The poet and translator Bill Shepherd, who always published as W.G.Shepherd, has died. He died at his home in North London in October. He was seventy-seven. I’d known him well ever since we both attended a discussion group that met at the poet Anthony Howell’s Hampstead flat at the beginning of the 1970s. Assiduous in sending out his work, Bill was in other respects quite reclusive as regards the poetry world, hardly ever going to or giving readings, or seeking to engage in any of those ancillary activities that nowadays take up a lot of many poets’ time and which seem to constitute what it means to be a proper, ‘professional’ poet.
I published three chapbooks of his poems under my Many Press imprint. These were The Antonine Poems (1976), The First Zone of the Growth Furnace (1983) and The Gifted Child (1991). For many years Bill’s main publisher was Anvil. They brought out a pamphlet Allies in 1968, one of their earliest publications and three more collections followed.
Characteristic of him was his independence, his open-mindedness, a readiness to move off in different directions. As a result of Anthony Howell’s workshop his writing took a rigorously experimental direction. ‘I was made up by Jeremy Prynne’ he told me once, a phrase to conjure with .. . They were contemporaries at Jesus College in the 1950s and the reference was to their participation in a college dramatic performance. He was in correspondence with Prynne many years later in connection with this area of his work. Subsequently he was to write some very powerful confessional poems, some of which I published in The Gifted Child, and which are the substance of his last collection Mother’s Milk which appeared from Tony Rudolf’s Menard Press in 2006.
Bill’s move into translating was an unexpected departure – he only had A Level Latin but, having become intensely preoccupied with translating Horace, he did the Odes and Epodes, and went on to translate Propertius. These both became the versions published in the Penguin Classics series. He was working full-time in industry and, as he described it to me, it was like being possessed. His final venture in Latin translation was his ‘Statius: Silvae’ done jointly with Anthony Howell and published by Anvil in 2007. The combination of two translators with their separate points of view, and in one case each offering versions of the same poem, is illuminating.
The last time I actually saw Bill – we were regularly in touch on the phone subsequently – was during the Summer. He had just come through an exceptionally gruelling course of radiotherapy and chemotherapy. It was a fine afternoon and we sat in the garden. I recall him sitting very upright on his chair, wearing a baseball cap, and recounting a brief ‘psychotic episode’ he’d had in the hospital as a result of all the medication he’d been having as well as a period of prolonged sleeplessness. The first part of this was something terrifying – I don’t remember the details – but later he became convinced that everything that was going on around him was all one enormous entertainment put on just for his benefit. Bill was no stranger to extreme psychological states but this was all narrated in the same humorous way as the way in which he tended to observe ‘the poetry world’. It can be a paranoid place, and sometimes you feel that just about everybody, including some people you would least expect it of, feels under-appreciated. Bill appeared unusually free of all this and his take on it all was refreshingly open-minded and humorous.
Copies of W.G.Shepherd’s three Anvil collections are still available. 'Mother's Milk' is available from the Menard Press. I can supply copies of ‘The First Zone of the Growth Furnace’ and ‘The Gifted Child’.
Here are five of his poems . . .
In Zeus' oak at Dodona
Pigeons privately murmur.
No breeze blows
Yet foliage whispers. Every leaf
Is written upon.
Ears detect or imagine
In the spring's trickling
A slight modulation.
The girls called 'pigeons' tap
(At random?) on gongs.
Is cryptic makeshift,
The oracle plain. The meaning
Is what an oak tree means.
Diamond glances grow dull.
With pleasure but memory dims.
Rainbow dalliance fades
In her wardrobe. Summer is null,
Autumn a burden.
Bloom on peach degrades
To dust on eggshell. Mirrors peer.
He works far away . . .
Petals for nails
Tip ladylike hands.
Wine and fright
Shake fingers plucking from foil
Her sunset capsules.
To impersonate the heron god
was more effective than prayer.
A feathery man on stilts
was glimpsed in the marshy wood
towards first light.
Boudicca was defeated by magic.
Hectic monkeys jump nerves,
nerves, in surprising green fur.
Parrot kaleidoscopes heckle.
Insect electrons glitter.
Through graveyard railings the owl
blinks honest, absolute eyes.
Lightning greasy with rain:
His outcry was
Songs like the Hamburg mail
The Abelard generation
She was prepared to believe
The fraudulent label – it was her father’s violin
But they said, ‘you must learn the piano
First.’ She crossed her fingers
In the name of Guarnerius, Guarnerius is in heaven,
No kin to the keyboard with its ready-made notes,
She reneged – they would impose
A kind of nunnery discipline.
She climbed instead the domestic Eiger face,
Doing the thousand things that have to be done.