Editing #Shakespeare!

I had an idea to tuck this away in a list of prompts for litLAB, but as it developed, it was too fun not to try myself! I’ve reproduced it below as I had originally written it, for a small audience of fellow writers.

IMPROVE ON SHAKESPEARE! Oh yes, you heard me right. First, go watch this Rowan Atkinson/Hugh Laurie sketch here, to get a sense of what Our Will went through. Then read the text of Hamlet’s soliloquy here.

Feel free to look up any Cliff’s Notes or No-Fear Shakespeare you like to get your feet wet! Remember context, too. This speech was not delivered in a vacuum. If you’ve never seen Hamlet (do!), visit the wiki and familiarize yourself with what’s going on in the play to lead to this speech.

When you have a bead on the speech, edit it. Put it in modern terms, keep it in Elizabethan language – it doesn’t matter. What I want to see are vastly different ways of putting the same ideas out there.

Remember that Will was a man of his time – “Shakespeare” the institution is a modern invention. He was a businessman, a working writer, selling seats – so think like he did. Add flavor and color – this is not a sacred proclamation from on high!

Shakespeare protip: yes, yes, I know iambic pentameter sounds scary to the uninitiated, and ZOMG it makes teh Shakespurze totes complicated.  But don’t forget punctuation.  That still helps you know where to breathe, and what kind of sentence you’re in.  So as I’m doing this, I’ve copied the text to a clean doc, and I’m separating it out by the sentence.  This will also be helpful in rendering it into contemporary speech, as I aim to do.  You can even put it in a table if that helps you stay more organized!  Technology will work in your favor here.

Do not go gentle…considering #sound and #poetry in #DylanThomas work (and my own)

So here we are again, with yet another dead white man!  I don’t turn often to Thomas’ work, but when I do, it’s for the sound.  When you read his work, it doesn’t always spring off the page to meet you – it’s not easy.  But it always makes sense, in a grand, mythic way.  Some of this is the old-fashioned delivery, from back when poems were performed, not excused*.

Thomas is a difficult poet.  He is not on my shelf of “literary husbands”.  His biography is unpleasant, his poems must be wrestled more than read.  But this aurality captures me.  I try to be pragmatic with poetry, and explain its use to imagined crowds of bean counters.  I try to justify my presence and my need to write it as “worthwhile”.  But Thomas reminds me of the heart of the discipline, the wild pagan past, the druid, the witch.  Why not make a poem as broad as the night sky, why not make it an incantation, why not stretch back and forth over the arc of history?

“When he’s “off,” the result is a formless riff. When he’s “on,” it’s a revelation” says Austin Allen (“Lightning and Lullabies”) about Thomas’ sonic quality.  My god is this ever true.  Every poet has been “off” here and there, some more than others.  When Thomas goes off the rails, it is indeed a mess – a pleasant sounding mess – but an inscrutable, uninviting mess.  And I have certainly done that myself.  When it comes to craft, I’ve spent these years trying to get my own music but not deflate into nonsense.  Even if you don’t “get” an image, I want you to infer something from the whole experience: “There is no honey in this stone/ I will bear only the strange symptom of my need”, or “Riot and groan in the heat/ Love, love the brassy impulse”.  I don’t need you to form a concrete picture of these images, I need you to hear the poetry, to understand the sensation and the emotion I am trying to convey.

Sound Over Sense Austin Allen and Curtis Fox discuss the genius of Thomas, specifically his sonic quality in “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”.  As Allen notes, quite correctly, Thomas excelled when using strict forms.  These constraints allowed the “the music carries them on and one….[the music] strain against the form of the villanelle”.  My interest in the poem bridges content and mechanics.  The passionate plea to a dying parent touches me personally and the images (“Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight”) are grand in their scale, “private myth” as Allen calls them.  But you have not experienced this poem until you have heard a good recording of Thomas’ reading.

The muscularity of the lines here, the hammer-blows are, as Allen calls them, “”bardic”, they share “a broad natural context” with universal themes.  Even though the poem was written with one individual man in mind, most of the stanzas rush away into the heavens: “Blind eyes could blaze like meteors” and “…my father, there on the sad height,”.  When one discovers the music of a poem, and builds the images to match, that is what transmutes the poem into art.  That is what gets it to stick in peoples’ heads for years and years, becoming a touchstone rather than a reading.


*Do you notice that?  In some circles, it’s fashionable to feign shyness or reluctance, to read like you have a high fever about to destroy you, and squeak out a stanza like a fart you pray no one notices.  Blessedly, this is not the case all around. And lest you think I have nostalgia glasses on, there were plenty of crap poetry readings back in the day as well (I point to the misery of Cummings’ aural approach).  The only difference is that we have so many more performances preserved whereas before the weakest ones fell away.

Featured image from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/artsandculture/3273771/Home-of-Welsh-poet-Dylan-Thomas-opens-as-a-holiday-let.html