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Robert Sheppard

Updated: Jul 17, 2021

Poet-critic Robert Sheppard is the author and editor of numerous books of poetry. He has recently published two volumes of his ‘English Strain’ project, which transpose sonnets from the English tradition into contemporary and political forms: The English Strain (Shearsman, 2021) and Bad Idea (Knives Forks and Spoons, 2021). Other recent collections include HAP: Understudies of Thomas Wyatt’s Petrarch (Knives Forks and Spoons 2018), Unfinish (Veer, 2016) and History or Sleep (Shearsman, 2015), a selection of poems which spans from his 1985 collection, Returns (Textures), to his autobiographical Words Out of Time (Knives Forks and Spoons, 2015). He is the editor of Twitters for a Lark: The Poetry of the European Union of Imaginary Authors (Shearsman, 2017), The Salt Companion to Lee Harwood (2007) and co-editor with James Byrne of Atlantic Drift: An Anthology of Poetry and Poetics (EHUP/ Arc, 2017). His most recent work of criticism is The Meaning of Form in Contemporary Innovative Poetry (Palgrave, 2016). He is Emeritus Professor at Edge Hill University where he taught Creative Writing and is former editor of the Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry. You can keep up with him on his blogzine, Pages, and on twitter @microbius !

Enjoy these poems from Weird Syrup: Overdubs of sonnets from John Keats and Sheppard's lively readings of them. They are part of the third volume of his 'English Strain' project that is in the works, British Standards.


If by dull rhymes our English must be chained

If rhyme’s a crime, it

fetters Bo to Go, leaves

The musty song-net a

dungeon with

Whips and gags (and

Covid-Secure handwash). So

I’ve taken insoles

from my slippers,

Put in my own, Oulipean

constraints to

Curtail this slipping on

dead leaves. Let’s

Inspect the liar and

his new Tier 3

Rules. I leave the house

in my homemade mask for

Contactless commerce with

my boundless Muse. If

Bo may not set

the English free

(they’ll tie themselves in nots

22nd October 2020


Fame, like a wayward girl, will still be coy

As we fall

for a footballer with balls,

the unpopular populist

goes POP! Wooing

with lunch pack,

kneeling like a euro-slave,

shy Bo licks

the heels of ‘scandalous’

Dame Dido, Mistress

Ozymandias from

Carry On Up the Sphinx!

I’ll not speak of those

who will not learn to

govern with consent.

Bo’s jilted Burnham, his

luscious eyebrows,

his rugged cagoul,

his lockdown logic.

You poets with prizes



lunchbox ‘content’

if she likes you on

Twitter she’ll follow you back

28th October 2020


O thou! whose face hath felt the winter’s wind

Hey, red face, out in the

Storm, have you seen

Hail pelting windscreens

Like spore balls? Anti-

Vaxxer, feasting on the dark

Web’s fly, free-speeching


MY FIST! Christ-

Mas shall be your season,

Shopping and disease.

Don’t fret after knowledge: I

Claim negative capability,

Like a Test and Trace

Consultant peddling my ignorance,

Or a Brexpert who thinks

A thought of free trade

Cannot be traded

Free! They’re only arguably

Asleep who think

Themselves awake

(I wouldn’t know * 4th November 2020


*One reads Keats’s term ‘negative capability’ like Olson read it, as the willed suspension of the lyrical ego, and it is that, but the whole passage, in his letter of December 1817, needs to be read circumspectly. It alerts one not just to Coleridge’s oppositional ‘positive capability’ (as nobody calls it); Keats’s supposition of ‘a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery’ is surely a parody of the turbocharged certainty one finds in Coleridge, man and writer. Abstruse neologistic motormouthism for a simple fact.

Faced with that, I think I would fold my self away like an untouched picnic hamper and assume the protean trans-inhabitable haunting that Keats sees as the essence of Shakespeare’s being. Borges is more to the point when he calls this the essence of Shakespearean quality ‘everything and nothing’, the man ‘many and no one’, the writing multiple and singular. Not neutrality, but neutral capability.

‘O fret not after knowledge!’ doesn’t imply turning from knowledge at all. Keats had the kind of medical knowledge we rely upon so much at the moment; he never disparaged that, or his conscious knowledge of the English poets, of whom he wished to be ‘among’. He didn’t ‘have none’ of knowledge, as his sonnet’s narrator claims (twice), but he did risk ‘being in uncertainties’. ‘Fretting’ for it is neither a passive ‘thirst’ for knowledge, nor an active ‘pursuit’ of it: it is an anxiety that paralyses its acquisition, thwarts the efficacy of knowledge gained.

In these times, I think of Bertrand Russell’s summary of the ethics in Stefan Themerson’s writing: ‘The world contains too many people believing too many things, and it may be that the ultimate wisdom is contained in the precept that the less we believe, the less harm we shall do.’



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