I am no great reader of theoretical approaches to poetry but the name of the author of this one suggested something rather more exciting. I wasn’t disappointed! Of course when I first thought about reading this recent publication the well-worn quotation from Creeley to Olson about ‘form is never more than an extension of content’ sprang to mind. I have lived with this phrase for years and have often associated it in my mind with that early line from Blake’s ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’:
‘Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy’
What I like about this new book by Robert Sheppard is the way in which I am taken back to the poems themselves (or the prose in the case of Veronica Forrest-Thomson) with that clear sense of what is at stake,
‘…the agency of form: how it extends, reveals or – in my terms – enacts, enfolds, and becomes content.’
This book is about how we read poetry and it is refreshing to hear Sheppard say that ‘form’ cannot be held any longer ‘to be a simple opposite to content, a vase containing water, or even a cloud permeated with moisture.’ As a former school-master I am delighted to read the reference to Wallace Stevens’s wry note ‘The poem is the poem, not its paraphrase’. That quotation itself should be given to all teachers of poetry to pin up in their classrooms!
There are chapters in this book dealing with, amongst many others, Tim Atkins and Peter Hughes, Rosemarie Waldrop, Geraldine Monk, Allen Fisher, Bill Griffiths and Barry MacSweeney. There is a chapter on ‘Translation as Transformation’ and it reads as if Sheppard had his copy to hand of Yves Bonnefoy’s The Curved Planks, translated by Hoyt Rogers with its terrific afterword about the French poet and the ‘Art of Translation’. Paraphrasing Mallarmé Rogers suggested that translations are not made with images , but with words, and goes on to refer to a letter sent him by Bonnefoy in which the focus is on the French word “bateau” which corresponds well with “boat”. In his poetry Bonnefoy often used the word “barque” but an English equivalent (“bark” or “barque”) simply won’t do since the word is far more unusual in our language. When Rogers settled for the word “boat” he recognised that the French “barque” was evocative because, as Bonnefoy put it, ‘between the consonants the vowel forms the same dark hollow we see in a boat between the curved planks of the prow and the stern’. In his translation Rogers settled for “boat” which itself has an accumulated lyric connotation through a precedent such as The Prelude with its episode of the stolen boat. In this chapter on ‘Translation as Transformation’ Robert Sheppard looks at the practice of rendering poetry from one language into another in terms of a textual engagement, a reading, a response to the original and suggests that ‘Poetry is what is found in translation, as we shall see’.
It was a delight to see a chapter on what I find the bizarre but intriguing world of Stefan Themerson, a world ‘like that of Lewis Carroll…in which logic and poetry wrestle’. In considering the building of cathedrals Themerson writes:
is the thought
of its buttresses’
An example of how Robert Sheppard prompts the reader into thinking closely about the poetry being read can be exemplified by the provocative consideration of Paul Batchelor’s Bloodaxe anthology of essays, Reading Barry MacSweeney (2013) and MacSweeney’s 1997 Bloodaxe publication, The Book of Demons where
‘…readers face two models of poesis, each of which may be seen doubly. The ‘Pearl’ poems, focused upon the figure of a mute young girl as reported by the suffering ‘Bar’, are either read as rich post-Wordsworthian pastoral or as sentimental bucolic. The second half of the volume, the contrasting ‘The Book of Demons’, is read either as the self-indulgent mythologizing of an alcoholic about alcoholism, or as evidence of MacSweeney’s deep, raw honesty about dependency and its attendant psychological horrors.’
Robert Sheppard’s book is one to keep dipping into: it prompts you to want to go back to sources whilst at the same time it offers advice about how to read poetry. It is no mere accident that the first chapter should look closely at Veronica Forrest-Thomson, the critic whose question was always ‘how do poems work’. Referring to the posthumous collection from 1976, On the Periphery, the question for Sheppard remains ‘how will the poems be made?’
Ian Brinton 21st October 2016