Poetry Wednesday: Much, Much Ado

I’m in the mood for Shakespeare today—but not for any of his 154 sonnets.

Even the painfully honest one.

I’d much rather talk about his plays, which are poetry to our modern ears anyway, in rhyme and in rhythm—and also, sometimes, in confusion.

Anyone who’s been forced to read Romeo & Juliet or Midsummer Night’s Dream  or Hamlet or MacBe The Scottish Play in high school or college knows how difficult it can be without an annotated script or a handy copy of the OED.

That’s partly because language doesn’t like to sit still and more than three hundred years ( and the occasional ocean) separates our lingo from Shakespeare’s, and partly because plays are written to be performed, preferably  by people who understand what they’re saying, so that they can communicate the meaning to the audience, even without a program.*

But even then, some things can still stutter in translation.  The cultural differences alone can make it tough going, even without the language: biting one’s thumb at someone—like Sampson did to Gregory in Romeo & Juliet**— is fairly easy to figure out, especially in context, but other things . . . like the motivations of characters, and some of the jokes, aren’t.***

I have a theory that the closer a staging of Shakespeare is to our time, even if the language remains Elizabethan, the easier our understanding will be.

Archetypes aside, maybe that’s why people can’t stop messing with his stuff . . .  Then again, theater doesn’t much like sitting still, either.

One of my favorite versions of Much Ado About Nothing^ is Kenneth Branagh’s film, which is set in an Italian villa in the time period in which the play took place.  Because this is a Branagh production, it is ruthlessly accurate, full of gorgeous pageantry, and includes—or so I’m told, as I don’t watch these things with my Folger Library copies handy—every blessed line.

And it does work.

Benedick and Beatrice are tricked by their friends into admitting they love each other, Don John is evilly manipulative—and wooden, ‘cause Keanu—Hero is slut-shamed at her own wedding for something she didn’t do (and never has done), Claudio is guilt-ridden, Leonato is vengeful, Dogberry is an ass, love triumphs over all and there’s a Hey Nonny Nonny village spiral line dance at the end.

And Scene.

If some of the lines aren’t entirely comprehensible—looking at you, Mr. Keaton—they’re certainly lovely to hear in those pretty accents.

But now I’ve seen Joss Whedon’s version.  Which is set as a kind of modern black and white noir piece in the highest of political, social—and possibly not-quite-legal—circles.  With guns and paparazzi and photo ops and dear Lord, the social drinking:

The lines have been trimmed a bit—nothing major—but the language is the same, if spoken in unapologetic American accents.  And the plot remains.

And it makes sense to me in a way that the previous version doesn’t, even though I know this play pretty well.

The backstory for Benedick and Beatrice’s mutual verbal abuse is given more support and their scenes together play off this history—they can hurt each other, and have, and they protest(eth) too much because their pride and defense mechanisms won’t either of them be the first to cry pax.

Their affair, for which there were only personal repercussions, helps change Hero’s alleged crime from the loss of her virginity to the shocking indiscretion of  sleeping with another man the night before the wedding—and makes her claims to still be a virgin a defense (“I’ve never slept with anyone, much less this mystery man”)  instead of reassurances of a still-intact prize.

This is an interpretation that works really with the more modern (and heavily wet-barred) setting.  Of course, Claudio is still a young, ineffective jerk who reacts badly and all too publically when he assumes, without confronting her—and/or immediately storming up to her room with that gun he’s packing—that Hero has betrayed him.  He wants to punish her, and he does.

I’m still not sure that’s love, but I can’t say it’s not realistic.

And I really appreciate Leonato’s reaction to his daughter’s supposed behavior in this one.  It’s less of a traditional (and physically violent) rejection of Hero and more the explosive rant of a powerful, loving father caught between the severe damage this public embarrassment will do to him politically and sheer, disbelieving heartbreak.^^

The minor characters have their adjusted motivations, too:  Dogberry is a cop who thinks he’s far smarter than he is, but is honestly trying to do a good job and is deeply hurt when Conrad (a woman here, which gives her devotion to Don John a much different interpretation) disses him. ^^^

Even Borachio has a more . . .twisted . . . motivation than a spear-carrier (ahem) playing a practical joke.

Not that Mr. Branagh messed up—he absolutely didn’t—-but this is an interpretation that makes sense to me, all the way through, plot points to complicated speeches—no OED required.

Sure, a little more common sense from Claudio would be nice, but that’s just a pet peeve of mine and would change the source material perhaps a tad too far.

Just to add a touch of  “standard” poetry to this post (your standards, as always, may vary), here’s the “Sigh No More” poem from the play, which Emma Thompson read—beautifully—as a sort of foreshadowing prologue to Mr. Branagh’s film:

Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more;
Men were deceivers ever;
One foot in sea and one on shore,
To one thing constant never;
Then sigh not so,
But let them go,
And be you blithe and bonny;
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into, “Hey nonny, nonny.”

Sing no more ditties, sing no more,
Or dumps so dull and heavy;
The fraud of men was ever so,
Since summer first was leavy.
Then sigh not so,
But let them go,
And be you blithe and bonny,
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into, “Hey, nonny, nonny.”

And here is Mr. Whedon’s film’s interpretation:

It’s nice to have options, isn’t it?

Have you seen Whedon’s version, yet?
What did you think?
Or will you now?


*Samuel Beckett excepted, as I doubt anyone who has ever performed Waiting for Godot has understood their lines.

**Yeah, I had to look them up, too—I thought Tybalt was involved, but no, just spear-carrying (thumb-carrying?) servants giving each other the 17th Century version of the finger.  Regardless, this does illustrate the baseline maturity levels of most of the characters in this story.  You don’t have to be a teenager to embody this level of passion, drama, and blazing stupidity—anyone remember the Jerry Springer Show?—and not all teenagers do, of course, but everything made more sense to me once I paid attention to the ages of the MCs: Juliet was thirteen and Romeo was about seventeen.  I don’t care how much the mortality rate and cultural differences shifted the age of majority—this is not a play for, or about, grown-ups.

***Which is why most schools don’t start with, say, Troilus and Cressida, because day-umn.

^ Aside from a Victorian-set production I saw in Stratford, Ontario maybe fifteen years ago, where Benedick and Beatrice were each about sixty or so.  It was an amazing performance, and at the end, when each was given the love sonnet the other had secretly written, they both stepped forward and pulled out reading glasses.  It brought the house down and earned them a standing ovation.

^^Full Disclosure:  I’m in deep, abiding brainlove with Clark Gregg, but even if I wasn’t, I’m pretty sure I would have cried over this scene, because his performance was perfect.

^^^He also enunciates and doesn’t rush.  I’m just sayin’.  Good job, Mr. Fillion


Poetry Wednesday: Sprained Spring

I’m knocking on wood as I speak, but it looks like the March weather we’ve been enjoying through gritted teeth, frostbitten smiles, and defective windbreakers is finally over—just in time for May.

It would be a criminal shame not to spend as much time as possible outdoors on a day like today, and as the great outdoors doesn’t provide natural WiFi, all I wanted was a quick poem or two that celebrated Spring, or at least those first breathless moments of awe before we start complaining about the heat, pollen, and humidity.

I’ll tell you, the search took me a lot longer than I thought. Turns out the majority of Spring poems meant for readers over the age of six tend to run along the same lines: Enjoy the beauty of Spring while you can, suckers, ’cause the hearts of the people we love are encased in permafrost and we’re all gonna die anyway. And soon.

Exhibit A:

The Spring
(Thomas Carew)

Now that the winter’s gone, the earth hath lost
Her snow-white robes, and now no more the frost
Candies the grass, or casts an icy cream
Upon the silver lake or crystal stream;
But the warm sun thaws the benumbed earth,
And makes it tender; gives a sacred birth
To the dead swallow; wakes in hollow tree
Dust of SnowThe drowsy cuckoo, and the humble-bee.
Now do a choir of chirping minstrels bring
In triumph to the world the youthful Spring.
The valleys, hills, and woods in rich array
Welcome the coming of the long’d-for May.
Now all things smile, only my love doth lour;
Nor hath the scalding noonday sun the power
To melt that marble ice, which still doth hold
Her heart congeal’d, and makes her pity cold.
The ox, which lately did for shelter fly
Into the stall, doth now securely lie
In open fields; and love no more is made
By the fireside, but in the cooler shade
Amyntas now doth with his Chloris sleep
Under a sycamore, and all things keep
Time with the season; only she doth carry
June in her eyes, in her heart January.

Nothing like a spurned Seventeenth Century poet to make you wish for six more weeks of winter.   And who, I wonder, took a dump in Robert Herrick’s garden?

To Daffodils
(Robert Herrick)

Fair Daffodils, we weep to see
You haste away so soon;
As yet the early-rising sun
Has not attain’d his noon.Dead Daffodils
Stay, stay,
Until the hasting day
Has run
But to the even-song;
And, having pray’d together, we
Will go with you along.

We have short time to stay, as you,
We have as short a spring;
As quick a growth to meet decay,
As you, or anything.
We die
As your hours do, and dry
Like to the summer’s rain;
Or as the pearls of morning’s dew,
Ne’er to be found again.

Remember, kids:  In Robert Herrick’s world, daffodils never dance.  They haven’t the strength.

Seriously—even Shakespeare can’t be trusted:

(William Shakespeare)

When daisies pied and violets blue
And lady-smocks all silver-white
And cuckoo-buds of yellow hue
Do paint the meadows with delight,

English: Guira cuckoo

The cuckoo then, on every tree,
Mocks married men; for thus sings he,
Cuckoo, cuckoo: Oh word of fear,
Unpleasing to a married ear!

When shepherds pipe on oaten straws,
And merry larks are plowmen’s clocks,
When turtles tread, and rooks, and daws,
And maidens bleach their summer smocks,
The cuckoo then, on every tree,
Mocks married men; for thus sings he,
Cuckoo, cuckoo: Oh word of fear,
Unpleasing to a married ear!

Really, dude?

William Cullen Bryant comes closer to what I’m looking for:

The Yellow Violet
(William Cullen Bryant)

When beechen buds begin to swell,
And woods the blue-bird’s warble know,
The yellow violet’s modest bell
Peeps from the last year’s leaves below.

Ere russet fields their green resume,
Sweet flower, I love, in forest bare,
To meet thee, when thy faint perfume
Alone is in the virgin air.

Of all her train, the hands of Spring
First plant thee in the watery mould,

English: Spring flowers, Hebden Primroses and ...

And I have seen thee blossoming
Beside the snow-bank’s edges cold.

Thy parent sun, who bade thee view
Pale skies, and chilling moisture sip,
Has bathed thee in his own bright hue,
And streaked with jet thy glowing lip.

Yet slight thy form, and low thy seat,
And earthward bent thy gentle eye,
Unapt the passing view to meet
When loftier flowers are flaunting nigh.

Oft, in the sunless April day,
Thy early smile has stayed my walk;
But midst the gorgeous blooms of May,
I passed thee on thy humble stalk.

So they, who climb to wealth, forget
The friends in darker fortunes tried.
I copied them—but I regret
That I should ape the ways of pride.

And when again the genial hour
Awakes the painted tribes of light,
I’ll not o’erlook the modest flower
That made the woods of April bright.

But he still sneaks a virtue or two in at the end, bless him.

Luckily, Arthur Symons is there to save the day, even if he dates it a month late, which this year is hardly his fault:

April Midnight
(Arthur Symons)

Side by side through the streets at midnight,
Roaming together,
Through the tumultuous night of London,
In the miraculous April weather.

Roaming together under the gaslight,
Day’s work over,
LoveHow the Spring calls to us, here in the city,
Calls to the heart from the heart of a lover!

Cool to the wind blows, fresh in our faces,
Cleansing, entrancing,
After the heat and the fumes and the footlights,
Where you dance and I watch your dancing.

Good it is to be here together,
Good to be roaming,
Even in London, even at midnight,
Lover-like in a lover’s gloaming.

You the dancer and I the dreamer,
Children together,
Wandering lost in the night of London,
In the miraculous April weather.

That’s better!

And just as I stopped looking, Mr. Shelley had to have his brilliant, gorgeous say, just this side of fashionably late:

The Question
(Percy Bysshe Shelley)

I dreamed that, as I wandered by the way,
Bare Winter suddenly was changed to Spring,
And gentle odours led my steps astray,
Mixed with a sound of waters murmuring
Along a shelving bank of turf, which lay
Under a copse, and hardly dared to fling
Its green arms round the bosom of the stream,
But kissed it and then fled, as thou mightest in dream.

There grew pied wind-flowers and violets,
Daisies, those pearled Arcturi of the earth,
The constellated flower that never sets;
Faint oxlips; tender bluebells, at whose birth

English: Daffodils Below Breakheart Hill Grass...

The sod scarce heaved; and that tall flower that wets—
Like a child, half in tenderness and mirth—
Its mother’s face with Heaven’s collected tears,
When the low wind, its playmate’s voice, it hears.

And in the warm hedge grew lush eglantine,
Green cowbind and the moonlight-coloured may,
And cherry-blossoms, and white cups, whose wine
Was the bright dew, yet drained not by the day;
And wild roses, and ivy serpentine,
With its dark buds and leaves, wandering astray;
And flowers azure, black, and streaked with gold,
Fairer than any wakened eyes behold.

And nearer to the river’s trembling edge
There grew broad flag-flowers, purple pranked with white,
And starry river buds among the sedge,
And floating water-lilies, broad and bright,
Which lit the oak that overhung the hedge
With moonlight beams of their own watery light;
And bulrushes, and reeds of such deep green
As soothed the dazzled eye with sober sheen.

Methought that of these visionary flowers
I made a nosegay, bound in such a way
That the same hues, which in their natural bowers
Were mingled or opposed, the like array
Kept these imprisoned children of the Hours
Within my hand,—and then, elate and gay,
I hastened to the spot whence I had come,
That I might there present it!—Oh! to whom?

Oh!  Me!  Me! Over here,  Mr. Shelley!

That’s what I’m talking about.

How’s the weather where you are?

Poetry Wednesday: Poetry Goes Hollywood

Movies have to do a lot in a short amount of time: tell a story, create sympathy—or the opposite—for characters, make the audience laugh, cry, cringe, etc.

Aside from the whole range of visual effects, which are the entire point of the medium, movies use plenty of other shortcuts to get the job done: music, sound effects, linguistics, cultural assumptions—and, of course, poetry.

Poetry also tells stories, creates sympathy—or the opposite—and evokes any emotion you can name, sometimes in only a few short lines and especially if the poem is so well known that the audience automatically fills in the rest.

Twanging heartstrings in five seconds of screen-time or less—what’s not to like?

Movies know that we know they do this.  But if it’s done well, we don’t mind at all—in fact, that’s why we go in the first place.

The Outsiders is probably the best example of poetry for poetry’s sake in the movies—Ponyboy is a reader and a writer and it’s perfectly natural that he would share poetry with Johnny, because he knows Johnny won’t give him grief for it.  We get the characters, we get their friendship, and we’re completely set up for what comes next—the choice of poem, in retrospect,  is also foreshadowing:

But not all movies have S.E. Hinton source material lining up the shots. Most of them use poetry as a spoken soundtrack, which can work really, really well:

This poem usually has me reaching for the tissue box, anyway,  but John Hannah’s delivery is absolutely. . . he’s just so . . . Excuse me for a second, please . . .


There’s a moment in Sense and Sensibility—the 1995 version, which is my favorite, despite Hugh Grant being . . . Hugh Grant*—that assumes audience recognition, which is safe because this is one of the most overused sonnets ever and people like this character are the reason why.

Though I have to admit that she gives it a different interpretation.  It’s often been used as a warning and an admonishment—especially at weddings—but rarely as an actual lament:

While Marianne is kind of a nitwit through the first three-fourths of the story—book and movie versions—and Willoughby is hardly a prize, I have to admit that Sonnet 116 does help me sympathize with her profoundly wounded disappointment in a way repeating his name wouldn’t.

I have no quips for this next one—it’s a powerful scene done very well. I will say that if anyone other than Mr. Mandela himself had to recite Mr. Henley’s immortal poem in this movie, Mr. Freeman is the absolute right choice:

Then again, eight times out of ten,** Mr. Freeman is the right choice to read anything.

After all these poignant moments, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that some movies use poetry for straight out, and even slightly slimy, laughs:

I’m told that this poem is by Danny Rubin—something about fine wine and the girl of his dreams—but if the movie had intended for this to be a genuinely romantic interlude, they wouldn’t have had Bill Murray speaking French.***

Anyone else have a favorite cinematic poetry experience to share?


*Don’t get me wrong—he’s not a bad actor and he clearly didn’t ruin the two of his that are included here.  But while he’s essentially playing himself in Four Weddings and a Funeral, I expect a little more fortitude and a little less fumbling  from Edward Ferrars.  Just sayin’.

**Accounting, of course, for certain gender-specific  literature, Benedict Cumberbatch (who can double for Alan Rickman), Tom Hardy, Matthew Macfadyn, and allowing for some inevitable overlap.  What?

***Mr. Murray could have pulled it off in Lost in Translation, but French poetry didn’t belong in that movie.  I knew he was talented, but damn, did I underestimate his range.

Poetry Wednesday: %$#!%ing Snaw

It takes about fifteen minutes to drive between the kids’ school and work.   In that time this morning, the rain, which had been coming down with grim determination since yesterday, went opaque and started bouncing off my windshield.  By the time I reached the parking lot, there was half an inch of the stuff  icing the sidewalks and streets.

I can’t lie to myself any longer.  It’s snowing.

I’d already chosen a weather-themed poem for today but even though it doesn’t fit in a literal way at the moment, the general feeling works for me.  And there’s some satisfaction, I’ve recently discovered, in saying that the repetitive final line through your teeth as you look outside at  the cats and dogs and cows and sheep and ducks and other meteorological livestock falling from the sky and remember that you’ve left your umbrella at home:

Clown Song from Twelfth Night
(William Shakespeare)

When that I was and a little tiny boy,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
A foolish thing was but a toy,
For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came to man’s estate,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
’Gainst knaves and thieves men shut their gate,
Unbrella deathFor the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came, alas! to wive,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
By swaggering could I never thrive,
For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came unto my beds,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
With toss-pots still had drunken heads,
For the rain it raineth every day.

A great while ago the world begun,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
But that’s all one, our play is done,
And we’ll strive to please you every day.

But considering the sudden unwanted reminder that January isn’t done with us yet, I’m sharing another one that truly reflects my mood today:

Winter: A Dirge
(Robert Burns)

The wintry west extends his blast,
And hail and rain does blaw;
Or, the stormy north sends driving forth
The blinding sleet and snaw:
While tumbling brown, the burn comes down,
And roars frae bank to brae;
And bird and beast in covert rest,
And pass the heartless day.

The sweeping blast, the sky o’ercast,
weatherThe joyless winter-day,
Let others fear, to me more dear
Than all the pride of May:
The tempest’s howl, it soothes my soul,
My griefs it seems to join;
The leafless trees my fancy please,
Their fate resembles mine!

Thou Pow’r Supreme, whose mighty scheme
These woes of mine fulfil,
Here, firm, I rest, they must be best,
Because they are Thy will!
Then all I want (O, do Thou grant
This one request of mine!)
Since to enjoy Thou dost deny,
Assist me to resign.

No one understands weather like a Scotsman.

And now, if you don’t mind, I have to go scrape the %$#!%ing snaw off my car . . .

Band of Brothers*

The last few long fiction projects I’ve done, including my WIP, have involved groups of characters all working (at least superficially) toward the same goal.

Writing teams is a tricky business, not just because I have to remember where every character is and what they’re doing at any given moment** and what they witnessed or need to be told—or shouldn’t be told—but because I’m trying to write six highly individual people.

Most people don’t work or  play in the same exact way with every other person they meet.***  They attract, repel, envy, fear, love, dislike, lust after, scare, admire, and/or meh like a bunch of agitated molecules in a microwave. 

And Lord, do they lie about it all.  To each other, themselves, and especially to me.^

It’s like juggling a junior high.

But these individuals, for good or ill, function or dysfunction, eventually form (please, oh, please) a team that gets the job done.  And if I do my job right, maybe a little bit more.

The common goal helps,of course, but what really binds a group together is shared adversity: obstacles, dangers,  failures, and victories.

We few, we happy few.^^

If it even needs saying, the pay-off is totally worth it.


*And sisters and cousins and aunts and uncles and friends and acquaintances and comrades and lovers and platypi and elephants and kangaroos and armadillos and Chihuahuas and cats and so on and so forth, ad nauseam et p.c., world without end, amen. 

**And they all have to contribute—it’s apparently cheating  to send three of them off for two-chapter naps. . .

***Hey, I think I just made up a Sesame Street lyric!

^You can’t tell me  George Lucas knew Luke and Leia were siblings when he wrote A New Hope.   I’m not sure he had it figured out until halfway through Empire. Strikes Back.  Can’t you see him sitting back and saying, “Holy Shit!  Now what?!”   ‘Cause I can.

^^  Henry V ( IV – iii), aka “The Saint Crispin’s Day Speech,” by one William Shakespeare.  This scene, as it appears in Renaissance Man is, in my opinion, how it should be done.