Bad Idea by Robert Sheppard

My review of Bad Idea appeared in issue 64 of The Journal.

When reviewing poetry, you can be forgiven for looking for the open goal, the snagging hook. And so, somewhere in the multiverse, I’m opening my review of Bad Idea with the lines ‘What could be worse than a long drawn out process like Brexit? A sonnet sequence about Brexit!’ and feeling pretty smug with myself. Job done. Pass the Saboteur award.  

That I’m not chasing the open goal, speaks for Sheppard’s success in turning ‘Bad Idea’ into something that although never quite feels like a good idea, ends up persuading you with its relative charms. Sheppard is no stranger to a sequence (he began his major work, Twentieth Century Blues in 1989 and worked on it over the next ten or so years) and here, he invokes Elizabethan poet Michael Drayton’s sonnet cycle Idea in cataloguing the grim, gruesome comedy of national identity that was Brexit, although rather than Idea, the better thematic match from Drayton’s oeuvre is Poly-Olbion, an exhaustive examination of the topography and culture of England and Wales.  One of the key ideas of Sheppard’s poetics is the idea of the knot, where language runs through form the way that a knot contains the rope. He’s at it again here with the sonnet, although there’s little chance of Sheppard swapping notes on technique with Don Paterson, thank god, and he mugs to the reader at the outset, (‘I hear one shriek, ‘He’s no formal poet!/ He can’t write…’) The tension between Sheppard’s use (or abuse) of the sonnet form becomes illustrative of Brexit itself. How to convey the fundamental impulses of a scrappy post-Empire longing for national identity into the structure of legislation? Short answer: you can’t. 

I went into this collection on the back of the Euro 2020 tournament, where a festival of hopeful fervour slid into the messy shitshow of entitlement and racism, as all nationalism must. I found the idea of poetry that got dirty in Brexit and its architects if not a bit sick-making at least fundamentally flawed. And so, yeah, Bo (as Sheppard styles him) may well ‘earn £2,291 per hour for his damp stories/ in the Telegraph, while speeding freedmen piss into / plastic bottles in the Amazon temple’. Why are we doing this, anyway? Caricature perpetuates the status, after all.

That was my mistake, really. Some of Bad Idea is tortured. It goes on too long and when the work aims for a tone beyond spirited snark (the poem marking the murder of Jo Cox, for example) it falls a bit flat. Still, to invoke Pound, if literature is  ‘news that stays news’, then Bad Idea is satire that stays satire, and if you want scatological bile about the self-serving stupidity of our political class, Sheppard hits the mark. Take this, the denouement to ‘Shall I compare thee to a Polish fitter’ about Bo and his ilk:

‘They hate you, hate each other and only

Love this country as a false abstraction’ 

It’s one of those punch the air moments in a collection that entertains almost beyond its central premise, where the wit, intelligence and grotesquery ends up getting under your skin. Tell them on the streets of Thanet South: Brexit deserves this book.

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