More than once in the past couple of months, as I have churned out fourteen-line poems, one or two friends have asked me “Did that really happen?” or “That one was about [you know who], wasn’t it?” Which makes me wonder whether Shakespeare went through the same thing when Thomas Thorpe published his sonnets.
MICHAEL DRAYTON: Dude, those Bath sonnets, are they really about syphilis?
SHAKESPEARE: If by the word “really” you mean “in my imagination,” then yes.
ANNE SHAKESPEARE: You son of a bitch. Those Dark Lady sonnets are all about Emilia Lanier, aren’t they?
SHAKESPEARE: If by the word “about” you mean “inspired by as opposed to describing,” then yes.
I am, of course, putting my own words into Shakespeare’s mouth. But I do this as an unacknowledged expert on Shakespeare, an expertise I believe I can rightly claim because Will and I have five very important things in common.
1. I write sonnets.
2. I am a sucker for small, dark, and unavailable. (Or, as an old friend once put it, “Jewish girls who say no.”)
3. I never went to university.
4. When I die, people will say that somebody else wrote my plays -- in my case, probably Tom Stoppard.
5. I act every now and then, usually in my own stuff.
I have always believed that these similarities qualify me as more of an expert on Shakespeare than, say, Harold Bloom, author of the best-sellers, “Shakespeare Was Not A Working Actor,” “If Shakespeare Was An Actor, He Was A Lousy One,” and “I Don’t Care What The Cast List Of Every Man In His Humour Says, Shakespeare Was Not A Fucking Actor, Okay?”
And when it comes to Shakespeare’s Sonnets, I can only paraphrase Oscar Wilde and say that a man would have to have a heart of stone to read the Sonnets as autobiography without laughing.
SHAKESPEARE: If by the word “autobiography” you mean “an actual record of my daily life,” then no. But if you mean, “using the experiences of my daily life as fodder for poetry,” then yes.
This is the thing--well, one of the things--people don’t understand about Shakespeare*. He was a tuning fork. He didn’t create from inside so much as echo from outside, or better yet transmute from outside. That’s why his characters have their own voices, and not just variations of his voice. (Unlike, for instance, me. Or Marlowe. Anybody who thinks Marlowe wrote Shakespeare’s plays, or even could have written Shakespeare’s plays, is totally ignoring the fact that there is no internal evidence in anything Marlowe wrote that he ever met a real live human being in his entire life.)
And whether you think of Shakespeare as a poet who occasionally acted, or an actor who wrote on the side (hint hint), the one thing you can say with total assurance about the writer Shakespeare is that he was a dramatist. So by his very nature, he conceived of The Narrator Of The Sonnets as a character, just like every other character for whom he wrote first-person speeches. Don’t think for a second that he didn’t treat it like a star part, even if it was a part written with himself in mind. Don’t think for a second that he didn’t get lost in wordplay, or imagine a scene from a single incident, or build a tree from the branches in rather than the roots up, or combine what happened last week with what might happen tomorrow to make something that looked like it happened last night.
So here are some things I’ve noticed about my own writing which, since I am one solipsistic son of a bitch, are therefore true for not only Shakespeare but all writers everywhere.
1. Writing about someone you don’t have feelings for is easier than writing about someone you love.
SHAKESPEARE: Do you honestly believe that?
SHAKESPEARE: This is what we in theatre call a “character revelation.”
As an example here’s something alone the lines of “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” which I wrote with my friend Sarah in mind. Sarah has a lot of tattoos, so this is more along the lines of “My friend's body decorations are nothing like a biker’s.” Mind you, the actual Sarah disappears after the first complete sentence, when (like pretty much everything I write that rhymes) it becomes All About Me.
If you were here with me, I would embrace
The tattoos on your body as if they
Were roadmaps to your heart. My hands would trace
Each artful artery winding its way
Down arm, up back, down breast, like painted Braille --
Hearing you speak in every curlicue,
With every word a clue to where your Grail
Is guarded by an armored ingénue.
With lines from Zen and signs from horoscope,
You etch your body like a diarist,
Stabbing it with dark pentacles of hope –-
This is the only way you can be kissed:
With lips like pens to pierce your heart and free it
And write a name where only you can see it.
Does this mean I actually want to trace Sarah’s tattoos using my lips like a pen? Of course it does. I mean, (a) I have a Y chromosome, so tracing tattoos with my lips is hard-wired into me genetically as a dating strategy; and (b) seriously, what guy wouldn’t want to go up to a pretty girl with a lot of writing on her body and say, “Nice tats?”
Ah--but does this mean I really think Sarah uses these tattoos as either charms or armor? In real life, no; but for the purposes of the poem, you bet. Because poetry is about metaphor and rhyming, and by rhyming I mean not just abab cdcd, but connecting something personal with something universal, like tattoos with armor, and then envisioning what kind of person would do that. Which is the point where all traces of Real Sarah disappear, and we’re left with Matthew’s Idea Of Sarah That Serves The Poem. Hopefully Real Sarah will find all this authorial speculation flattering and not insulting, but since she’s sharper than shark teeth, her reaction is probably going to be something along the lines of, “Nice poem.”**
DARK LADY: “The expense of spirit in a waste of shame.” Nice poem.
SHAKESPEARE: Gee. Thanks.
2. Dark Lady sonnets are easier to write than love sonnets.
DARK LADY: That’s because bad girls are more fun than nice girls.
MATTHEW: But don’t all nice girls have a bad girl inside them?
DARK LADY: This is what we in romance call “wishful thinking.”
Here’s a Dark Lady sonnet which perfectly illustrates not only how some women act like they just nailed an audition for the female lead in Out Of The Past, but how everything (everything) in a well-made sonnet is designed to set up a killer last line:
Your kiss tastes like expensive Cabernet.
The way you touch me says there’s more in store.
I rub your shoulders and you sigh and say,
“We have the kind of soul-to-soul rapport
I look for in a man. Not like that jerk,”
You add, pointing to where my roommate struts,
His arm around a pretty girl from work.
“That kind of guy is lucky to get sluts.”
I don’t tell you I know him; I just smile
And make my play; but you say, “No can do.
We’re both too drunk, my dear. That’s not my style.”
So I go home alone and dream of you
Until, when I get up at half-past four,
I see your purse outside my roommate’s door.
AVA: Matthew, this may not be a sensitive reaction, but "Bwahahahaha..." But seriously... that sonnet wasn't true, was it?
MATTHEW: Seriously? It's a combination of two events. The conversation happened about two weeks ago, where the woman went off with the guy she slagged in front of me. The backrub and the roommate? That was Thursday night. I'm putting an ad in Craig's List: have Matthew rub your back, and “Bwahahahaha!”
AVA: Yeah, what is it with women who go off with men they bad-mouth in front of other men?
MATTHEW: It’s genetic. A woman is the only creature on earth who can enter a room full of nice guys and yell, “Where are all the nice guys?” Put her in a room full of nice guys and an ex-con? She’ll leave with the ex-con.
AVA: Hey--guys are just as bad.
MATTHEW: Yer preachin’ to the choir, girl. Guys are the only creatures on earth who will break up with you after three years because they can’t commit, and then elope two weeks later with some chick they met in a laundromat.
For the record: the only non-imaginary dialogue in the above sonnet is the sluts line. Take it from me: you don’t hear a pretty woman say a line like that, and then watch her walk off with the guy about whom she said it, and not have it etched on your brain like a tattoo.
3. Personal opens the door; universal furnishes the room. Or in other words, you can get an idea for a poem out of something you either observed or something that happened to you, but if you can’t raise it up to the level of a common experience--if the person or the event you’re writing about doesn’t epitomize something--then you either have a diary entry or a therapy session.
As an example, here’s a recent Manhattan Sonnet which spins an imagined pattern of behavior out of a particular situation. It’s a Manhattan Sonnet because the activity described is true not just of people but of the city as a person, which for all its opportunities can sometimes give you a look that says, “You? Who are you? And what have you done for me lately?”
Manhattan Sonnets: 20
There’s something naked in the way you look
At people who can open doors for you.
You cast your smile out like a baited hook
And reel them into shore -- no matter who
They’re swimming with or how much they resist,
You make them want to jump into your net:
Grateful that their mythologies are kissed
By your intentions -- glad to be your pet.
And when they’ve walked you through whatever door
They have the key to, and you finally come
To where they cannot help you any more,
You toss them into your aquarium,
And point to them and smile at me and coo:
“If you can open doors, that could be you."
How much of this is real? Just the initial look, actually. The actual event the poem is based upon is nowhere to be found, but the metaphorical event--the fishing, the netting,the aquarium, the coo/coup--is everywhere. Which makes this like a jazz riff on a standard that is nowhere to be found in the final transcription; it’s like counterpoint raised to the level of a melody. Any time you can do that as a writer, you are in Charlie Parker territory. Also (insert BlowingMyOwnHorn.wav) yet another build-up to a killer last line.
I could go on--and I did, in the original draft of this post, for three more work-in-progress poems (one of which, for my friend Shannon, ends with this couplet:
So many hearts, but only yours can feel.
So many blondes, but only you are real.
Which is going to make all the other real blondes I know jealous. But they should be. Right, Shannon?)--but I think my point is made; or if not made, then well-advanced, like King’s Pawn to King 7.
One final example, with a challenge instead of a comment. Assuming that the poem below reads like a real incident to you (and if it doesn't, then fine), is the sense of reality grounded in what actually happened to the narrator? Or what did, or might, happen to you?***
When, like a worried mother late at night
Who hears her son in every settling creak,
I dress the shadows with the welcome sight
Of you, anticipation makes me weak.
I die a thousand times until I hear
Your key in the front door, then die again
When finally my eyes see you appear
And I can breathe you in like oxygen.
The light behind me gleams upon your lips
Where someone else’s hungry tongue has played.
Your kiss torments me like a dozen whips;
Your hug destroys my hopes like a grenade.
But pain and all, I’ll happily call true
Each lie you tell that lets me lie with you.
*Two other things? He was the world’s best listener--something else we have in common. AND HE WAS A FUCKING ACTOR, OKAY? I mean Jesus, people don’t have this problem with Moliere.
**Her actual reaction: “You are wonderful!” Which told me that she totally understands who the true subject of the poem is. Sharper than a bed of nails, that girl.
***Or both--which means you're my perfect audience.