Shakespeare’s Daily Grind

Bard of Avon, Elizabethan poets, Jacobean poets, plays, poetry, Shakespeare, sonnets, Uncategorized, William Shakespeare
Every writer is different. Each has his or her own way of working, a method for getting words down on paper. Some are procrastinators, some are methodical, some write in between juggling a daytime job and caring for a family.
William Shakespeare (April 26 ,1564 –April 23, 1616) was an English poet, playwright, and actor, widely regarded as the greatest writer in English. His works, including collaborations, consist of approximately 38 plays, 154 sonnets, a couple of long narrative poems, and other verses, some of uncertain authorship.
Shakespeare was a genius. No rational person would dispute that. But how did the Bard of Avon achieve the fantastically inventive output that he produced between his debut in the early 1590s and his curtain call in the mid-1630s. He was an actor who understood actors and, more importantly, understood the dynamics of stagecraft and audience interaction. He was a member of a company of actors who performed his own plays many times for the delectation of the public. You might think that with such a task he would do what many other playwrights of the time did, which was to produce crowd-pleasers without any substance. Instead, what Shakespeare did was to produce plays that were stimulating on both the popular and the intellectual level. This was a choice of necessity for  him. He was in the acting and playwriting business, not just for laughs, but for some lasting legacy. He is, in fact, one of the few Elizabethan or Jacobean poets whose works are still part of the curriculum of any self-respecting English department in a university that values its status and academic standing.
The practicalities of how Shakespeare wrote his plays is lost to history, but we can assume, given the fact that he was an actor himself in his own plays, that he changed the script several times before the final version was arrived at. He would come offstage after a torrid performance of Henry V and bury his head in the text, striking out infelicities, and scribbling alternative dialogue above the main text. He would ad lib during the performance itself (how could he not, being such a dynamo of creativity) much to the annoyance of the other actors. He would elaborate, modify and fiddle with the script as the show went on, and subsequent performances would be impacted by the changes he had made, until the play was just right. It is amazing how a playwright under such pressure could still produce lines that are, at times, so sublime that they almost make you cry.
But William Shakespeare was also a poet. His 154 sonnets are a tour de force of invention. Working within the very strict formal conventions of the day, with which, in fact, every sonneteer was familiar, he managed to produce immortal lines that are quoted even now after five hundred years. Again, his work ethic and routine for writing sonnets are lost to us in the swirling mist of time. But many of his sonnets are intricate mechanisms of miraculous artistry and beauty that defy full analysis. Certainly, he must have penned some of them late at night as the mood and the ale took hold, but every one of them speaks of fine tailoring and meticulous polishing. So he must have continued to work on them during the day, in breaks from the performances, in the hiatus between writing and performing one play and beginning another.
He died at the age of 53. Not a bad stretch for somebody of the time. On the other hand, how much did the stress of juggling writing, acting, directing and the precarious business of staging and advertising plays contribute to what would be considered now an early demise? Shakespeare spent himself in writing works of genius, and thank God he did. But was the cost too great? Did the spewing forth of works of literary brilliance consume him before his time. Again, we will never know. But however he managed to produce his output we are glad he did, even if the weight of it might have felled him in the end.


Poetry is Just for Sissies

decline of western civilization, Emily Dickinson, John Ashbery, nature poets, poetry, Psalms, Robert Frost, Shakespeare, Sylvia Plath, T.S. Eliot, Uncategorized, war poets, writing poetry
Have you ever been sitting with a group of people whom you don’t know very well – perhaps coworkers or friends of friends – and the subject of poetry comes up. You know that you yourself have dabbled in that black art but you hang fire, you’re not about to blow the gaff and “out” yourself as an aspiring poet. Instead you wait. Where is the conversation headed? Will it rush headlong towards wholesale scorn, or is the company more sympathetic? You know you’ve written a few verses in moments of intense emotion; in fact you even composed a poem for your godfather’s fiftieth birthday but which you were too afraid to read, have read, or even have discovered. The conversation turns to which poets everyone can remember from high school. Shakespeare? Emily Dickinson? Robert Frost? T.S. Eliot? Or even some more recent deities like Sylvia Plath or John Ashbery? The names swim in your head like a thick steaming soup of unattainable brilliance. But most of all they conjure up the canons of English and American Literature, which make your paltry poetical offerings seem weak, thin and decidedly juvenile. Should you suddenly blurt out, “But I’ve written poetry too!!!” or simply sit there with a vague enigmatic smile and let the moment pass, like a badly digested plate of meatballs?
If you are a woman, it’s not so bad. Women like poetry, don’t they? Well, okay, not all women; but a lot of women seem to be more attuned to the finer sentiments, such as you might find expressed in lines of verse. But if you happen to be a guy and you take the unalterable step of admitting to a penchant for poetry then you may as well smoke your last cigarette and put on the blindfold, because, my friend, your life is over.
Exaggeration? Probably – a little. But saying the dreaded phrase, “I write poetry,” can be a bit like saying, “I am infected with the SARS virus.” It has consequences. And for the poet those consequences might involve reactions like, “Would you mind (snicker) reading us some of it to us (chortle)?” – unless, of course, you stumble across a group of people who have actually read some poetry since they were eighteen and are open to the possibility that they might enjoy writing some too.
Before the twentieth century, poetry was seen as a necessary part of the refined life that civilized people strove for. It was, in fact, possible to make a moderately good living from writing poetry, provided you actually had some talent. But like so many other elements of the refined lifestyle, poetry too has become devalued. The misunderstanding about poetry nowadays is that its arguments or themes or topics are largely ephemeral, emotional or effeminate. Yet poetry has addressed and still does address the key moments of life, the depth of human experience, and the transcendence of the human spirit, and gives the lie to the assertion that humankind cannot rise above itself. In fact, like music, the best poetry has a quality about it that circumnavigates rational thought and hits home to the heart in a way that takes the breath away. It can draw us up to a spiritual level in a way that ordinary prose cannot hope to match.
Poetry is not just for fops and dandies. And if you read any of the war poets from the various different conflicts of the last two centuries, or the poets who observe the struggle for survival of animals in the natural world, or the poets who commentate on the decline of western civilization, or even the poet who composed the Book of Psalms, you realize that not only is their poetry robust and visceral but it is also true.
Poetry is not for sissies, it’s for real men and women in a crazy world who desperately need some guiding light in the darkness.