets and formal poems... anyone who reads here regularly will know that I do (50% of the time at least... I wrote a sonnet last post... and did I mention... save the villanelle! In fact email Faber and Faber to that effect if you don't mind – I'd like an anthology of them please by Easter!). In the end I picked this one (102) to share with you (it's all nightingales and 'I know I'm not writing about you as much as I used to but I still love you, honest, in fact it's more special now...'):
My love is strengthened, though more weak in seeming;
I love not less, though less the show appear.
That love is merchandized, whose rich esteeming
The owner's tongue doth publish everywhere.
Our love was new, and then but in the spring,
When I was wont to greet it with my lays
As Philomel in summer's front doth sing,
And stops her pipe in growth of riper days.
Not that the summer is less pleasant now
Than when her mournful hymns did hush the night;
But that wild music burthens every bough,
And sweets grown common lose their dear delight.
Therefore, like her, I sometime hold my tongue,
Because I would not dull you with my song.
So, there you have it – Shakespeare's sonnets 4 out of 10... must try harder. Would anyone even read them if it weren't for all the plays (controversial, sensationalist, moi?)? Maybe I'll feel a bit more rational about this in a month or two but it is interesting to note that this book partly came about because Paterson realised that, like many of us, he referred to Shakespeare's sonnets as 'classics' without really knowing them. Well, maybe there's a reason so many of us don't know them very well (and some of the ones we think we know we get completely back to front...). Maybe they're just not that classic. Maybe we worry about what is and what isn't 'classic' too much.
Anyway, to finish this broadcast I bring you something else about love but this time from that great cultural resource - 21st century TV (an episode from series 3 of the wonderful 'Six Feet Under', to be precise... could only find the bit I wanted with subtitles and an abrupt end...). We're a bit late to this series (as ever... so no spoilers for later series please) and this clip about love had me snivelling when I watched it last week. Coincidentally it's a gay character speaking here and the clip must be good because I enjoy it even though it has o'pra in it (I don't like o'pra much - my culture vulture Mum adored it of course...).
It's nearly Xmas, isn't it? Peace and joy to you all, peeps, and love too of course - good quality love.
Yeah, that'll take just a few minutes
59 minutes ago