• P D Dawson

154 Poems by 154 Contemporary Poets by Live Canon Poetry (Poetry Review)

Updated: May 26



'Some follow closely to the Sonnet’s original meaning, and some go off on other tangents, imaginatively spinning themselves off of Shakey’s words and delving into the present.'

Live Canon are an ensemble of performers who recite poems from memory and who often appear at theatres, festivals and events throughout the UK. They have also recorded poetry for cd’s, radio, and worked on poetry installations, as well as digital projects. They have also released a number of poetry collections, one of which concerns this review. All of this is admirable and inspiring, for it just shows that poetry is not a dead art, and it never will be as long as people continue to enjoy poetry, and that there are ensembles around like Live Canon to think of new and exciting ways to explore the medium, and to educate both the young and old to its joys.

To celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, Live Canon have come up with a rather exciting, and as far as I’m aware, novel idea to pitch contemporary poetry alongside the great bard’s Sonnets. I would suggest this is an ambitious and risky project to undertake, as not too many people would like to pit their poetic talents against those unquenchable and long enduring works of Shakespeare, but much to my delight, it’s a risk Live Canon obviously felt was worth taking.

Firstly, the great thing about this release is the fact that even if the additional poems that run alongside Shakespeare’s Sonnets were not any good, you would still have the originals, which is a treat in itself. And to that end this review will not take into account the quality of the original Sonnets, but will instead focus on the contemporary poems running alongside them. This in itself is a difficult task as there are many different authors and a plethora of approaches taken by each. So then this will be more of a summary of the book as a whole, though I hope to comment on a few individual poems that moved me most, either by their startling originality, or by the breadth and depth of the emotions they portray.


Some of the poets in this collection have chosen to stick with the Sonnet form, but some, in fact I would say a little over half, have chosen a different form. These range from free verse to Tanka and all forms in-between, and I think for the most part this is a great thing. It certainly adds to the variety and feel of the anthology. In terms of the differing approaches and the opposition held against the original themes running through Shakespeare’s Sonnets, we have contradictory, modernising, politicizing, celebratory, explicatory, allegorical, and humorous evocations, as well as explicit rendering of new meanings. I couldn’t help but smile at the freedom allowed by the Sonnets themselves, for they are rather contradictory in that they appear to be both equivocally ambiguous and unambiguous at the same time, paradoxically clear and yet unclear. This leaves scope for a certain amount of freedom therefore, but that doesn’t make things easy, only that it gives freedom for the poet to indulge their imagination.

In Doreen Hinchliffe’s Sonnet 3, Immortality, she writes that it is better to live on in the pen than to bear a child – Die childless / Leave black ink when you are gone / Then, white as snow, your essence will live on. In terms of modernising a Sonnet’s original meaning, take Lorraine Mariner’s Sonnet 6, Posterity, in which she takes the theme of winter’s ragged hand taking away beauty, and replaces it with the vanity of ageing actors - of actors we once desired / before their divorce / the botched facial work. These are brilliant examples of altering the original meaning and transmuting them into modern thought.

Then some are just great examples of contemporary poetry too. I love the witty, complex and ubiquitous words of Anita Pati as she considers Shakespeare’s Sonnet 28 with lines like – You Twitter in my ears a mating coo / and digitise your Rati everywhere. Or in opposition the sublime rhyme and dark correlations in Becky Edwards’ Sonnet 32 – And yet it’s you survives me; far beyond / The feeble dust that Death laid on your grave. Then we get to the explicit and humourous words of Gordon Fudge in Sonnet 41 with lines like – So fella. Dude / You’re shaggin’ my bird yeah? And one of my favourites is Anthony Fisher’s sonnet 54 with amazingly bright, rich and evocative lines like – I bathe in deep dye from velveteen petals / spin in your sweet summer’s breath.


Mairin O'Hagan performs Shakespeare's Sonnet 52, from Live Canon's you tube channel.

There is even a poem that touches on current political themes such as in Sarah Diamond’s sonnet 66 – And decency is unelectable, derided as detestable / But Donald Trump wins votes with every US state. And then we can also just settle for endearing words, such as Jonathan Davidson’s in sonnet 69 – The ornamental lake, their rich feathers white / And weightless, their gains our subtle loss. Or perhaps just for the haunting, as Mark Husband evokes images about time’s passing – Will we speak again / when morning’s silence passes into dreams / of that eternity we shaped in Vain?

There are many more later on in the book that I would love to quote but, through fear of being repetitious, I shall refrain. I do however highly encourage you to seek this anthology out, for not only are you getting Shakespeare’s wonderful Sonnets of old, you are also given a chance to explore the contemporary poet and his/her take on those words. Some follow closely to the Sonnet’s original meaning, and some go off on other tangents, imaginatively spinning themselves off of Shakey’s words and delving into the present. In fact one stunning effect of reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets and immediately after the modern day accompanying poem, is that you get the feeling of jumping through poetic history at the speed of light, and the direct links of inspiration are only a page apart. The poet in me might say that this is like shaking the hand of history.

I highly recommend this book and thank Live Canon for giving me the opportunity to review it. If you are interested in Live Canon poetry, and would like to know more about where you can purchase this book, then I suggest you visit their website here www.livecanon.co.uk/coming-up-154

Also if you are interested, the ensemble will be performing a selection of poems at Oxford Playhouse from the 154 anthology on 4th November 2016.

#LiveCanon #BookReview

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