Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

National Poetry Month and Shakespeare’s Birthday

Shakespeare’s birthday is generally celebrated on April 23rd, the same day he died. It’s a good excuse for me to celebrate National Poetry Month. Let me praise once again the wonderful Favorite Poem Project and highlight the poetry sites listed near the bottom of my blogroll (Poetry Daily is a nice way to discover new poets). My previous posts for National Poetry Month are far more extensive, and the foolhardy can access them through the too scant poetry category. Meanwhile, if you’re of such a mind, ”Knaves of the Bush Administration” considers current politics in terms of Shakespeare.

But let’s move on to some sonnets, shall we? And remember Robert Pinksy’s reminder: read poetry aloud. We’ll kick it off with…


Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometimes too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometimes declines,
By chance or nature's changing course untrimmed;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st;
Nor shall death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st:
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

—William Shakespeare

This early sonnet is very pretty, with a famous first line. Still, while it’s a lovely piece of poetry, I much prefer the more unexpected approach of…


My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask'd, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

—William Shakespeare

This, to me, speaks of true love versus besotted teen puppy love. This is a mature love, one that recognizes reality over illusion, but also celebrates that reality. It’s one of my favorite poems. Another favorite is this one:


They that have power to hurt and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmovèd, cold, and to temptation slow,
They rightly do inherit heaven's graces
And husband nature's riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others but stewards of their excellence.
The summer's flower is to the summer sweet,
Though to itself it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

—William Shakespeare

There are some poems that just speak to you immediately, or their music grabs you even if you can’t articulate what it’s “about,” per se. This is not one of those poems, or at least was not for me. It's easy enough to "get" Sonnet 130 on a first read, but Sonnet 94 is more like a Zen koan, a piece one studies that then unfolds beautifully, offering a keen insight with a sharp punch.

I first studied this sonnet in high school with a great teacher, who told us it inspired at least two other fairly famous poems we then studied as well. Sonnet 94 is considered very difficult, and it really does require at least a second read if not several more. (I once read a shockingly counter-textual analysis of it by a critic in a collection of essays that made me put aside the book.) I don’t want to spoil anyone’s fun, so before I make any more comments, I’d recommend reading this one over a few times first.

The key for me lies in pondering the last two lines, the turn, and then reading through the rest of poem again with those lines in mind. Read through the third quatrain, starting with “The summer’s flower…” in relation to the last two lines. After setting us up, Shakespeare takes us in a radically different direction with the flower-weed metaphor, and I’d suggest here is where he’s most direct in his judgment, poetic though the expression is. After getting a basic handle on those last six lines and what he's saying, I’d read through the poem yet again. The second quatrain, starting with “They rightly do inherit…” is scathingly sarcastic, I would suggest, a tone that’s virtually impossible to pick up on in a first read. But read through the poem aloud with that in mind, with that tone, and the entire sonnet makes much more sense. I had a college professor, the poet-in-residence, who felt the second line with its three “do”s sort of deconstructed itself. What the hell does Shakespeare mean with that line? It’s as if he’s trying to throw us, jar us. Do read the sonnet through again, love the words, caress them, sound them out: “unmovèd,” “cold,” infection,” “fester,” and the tone becomes more apparent. That dagger of a last line, “Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds” suddenly resounds off of what may be my favorite line of the piece, that “They are the lords and owners of their faces.” It’s a dark, dazzling poem.

(Actually, the execrable performances of George Stephanopoulos and Charlie Gibson during the recent ABC debate made me think of this of sonnet, which I’d say nicely applies to much of our shallow press and others in positions of power. Subject for another blog post, perhaps, and how we poor, dumb bloggers and citizens who dare care about policy and substance are “but stewards of their excellence.” But George Stephanopoulos has insisted they performed an admirable service to the nation that night, and George is an honourable man — so are they all, honourable men and women.)

I’m happy to discuss the poem further — or anyone’s favorite — but I’m always wary of killing the joy and magic, as Billy Collins describes Bad analysis can be counter-textual, counter-intuitive or just silly, but I also think analysis that kills the joy is bad analysis by definition, while good analysis is that which enriches our appreciation or understanding. Hamlet hits on part of this when he exclaims in protest, “You would pluck out the heart of my mystery.” [3.2, 365-6] But then, Shakespeare was one sharp cat.

The danger and beauty of Shakespeare is that oftentimes, any analysis or criticism tells us more about the gazer than Shakespeare’s work itself. One of the signs of his greatness (not that all his work was great, as I suspect he himself would admit) is that it can bear such exhaustive scrutiny. Personally, I’m more enamored of Shakespeare the playwright than Shakespeare the poet, but he did write some remarkable poems. In any case, in the spirit of the Favorite Poem Project, my reasons for loving Sonnet 130 should be apparent, and I love Sonnet 94 because it captures a certain social dynamic and eviscerates it in sly fashion. I have to give serious style points to each piece on both content and form. But that’s enough from me. Please feel free to link or post a favorite poem in the comments, and if you’d like to, mention why you like it. Cheers.

No comments: