Ryan JW Smith’s book of poems 500 Shakespearean Sonnets is an intriguing collection. As the author explains in his introduction, the verses presented in this tome are as much a personal diary and a method of self-analysis as they are poetic expressions in themselves. Writing a sonnet a day has, Smith says, “made an irreversible change in me for the better“. He is also open about stating that the poems were written “…with no consideration (or expectation) for any potential future audience” and warns against trying to read straight through from start to end. He writes:
“…they were not written for any cumulative artistic or entertainment purpose at all – rather they were a (relatively) private medicinal means to spiritual ends. So, if (in a moment of madness) you decide to read them from start to finish, and bemoan that I’m repeating a theme over and over – please know that it’s not because I’m lacking imagination to write about something new for you, my lovely audience – it’s because I’m struggling to learn that particular lesson, and I have to repeat it over and over for myself…“
Thus, reading 500 Shakespearean Sonnets is very different experience from the reading of any poetry collection I have encountered so far. It’s longer, denser, and with a great many more pages and poems to choose from than most. Because of this I truly came to think of it as more of a diary than anything else. The topics covered are wide-ranging: there are many personal and touchy-feely sonnets that seem to stem from moments of emotional turmoil or indecision, but there are also many more that are firmly rooted in the real world, dealing with political issues, friends and family and all the other things that comprise the general texture of a life.
As Smith warns the sonnets tend to come in waves. A glut of tender, feeling-y ones will be followed by a run of political pieces. They grow samey quickly, and so it’s best to heed the advice to dip in and out rather than ploughing straight through. However in doing so I can’t help but wonder: sensible as it may have been to write without consideration of an audience, perhaps at the stage of binding these poems together into a book for publication it might have been wise to apply some editing. A slimmer volume containing just the best hundred or two hundred sonnets would have all the power of the current configuration, and a lot more shine. By cramming 500 verses in like this Smith runs the risk of having the reader miss out on the very best.
The sonnets themselves are impressively well-constructed. In a book with approximately 3500 rhyming couplets almost none felt forced or awkward, and the poems are often startlingly expressive and insightful. Maybe there are a few too many that hinge of majestic words like “death”, “life” and “love” (without the contextualising drama that surrounds Shakespeare’s dalliances on the same, it’s hard to know what any of these words really mean), but flick ahead a few pages and you’ll be able to find some clever musings on topics as diverse as airport security and the folly of life in LA.
In reading 500 Shakespearean Sonnets there’s every chance you will, as I have done, reveal a fascinating and richly detailed picture of the author.
Christopher Frost is a writer from the North of England.