In Shakespeare’s Footsteps

The Shakespeare Globe Centre New Zealand (SCGNZ) has been running a series of competitions, and I’m really pleased to have won second prize in their sonnet competition for my piece From The Dark Lady.

My winning sonnet and other entries follow. Two draw on Shakespeare’s characters, and the other two take four “quotable lines” from his work and shape sonnets around them.


This first piece was written from the perspective of one of the addressees of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, the titular Dark Lady.

From The Dark Lady

I cannot quite decide which fate is worse:
To have you make presumption of my sin,
Or bear your masochistic little verse,
Ostensibly to worm your way within.
Were I to lesser station given birth,
Perhaps I’d deign rejoinder to your “wit”
With puerile intimations of your worth:
“How short, how thin—how ever will it fit?”
But, rest assured, I’m flattered by your rhyme,
Propriety, you see, requires grace;
So should we meet at some unwitting time,
That isn’t raw contempt upon my face.
    Aye, Will, you might have plucked a willing rose,
Had less been on the page, and more inside your hose.


My next sonnet borrowed Lysander’s words from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “The course of true love never did run smooth,” and Friar Lawrence’s “Wisely, and slow. They stumble that run fast.” from Romeo and Juliet. This one was the most difficult to write, because I had a clear vision for the piece that was a little too ambitious and autobiographical, and ended up having to pare the concept down.

The Race

The course of true love never did run smooth
Since on Her toes thy clumsy footstep fell,
And trying this impression to improve
Then trod upon Her other foot as well.
Thy missteps were too numerous to count,
And ignorance in similar degree,
If offered love of any small amount
You’d magnify it exponentially;
Then reeling in despair—of thy own make—
Would jealousy comport you to cliché
And even thy convictions would forsake,
Until that love in tatters tore away.
    We seldom love well, till our youth is past:
Wisely, and slow. They stumble that run fast.


The following piece is the first sonnet I wrote in this sequence, and it provides a right of reply from Shakespeare’s Young Man, the other addressee of his sonnets. Like the poem From The Dark Lady, it extends from Shakespeare’s own bawdy tone.

From The Young Man

These centuries have passed, but I remain
Ensorcelled by your hubris on the page,
And where you scribbled pseudonyms for shame,
I suffer each indignity of age.
You wrote of youth, committing me to ink,
Ideas, you calculated, would endure;
But did you ever hesitate and think
Your motivation might have been impure?
The scholars do not worship at my thighs—
My name, my face, my self remain unknown—
But rote recite your shittiest of sighs,
While I am just a guy you might have blown.
    Will I forgive who took away my name,
Imperfectly you loved me, but you loved me, all the same.


This final piece takes a new approach to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 2, starting with the same first line, “When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,” and sticking as obstinately as possible to that military metaphor and its implications. After much deliberation, I took “In sooth, I know not why I am so sad” from Antonio in The Merchant of Venice as a fitting, if not uplifting, conclusion to my final couplet.

Revise and Conquer

When forty winters shall besiege thy brow
They shan’t expect thy forehead to attack—
Descending in a weak, compliant bow,
Then striking up to claim thy beauty back!
Mere Time is a pretender to the throne,
Her armies flee in regimented beat
Before the dread advance of thee alone;
Upon the faintest fancy of thy feet.
This coward isn’t sanctioned in Her war
Yet takes immoral plunder as Her due:
The colour from thy tresses as we snore
And memories that we together grew…
    I have a plan… That is… How odd! I had…
In sooth, I know not why I am so sad.

Requisite Words E20 – Shakespeare’s Junk Strikes Back

By popular (if inexplicable) request, a sequel to Episode Seven. Reeling from the hit success of Sonnet 135, Shakespeare penned Sonnet 136, which continued the argument for… well, a close reading of the Bard’s breeches.

Not safe for work, children, or anyone who thinks the world has heard enough dick jokes.

Episode Music:
Be Chillin’ by Alexander Nakarada | www.serpentsoundstudios.com
Music promoted by www.free-stock-music.com
Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)
creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Image: Public Domain portrait of William Shakespeare, sans junk.

Requisite Words E19 – The Limerick

This episode is for anyone who wants to spend a little time getting creative while staying at home. It’s kid-safe, although it contains farts, and acknowledges the existence of adult themes. Transcript follows the embedded player below.

Kia kaha, whānau.

Episode Music:
Be Chillin’ by Alexander Nakarada | www.serpentsoundstudios.com
Music promoted by www.free-stock-music.com
Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)
creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Photo is by Sharon McCutcheon, courtesy of Pexels | www.pexels.com/photo/4k-wallpape…blur-boy-1148998/Podcasts, Poetry

A puppy, in search of her tail
Was eager, though destined to fail
She tried clockwise first
Then she spun in reverse
Until stopped in her tracks by a snail

Preamble

This episode is for anyone who wants to spend a little time getting creative while staying at home. It’s kid-safe, although it does have one scatological reference and acknowledge the existence of adult themes.
Kia kaha, whanau.

Opening theme

The limerick scheme is quite clear:
AABBA and you’re there
It’s forgiving – and fine
If you choose to half-rhyme
And the package is easy to share

The metre is easily found
Anapestic, as in “underground” –
Two unstressed, then one stress
And the rhyme does the rest
To establish that limerick sound

We shared a notable poem with the same anapestic metre back in Episode 8. The Destruction of Sennacherib by Lord Byron is not a limerick, but we can hear the two unstressed followed by one stressed syllable pattern repeating clearly through it:

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.

From Byron, The Destruction of Sennacherib

Once you’ve read and listened to a few limericks, it becomes easier to internalise this rhyme scheme and metre.

The tradition is somewhat risque
But we’ll kibosh the kink for today
If your palate is fonder
Of double entendre
It’s only a Google away

So for ears that are somewhat more green
The limerick form can stay clean —
But will commonly stoop
To discussion of poop
Or to bodily functions obscene

Let’s consider a few demonstrations
That fit within these stipulations:
The stories are jest
And deliver the best
When exploring their own limitations…

Vitale was running a race
When a fly splattered into his face
It said “My good sir,
I am sorry to err—
I appear to have cost you first place.”

The ant and her grasshopper mate
Were consigned to a similar fate
When rains from the west
Had flooded her nest
And they both needed help from the State

The earliest bird in the flock
Was exposed to a bit of a shock
As the hunters took aim
She was heard to exclaim
“Tomorrow I’m snoozing my clock.”

The rabbit, meanwhile, had slept
While the turtle had silently crept
To the foot of his bed
Where she stood and she stared
As he woke in the morning, she leapt!

The dragon had hiccoughs again
And it rolled around panting in pain
Til it felt something funny
From deep in its tummy
And farted a fabulous flame

If you want to write limericks too
There is little preparing to do:
If you juggle the words
The rhymes will emerge
And the sillier ones will win through

If you write a limerick of your own and would like it shared on a future episode, record it on your phone and send the file to peter@inklings.co.nz

Requisite Words Episode 18 – “The face of all the world is changed, I think”

Content note: A brief discussion of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Also contains a dog. Transcript follows the embedded player below.

Anxiety and similar conditions can be exacerbated in times of uncertainty, so future episodes during the pandemic will feature content warnings where relevant. While the poems shared may remain directly or tangentially relevant to the global situation, mention of Covid-19 will be avoided after this episode.

Two of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s works feature in this episode, recorded from self-isolation.

Episode Music:
Be Chillin’ by Alexander Nakarada | www.serpentsoundstudios.com
Music promoted by www.free-stock-music.com
Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)
creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Photo is by Dominika Roseclay, courtesy of Pexels | www.pexels.com/photo/closeup-pho…dachshund-895259/

“The face of all the world is changed, I think,
Since first I heard the footsteps of thy soul
Move still, oh, still, beside me, as they stole
Betwixt me and the dreadful outer brink
Of obvious death, where I, who thought to sink,
Was caught up into love, and taught the whole
Of life in a new rhythm. The cup of dole
God gave for baptism, I am fain to drink,
And praise its sweetness, Sweet, with thee anear.
The names of country, heaven, are changed away
For where thou art or shalt be, there or here;
And this … this lute and song … loved yesterday,
(The singing angels know) are only dear,
Because thy name moves right in what they say.”

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Okay, so it’s a sonnet about love – the 7th Sonnet From the Portuguese, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. But it might serve to remind us that poetry is often intrinsically about a shifting view and experience of the world, often brought on by external factors.

The Coronavirus pandemic has been described as a black swan event, but that isn’t really a fair assessment. We knew. We knew, for centuries, that lowered technological barriers to migration brought with them the easier spread of disease. Ask any indigenous people how we learned this. We know that pathogens evolve. We know that a less predictable climate puts more evolutionary stresses on all organisms.

We knew, in short, that it is only ever, in this context, a matter of time between pandemics.

And nations prepared, to different extents. Communication protocols and health infrastructure. Scalable plans for managing populations.

But population and people are not interchangeable terms, as we’ve been learning, and people don’t always like to be managed.

People react, in times of pressure, and those reactions are sometimes at odds with the best-considered plans. Change can bring out the irrational and the selfish in any of us – but it can also challenge us to be better, and we’ve already seen many selfless and considerate examples through these early months.

My wife and I are in voluntary self-isolation this week after recent travels in the US – but unless an incredible streak of luck intrudes, Aotearoa is going to step up measures to continue slowing the spread of the virus. So, like much of the world, we’re looking at the possibility of several months with limited interpersonal interaction outside our household.

I wanted to acknowledge the situation, but during this time – health permitting – I’m planning to record more frequent podcasts, sharing poetry that represents the better aspects of humanity in the face of adversity and change.

One practical strategy my wife and I have implemented is taking time away from news feeds and social media each day, to prevent, or at least reduce, obsession over elements of the pandemic that we can’t change. Phones away, we play a board game, discuss a random topic, make art, read, exercise, or watch something. We’re trying to make those choices conscious and deliberate, so we don’t get stuck in a routine that feeds less healthy habits.

In a similar vein, this is a difficult time for many people with anxiety, so I’ll be prefacing each coming episode with a tone advisory, and avoiding direct comment about Covid-19 from here on.

I can’t promise every poem I choose will be uplifting, but I’m hoping to share an eclectic mix of works ranging from the outright entertaining and humorous to the introspective.

The second poem today is another piece by Elizabeth Barrett Browning that runs this gamut.

Before you panic, there is a comma in the title. It’s called To Flush, My Dog.

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43726/to-flush-my-dog

Requisite Words Episode 17 – You can’t read that!

This episode discusses “Still I Rise,” by Maya Angelou, in unpacking why you’re hearing so much historical (if still relevant) poetry in these parts, and little from the diverse voices of the now. Transcript follows the embedded player below.

Read Still I Rise at www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46446/still-i-rise
Watch and listen to Maya Angelou perform her work at www.youtube.com/watch?v=qviM_GnJbOM

Episode Music:
Be Chillin’ by Alexander Nakarada | www.serpentsoundstudios.com
Music promoted by www.free-stock-music.com
Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)
creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Image of Maya Angelou is in the public domain, sourced from Wikimedia.org

Regular listeners will have noticed that the poetry shared has a distinct historical bias… With very few 20th Century and no contemporary works.

I wanted to touch on why that is, and how it fits with my desire to share a diverse range of poets, when minority voices had – by definition – much less visibility the further into the recent past we recede. 

There are two factors at play. 

Firstly, many of the more recent poems that I admire, such as Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise,” which is among my favourites, have distinct narrative voices that are anchored in current and historic injustice. 

I want to be clear here – I have no ethical objection to reading such a poem aloud, as that’s part of the experience of poetry, and taking on a speaker’s voice is also part of the empathy that poetry evokes. 

After all, I have taken on the voice of a Pharaoh, a murderer, a statue, a God, a woman, an atheist and a prophet without hesitation, despite being almost none of those things.

And I will happily read “Still I rise” aloud to absorb it more fully and let it resonate through another of my senses – BUT 

BUT there is an important distinction when a poem speaks for an individual who is a member of an oppressed demographic, and refers to a struggle that is ongoing.

On the other hand, it’s equally vital to remember that a poet who happens to identify with a particular community is not limited to writing speakers from that community – the usual rules of presumption and poetic empathy apply, even when a poet may incline towards writing from a particular perspective. 

It’s important, in short, that seeking to empathise with and boost minority voices isn’t done in a way that limits them.

In “Still I rise,” the speaker addresses societal depictions of African American women in the U.S. She responds to these problematic presentations with a defiant distillation of power and the quiet optimism of inevitability, and it’s an utterly beautiful work – that is best shared by a more appropriate spoken voice than mine. 

Can the poem speak to other struggles? Absolutely. It’s a broadly powerful piece, and readings from different perspectives may provide different insights and impact. But the imagery is such that it’s harder for my speaking voice to appropriately align with a poem that is profoundly gendered and profoundly rooted in a specific racial injustice that does not overlap with my own formative ancestry or experience.

I am not, to repeat myself, saying it’s immoral for me to read the poem – I think everyone should read this poem! I’m saying that a white, cis-male voice performing this particular piece, and others of a similar vein, would be a subversion of the narrative, and one of questionable value.

This distinction is also found at the heart of allyship, and is the difference between giving a platform to minority voices and co-opting or distorting those same voices. So I’ll encourage you to go and listen to Maya Angelou reading her own work, rather than diminish its impact by reading it myself – and I’ll leave a link in the show notes.

So that’s one factor at play – trying to ensure that pieces I choose to share here are appropriate when I read them – but the other concern is a little more pragmatic, and the same reason I don’t embed Maya Angelou’s voice in the podcast – it’s around copyright.

This varies slightly country to country, but I’ll use the US as an example, where copyright currently extends for 70 years from the death of an author. There are caveats on top of that – for example, the publisher of a particular edition has copyright for their presentation of the text – and fair-use rules can be thorny to negotiate, especially across different jurisdictions. 

If this podcast eventually reaches a wider audience, I’d like to engage with some contemporary poets and have them share and discuss their work here – but that’s an aspiration rather than a plan at this stage.

Of course, if you happen to be a poet or a rights-holder listening to this episode, and would like to contribute, feel free to get in touch via Twitter or the website.

For now, though, this is an personal project with limited resources, which means a necessary focus on more historical pieces – but I didn’t want that mistaken for any arbitrary aversion to more recent and topical works. 

I do have a particular love for 16th and 17th Century poetry, as well as the Romantic and Victorian periods—but there are many incredible poets alive and writing today whose works can cut and cure as readily as any of their predecessors.

So this episode comes with a little homework, which I’ll be doing myself. Jump onto Google and search for a contemporary poet.

Search for a poet who is also a refugee, like Behrouz Boochani. Search for a poet who has also experienced marginalisation because of their gender, like Trace Peterson. Listen to the breadth of their works, and both the universality and specificity in the voices of their speakers. 

Because of their backgrounds, their unique contexts, they can evoke voices that I would struggle to reach, but impactful poetry is also a reliance on those regions where our shared cultural figures overlap, and a conjuration of empathy where it might otherwise elude our perception. It’s about finding moments of connection in the apparently different, and using them to slowly, inevitably, weave us together.