Shakespeare On the Wall
QUITE a few years ago, I was at a faculty-club dinner, seated next to a man introduced to me as a professor of English. His specialty, I discovered, was the 19th century - the same as mine. As we chatted, however, it became evident we had little in common.Although I was very interested in his particular field of 19th-century fiction, when I mentioned my own area - 19th-century poetry - he declared, rather proudly, that he had no interest in poetry whatsoever. Not in 19th-century poetry, not in 20th-century poetry, not in classical poetry, nor postmodern poetry. Not in lyric, epic, or narrative poetry, not in rhymed poetry, not in metric or free verse. Not in Pope's heroic couplets nor in Keats's lyrical odes, not in Tennyson's lush elegiacs nor in Allen G insberg's howls, not in Yeats's Celtic eloquence nor Eliot's ironic modernism, not in Donne's knotty metaphysics nor Milton's sublime theodicy - not even, as I finally ascertained, in Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales," the ancestors of the "fiction" in which this professor was generally regarded as an expert. I admit this was an unusual experience. Most teachers of literature that I've known have at least some interest in some kind of poetry, even when they like one kind at the expense of another. I was shocked by the complacency with which this professor of literature declared a central part of literary experience as beyond the boundaries of his interest. It bespoke an all-too-prevalent popular misconception of poetry as something rarefied, artificial, esoteric. Poetry, his tone implied, is a peculiar sort of acquired taste, an affectation too frivolous to appeal to serious professors dedicated to the more solid virtues of the Novel. There are other readers who avoid poetry for almost the opposite reason. Far from dismissing poetry as unworthy of serious consideration, these readers feel somehow unworthy of poetry, which they assume is too high-flown and difficult for the average person to understand. While the professor's arrogant attitude is one that makes me angry, this kind of humility makes me a little sad. When you consider how widely poetic devices such as rhythm, meter, rhyme, and alliteration are used in the most basic forms of communication - from advertising jingles to popular songs and children's nursery rhymes - fear of poetry seems almost comically unnecessary. In my own teaching experience, I've seen the most unlikely people respond to poetry. Kids who've had a hard time writing a brief essay have expressed delight at discovering poets who can put into words the feelings and perceptions we all sha re. I had a class that fell in love with Wordsworth - a poet whom my own peer group had once considered a little too obvious and long-winded. We had been wrong, however. My students, happily free from preconceived theories about the importance of irony, the outmodedness of rhyme, or the superiority of metaphor to simile, responded warmly and immediately to poems like "The world is too much with us; late and soon,/ Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;/ Little we see in Nature that is ours or "I wand ered lonely as a cloud/ That floats on high o'er vales and hills,/ When all at once I saw a crowd,/ A host, of golden daffodils, Poetry crops up in unexpected places. A couple of months ago, my husband and I were at a fashionable Los Angeles nightspot. What did we find plastered on one of the walls, about six feet high in calligraphy on mock-parchment, but a sonnet of Shakespeare's: To me, fair friend, you never can be old, For as you were when first your eye I eyed, Such seems your beauty still. Three winters cold Have from the forests shook three summers' pride, Three beauteous springs to yellow autumn turned In process of the seasons have I seen, Three April perfumes in three hot Junes burned, Since first I saw you fresh, which yet are green. Ah, yet doth beauty, like a dial hand, Steal from his figure, and no pace perceived; So your sweet hue, which methinks still doth stand, Hath motion, and mine eye may be deceived; For fear of which, hear this, thou age unbred: Ere you were born was beauty's summer dead."What is that dreadful poem on the wall?" a blase-looking woman at the next table inquired. "It's not dreadful at all. It's one of Shakespeare's sonnets," I told her. "Shakespeare?" she echoed in surprise. The name was clearly impressive. Overcoming her slight embarrassment, she added, "Well, it can't be one of his better ones." "No, it's a perfectly good one," I assured her. I did not bother to add that it wasn't my favorite of Shakespeare's sonnets, nor did I proceed to point out what made it a "good" poem nonetheless. It was too noisy in the nightclub to explain why I especially liked the line "Three April perfumes in three hot Junes burned" for the way it connects time and temperature change as forces that nurture and consume physical beauty. In copying the sonnet, the calligrapher made several errors that were uncaught. The sonnet was there to lend atmosphere, not to be studied in depth. But, clearly, in choosing the sonnet as part of his decor, the nightclub owner was acting on the assumption that most of his patrons, unlike the woman at the next table, would recognize it, or at very least, respond to it. Surely, it shouldn't have been an unreasonable assumption on his part that Shakespeare's sonnets were part of our common culture. Among the souvenirs my husband has preserved from the last days of transatlantic ocean travel are menus from the French Line. On the back of each is printed a brief, well-known French poem - a different one for each meal. These are poems like Ronsard's "Mignonne, allons voir si la rose/ Qui ce matin avait declose/ Sa robe de pourpre au soleil, /A pointperdu cette vepree/ Les plis de sa robe pourpree,/ Et son teint au votre pareil." And one of my favorites, "Je suis le tbreux, - le veuf, - l'inconsole,/ L e prince d'Aquitaine a la tour abolie by the 19th century poet Nerval. Ronsard's "Mignonne" is a classic of the French Renaissance - like Shakespeare's sonnet, a delicate tribute to youth and beauty that warns at the same time of their loss. Nerval's unconsoled, shadowy widower of the ruined tower, the prince of Aquitaine, found his way into T. S. Eliot's "The Wasteland." While it is possible to disapprove of poetic masterworks being used to adorn a menu or add a touch of class to a nightclub, this casual, familiar use of a cultural heritage is eloquent testimony to the many and unexpected ways in which great poetry endures. Stumbling across poems on menus and nightclub walls, however, is not sufficient proof that we have been living in an age of widespread cultural literacy. Literacy itself seems an endangered species. Faced with evidence of declining levels of reading and writing skills, many of us try to cheer ourselves up by finding significance in the ways poetry crops up in popular culture. The power of rap music, for example, is often seen as a sign of the continuing vitality of the word in an age replete with every k ind of nonverbal audio and video. The vitality and variety of the poetic impulse does not mean that all poems are equally "good." True, we judge a lyric by Keats, Shelley, Tennyson, or Hopkins by different standards from those we would apply to long satirical poems by Dryden or Pope. And currently, battles rage in academe as to whether or not anyone has the "right" to claim that white, male poets like Shakespeare, Milton, and Keats are somehow "better" than a black female poet like Alice Walker. Little wonder, when the study of poetry becomes so politicized, that students become even more confused about how to judge the intrinsic quality of a given poem or poet. But even if we cannot decide upon a single, unwavering set of criteria, there are qualities we come to recognize and appreciate: sometimes it's musicality, other times it's vividness of imagery, and almost always, it's the poet's ability to get the most out of language. Technical achievement in rhythm, form, and style can be dazzling but will always shine most radiantly when matched with content profound enough to start us thinking. "It is not metre, but metre-making argument, that makes a poem," observed Ralph Waldo Emerson. I've often thought of what the phrase "metre-making argument" implies: Argument, as Emerson uses it, does not specifically mean a verbal fight, but thesis, a contention, an idea ... whatever it is that sets the poet in motion. If ideas and emotions generate words and sentences, there is also something about the form of ideas and the flow of emotions that feeds the rhythms of speech and poetry. A poem is not just a play of pretty words too trivial to claim the attention of a pompous professor. Nor is our capacity to create and respond to it simply a mark of superior cultivation, a status symbol. Poetry is the force that shapes the way we express ourselves, ransacking every device of language, image, and sound to give a lasting form to our feelings and a memorable shape to our ideas.