Tuesday, April 23, 2013

National Poetry Month, or In Defense of Poems

Willie the Shake
I started writing this post at the beginning of the month, but it got unwieldy and I kind of gave up. But today on the day of Shakespeare's birth and death, I decided to man up and post. Here are my main points:

1) Currently, poetry is grossly under-appreciated and poorly taught. 2) Poetry isn't solely for emo wimps. 3) Poetry can express ideas and sentiments that just don't translate well into regular language. 4) If you like thought or language, you should like poetry.

Now, I'm well aware that the world is teeming with bad poetry. The world is also full of bad books and bad movies, but that doesn't mean you should swear off an entire medium. There are more great poems than you or I could ever read in a lifetime.

For the rest of the month I'll be posting a few poems a day that I think are great. And since today is the birthday of Willie the Shake, I'll start with one of his sonnets. But before you go dismissing his sonnets as gushing, hallow, romantic drivel, give this one a shot and see if you aren't just a little surprised:

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask'd, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

Shakespeare is making fun of bad love poems that exaggerate the beauty and grace of the subject. The first few words set you up for yet another sappy, shallow, ridiculous poem, but then it takes an unexpected turn. The poet admits that his beloved is really nothing like these traditional superlatives. (Billy Collins uses this device to hilarious effect in his poem, "Litany.")

See? Shakespeare can be funny! He's often funny. But then just when we've gotten used to his very pedestrian view of his mistress, he surprises us again with an insightful twist. She doesn't live up to the comparisons everyone makes ("her cheeks are like roses, her hair is like gold, her voice is like music…she's like a goddess"), but her individuality is what endears her to him.

Good poem, Shakespeare.

1 comment:

  1. So poetry had never really worked for me until, weirdly enough, I read this one line by Gerard Manley Hopkins: "I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day." I love that. It's so concise, and for some reason it clicked--the realization that you just can't do the same thing in prose or in a book. So I have been appreciating it much more as of late.

    Auden is nice, esp. this one: http://english.emory.edu/classes/paintings&poems/auden.html