Poem-A-Day: William Shakespeare (and World Book Day)

Happy Shakespeare’s (presumed) birthday!

ALSO IT IS WORLD BOOK DAY TODAY! I wonder if there’s a coincidence? (See my note at the end of this post for more on this.)

Not gonna lie, I love most of Shakespeare’s work that I’ve ever read. (Except Titus Andronicus. Holy cats I dislike that play. And Julius Caesar. What a nightmare that was to teach.)

His sonnets are an absolute technical marvel. Sonnet 29, in particular, reminds me of what it feels like to be in mid-life crisis, or even just that No Man’s Land where you’re neither worth objectfying (thank goodness for small favors, right?) nor are you really even visible to most of the world (bah).

Except.

Except, except, except.

When you have wonderful people in your life. Stable relationships. Things to be proud of and happy about.

That’s just not such a bad place to be, after all.

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 me like to one more rich in hope,
Featur’d 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.

***

William Shakespeare is the sort of legendary writer who is so popular people don’t even want to like him, but who also makes cynics and skeptics think he couldn’t possibly have written so much awesome stuff because he didn’t have a fancy education. Poppycock, stuff and nonsense. Sorry, Sir Francis Bacon and Christopher Marlowe and anyone else some dusty prof decides to sally forth out of jealousy. Imma go with that man was just a genius. Peace out.

***

Now, about World Book Day. In an effort to send more books out into the world, I am giving away copies of Finis. (up to ten) to anyone who asks for one and gives me their (U.S.) address. (I will send them out to other countries quite happily, but you’ll need to pay for postage on those.) You have until this weekend to do it. Cheers!

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Poem-A-Day: Mike Alexander

This seems like a reasonable follow-up to yesterday’s post about responding poetically, ekphrastically even, to another person’s social media presence.

Mike Alexander composed this marvelous poem and posted it on Le Book of Face recently and has graciously allowed me to share it here too. You might notice it is a sonnet; this is something he does particularly well. I remember back in 1999 he had published a chapbook called January Y2K Blues, which was a collection of fourteeners on that theme — one for each day of the month, in fact. In addition to its being well written, the book design itself was really just gorgeous.

***

ON FIRST LOOKING INTO ZUCKERBERG’S FACEBOOK

A FRIEND told me in chat that I could see
his new vacation photographs – I think
I clicked without a moment’s thought the link
he sent me – O how clueless could I be –
At once, a slew of questions came to me.
I gave the answers, so I’d be in sync
with this new media, this Facebook, Inc.,
surrendering all rights to privacy.
I never saw my friend’s exotic pics;
instead I saw a thousand invitations
from friends I never knew I had, a mix
of selling points & social obligations,
cat videos, hateful ranting, politics…
I gaped like Aztecs at the first Caucasians.

***

Alexander now runs POETRY FIX, a bi-monthly reading (most months) on Tuesday nights at FIX Coffeebar in Houston.

Poem-A-Day: John Donne

So for some of us, this is a holy weekend. Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter Sunday — and some of us were paying attention to Maundy Thursday too. For some of us, there will be a lot of candy involved. Resuming the indulgence in our recent sacrifices. Eggs. Springy animals. Wearing white again. Meeting up with friends, coping with family. Commenting on the beautiful weather. Prayer. Reflection. Chocolate, chocolate everywhere, and not an ounce uneaten.

When I think about holy poems, I turn to John Donne, one of my favorite poets of the English Renaissance. His trajectory through life led him to become a priest in the Church of England, but he was a poet first, and one whose attention to matters carnal was just as pronounced as his attention to matters spiritual later.

Good Friday is about passion. When I was growing up in the Catholic Church, that word carried with it challenging baggage: it was both a thing to love and a thing to despise, a thing to aspire toward and a thing to fear. No matter how you sliced the connotation, it was a basket full of conflicting images, conflicting impulses, conflicting directives.

In my Catholic school, at Good Friday service, a boy from the eighth grade was selected each year to the dubious honor of playing Christ in the Stations of the Cross. He was led through the Stations before the entire student body, the faculty, the administration; he carried a wooden cross larger than he was; he was guided by two of his male peers, dressed as acolytes; by the end of the service they had stripped his white robes to his waist, so that he would stand before the community, pale and freckled chest bared, arms draped over the cross leaning against his back, his eyes always — always — lowered in what felt to me more like shame than prayer. We were silent, watching, more still in our observation than children ever otherwise were.

The spiritual passion of John Donne’s poetry at times rivaled the carnal passion of his love poetry from before he accepted the cloth. The following sonnet exemplifies this same contradiction I learned through a life both spiritual and linguistic: that passion can be hideously exalting, gloriously demeaning, both a craving and a deeply felt pain.

***

Batter my heart, three-person’d God

 

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labour to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

***

For some astute analysis of this poem, check out the Interesting Literature blog.

Ekphrasis #1

kids, ca. 1981
photo taken by MaryBeth Jamail, probably in 1981

I wrote this sonnet when I was in college, meditating on the theme of love presumed to be inherent in the sonnet form. I thought, love takes many forms, and so, this…

***

Lullaby for a Crying Child

When my cousin died (olive skin and thick
black hair and twelve years old laid under dirt
and roses) I realized that death is
not a one-way gate, but is a long silk skirt

in the rain:  shadows of skin inside the silk
(bare legs running to get inside, get warm)
stick to my skirt until I peel the silk
from my skin, and hang it in the bathroom.

My cousin (body of a child with eyes
and mind that have just turned twenty-three)
visits me in my sleep, touches my fingers, and I
look at him, then through him, and he leaves me

but not alone.  And I wake to rain and
my skirt dripping from the shower curtain rod.

***

This poem originally appeared in my first published volume of poems, Gypsies.