For reasons not relevant here, I have been reading the sonnets of Shakespeare.
Of course, someone who claims an interest in poetry probably shouldn’t need a particular reason to read poetry, but I’m afraid I do find “the sonnets” uphill work – not all sonnets, but Shakespeare’s in particular.
Still, it’s given me an excuse to dig out some old pieces of my own to post. The first five are all at least ten years old and have been posted here on the blog before. Perhaps the repetition can be excused as I’m bringing them together.
The first, just for fun:
Voices from the past
My past has caught me up: this afternoon
I checked my e-mail, as I always do,
and found a message from an old flame who
I hadn’t seen since school. Out of the blue
a bolt that sends me tumbling through the years
to adolescent angst and teenage tears,
to poems scrawled in chalk while classmates jeer
and playground fights that fade when Sir appears.
I was his One True Love, there’d be no other.
At sixteen I was far too young: I fled.
But now he’s tracked me down; who needs the men
from Pinkerton’s when Google is your friend?
(Though Google’s failed me time and time again
in my attempts to trace his younger brother.)
This one won a prize and was published in Writing Magazine nearly ten years ago:
Do you remember how you used to tease,
kidnap my teddy, lock him in a drawer
or hang him from the banisters, ignore
my screams, my tears, my heartfelt ‘pretty please’?
You mocked me when I fell and scraped my knees;
mine was the losing side in every war
of cowboys, Indians, cops and robbers. Bored
you’d wander off and go and climb the trees
beyond my reach, and I’d be left alone.
Forgetting physical and mental pain
I’d wait impatiently beside the phone
until the next day, when we’d start again.
The years have passed but I still feel the same,
hoping against hope to join your games.
This also won a prize, was published in Brittle Star magazine, and is included in the sound archives of the Saison Poetry Library’s magazine collection:
(after Garcilaso de la Vega)
Love offered me a cloth so fine and rich,
with folds so ample, I could not refuse
but sewed myself a habit, stitch by stitch.
I find the garment shrinks with daily use:
its generous measures pucker and draw tight,
I suffocate where once I’d room to spare;
I stretch and strain to free myself, I fight,
yet still the precious fabric will not tear.
Come, show me one who wants to cut these ties –
these homespun tapes we fashion for our lives
to bind ourselves to husbands or to wives –
and I will show you one who’s spinning lies.
Each wears the cloth he wove, though I confess
I wonder if mine’s shroud or wedding dress.
This was published in a national women’s magazine when they still included poetry:
I’ve lost my glasses, without which I’m blind
as any clichéd pipistrelle. I’ve searched
in all the places that I knew they weren’t –
and I was right: they haven’t dropped behind
the tumble dryer, underneath the bed,
or in the trash; they aren’t perched on my head.
I’ve been through all the coats I never wear,
I even looked in John’s new jacket. There
I found a letter whose calligraphy
I didn’t know. Despite the cataracts,
my sight’s still good enough for me to read
a woman’s signature. So now, the fact
I’ve lost my specs no longer bothers me:
I’m focusing on other things, you see.
Trying to adapt a poem to a specific traditional form can be a useful way to reshape a free verse piece that straggles or doesn’t seem to have quite gelled. This was adapted from a much longer semi-prose poem and is a lot tighter than the original, although it really needs to be looked at again:
The flat shores of the estuary spread wide
to merge with fields where placid cattle graze
unpenned as winter turns to spring, and days
lengthen. Above, through clear skies, swallows glide
and, filigreed and pale as any bridal
finery, the blackthorn froths like lace.
Summer brings green fruits to crowd the spaces
left as blossoms fade. The season slides
to russet autumn; plum-dark sloes are glossed
with yeast; we pick them after the first frost,
then follow grandma’s special recipe
– sugar, almonds, gin – shake well and leave
three months, then strain and wait. Next Christmas Eve
it will be drunk – and so, I fear, shall we.
Sonnets are traditionally associated with love – hence the photo of love-in-a-mist at the start of the post. But as that last example showed, I don’t think they need to be limited to love poetry.
The next piece – finally a poem I haven’t posted here before! – is another that isn’t a love poem:
I’ve heard that killer’s cardigans are set
to take the fashion world by storm. Discreet
in wouldn’t-hurt-a-baby pastel hues
or trust-me rust and other solid shades
selected from the down-to-earth-tones range,
they’re superficially the same as countless
other woollies seen at WI
and ladies’ reading groups. But they conceal
assorted yarns, flounces, neat stitchery,
and linings bound with threads pulled tight, almost
to snapping point. Teamed with stiletto heels
they’re cutting edge. The fashionistas say
it takes a shared experience to know,
but cognoscenti recognise the brand.
As well as poetical failings of cliché, padding etc., I think all the examples posted here fail as sonnets in one or more particular: the location of the turn, the rhymes or rhyme scheme etc. That last one doesn’t even make an attempt at rhyme. But between them they’ve been worth around £700, and that can’t be bad.
Anyway, one thing my recent reading has reminded me is that one of “The Sonnets” is written in tetrameter and one only has 12 lines: even Shakespeare deviated from the standard forms occasionally.