Peter Hughes, Cultural eXchanges (De Montfort University, 25 Feb 2015)

-Reviewed by Sally Jack

Beloved of brides, the rhyme ‘something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue’ came to mind during a reading by Peter Hughes at this year’s Cultural eXchanges festival held at Leicester’s De Montfort University.

UnknownHughes – poet, artist, translator and teacher as well as publisher at Oystercatcher Press – read from his canzoniere (‘songbook’) Quite Frankly: After Petrach’s Sonnets (Reality Street, 2015), a gathering together of Hughes’ 317 sonnets which borrow but also bring something new to Francesco Petrarca’s 366 sonnets from his own Canzoniere, published in the14th century. (Incidentally, just to tidy up the wedding idea, see Hughes’ blue book cover and the new could refer to this very recent publication.)

Students of strict form poetry will be familiar with the Petrarchan sonnet, named after Petrarca (anglicised to Petrarch) and sometimes referred to as the Italian sonnet. The tight rhyming scheme of ‘abba abba’ in the first octave and cdecde or cdcdcd for the concluding sestet is well-suited to Italian, rich as it is in rhyme, and this poetic form subsequently fathered the later Shakespearean sonnet, more attune to English.

Petrarch is acknowledged as the father of several weighty subjects: Humanism, the Rennaissance and the term The Dark Ages. Whilst his religious vocation prevented marriage he also fathered two children, his career in the church halting when he ‘met’ the enigmatic Laura, muse for most of his sonnets in Canzoniere.

Hughes translated Petrarch’s 14th century sonnets – many written when Petrarch lived in Avignon – then joined them in matrimony to Hughes’ contemporary ideas and references, his place frequently Norfolk, often Hunstanton funfair.

From Hughes’ first reading it became clear there was something different going on here. Although based on medieval Italian literature and predominantly contemplating a doomed love affair, these sonnets have a 21st century kick and resonance; both echoing the past but also the now:

moonwalking to the edge of the abyss
a six-foot bruise wrapped around hollow bone
I wish I’d never met you cancel that
you’re the very air that flows through my flute

Hughes worked his way through his impressive volume, the audience absorbing clashes in time zones and imagery. It was a no frills kind of event: a functional lecture hall, no mic or visuals, just Hughes’ own measured delivery, sometimes pacing the floor but invariably standing and reading, letting the words do their work:

‘blacken and fatten the Vatican’

‘keep keeping on, like Slade at Christmas’

‘we don’t like queers or women bishops’

‘lapping at her pre-possessing bush’

For almost fifty minutes we bathed in a pool of gorgeous-sounding sonnets, shot through with sharp barbs and bathos. Petrarch liked to have a pop at the clergy and Government it seems and Hughes’ mischievous style took this idea and hared off with it:

even nasty bastards have a soft side
Mussolini collected toy meerkats
Michael Gove licks his snake to sleep each night
George Bush whispered to bricks Pol Pot liked dogs

These sonnets have been published before now in pamphlet form, twenty poems at a time (see Billy Mills’ Sabotage Review of Sonnets 97 -116). As is often the way at readings, I wanted more of what I was hearing so made a modest purchase of Regulation Cascade (Sonnets 27 – 46).  Looking at the poems on the page I find the lack of punctuation intriguing.

Hughes interspersed his readings with anecdotes and explanations of Petrarch’s life and times together with his own views on a wide range of subjects.  Hughes went to Italy in 1983 to work and bought a collection of Petrarch’s poems with his first pay cheque. At that point he could only speak a few words of Italian but now his obvious pleasure and skill with this romantic language is evident, savouring his diversions into Italian during the reading.

Music lyrics from the 60s onwards appear frequently in Hughes’ sonnets, adding to the word play and wittiness of Hughes’ writing:

I’ve never even had a Happy meal
but heaven knows I’m miserable now

This was a short but enjoyable evening where it felt as if I got to know the work of two poets. Hughes writing is clever, these sonnets are innovative and his admiration for Petrarch is clear throughout. If the purpose of any reading is to inspire a listener as well as encourage them to buy the reader’s books then this event definitely achieved its objective.