Shakespeare Sunday: Everyone Dies

Happy Sunday everyone!  Last week when I wrote about Sonnet 18, I mentioned the irony in how the speaker in the poem brags about the immortality that his poem gives to his loved one’s beauty, when Shakespeare spends an awful lot of time reminding us of our fragile grasp on life.  That brought me back to Sonnet 73. Go ahead and read it again if it’s been a while.  I’ll wait:

SONNET 73

That time of year thou mayst in me behold

When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang

Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,

Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

In me thou seest the twilight of such day

As after sunset fadeth in the west,

Which by and by black night doth take away,

Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.

In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire

That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,

As the death-bed whereon it must expire

Consumed with that which it was nourish’d by.

This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,

To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Just to bring a little more rigor to Shakespeare Sunday, I actually read some analysis of this poem, but what I was looking for was to see if there was any record of when each poem was written.  I was curious to see how much later 73 was written than 18.  No luck.

However, I did find lots of analysis and deep parsing of this lovely poem which would have completely ruined it for me, but I long ago quit paying much attention to literary criticism.  I enjoy reading some analysis to inform me of just how ignorant I might be when I start writing about literature, but am sometimes appalled at the nit-picking I start to find.  I sure hope that I didn’t kill the enjoyment of the poetry that I read with my students in a similar manner.  I did write about my approach to poetry as a teacher some time ago in a piece I called “I Don’t Hate Poetry.”

One analysis found the three metaphors that Shakespeare uses to be “cliched”–another writer might call them “timeless.”  Regardless, as a teacher it was great fun to play with these metaphors with students because most young people simply do not think in terms of metaphor.  They do not consider that the seasons, or that the cycle of the day, or that the burning of a fire is kind of like the progression of life from youth to death.

I particularly like the first four lines.  I’m not sure you can find a better example of iambic pentameter (just supposing you were looking for one) and they are maybe my favorite four lines of poetry to read aloud.  The image of naked branches as “bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang” seems just perfect; naked branches “where yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang.”

In the following quatrain, the speaker thinks of himself as being in the “twilight” of his life “which by and by black night doth take away.”  I was always intrigued by Shakespeare’s characterization of night as “death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.”  To think of sleep as akin to death seems totally appropriate to me.  It reaffirms my daily response to the overly-cheerful baristas at Starbucks who greet me every morning between 5 and 7 AM with the question “How is your day going?”–just a horrible question to ask me BEFORE I’ve had my twenty ounces of morning Joe.  The only thing I can think of to say is, “Well, I woke up this morning.”

In the third quatrain, the speaker admits he is no longer a bonfire, but just a collection of burning embers, soon to be extinct.

In the final couplet, we come to understand that the speaker seems to be speaking to a younger person and warning or advising him or her that one must “love that well which thou must leave ere long.”  Life is short.  Live long and prosper.

As I was warming up to write this piece (something that goes on all week!), I thought about that scene from “Dead Poet’s Society” when Robin Williams character takes his boys down to view the pictures of long-dead alumni of the fictional Welton Academy and delivers his famous “carpe diem” speech:

“Now I would like you to step forward over here and peruse some of the faces from the past. You have walked past them many times. I don’t think you’ve really looked at them. They’re not very different from you, are they? Same haircuts. Full of hormones, just like you. Invincible, just like you feel. The world is their oyster. They believe they’re destined for great things, just like many of you. Their eyes are full of hope just like you. Did they wait until it was too late to make from their live even one iota of what they were capable? Because you see, gentlemen, these boys are now fertilising daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, Lean in. Listen… Do you hear it? (whispers) Carpe. (whispers again) Cape. Carpe Diem. Seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary.”

Some critics thought this speech sucked also, but I like it.  Any movie that showed a teacher teaching with mindfulness and passion was OK with me.

Hope you’ve had a great week.  I promised my mid-week piece would be a check in on “Surviving the Trump Apocalypse” and I will try, but “Retired, Not Dead” will be on the road to Seattle, WA for a well-deserved vacation,  and I may just be having too much fun to write about politics.

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Shakespeare Sunday: Poet Claims, “Yes I Am That Good.”

Sonnet 18

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 was always a lot of fun to work with in the classroom because students want to view it strictly as a love poem and because so much of the poem turns on the single word “this” in the very last line.  In case you’ve forgotten all of your Shakespearean sonnets, here it is:

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;

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,

And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;

And every fair from fair sometime declines,

By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;

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.

Easy to see why it is looked at as a love poem, yes?  I even found it listed by one website as a poem suitable for Valentine’s Day, and for the first eight lines, I could not agree more.  The poet finds his loved one more beautiful than a summer day, “more lovely and more temperate.”  After all, a summer’s day can have “rough winds” and can be too hot or perhaps obscured by clouds.  The poet recognizes that “summer’s lease has all too short a date” and as all things in nature “every fair from fair sometimes declines.”  All things natural pass through their time of youth and beauty, decline and eventually die, a theme Shakespeare returns to time and again.

But line 9 surprises us.  If all things natural (including his lover’s beauty) decline, how can he say that “thy eternal summer shall not fade”?  He spends three more lines declaring that her beauty is immune from time’s ravages or the “shade” of death.

How so?  The final couplet is the poet’s tribute to himself.  He has given her immortality because  “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see” they will be able to read his poem, the poem which has frozen her beauty in time. He assures her that “So long lives this (his poem), and this (his poem) gives life to thee.

Trying to figure out those last two lines used to drive my students crazy which was, of course, another reason I loved this poem.

Have a wonderful Sunday.  Check in later this week for some thoughts on Orwell’s 1984, and it’s also time to check in on how things are going with Surviving the Trump Apocalypse.  Cheers!

Shakespeare Sunday: Sad Bastard’s Complaint Becomes Sweet Love Song

Starting this “Shakespeare Sunday” thing, I really wanted to focus on a particular SHORT passage for emphasis, but by week 2, I’m failing utterly because I want to talk about all of Sonnet 29.  There is one particular passage that I favor, but to get it, I have to talk about the sonnet in its entirety. Sorry. If you have never read the sonnet before, here it comes. Bear with it–I promise it will only be 14 lines:

SONNET 29

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,

I all alone beweep my outcast state

And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries

And look upon myself and curse my fate,

Wishing åçme like to one more rich in hope,

Featured like him, like him with friends possess’d,

Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,

With what I most enjoy contented least;

Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,

Haply I think on thee, and then my state,

Like to the lark at break of day arising

From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;

For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings

That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

I used to really enjoy using this sonnet as an introduction to the language of Shakespeare because it is highly accessible and it deals with two common human conditions–depression and being in love (two things which oddly seem to often go hand in hand–or is that just me?).

The thing is, kids often entirely missed the “being in love” part of it.  They certainly could pick up the aspects of depression that the speaker wallows in during lines 1-8. In these lines, the speaker recounts all of the things that are making him feel isolated and sad. He is in full self-pity mode, cursing God and his fate, and even worse, comparing himself to others who in his mind at least, all are more fortunate than himself.  I certainly know the destructive quality of comparing myself to those who are slimmer, more gifted, richer, or less bald than I am.

Of all of the lines the speaker recored, the one that most spoke to me was (bolded) “With what I most enjoy contented least.”  When walking, or spending time in the garden, or enjoying a visit to the local pub do nothing to improve my mood, I know that I’m in bad straits.

What saves this poem from being a straight lament is the major shift that takes place in line 9 (“Yet in these thought myself…”).  Here is where the depressive dude dissolves into a mush of romantic goo–and I love him for it.  He describes how just the very thought of his loved one, lifts his spirits which become “like to the lark at break of day arising” to “sings songs at heaven’s gate.”

By the end, the sad bastard would rather be with his love than to “change [his] state with kings.”  Just the act of thinking of his loved one is enough to dispel his sadness and make him realize just what riches he does possess.

Must have been one lucky guy.

A Poem For The Wedding

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It was in Chicago in the spring of 2015 standing under the pavilion pictured above on a cool, spring morning, when my former student and friend, Kevin, told me that this was going to be the site of his wedding in July of 2016.  It was my second trip to Chicago since my retirement and we always made a point of spending some time together enjoying the town’s breweries, restaurants and, always, a game at Wrigley.

We admired the view and imagined how great a day it would be for him, when he suddenly asked if I’d be willing to do a “reading” at the wedding.

First of all, I have NEVER been in someone’s wedding.  Never.  Not a best man, not a groomsman, not a ring bearer.  I honestly thought that Kevin was just being polite to his former English teacher and that he’d eventually realize his mistake and find a way to graceful withdraw the offer and bestow the responsibility on a close friend or family member.  So, I promptly quit thinking about it although I had been truly touched by the gesture.

But then, months later, he followed up with an email to check and make sure I was still planning to come to the wedding, do the reading, and participate in all the pre- and post- wedding festivities.  Then it hit me that I was actually going to have come up with something poignant, meaningful, and hopefully not generic because I had really grown quite fond of Kevin and his fiancé, Elizabeth.

One quick look through my favorite book of poetry convinced me that I could not recycle some old love poem without it turning into an English lecture and a boring list of conventional wedding wisdom.  They were a vibrant, modern couple, and I wanted to give them something more original.

I started to envision a mash-up of poetry and song lyrics and somehow weave them into sort of a cool, spoken-word, hip-hop kind of a rhythmic poem that wouldn’t just be read but would need to be performed. The fact that I have never done anything remotely like this, or that I never actually listen to this kind of poetry/music and wasn’t likely to start, did not seem to intimidate me even though “fear of failure” is pretty high up on my list of personality traits.

I watched the weeks begin to click by and began to work on the poem exactly one month before I would have to present it.  I jotted down pages of lyrics of love songs that I thought might fit and at times would find myself dashing into my study to jot down a fragment of a line or two that had come to me while I was driving or in the shower.  It was constantly on my mind.

I would fall in love with a lyric or a line or a concept that I would come up with and find myself trying to shoehorn it into the poem convincing myself that it really did work. The editing was excruciating as time and time again, I had to jettison my favorite parts because they simply did not work with the whole, and in fact, I watched it get better and better as I let go of unwieldy pieces and smoothed the edges of others. The more I worked on it I was pretty sure it was starting to sound more like Dr. Seuss than Dr. Dre.

I came up with the title, “The Road to Yes”, from an experience with my wife where we noticed that when things were going well that we could quickly get to “yes”–a consensus, an agreement, a compromise.  I did not mean for it to imply that good couples always agree with each other.  It has always seemed to me that if couples always agree, one or both of them are just not paying attention.  Rather, I wanted to say that a couple is likely to be happy and successful if they both assume that agreement or consensus or compromise is always inevitable at times of conflict.

So on that lovely, warm July afternoon, as pretty as a summer Chicago day could possibly be, to honor my friends, Kevin and Elizabeth on their wedding day, I read the following:

The Road to “Yes”

Every relationship begins with a “yes”

There is no “It Had to Be You” (sung)

Though we wish it were true

But somewhere there came a moment

Where both Kevin and Elizabeth said

Yes,

I like you too.

I like you more than I’d like to admit

And I know that I should take some time to sit

And think this through

But there really is something I like about you.

He came from out west and she came from

“My kind of town, Chicago is…” (sung)

he biked around seeking gig after gig

Even on days where it was as hot as hell-y

Just to arrive at a place called Potbelly.

Where he worked for Elizabeth–

it didn’t always go right

“He’s too easy-going”

“She’s a little uptight”

because sometimes love has to grow

and be slow

not everyone gets to say

“you had me at hello”

For love to last

For love to stick

love sometimes is built, brick by brick

slowly and with care

between two lovers who dare

to love and not be scared by

how they are not the same.

Their story began with a timid first yes,

followed by,

the hopeful yes of engagement,

and now the resounding yes

that our friends will share today.

The word “no” is a minefield you must reject

eject

elect instead to say

Yes, to our imperfections

Yes, to our differences

And Yes, I will hold in my heart

every tiny bit of you, and

every tiny bit of us

that has made me love you

and brought us to this very moment.

May your love lead to a dedication to “yes”

To the daily affirmation of your love, your uniquenesses,

your challenges, your flaws, and yes, to the many glowing traits

you both possess

that are the reason

we surround you both with our love today.

Note:  The poem had different stanzas and line breaks, but WordPress tends to toss them all out no matter what I’ve tried so far.

I Don’t Hate Poetry

poetry

I really don’t.  But I don’t love it either.

As a retired English teacher this is practically heretical.  Through most of my 36 years of teaching, I used poetry sparingly, but during the last 10, when I began teaching Advanced Placement English for seniors, it needed to become a central part of my curriculum in order to prepare kids for the AP Literature and Composition Exam.

Early on, I went to every AP Lit workshop I could find and tried to glean an approach, a unit, a set list of poems or literary terms that would lead me to a greater comfort level, and I discovered many wonderful plans created by lit teachers much smarter than me.  But none of them were a fit for me and my understanding of how 17-year-olds think.  Some of the literary terms were so obscure that even if I could force a kid to memorize the definitions, the chances of the student actually recognizing the technique or being able to comment on its relevance seemed iffy at best.  When it came to teaching meter (the metric rhythm of a poem), which some of my colleagues would spend hours on with great relish, I was a total failure.  Beyond iambic pentameter, I couldn’t recognize a line that was trochaic, spondaic, or anapestic if you held a gun to my head.

So, I shortened and simplified my list of lit terms, focusing on ones that kids could actually remember and that seemed most often applicable to the kinds of poems that showed up on the test.  I abandoned meter entirely with nary a feeling of guilt, and I created Poetry Day.

I decided that I needed to provide opportunities for kids to sit together, look at dozens of poems, struggle through them, and come to some kind of meaning. I wanted them to become a poetry salon, one day a week, and to begin to look to each other for understanding with as little help from me as possible.

Poetry Day was a risk for me, and I firmly expected it to be a failure. My idea was that once a week, four students would sign up ahead of time and be tasked with the responsibility of choosing a poem from our anthology for discussion. The class would form a circle and each of the chosen students would be the discussion leader for the poem that he or she had selected.  My role (I hoped) would simply be to sit in back and keep track of participation and try to keep my mouth shut.

The discussion leaders’ job was simply to read the poem, maybe take a minute to tell why they had chosen it, and then direct the traffic of the hoped-for participation that would then follow.  The shock to me was that the participation came.   The kids seemed to like the new approach–the freedom to explore, no teacher to tell them the “right” answer, how the more they looked at the poem, the more that they began to see.  What excited me the most was seeing how the students would throw out an assertion, listen to the response of their classmates, and then reconsider and revise their thinking. On an exceptional day, I might say nothing more during the entire hour than, “Good job.  Let’s move on to the next poem.” Those days felt like great successes to me.  I had created an opportunity where kids were learning, questioning, thinking, cooperating with the gentlest bit of direction from me.  Those days felt like good teaching.

Not every Poetry Day went that well.  The ebb and flow of the semester, the ebb and flow student enthusiasm, the absence of caffeine, the approach of more important things like prom, all made for good and bad days.  My role evolved also.  I found that it helped to ask clarifying questions and force students to refine their thinking when they were oh-so-close to a gem of an idea, but might be missing a critical element.  Then there were the times when, despite their best efforts, they simply missed the meaning entirely, and I’d have to force them, as a class, to go back to the poem, look more closely, think again.  We jokingly established a part of the classroom that we labeled as “left field” where we figuratively sent students whose interpretations had flown so far off track that I had to call them on it.  In fact, it became part of our lexicon.  Students would sometimes begin their explanation of a difficult passage with, “This may be out in left field, but I think…”  I absolutely loved them for that.

My most memorable Poetry Day moment came when one of my student’s had chosen Deborah Pope’s agonizingly painful and beautiful poem, “Getting Through.”

Like a car stuck in gear,

a chicken too stupid to tell

its head is gone,

or sound ratcheting on

long after the film

has jumped the reel,

or a phone

ringing and ringing

in the house they have all

moved away from,

through rooms where dust

is a deepening skin,

and the locks unneeded,

so I go on loving you,

my heart blundering on,

a muscle spilling out

what is no longer wanted

and my words hurtling past,

like a train off its track

toward a boarded-up station,

closed for years,

like some last speaker

of a beautiful language

no one else can hear.

I remember the discussion leader reading the poem aloud and nearly 40 kids staring at the text with no idea of what to say.  I suggested the leader read it aloud once more, which we did quite often when confronted with a challenging poem.

The silence continued until suddenly Sarah, a thoughtful and sensitive young woman, gasped as she internalized the sadness and the pain of the poem.  In that one moment, she had grasped the whole poem with it’s string of vivid similes, each becoming more detailed, that described the speaker’s devastating sense of loss and hopelessness.  Once she gave the class the key, the images suddenly made sense, and the class piled on with an appreciation of the beauty of the language and the universality of the experience of loss.

I truly loved poetry on that particular day.  Sarah’s gasp, her identification with the pain of the speaker, spoke to everything that I find to be important about poetry.  The poet that can distill the human experience, can craft the perfect metaphor, provides a human connection that helps us to defy loneliness and isolation.  They are magicians. They create the connection that tells us that, even in our worst moments, we are not alone.