Shakespeare’s Sonnet 152

Besides being National Poetry Month in America, April is also the birth month of William Shakespeare. The 23rd of April is sometimes celebrated as his birthday, though we don’t actually know that, only that his family baptized him and entered him into their church’s records on April 26th. The 23rd is also a handy date in that it’s the day Shakespeare died in 1616 back in the same small English town he was born in, only 52 years old. One theory has it that he’d just celebrated his birthday—well, a little too much—and that did him in.

No one knows exactly when Shakespeare wrote his sonnets, but ironically for our 2020 April they were first published in 1609, when the playhouses of London where shut down due to a plague.

The sonnets present themselves as outpourings of personal feelings and thoughts, which makes them tempting clues to the personality and biography of Shakespeare, but of course Shakespeare made his bones as a playwright, and so was well able to create characters and put them in motion with various plots and outlooks. Since today is the anniversary of his death, I thought I’d perform Sonnet 152, which can be viewed as the last sonnet in the sequence, since the two sonnets that follow it are an unconnected coda based on a classical poem about Cupid.

Sonnet 152 is a lover’s fight where we hear one side, with an overall structure as if the speaker is investigating the matter of lovers’ relationship to the truth as if it was a legal contract dispute. You might think that an odd choice, though there are lawyer-poets. Wallace Stevens comes to mind, and I think at times Emily Dickinson’s mind was fully capable of succinctly absorbing the modes of her family of (male) lawyers.

Was Shakespeare having fun with this? Perhaps. Anytime one writes 152 sonnets you’d have the opportunity to try out a lot of metaphors. Even if he was drawing on life experiences of some actual tumultuous love affair, it is a showy poem that renders the breakup as if Perry Mason or John Grisham was closing the case—but since the Elizabethan-era language may make this less than clear, I’ll summarize how I understood this poem today.

Perry Mason and Shakespeare

Well, I’ve looked over this book contract and it doesn’t say you need an ending. But Will, I’ve got this idea for a sonnet…

 

For simplicity’s sake, I’ll just call the speaker of the poem “he” as if he’s Shakespeare for the rest of this discussion—but as I said above, we don’t know that. And this particular text isn’t even gendered, and a woman could play the text in the first person without needing to change a word.*

He starts out saying that he and his lover are both sworn, as if witnesses or officers of some court, as lovers are often said to be to each other. But he then claims that the lover has in effect taken two oaths. This is ambiguous to me, some read this if the lover is married to another (and if “he” is Shakespeare, so would he have been too). A “bed-vow” has been broken and some faith has been broken too, a state of new hate after new love has broken out. Is this the lover forsaking their spouse for the he of the poem? Or the lover forsaking the he of the poem? Or both? Shakespeare may be intending this confusion, laying out the case that the adulterous lover may be just as untrue to him as to their spouse.

Now goose and gander here, if we play the “he” speaking in the poem as the married Shakespeare, then he’s just as guilty regarding marriage oaths. But he’s onto his next point. He confesses! Look, you broke your vow to me and to your spouse: that’s two. But I’ll say right out I’ve done ten times more oath breaking!

Six lines in, he, and the poem make a turn. He starts to layout his lies, his broken oaths, his sworn perjuries:

Yes, I’ve vowed that I’ll only misuse thee. “Misuse” in this era has a strong connotation of exploiting someone for selfish sexual pleasure. So he’s saying that now, he’s now hooked in love.

I’ve placed faith in you. Sort of a “I’m culpable because I should have known.”

I’ve “sworn deep oaths” that the lover is kind, loving, truthful, and constant.

I’ve been blind to the lover’s deceit, and I made my eyes swear they aren’t seeing what they are seeing.

Obviously every one of those statements is ironic. He’s saying he was “living a lie” when he trusted that the lover was really devoted to him, and that he has moved from thinking of them as someone he could dally with (misuse) and move on. And yes, if you are judging the character of the poem’s speaker, he seems to be a bit slick in his legalese.

So, an odd ending to the series of sonnets. It’s like one of those TV series that gets cancelled right after an episode with a big scene which is never resolved. And that could be exactly what happened. Shakespeare may have left off writing sonnets. Or the publisher may have only had access to part of what Shakespeare wrote. Accidental or not, like the lovers in Keats’ painted urn chasing each other, we’ll never know if anything will be resolved, and that somehow keeps them alive in some strange way, hundreds of years later.

Musically, I threw together a small orchestral arrangement for this.You can read the text of the sonnet here, and unless you’re reading this on the WordPress reader for Apple IOS, you should be able to click on the player gadget to hear my performance of it. IPhone and iPad users who use the WordPress reader should catch the performance by opening frankhudson.org in a regular web browser like Safari on their phone or tablet.

 

*After posting this yesterday, I looked at the a few other readings/performances of this sonnet. A number of them were by women. I think this one, posted the same day I did mine, is the best I’ve seen.

Song from Love’s Labour’s Lost

When I select which texts to present here it’s most often an informal, beneath the consciousness, process. This week I thought I’d follow on from my last post and continue on the theme of a poet’s experience of age, but instead the events and times we live in overcame me.

Earlier I was beginning to translate a French poet, but I couldn’t concentrate on that task. Thrashing about, I eventually found myself working on this song from a Shakespeare play. After all, songs in his plays are usually diversions: a little light variety to help entertain the audience or something to help bridge a scene change. So OK, a diversion—but when I check for the context of this song in the play that uses it, Love’s Labour’s Lost, I find that it comes at the very end of the play.  Could it be a diversion then, or is it an unusual summation?

On one hand it’s a very simple song isn’t it? A short nostalgic seasonal scene, though in Tudor-England times perhaps not so old-fashioned. Winter. Log hearth fires. Warm milk from the cow freezes in the pail. Icicles. The way-paths all fouled-up with snow and ruts.

But to throw it in at the very end of a play—a comedy yes, but one that I’m told is full of reference to all kinds of political events of Tudor times—that makes me ask if more attention is required.

One thing I notice is that although written centuries before the early 20th century Imagists, it operates just like an Imagist poem: it’s short, nothing is an elaborate metaphor developed over many lines. If it’s about winter and the cold, it never says “I’m sick of this lousy winter” or “It’s so cold!” Though a sense of palpable cold and wintertime stress pervades the poem, it’s only through physical images that this is portrayed.

A few minor language tweaks and it could have been written in 1915 not 1595 or so. Robert Frost could have hauled those logs. Ted Hughes could have witnessed the herdsman blow on his hands for warmth. The song could’ve appeared in Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth.

Scene from The Skin of Our Teeth2

“The ice age is coming, the sun’s zooming in.” A scene from the first act of Wilder’s  1942 “The Skin of Our Teeth.” That’s Tallulah Bankhead who’s broken up the chair for kindling.

 

 

Shakespeare’s winter song here is immediately preceded by another song in his play (the first song invoked spring.) Each song of the pair features a symbolic bird, and for this winter song we’re given an owl in its refrain,* a bird omen of unseen dread whose song, breaking with the Imagist show/don’t tell rule, is described as “a merry note.”

Merry? A little dark humor there I think. But even if that bird’s a bad omen, the fact that it’s singing means that it’s enduring. And the poem’s second and final stanza continues that theme of endurance. Everyone in church is sick and you can’t hear the sermon for the coughing (but coughing means you’re breathing, and who can tell how useful the sermon’s lesson might be anyway). The visible birds are hunkered down in feathers. There’s some crabs** sizzling in a bowl. There’s a fire. Tom’s brought more wood. There’s someone there to see greasy Joan cooking.

That refrain repeats and the song ends. Shakespeare’s play’s characters are kings, courtiers, and princesses and the plot their fancies. His actual world was full of war and deadly factions, brutal executions; a world of connivers, fools and tyrants, and even those who could combine all three. Yet, here he ends his comedy not with a wedding but with a song about modest endurance.

I think I lucked into this one this week. If one pays attention to this little song, it says something about those of us who are not kings or principal ministers.

Those who’ve endured my singing may be glad to hear this one is spoken word. The music is drums with a mix of four wintery synths played with my little plastic keyboard and MIDI guitar. The player to hear it is below. The full text of this short Shakespeare poem is here. I wish you the sustaining fires that are warm and illuminating, instead of the flames of fools.

 

 

 

 

*The refrain also features one of the more obscure words in the piece: greasy Joan is “keeling” the pot. I thought “stirring,” and there is some sense of that, though it may be particularly skimming fat off some stew.

**I thought of steamed crabs hissing, but if Shakespeare is remembering his rural Warwickshire it might not be seafood, but crabapples. Hot ale punch with floating crabapples was apparently a thing.

The most popular Parlando piece for Fall 2019 is…

We’ve reached the top of our seasonal top 10 covering the pieces you most liked and listened to over the past three months, but before I reveal the top piece, let me cover one other area.

I know from growth in the audience that some of you are new to the Parlando Project. Because of that, every so often I should explain what this project does. We take words, mostly poetry, mostly other peoples’ words, not our own, and combine them with music we write and perform ourselves. Sometimes we sing the words, sometimes we don’t, sometimes we split the difference somehow.

By intent the poetry we use and the music we create for it varies. Most texts are used under public domain rules.*  What kind of music do we use? I try to make it a whole lot of different. I’ve never been able to answer the simple-sounding question “What kind of music do you like?” because the idea of liking one kind of music is just not in me. So be aware that you may run into music here that you don’t care for, either because of our limitations as musicians or your own tastes and expectations—and that may happen right after a piece you liked. The same applies to the words we use. There are over 400 examples of what we do here in our archives, so you can move on and look at another one anytime. If you wonder if we’ve presented a poem or author, search here and see.

OK, so who sits atop our Autumn 2019 hit parade? William Shakespeare that’s who. That’s no surprise considering that it’s his Sonnet 73 which begins “That time of year thou mayest in me behold” (but which I’ve always thought of as “Bare Ruined Choirs”  for its most famous image)—one of the longest-famed “autumn of one’s years” poems in English.

Shakespeare Sonnets1609 edition Title Page

Let England Shake-Speares. The title page of the first printing.

 

I wrote at some length about my experience of the poem in my original post here, but I’ll reiterate only one point: even though this poem resonates with many older people and older lovers in particular, it was written by a man in his early 30s. Consider all the exegesis of Shakespeare’s sonnets that seek to tweeze out his sexuality, incidents to fill out his biography, or the identity of the fair youth, the dark lady, or “who really wrote Shakespeare,” and consider that they were written after all by an actor and a famously prolific creator of opposite and varied characters. I too want to invest those sonnets with his experience, to believe that this great artist is letting me see his heart. How much is intentionally or unintentionally “real,” and how much is a good illusion? We may never know, but we have the art none-the-less.

Here’s the player to hear my performance of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 “Bare Ruined Choirs.”  And a sincere thank you for listening and reading this fall. I hope that some of the pieces we’ve presented have pleased you and illuminated some matter or another.

 

*This means that the poetry is usually from before 1924. I happen to like (and have grown to like even more via this project) a good deal of early 20th century Modernist poetry, but we’ll jump around to older stuff than that too. While we’ve done many of “Poetry’s Greatest Hits” over the years, I’ll use lesser-known poets and poems when they strike me as interesting.

Sonnet 73 “Bare Ruined Choirs”

Here’s one of the best-known of Shakespeare’s sonnets, which means it’s clearly one of “Poetry’s Greatest Hits.”

Since I’m not a real scholar or expert in such things, let’s take a look at it as if it was another of our presentations of lesser-known poems by little-known poets. You may want to follow along with the text, which can be found here. What might we see if we encounter it this way, without preconceptions?

The first thing one might notice is the antique language. In this case it’s not so much a case of “need to look that one up” words so much as it’s the olden-days tenses, pronouns and word forms: “mayst, ”thou,” “see’st,” “fadeth,” “doth,” “perceiv’st,” and “ere.” Given that the sonnet is a compressed form (this one uses 121 words) that might put one off. The syntax too, is not modern-day natural speech, but then when undertaking a sonnet even modern-day poets will sacrifice some of that for sound and compression of expression reasons.

If one is able to overlook those two things, or simply accept them as artifacts of the form and the time it was written, the next thing I notice is how much is stuffed into those 121 words. Tonight I’ll go to a meeting with three other poets, two of which are more accomplished than I am, with several published collections under their names. If I was to present to this group a poem with as many ideas and loosely linked tropes as Sonnet 73 (albeit with whatever level of skill I otherwise possess) they would likely be puzzled and displeased with it. Modern poetry is full of a great many styles, but many of them don’t try to push so much into so short a poem.

Let’s briefly look at those thoughts and the images by which we are to experience them. The first two lines open with a common autumn poem touchstone: the turning, falling, and fallen leaves. There are approximately 127 billion English language poems using autumn leaves by now, though there might have been only a few dozen in Shakespeare’s time. I think his image here is dual though, the left-leaves are compared to a balding head.

Chandos Portrait of Shakespeare

He’s not balding, he just has a large forehead. This disputed portrait has not been used to argue that Shakespeare was actually written by Larry Fine or translated from Klingon.

 

This image is further developed or morphed in the next two lines, including the image by which I always remember this poem: the now bare or near-bare branches bereft of the migratory and mate seeking/singing birds of earlier in the year liked to a ruined choir loft. Since choir lofts are elevated, and we’ve started with leaves equaling the now spare hair on a head, they are also the mind and voice which engenders such poetry and song.

Starting in the 20th Century some Shakespeare scholarship relates that ruined choirs image to the destruction and abandonment of Catholic abbeys and churches during his century. If so, Shakespeare has brought an undercurrent of the dangerous social change of his century into his short poem.*

Shakespeare doesn’t linger on that image, though it is so sharp it may have made his point. He next moves on to another image we now find common, the ending of a day related to the later parts of one’s life. His take is the variation (also used in some autumn poems) that there is extra beauty in the endingness, by implication it’s preciousness of limits, and from the luminous colors of sunset. He develops this a bit with an image that would have once seemed common, but has since fallen into disuse: that sleep is a model of death.

The final quatrain before the concluding couplet develops yet another image, one steeped in fire as one of the classical four elements. It’s antique physics, but observationally still rich for anyone that has ever dealt with burning wood: the speaker is the hot coals, hotter than the kindling fire of youth, or the early lapping flames. Since this is ostensibly a love poem, one can take this as another commonplace: fire equaling desire. My reading is that the love poem aspect is yet another layer of image, present, but not the only element, as it’s also about the artistic spirit that could create such a sonnet. The final line in the final quatrain is nearly the equal of the “bare ruined choirs” one. “Consumed by that which it was nourished by” is both a statement about the scientific nature of combustion; about desire, love, and it’s ending; and about the artistic impulse: that we must burn, fill and empty ourselves as if by weightless flame; that we will consume our time, our life-time.

The final couplet, as with many an English “Shakespearean” sonnet, jumps on to something else. In its guise as a love poem, it says that the lover must be extra passionate and devoted, because the poem’s speaker has limited time left and yet they still love them. What should we make of that? As a devotional interpersonal love-note, the thing the poem presents itself to be, it has emotional heft.** As a statement about the artistic drive, likewise. Every time one sets out to make something, we truly don’t know if it’s the last work we will do. As we age (I’m old, this is eminently personal with me) this becomes less and less a moot philosophical point. Treat the work as a lover, treat your lover as a work of art.

So, there’s a lot of territory in this poem. Even doing my best to present it with my performance there’s too much here to absorb in one listening, one reading, in one moment in one’s life. This is a reason why other kinds of poems may be better received. Many modern short poems seek to make one point, or tell a story with a plot rather than a complex instant that has no plot yet, or several plots happening at once. Those poems can work too, and work quickly.

Shakespeare seeks to lure us with his word-music, even now centuries later, even though he’s going to try to put a gallon of thought into a pint-sized poem, and even if he’s going to use a form of English we strain to hear as natural. “Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang” isn’t just an image, and an allusion to a piece of history that may be unfamiliar to us, it’s a lovely piece of sound. I could go on with other lines that have their compelling worth as sound: “When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang” or “Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.” Can that word-music let us live with the 121 words long enough to get over the things which make us either hear this as “Shakespeare” the brand name or as an example of obsolescence?

I tried in my performance to illuminate the text and its sound as best I could. You can hear it with the player below.

 

 

 

*I’ve always loved the way Michael Wood presented the beginning of his series of TV programs on Shakespeare by saying he was born into what was a police state due to the whipsawing religious and geopolitical changes/wars/disputes England went through in the 16th century.

**By pointing out that this poem in my mind is expressing something about the experience of making art, I’m not prudishly seeking to eliminate the erotic reading. Many of the best images are bilateral. They aren’t just some thrown-off thing meant to decorate the poem with some cleverness or allusion. The thing used to represent the thing is real, maybe even more real than the thing it signifies. The thing signified enriches the image just as vice versa.

For an example of the erotic use of some similar imagery in a complex emotional landscape see this Edna St. Vincent Millay sonnet, a favorite of listeners here.

One piece of evidence that Shakespeare intends this as a complex set of images is that it was likely written when Shakespeare was in his 30s. Sure it reads “true” for this old man, but it’s not memoir as poetry. Memoir as poetry can work too, but I often feel that we’ve over-emphasized that mode.

Over Hill, Over Dale (from A Midsummer Night’s Dream)

Today is the summer solstice, and what better way to celebrate than a song from Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

The song “Over Hill, Over Dale”  comes early in the play, as the audience is introduced to the fairies’ world. I’d like to point out, the un-named fairy who sings it might be particularly relatable to creative types. How so?

On our creative days we may like to think ourselves’ that play’s Puck, “that shrewd and knavish sprite” capable of all kinds of life-shaping mischief with our words and creations; the Puck who gets the play’s ending speech where he represents as all effortless, dreaming creators to our audiences.

But Puck doesn’t sing today’s song.

Nope. The singer is just a fairy no-name. And, to be frank, this fairy is kind of a drudge. The song, delightful as it is—and meant to generate with word-pictures a wonderous world of nature’s magic in the audience’s mind—does this by a description of no-name fairy keeping their fay nose to the pixie grindstone. Dutiful, and busy, busy, busy.

Shakespeare has set no-name fairy’s job to be an exposition-character. After today’s scene-setting song, their dramatic task is to introduce Puck, through no-name recognizing the much better-known sprite and speechifying as Puck’s hype-man. After that, no-name leaves the play speaking lines about not wanting to be noticed.

Puck and Fairy by John Gilbert

Consolations? This Victorian artist made our no-name fairy better-looking than Puck (on the left.)

 

OK, so what’s in this for creatives?

We’re not Puck, at least not most of us, mostly all the time, effortlessly casting our thrall. Magic and delight take a lot of grunt work. There’s always one more cowslip that’s missed its pearl-hanging, that’s a few rubies short of the categorical number.

And if we do our work well enough, it often seems like nature—you know, “You’re so creative. I could never come up with all your ideas!” Well, creative people aren’t the ones who come up with ideas (those are imaginative people, only some of which are creative)—creative people are the people who make things.

Musically, I get to work out my naïve piano playing while aiming for a funky feel on this one. I hear there’s a Midsummer party in the wood outside of Athens. What time? Oh, Elizabethan. The player gadget is below. If you want to read along, the song is at the start of Act 2, Scene 1, and you can read it here.

 

Love’s Greatest Hits

“If music be the food of love, then play on…” So said Shakespeare and Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac. Here at the Parlando Project we explore music and words (mostly poetry) crushing on each other, and some of our most listened-to audio pieces feature aspects of love. So, for Valentine’s Day here’s a countdown of our most popular pieces that feature love.

As it happens this “Top 10” also does a good job of showing the variety of music and ways we integrate the words with the music. I often think I spend the majority of the posts here talking about the words we use, but love, like music, often prefers “to speak without having anything to say,” the thing that music does.

10. Vegetable Swallow words by Tristan Tzara. When I translated this Dada poem I wasn’t expecting it to form the recognizable poem of desire that appeared. Musically I set this to something that is unorthodox rock. The keyboard parts don’t really work the way rock keyboards usually work, but the second half features an electric guitar solo that while it’s not rock, meets it at least half-way.

 

9. Love is Enough words by William Morris. More plainspoken than Tzara about the value of love in a world that doesn’t seem to want to contain it. Here the LYL Band is in garage band mode, with the usual keening combo organ of that Sixties’ genre along with two guitars, bass and drums.

 

8. The Heart of the Woman words by William Butler Yeats. One of the limitations I need to deal with in this project is that I’m not a very good singer, so it was particularly audacious here for me to perform Yeats’ poem of tender devotion acapella. One of the things I love about traditional folk music field recordings is that they often capture singers who are not perfect in pitch or in other qualities that make one say “what a singer!” That quality brings a different reflection on humanity and the words being sung.

 

7. Sonnet 130 My Mistresses Eyes Are Nothing Like the Sun words by William Shakespeare. I loved the episode of Upstart Crow  where everyone and Shakespeare’s wife takes the bard to task for this too honest love poem that deconstructs every phony and limiting idea of beauty in his era’s poetry. Bonus Black History Month points to the possibility that the poem’s famous “Dark Lady” might have African ancestors. Musically, we leave rock’n’roll behind for 12-string acoustic guitar, bass, recorder and a string quartet.

 

6. Rosemary words by Edna St. Vincent Millay. One of my personal favorite musical performances from the more than 300 I’ve presented here in the last three years. I was trying to recreate the sound of the acoustic band The Pentangle, and I’m still shocked and pleased at how close I could get. Millay’s poem has a new broom sweeping out the old, failed love to make ready for a new one.

 

5. Sonnet 43 What Lips My Lips Have Kissed words by Edna St. Vincent Millay. Our first repeat appearance by a poet in this list, and there’s a tinge of romantic regret in this one, but also there’s some satisfaction in a life of romantic independence. A massively underrated poem! Another small string group arrangement here with some spare piano, but also electric bass and drums.

 

Allegory of Music by Laurent de La Hyre

Actual photo of my anima recording another Parlando Project piece. “Yeah, it needs more theorbo.”

 

4. Let Us Live and Love words by Thomas Campion. Another variation on the carpe diem poem that starts as Campion’s Elizabethan English translation of Roman poet Catullus, and then branches off to his own take. The music here is blues: acoustic guitar and slide guitar with harmonica. I don’t play bottleneck slide guitar much with the Parlando Project, but listeners for some reason seem to like the pieces where I do.

 

3. Tender Buttons words by Gertrude Stein. Another one where I outright tried to cop the style of another band, this time Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band. I remain surprised at the number of listens this one has accumulated, and even when I posted this I wondered how many are out there that appreciate both Gertrude Stein and Captain Beefheart. More than I expected you brave souls!

Even more than the Tristan Tzara poem, this one abstracts desire and love; but particularly in its closing section, that’s what I read was there expressed in Stein’s cubist language. It’s possible that, though the language is different, Stein is making something of the same point as Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 does, that desire starts at skin deep and cares little how it’s attired or to what it’s compared to. Beefheart did much the same thing lyrically as Stein—but also musically, reassembling shards of blues music and visual emotions.

 

2. Sonnet 18 Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day words by William Shakespeare. More rock band instrumentation used in a different way than usual. The tolling piano sure ain’t doing no boogie-woogie, for this poem is yet another carpe diem argument, presented only slightly differently. As always in carpe diem, “we’re all going to die” is the unlikely come-on, and Shakespeare isn’t making the “mistake” of his Sonnet 130, opening this one by saying his beloved is better than, rather than lesser than, a common poetic trope; but as the poem continues he makes the ego-drenched claim that he’s the better love partner because he’ll put you in a poem that’ll make you immortal.

How’d that work out for the love object? Lots of conjecture as to who might be the “fair youth” or the “dark lady” in those sonnets (or if Shakespeare is, well, capable of just making the whole thing up) but in fact, we’re more concerned with Shakespeare than his romantic partners. We treasure the valentines, not the fleshy and independent lovers that they may have been addressed to, and we hold them while their erstwhile subjects are dust without names.

Doesn’t seem fair does it? Maybe for Valentine’s today the best thing is to skip the questions of appropriate metaphor and honor that partner, and to return to poetry and song tomorrow?

I can’t be serious, can I? This project needs more listeners and readers!

 

1. Love and Money words by Dave Moore. Can this be? An original song by Dave, who has contributed words, music, vocals, inspiration and keyboards to this project from the start is more popular than Shakespeare? How could this be?

Could it be the elemental and essential nature of the pairing in the title and the rest of the lyrics? I was considering some slavery stories as I first considered Dave’s lyrics, that added some weight for me, but Dave’s words are free-floating as far as time and place. So, I’m not going to knock the words, but maybe it’s the funky way his electric clavinet and the rest of the LYL Band jells on this one.

 

 

Happy Valentine’s Day to every reader and listener here!

Ruined Refrigerator

Cleverness in poetry or writing can be a mixed blessing. While poetry without cleverness can be bland and unexciting, poetry with too much of it can seem a show-offy exercise exhibiting the most exorbitant self in self-expression.

Unlike my pleasant puzzlement with H. D.’s “The Pool”  last time, I can speak with authority about the author’s intent on today’s piece “Ruined Refrigerator,”  because I wrote this set of words. A short aside for those that are new here: this isn’t the way the Parlando Project generally works, we’re normally about “Other people’s stories,” our audio encounters with other author’s words.

But since I wrote this I can say a bit about how this worked with “Ruined Refrigerator.”  This started out as a sonnet I wrote in 1978. I’ve always been attracted to the 14-liner. It’s just about the perfect size to develop a point with a turn or even two, while still asking for concision. The 14 lines can be divided in many eccentric ways into stanzas, sections, and rhyme schemes. And since Shakespeare used it for his best poetry, you have a mighty model to measure up against.

The problem with the sonnet and Shakespeare as a model is that it can fall into clever complexity. Shakespeare was intoxicated with flowery language, language that loves using extra words and similes to express itself. Given the youthful vigor of the mostly modern English of Shakespeare’s day, and Shakespeare’s genius, this is not as tiresome in his best poems as it would too often be in those that were written after him.

Artists already have too much to worry about, but perhaps we should be more careful when we invent something, as any imitators will exploit all the faults in the invention—and so, eventually Shakespeare’s poetics can descend into “poetic language” that violates the call to concision that lyric poetry should heed, and to merely clever works that exercise the skills but not the aims and ends of great poetry.

I can tell you that as an author, writing clever poetry is great fun. Finding what you believe is a new way to say something is wonderful. Engaging in the music of thought where a theme emerges in a surprising and even mysterious way is as great a joy in words as it is when composing music. Fitting the stuff of a poem into the puzzle of meter and rhyme and stanza forms takes effort, but like any number of enjoyable crafts, it’s satisfying. The dance of metaphor as it leaps back and forth from the compared thing to the thing can feel in creation almost God-like.

These things have degrees of difficulty and achievement, yes, but the greater difficulty is engaging an audience for them. What is enjoyable and satisfying to the author is not necessarily the same to the reader or listener. Too little cleverness and the result is bland, too much and the reader will decide: too much effort for too little reward. Or they may read on and decide that it’s much ado about nothing. What the author thinks is clever, based on their effort and self-evaluation, seems mundane to the more sophisticated reader or obtusely obscure to the naïve one. Audiences don’t love or hate cleverness, they just want it to be worth their while.

were_only_in_it_for_the_money_bottom

Subliminal inspiration? Lower section the “We’re Only In It for the Money” album cover
created by Calvin Schenkel, Frank Zappa and Jerry Schatzberg 1967.

 

“Ruined Refrigerator”  may suffer from these issues, from failed attempts at cleverness. I wrote a complete draft around 40 years ago*, and I must have liked the “deep ecology” idea enough that I revised it 15 years ago. So far (small) audiences haven’t cared for it much. Maybe that’s my failing, or maybe it’s the audiences’—though I believe the audiences were good ones. Maybe on the first day of spring in a time when global warming is on more minds this will make more of a connection?

As an artist, you can negotiate a treaty with that failure, knowing that all artists fail—sometimes, depending on the audience. Artists can succeed with some audiences by making the choices that will certainly cause them to fail with others. One can always choose to fail better or differently. The important thing is to try, in the way you think best to try.

Here’s my performance and try of “Ruined Refrigerator.”

 

 

*A note on the 2004 draft I have of this says the first draft (lost) was from 1978. But I also recall stealing the germ of the idea from a Gary Larson “The Far Side” one-panel cartoon, though I have not been able to find that cartoon, and “The Far Side” was first published in 1980.