After Shakespeare: Selected Sonnets
George Held
Cervená Barva Press
ISBN: 978-0-9831041-9-3

Reviewer: Eric Greinke

          George Held’s new collection is an appealing balance of form and content that incorporates classical sonnet techniques and strophes, presenting an intimate portrait of its author. Stepping outside current trend, Held is determined to stay true to himself without concern for parochial prohibitions against rhyme and meter, and abstraction. The poetic pleasure comes from two sources: Held’s verbal skill (witty, lyrical) and his honesty in showing us his feelings, attitudes, and fears.
          Death is one of the major strophes of the collection. As a fellow poet in his mid-sixties, I understand the fascination. Such awareness is hard won.
          Although he displays a significant formalist orientation, he avoids the pitfall that the less skillful formalists fall into, which is the elevation of form over function; i.e., syntactical inversions to achieve clunky end-rhymes.
          In a way, Held parodies classic sonnet conventions. In another sense he simply pushes the envelope of the sonnet form, integrating the English, Petrarchan, etc. styles into what might best be termed hyper sonnets or better, hybrid sonnets. Rather than deconstruct and paste, as Ted Berrigan did in his famous The Sonnets, Held builds on tradition while adding a modern consciousness and language. He expands traditional sonnet values into a synthesis of new and old. In this sense, he is working in the area I call Transmutational Forms. These are personalized treatments of received forms, such as haiku that do not conform to either the seasonal reference “rule” or even the syllabics, but still capture the essence of that enduring form. Another example would be the recent transmutation of the ancient Persian ghazal, on display in the ghazals of Jim Harrison or in my own.
          The collection is divided into four sections. The short first section contains four poems that define the themes that follow in the succeeding three. The first poem addresses the book’s title, After Shakespeare, which is both Held’s serious consideration of the very endeavor of writing anything in the face of the complex history of man and planet, and a facetious wink with tongue clearly in cheek. He addresses his doubts head-on at the beginning. We realize upon entry that the poems will be multi-leveled, thoughtful, and well-crafted. The first poem sets the tone:

After Shakespeare

When suicides exceed the rate of birth,
And survivors doubt the worth of living;
When signs of hope have vanished from the earth,
And altruists have given up on giving;
When “quality of life” has lost its spark,
And euthanists no longer cast a pall;
When wildlife can’t expect another Ark,
And mankind claws for its own survival;
Will anyone write or read a sonnet?
Will time at last have undone Shakespeare’s line,
As with marble and gilded monuments,
Since lost will be all sense of the sublime?
     If so, how vain of sonneteers to think
     Their lines will last as life becomes extinct.

          The second and third sections of the book are the most personal, composed of elegies and philosophical meditations on mortality. My favorite of the elegies is “How Dad Died.” Here are the last three lines: “Dad had died of a self-inflicted wound,/ leaving me beyond suspicion but with/ a red vision that makes me catch my breath.”  One may see from these lines that classical form and resolution serve George Held’s vision and self-expression. He’s made the classical his own, though his vision is ultimately existential-humanist.
          Of the meditations, my personal favorite from the second section is “New Fears.” Here’s the Wordsworthian first line: “When I have fears that we shall cease to be….”
          The middle section, “Apostrophes,” contains twenty-one poems: “To” Moon, Anger, Depression, Cupidity, Boredom, Reason, Nostalgia, etc. Through ideas and feelings, these poems portray their author with subtle but distinct precision.   
          In the final section, the last poem is the most personal and moving in the book.  It serves as a conclusion to all the doubts, fears, and grim realities of the preceding poems:

Finding My Way
     For CFH

What does it mean to “find my way” at sixty-two -
that the path’s grown clearer, or my focus?
Who gets the credit - me, my shrink, or you?
Do I cheer or lament the years I’ve lost -
that I was no DiMaggio or Bill Gates,
no Yeats, but one with time and words to waste,
an ex-Beatnik, ex-Hippie, at what cost?
But past’s not prologue; now I take my ease,
content to be wakened by Euterpe’s
call or caressed to ecstasy by you,
who prescribe more play and lots less labor:
aging Sybarites, we indulge anew,
annihilating all thought death’s in store.
Have I found my way by following you?

          Knowing oneself is the key to finding a way. The way originates in self-knowledge but expands beyond the self. Held poses his final question as both a profound philosophical inquiry and a deeply personal one.

          After Shakespeare: Selected Sonnets is a refreshing collection from a serious talent, a multi-leveled masterpiece that proves that good poetry may flourish outside current notions of poetical correctness.

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