Saturday, 8 June 2013

Return to poetry after several months' blogging

When I had my sequence of love sonnets professionally assessed in late January there were 29 poems, and I've since thought on what was discussed that day resulting in a number of additions and reworkings. There are now 38 poems in the sequence and I have also changed the title of the sequence from 'You' to 'Sovereign Fire', which better embodies what I have been trying to achieve. I think it does, anyway. In any case, the time that has passed since I last worked on the sequence - immediately after I spoke with Elspeth on 22 January this year - and the critical clarity afforded precisely by that passage of time, has meant a fuller thematic scope that reaches out to the reader in a more focused way.

Since March I have been spending most of my writing time on this blog, which has been very enjoyable as well as objectively useful (pageviews jumped from around 11,000 in February to around 19,000 in May; this month promises to see the total slip well past 20,000). I have covered a lot of different topics but recently, especially this month, I have concentrated on literature and, more precisely, on periodisation, which is a lot of fun. But suddenly I felt drawn back to the sonnet sequence. This is probably a result of thematic exhaustion; the periodising took me so far but I reached a kind of plateau. But above all I hate routine (although I'm a creature of habit in my daily life) and so one day I found myself reaching for Elspeth's written notes. These had finally arrived; as the March blogpost linked to above remarks, those notes failed to arrive. In fact they kept on not arriving for several months, and that was partly the reason why I stopped working on the sonnets.

That's the background to my return to poetry. As for the italicised bits in that first paragraph ...

It gets back to the issue of critical distance. In a sense, this is what separates writing you enjoy from writing you do not enjoy. Elspeth pointed to some thematic components of the original sequence that she said she wanted to see explored more extensively. I took this as a valid critical insight, and then I tried to work out how to develop one of those particular themes more fully; this was the theme of the relationship that the love object entered after ours had ended. (The entire sequence of poetry looks at a relationship as well as the narrator's own feelings toward the love object.) And there was another theme that Elspeth said she wanted to see interrogated more; this was the theme of the friendship that developed out of the relationship between the narrator and the love object. So there were two components that had been briefly introduced but not examined too closely. In the additional poems I wrote recently those themes are developed, giving a fuller thematic scope. Because they do this in order to address possible questions that a reader might generate in his or her mind (and, in fact, which did appear in Elspeth's mind when she read the sequence), the sequence now is more focused on the reader. I hope you understand all this.

The matter of the new title is interesting, furthermore, because the word 'sovereign' suddenly appeared as I was rewriting one of the very early sonnets in the sequence, in fact it was number three, originally written on 16 December 2007, and is titled 'New love'. There was a problem of gravitas in the first two quatrains of this sonnet, and also a problem of focus - how the poem bridges the gap between the reader and the writer - that was causing me to have reservations. Once I'd established the phrase "sovereign fire" though, it was easy to propagate it and use it in other places in the sequence; there are now five occurrences of the word "sovereign" in the sequence. This is a literary technique, I guess: the use of keywords to generate a sense of continuity, highlight the importance of changes that have occurred, and lend a seriousness to the whole enterprise.

As an aside, I like the use of the word "sovereign" since there is a quote in the sequence from Robert Herrick, a 17th century poet, who wrote (I think) such pretty love poetry, and who was a royalist. In fact, it was the loss of his clerical living after the army commanded by Charles I was defeated by that of the Parliament, that caused him to relocate to London and to publish there his collected poetry, which was titled Hesperides. I note these facts in my introduction, as well as the fact that my battered edition of Herrick's poems was published in London in 1902, the year Virginia Woolf was 20 years old. (Woolf's father was a historian, by the way.) The year Herrick's book appeared, 1648, of course, was a long time after Shakespeare wrote his famous sonnets. That was in the last years of the previous century. As in Herrick's case, external events - in Shakespeare's case an outbreak of the plague, which caused the authorities to shut the theatres - led that fine writer to bring out a collection of sonnets, again in London.

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