History or Sleep: Robert Sheppard, Shearsman

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Robert Sheppard is probably one of the most important poets writing in Britain at the moment. A big claim for a poet you’ve probably never heard of; but I think I can justify it. He is important as a leading member of the grouping of experimental poets that have been called “linguistically innovative”, and as a thinker about what experimental poetry is and does at this point in literary history.

But the poetry itself, not just the criticism, is what he will be remembered for. And it’s a challenging, but not insuperably difficult, read that is mind-stretching and often surprisingly lyrical. The lyricism though is hard fought for; especially in the extracts from his major work, Twentieth Century Blues, which was a 10-year project in which everything he wrote was fitted into this “network” or even “root-system” of connections between poems and strands of poems radiating out and around the history of the 20th century. Thus, in poems like ‘Empty Diary, 1926’, we have references to significant events like the Great Strike of 1926:


     We push cars on their sides, jeering

     them out


                        coal lorries with police guards

      smoulder outside the depot’s gates and


      nervous clerks in tin hats salute debutantes

      peeling spuds with bloodless fingers


but this is more than just description; there is a strong political awareness, both of the world and of the way language is used to limit as well as expand awareness.

Sheppard is constantly reinventing what a poem can do. In this comparatively modest selection, there are 100-word sonnets, prose poems, “fictional poems” (poems as written by an imaginary poet), and two sections from his book of “autrebiographies”, Words Out of Time (a book you should also try and get hold of, by the way) as well as free verse. There is political verse such as the unrhymed sonnets of Warrant Error (say it fast).

“Restless energy” is the phrase that comes to mind, but even that doesn’t convey the nature of these poems. Sheppard’s craft is meticulous, but it never stays in one place for long, is constantly on the move looking for the next linguistic package to deliver what he has to say. Here’s the first verse of the first section of ‘The Lores’, a central section of Twentieth Century Blues, ‘Book 1: Time Capsule’ to give a flavour of the speed of it:


     The time capsule’s

     contract with the

     future, the Eugenics’

     Court with its

     injections, co-opts us

     to a selective

     history: as soon

     as the population

     is trafficking clatters

     the shutters down

     the laws of

     motion beyond its

     jurisdiction, unceased husks

     in lightning streaks


Note how the three-word lines compel the reader to work out the syntax while they’re reading, and also moves them on down the poem without giving them time to rest.

This is an important collection; but it’s only a taster of the whole body of work. I could go on to talk of his investigation of the poetics of sex in his poems after Rochester, or his understanding of music. This book constantly challenges the reader to think more and to see more. If you want to move beyond the mainstream, with its polite voices and constrained language, this is the book to take you there.

Steven Waling


Robert Sheppard, History or Sleep: Selected Poems, Shearsman, £9.95



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