William Shakespeare

3 posts

“I Love Pretension” and Other Bits of Wisdom


Here is the last set of quotes I annotated in Mary Ruefle’s collection of essays, Madness, Rack, and Honey (recommended reading):

  • “I remember, in college, trying to write a poem while I was stoned, and thinking it was the best thing I had ever written.

“I remember reading it in the morning, and throwing it out.

“I remember thinking, If W. S. Merwin could do it, why couldn’t I?

“I remember thinking, Because he is a god and I am a handmaiden with a broken urn.”

Comment: Whether it involves an altered state (like Arkansas, which elected Tom Cotton a Senator) or not, we all can identify with this. Certain authors, be they poets or not, just make it look so damn easy. (See Hemingway comma Ernie, for one).

  • “I remember the year after college I was broke, and Bernard Malamud, who had been a teacher of mine, sent me a check for $25 and told me to buy food with it, and I went downtown and bought The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats.

Comment: A wise investment on Mary’s part, choosing food for thought over food for gut. And why didn’t I ever have a famous writer for a professor, one willing to send me checks, even? Instead, I had one that I handed a short story to for critique. He handed it back, saying, “I don’t have time for this.”

  • “I remember the first time I realized the world we are born into is not the one we leave.

Comment: And the corollary — we do not leave as the same person, either. Strangers, they’d be.

  • “They say there are no known facts about Shakespeare, because if it were his pen name, as many believe, then whom that bed was willed to is a moot point. Yet there is one hard cold clear fact about him, a fact that freezes the mind that dares to contemplate it: in the beginning William Shakespeare was a baby, and knew absolutely nothing. He couldn’t even speak.”

Comment: Finally, post-Disney, something Frozen we can embrace!

  • “Socrates said the only true wisdom consists in knowing that you know nothing. It is his basic premise, one from which all his other thoughts come.”

Comment: If only we could find a politician with such basic premises. Instead, we have the makings of a book: The Arrogance and the Ignorance.

  • “And I came to believe — call me delusional — that no living poet, none, could teach us a single thing about poetry for the simple fact that no living poet has a clue as to what he or she is doing, at least none I have talked to, and I have talked to quite a few. John Ashbery and Billy Collins can’t teach you a thing, for the simple fact that they are living. Why is that, I wondered. I mean I really wondered. I think it is because poets are people — no matter what camp they sleep in — who are obsessed with the one thing no one knows anything about. That would be death.”

Comment: And to follow through, living people know nothing about death. And to those who think my first two poetry collections are dark and depressing and overly fraught with the topic of death, I say, “Touché,” which is French for “So there!”

  • “Ramakrishna said: Given a choice between going to heaven and hearing a lecture on heaven, people would choose a lecture.

“That is remarkably true, and remarkably sad, and the same remarkably true and sad thing can be said about poetry, here among us today.”

Comment: Get it? (Me either, but I like it!)

  • “Short Lecture on Craft”

Comment: This the title of a short section in the book. I was so flattered to read this and learned so much about my name!

  • “I love pretension. It is a mark of human earthly abstraction, whereas humility is a mark of human divine abstraction. I will have all of eternity in which to be humble, while I have but a few short years to be pretentious.”

Comment: Very cool. Just keep your pretensions under a bushel because, while they may be fun, they look butt-ugly to lookers-on.

  • “On one piece of paper I had written ‘the difference between pantyhose and stockings’ and I had scanned the statement — with marks — and written ‘the beginnings of an iamb,’ which is bizarre because I can’t scan or recognize an iamb.”

Comment: Thank you. And please forward to all these Unlovely Rita, Meter Maid, poetry editors out there who take their beats so damn seriously and reject any poem not stinking of the Ivory Poetry Tower (ba-BUM, ba-BUM, ba-BUM, ba-BUM, ba-BUM).

  • “Insanity is ‘doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results.’ That’s writing poetry, but hey, it’s also getting out of bed every morning.”

Comment: Meaning we should celebrate getting out of bed each day as a new poem. Think about it. The bed you rise from, like fingerprints, never quite looks the same. Write  about it!

  • “Now I will give you a piece of advice. I will tell you something that I absolutely believe you should do, and if you do not do it you will never be a writer. It is a certain truth.

“When your pencil is dull, sharpen it.

“And when your pencil is sharp, use it until it is dull again.”

Comment: A fitting end to all of these quotes, though I wonder what the pencil equivalent is to keyboards? Cleaning the damn thing? I mean, really. What could be more disgusting than a keyboard and its lettered-cracks?


Pandemics Favor Readers & Writers (File Under Small Consolations)


Although it’s true that pandemics are more democratic than a kids’ pick-up basketball game without refs, they do play favorites in some ways. For infecting people? It is to laugh. I mean to help certain people to help themselves.

Tops among these favorites are the introverts who love to read and write. All our lives we’ve been told that our pastimes are among the loneliest, and it’s true, but consider the adjustments going on in society now that the world at large is under siege.

Hunkering down? Sheltering in place? For most, these words are horrifying. For most, these words bring visions of cabin fever, solitary confinement, boredom run rampant.

Not so for the reader / writer. Bookish introverts have some experience with this. And we have role models, too. People like William Shakespeare and Isaac Newton. Both of these luminaries lived through the Bubonic Plague (though in different years during the 17th century).

In 1606, when his acting troupe, The King’s Men, suspended production due to the ravages of the Black Death, Shakespeare hunkered down and sheltered in place (he just didn’t know it) to write a few trivial plays. Today they are known as King Lear, Macbeth, and Anthony and Cleopatra. Not bad for a plague year’s work.

In fact, one wonders—were there no plague—if all three of these would have come to fruition that year. Maybe two would? Or one?

Isaac Newton, too, had to batten the hatches and hide from perfidious disease. It was 60 years later in 1666 (one of the Devil’s favorites), and Newton was forced to cabin in Cambridge. While the Grim Reaper worked tirelessly outside, the wigged wonder harvested wondrous ideas inside. Namely Newtonian physics and some torture now known as “calculus.”

So, friends, the conditions may look bleak for socialites and extroverts who love to party, participate, go clubbing, go out to eat, go out to theaters, go out to ball games, et and cetera, but for you?

For you, there’s now no excuse. This is your hour (week, month, year) to shine! This is your chance to not only read more books than ever before, but to write more than you ever have.

Yes, even if the Internet collapses. Neither reading nor writing is Internet-dependent, after all. Annus mirabilis, then. “Miraculous year” or “amazing year” or “year of wonders,” it means.

2020, in so many numerals.

So consider this your pep talk. Your positive thought for the bleak day. You’re looking at the biggest lemon of your lifetime outside that window (or inside that screen). Take courage and make the biggest pitcher of lemonade you can.

It’s called survival. And opportunity. The strangest bedfellows you’d ever expect to find under sheets.


The Upside of Negative


Negative. It sounds so…negative, doesn’t it? And yet, in the “up is down and down is up” world of poetry, negative can prove a high compliment. Ask John Keats, the wunderkind of poetry. In a December 1817 letter to his brothers, he wrote:

…and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously–I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.

Hmn. Sounds like the exact opposite of Walt Whitman’s Learn’d Astronomer. In fact, I wonder if old Walt used Keats’ quote as inspiration.

This is my last riff on Matthew Zapruder’s book Why Poetry, but instead of commenting on the final chapter, I thought I’d comment on Chapter 7, “Negative Capability,” because, at first glance, it looks like something a poetry editor might write on a rejection slip. But, no. Keats! What Keats would, later in the same letter quoted above, call “half knowledge.”

MZ thinks it akin to a state of reverie (just west of the State of New Hampshire, I think), a place where one can find truths due to being unsure. A Utopian state, then, for both writers and readers of poetry (the former, because the wonder is a siren call to the Muse; the latter, because it opens one up to the possibilities that poetry is famous for exploring).

Zapruder writes, “This is what negative capability means in poetry, to be in the state where you can accept a succession of things, especially if they contradict each other, in order to allow within yourself an experience that you will not have elsewhere in life.”

What I did not know until reading this chapter was Keats’ almost religious preoccupation with Shakespeare. He used the Bard as a constant source of inspiration. (And here I am, resting on decades-old laurels because I took not one but two Shakespeare courses in college–one on the comedies and one on the tragedies. Shakespeare is not a “been there, done that” kind of writer, Keats reminds us. After reading this, I have decided to embark on a rereading schedule that periodically uses the plays as an inspirational interstice between my regular reading. Once a month, or every other?)

Zapruder uses Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn” as an example of the negative capability theory. “If in reading the poem you get distracted by an irritable need to come up with a consistent, coherent set of ideas that the speaker has in his feelings about the urn, an overall message about the urn, or silence, or time, or mortality, instead of thinking about the statements of the poem as a series of deeply felt, shifting, even contradictory thoughts, you will miss what is truly great about the experience of reading it. Maybe poems are not to be read for their great answers, but for their great, more often than not unanswerable, questions.”

Luckily, MZ remembers to warn us that not finding a definite single meaning to poems doesn’t mean we are free to believe whatever we wish them to mean. That is a common student overreaction, one many a teacher of poetry bangs his head against the wall over. Rather, we are in middle ground here, hoping to encourage not one and not many interpretations while staying close to the text and accepting the poet’s musings as something triggered within the realm of doubtful possibility. (Clear as muddy water, right?) Bottom line: Personal reactions are OK on a personal level, but should not be wildly and openly declared as the true secret meaning of the poor poet, who might mightily object were she present (or alive).

If the thought of negative capability is liberating, you’ve read Zapruder (channeling Keats) well. Men of Science need not apply. People with all the answers can go directly to jail without passing go. Leave the mysteries to the readers and writers of poetry. And, in the name of Keats, reconnect with your Bard, won’t you? All the truths of human nature are mysteriously there!

(And, as this is my last post on Zapruder’s book, I’d like to personally thank him for the inspiration his book provided. Thanks again, Matthew!)