I decided a number of years ago that I wouldn’t pass judgment on poems or collections other than to say that they didn’t work for me for whatever reason. I try to articulate those reasons when I review books or talk about poems, but sometimes the answer is as simple as “I am not the intended audience for this work.” Sometimes what I mean is that the poems aren’t making me work enough. That’s not to say I need poems to be deliberately obscure or hermetic or syntactically disjointed (tho I don’t often mind a bit of that), but I want to engage with the poem, and that means it can’t all be spelled out for me.
So I got this book in the mail a couple of days ago, and man, am I not the audience for it. That’s not unusual–I get a lot of books because I’ve been editing at The Rumpus for almost 10 years now, and I’m basically on every mailing list there is at this point. It’s titled Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Retold, and it’s a first book by a British writer named James Anthony who, based on the bio in the book, doesn’t have much in the way of formal training in poetry or writing. And I want to give him credit here–he did a lot of work on this project. He “translated” all 154 of Shakespeare’s sonnets into contemporary English, and kept the iambic pentameter and the three quatrains + closing couplet structure intact. But my problems with this work can be summed up by the description of the book on its back cover.
That third paragraph starts “This collection of masterful reinterpretations brilliantly demystifies and breathes new life into Shakespeare’s most personal work.” And that’s a completely fair description of what this book does. For example, see if you can guess which sonnet this is from the translation:
Don’t let me say two people cannot wed
By false constraint: love really isn’t real
If, when life changes, love becomes misled,
Or when apart, one doesn’t love with zeal.
Those are the opening lines of Sonnet 116. And yep, it demystifies the hell out of that poem. And this is what I mean about not being the audience for this poem. I’m sure there are people out there who have to read Shakespeare’s sonnets and are intimidated by it because of the language or because they think they don’t know how to read poems and this could be an entryway into Shakespeare’s sonnets for them. And fortunately, this book has the Shakespeare on the facing page for comparison, so said reader could possibly compare the two and perhaps recognize where the original has more subtlety and room for interpretation. At least that’s how I hope this book will be read, if someone is going to read it at all. I’d really rather people read Shakespeare and dig the mystery.