The Kids by Hannah Lowe

At the time of writing Hubby and I are in Greece. Year after year we holiday here and one of the reasons we keep coming back is the food. We both absolutely love Greek food! My favourite dish is Afelia, which consists of chunks of pork marinated in red wine overnight, then cooked until the liquid has evaporated. The result is a delicious fall-apart-in-your-mouth meat dish. However from experience there is another way of cooking the dish, arguably less common, which involves retaining a lot of the liquid, making it more like a stew.  If I order Afelia expecting the ‘dry’ version and get the ‘wet’ version, I’m always slightly disappointed. It’s not that ‘wet’ Afelia isn’t tasty – because it is – it’s just that overall it wasn’t what I anticipated.

The same could be said of Hannah Lowe’s poetry book The Kids, which won the 2021 Costa Book of the Year. I’m not a big reader of modern poetry but I was actually quite enthused about this collection because it was billed as a book of modern sonnets. In case you might not know or remember, a sonnet is a fourteen-line poem that follows specific ‘rules’ in respect of metre, rhyme scheme, and thematic development. [See ~ below for further information.] How Lowe would use this rigid, classical poetic form to communicate contemporary issues?

The short answer is, she doesn’t. Lowe takes so many liberties with metre, rhyme scheme, and development that I struggle to see this as a collection of sonnets – and I would take issue with the blurb that these are sonnets “that Shakespeare would recognise”.

That isn’t to say The Kids isn’t entertaining and thought-provoking at times. The book is structured in three sections: Section 1 deals with Lowe’s experiences as a teacher in an inner-London sixth-form, Section 2 broadly looks back to her own schooldays / teachers, and Section 3 mostly concerns her young son, Rory. Lowe doesn’t shy away from tacking pithy subject matter: class, racism, the 7/7 London terrorist attack, her parents’ deaths, splitting up with Rory’s father.

Overall, though, The Kids didn’t deliver the sonnets I was expecting and consequently reading the book was akin to being served ‘wet’ Afelia: generally a bit of a let-down.

Rating: * Not for me (but worth a try).

~ All sonnets comprise 14 lines written in iambic pentameter (the metrical pattern that goes “de-dum-de-dum-de-dum-de-dum-de-dum”).

In terms of rhyme scheme / thematic development, there are two main forms, Petrarchean and Shakespearean.

Petrarchean sonnets use the rhyme scheme abababab, cdecde, with the first 8 lines (the octet) setting up a question / argument / observation and the final 6 lines (the sestet) giving an answer / counter-argument / clarification – so there is a developmental ‘shift’ (the volta) between line 8 and line 9, which is mirrored by the change in the rhyme scheme.

Shakespearean sonnets use the rhyme scheme abab, cdcd, efef, gg. Here, it is the final 2 lines (the couplet) that are pivotal to the development of the theme, providing a conclusion / amplification / refutation of the previous 12 lines.

There are a couple of notable variations (Miltonic sonnets, which are broadly Petrarchean but with more flex about where the volta lands; Spenserian sonnets, which uses the Shakespearean structure but with rhyme scheme abab, bcbc, cdcd, ee), however generally whenever someone says “sonnet”, it’s normally Petrarchean and Shakespearean that spring to mind.

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