As you know, this year marks the quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s death. Various commemorative events have already taken place worldwide and more are planned for the rest of the year.
An innovative way of paying tribute to the Bard that the British came up with is the so-called Sonnet Exchange. Over a hundred British poets were asked to choose a sonnet by Shakespeare, out of the 154 he had written, and write a poem in response. The poem could be – but need not be -- a sonnet. The response poems were then published in an anthology.
The idea was then adopted by Alchemy, an annual festival spread over a week and a half in May, at the Southbank Centre, a massive cultural hub on the Thames that describes itself as ‘the largest single-run arts centre in the world’. The express purpose of Alchemy is to celebrate South Asian culture, and that includes everything from food to fashion, with generous servings of high culture thrown in.
I got an email asking if I would be interested in participating in Alchemy’s Sonnet Exchange, which would be co-sponsored by the British Council. Besides me there would be a poet from India (Sampurna Chatterji), and two poets of South Asian origin from Britain (Imtiaz Dharkar and Daljit Nagra). I agreed with alacrity.
My sonnet of choice was Number 66, which my good friend Laetitia Zecchini, the Sorbonne-based specialist in South Asian poetry in English, aptly described as ‘a dark sonnet’. It is unlike any of the others, in its ‘dark’ content as well as its distinctive technique. It describes a corrupt world, very much like our own; the speaker would gladly choose death if death did not mean leaving his beloved behind. The litany of charges against the speaker’s world is presented in a series of disturbing images, with the 10 middle lines beginning in an anaphoric ‘And’; the sustained parallelism looks forward to Walt Whitman; at least so it seems to me.
I did not want to write a sonnet, though; the form is too tight for my comfort. Also, I feel that Anglophone South Asians are not born to the iambic pentameter; nor for that matter are Americans; our cadences are different. But I still wished to establish some sort of a relationship to the sonnet form. Now, an English sonnet has 14 iambic pentameter lines, i.e. 140 syllables. My compromise was to write a poem titled ‘An English Sonnet=140 Syllables’. My 140 syllables are spread over 24 lines; the dominant rhythm is iambic, but there is no rhyme.
I also tried something new in my work. I eschewed normal punctuation and only used dashes. In this my exemplar is Emily Dickinson, whose innovative, dash-strewn verse has long fascinated me. Her dashes have several functions. She can use a dash instead of a colon; she can use a pair of dashes to put something in parenthesis; she can use a dash simply to mark a pause or a period. Using a dash to signify a pause, to my mind, anticipates the Black Mountain poets’ prosodic innovation of Projective Verse.
Our event at Alchemy took place one pleasant weekend afternoon over an hour and a quarter at the Clore Ballroom of the Royal Festival Hall. The place was packed. Our readings and discussion and the subsequent Q&A went well; and a delightful visual dimension was added by the projection of a graphic version of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 done by our very own Nuhash Humayun.
This is the first page of Nuhash Humayun's graphic interpretation of Sonnet 130. The full sonnet was released at Alchemy Festival Sonnet Exchange event in the Clore Ballroom, Southbank Centre, 29th May.
Kaiser Haq's response to Shakespeare
Kaiser chose Shakespeare's Sonnet 66 (‘Tired with all these, for restful death I cry’), which too is printed below, as his starting point.
AN ENGLISH SONNET=140 SYLLABLES
‘Can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see?’
John Gray, Straw Dogs
To be is to see –
Eye can never tire
Of the passing show –
Everything a tad worse
Each morning –
Visibly – white-hot sun
Blinding eyes with sweat –
Blinkingly you read –
A poet’s retraction
Of satirical verses –
Headlines packed with lies –
Hear the growl of motorbike –
Killer or cop – who knows –
While the perennial masque goes on
For those who’ve made a killing –
To face the tide is folly
But if you’ll join me
Together we’ll take note of things
So long as we can breathe –
So what if one can’t tell
Substance from shadow –
Feeling around’s always been fun –
Call it love
Or what you will
by William Shakespeare
Tired with all these, for restful death I cry,
As, to behold desert a beggar born,
And needy nothing trimm'd in jollity,
And purest faith unhappily forsworn,
And guilded honour shamefully misplaced,
And maiden virtue rudely strumpeted,
And right perfection wrongfully disgraced,
And strength by limping sway disabled,
And art made tongue-tied by authority,
And folly doctor-like controlling skill,
And simple truth miscall'd simplicity,
And captive good attending captain ill:
Tired with all these, from these would I be gone,
Save that, to die, I leave my love alone.