Tag Archives: William Shakespeare

Tea Cups, Tempests and Sci-Fi

Over the last few months I’ve been reading a bit of science fiction. With the notable exception of the Glory Lane by Alan Dean Foster, I didn’t read much sci-fi growing up (As an aside, having re-read this book recently, I think it holds up remarkably well. If you enjoy lighter sci-fi with a nod to pop-culture, American subcultures, and general weirdness, give it a go!). I suppose I’m making up for lost time getting into a lot of stuff that is considered either New Weird or Sci-Fi. I’m quite taken with much of it. Earlier this summer, however, I found myself revisiting the (possible) origins of the genre.

When I was an English major back in college I remember a very excited Shakespeare professor saying that The Tempest was the first sci-fi work of Western Literature. At the time I seem to remember being entertained by the idea but not giving it much thought. I’m also not sure how true it is! I suppose a lot depends on this particular professor’s definition of science fiction! (Also, as an aside, if you want a great book on Shakespeare, check out Bill Bryson’s book on the bard. It’s well worth reading!) Years later, when post-colonial readings of the classics occurred more widely, I noted that The Tempest was getting more and more life breathed into it and was being staged everywhere from London to Pittsburgh.

So, earlier this summer when I was reading more sci-fi, I thought back to that Shakespeare professor and the idea that The Tempest was the first (or, maybe more accurately, ONE of the first) sci-fi work(s) in Western Literature. I decided to watch the 2010 film adaptation of The Tempest starring Helen Mirren as Prospera, Felicity Jones as Miranda, Reeve Carney as Price Ferdinand, Djimon Hounsou as Caliban and Russell Brand as Trinculo.

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This more recent film adaptation by Julie Taymor is worth watching, if for nothing else the amazing performances of Housou, Mirren and Brand (yes, Russell Brand is excellent). The story, in case you aren’t familiar, consists of a user of the magical arts being cast away from civilization (usurped by a brother) supposedly for practicing said arts, with their child. Living on an island inhabited only by Caliban, the magician and daughter live for years, until the magician’s arts finally shipwreck the usurping brother and his companions. A story of revenge, difference, the “other”, and love comes to the surface.

This particular adaptation isn’t without difficulties. The character of Ariel (who is an other-worldly spirit daemon called into service, and forced to work for Prospera) is a fascinating character that opens the reader (or viewer in this case!) to a whole world of possible interactions and interplay between characters. Especially when one banks this relationship off of the relationship that Prospera has with Caliban, the whole production is ripe for some serious analysis and question asking! What I found a bit underwhelming were some of the special effects that the film-makers used with the Ariel character. Sure, Ariel is a sprite or spirit or demon or whatever, but at times the scenes featuring this other-worldly creation seemed more like a cruddy new-metal music video than a production by the Immortal Bard.

Aside from those scenes, the film is really worth seeing. Maybe it’s just my tastes in visual effects! You might think it looks pretty cool. Either way, I recommend the film highly. Get into some really classic sci-fi.

– Eric (who is reading and watching the New Weird, Old Weird and All Around Weird as fall descends on us here in Pittsburgh, AND who carefully LEFT OUT the part about how seeing this film had a lot to do with his wife demanding to see it because Russell Brand is in it and she has a major thing for Russell Brand)

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A Summer’s Day …

sonnets2009 has been designated the 400th anniversary of the publication of perhaps the most famous poetry collection of all time, the Sonnets of William Shakespeare.  Frequently, when you mention Shakespeare, folks start looking around for the exits, a feeling you might be having some kinship with at this very moment, but hang in, because there is a neat little tidbit forthcoming.

As you might imagine, it was with much trepidation that I’d thought about using the Sonnets in the various lifelong learning poetry classes I’ve taught or for our ongoing poetry series here at the library, 3 Poems By … Discussion Group .

Over the last few years, I’ve built up a substantial number of poems to use for discussion while preparing for these classes and this bank of poems actually ended up being the impetus for starting the poetry discussion group here at the Main Library.  Still, when it came to Shakespeare, I always got cold feet contemplating reading his immortal words, in a fading Jersey, rising Yinzer accent to a frightened and possibly hostile audience.

This past April, I decided to take a looser approach to preparing for the next class; I brought a much larger number of poems than necessary and thought, a la Elvis Costello’s Spectacular Spinning Wheel Songbook tour, why not let folks in the class choose what poems they’d like to cover?

Once I had this idea, I realized this was the perfect opportunity to see if big Will would fly or even if he was (fly, that is).

So, tucked in with some of the usual suspects – Frost, Oliver, Dickinson, Collins etc. – were two poems by the Bard, and a 3rd ringer to accompany them.  The Oasis audience was lively and engaged and the Collins, Oliver, and Frost had gone over well, so I thought, why not?  Did you folks want to tackle a little Shakespeare, I timidly breached?

The 30 plus women, all over the age of 70, said quite emphatically, “Bring him on!”  And I did and they loved it.

Now, in one sense I cheated, and that’s where the ringer comes in.  The first sonnet I decided to use was the grandest of old chestnuts, Sonnet 18:

Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And Summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And oft’ is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d:
But thy eternal Summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wanderest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Folks listened both attentively and appreciatively and when I finished, prior to any discussion, I suggested that I’d like to read a contemporary “updating” of the poem, for comparison, written by twentieth century American poet, Howard Moss.  So, falling back on my old Jersey accent (and a great big slice of ham, inherited directly from my mother), I let them have it with both barrels:

Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day  (Howard Moss)

Who says you’re like one of the dog days?
You’re nicer. And better.
Even in May, the weather can be gray,
And a summer sub-let doesn’t last forever.
Sometimes the sun’s too hot;
Sometimes it is not.
Who can stay young forever?
People break their necks or just drop dead!
But you? Never!
If there’s just one condensed reader left
Who can figure out the abridged alphabet,
After you’re dead and gone,
In this poem you’ll live on!

By the third line (including the title), there were a few smiles and some quiet laughter.  By the fifth, general laughter.  By the ninth, Mr. Moss had them in his hip pocket and was taking them home.  At the final line, there was applause all around.  What Mr. Moss had done was, in effect, a cultural translation, from 16th century English to mid-2oth century American Long Islandese.

And it was a beautiful thing.

– Don

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Thomas Hardy: Under the Greenwood Tree

After poetry and property taxes and the dentist and, oh, yes, William Shakespeare himself, Thomas Hardy is perhaps the hardest sell of all. So how, oh how, did I ever get ensnared Under the Greenwood Tree?

The answer is simple, really: the cover. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Did I mention that since finishing One Hundred Years of Solitude in early August, I hadn’t read one page of fiction, instead being up to my proverbials in a two month long poetry blitz in preparation for a couple of library programs?

No? Well, let me begin in the middle then, like many a fine blogger before me.

On lunch one day while in the midst of said fiction drought, I wandered down to the little used book alcove in the Library Shop next to Crazy Mocha Coffee here at the main library. I immediately noticed an odd little pale green paperback, with a distinctive wood block style illustration on the cover. Taking it off the shelf, it was readily apparent from the style, feel, and ambiance that this was not a product of the good ol’ USA. Pliable enough to actually roll up yet tough enough to be virtually indestructible, this little edition was published and printed in London.

Opening to the first page I thought, no harm to just take a peek, and so it begins:

To dwellers in a wood almost every species of tree has its voice as well as its feature. At the passing of the breeze the fir-trees sob and moan no less distinctly than they rock; the holly whistles as it battles with itself; the ash hisses amid its quiverings; the beech rustles while its flat boughs rise and fall. And winter, which modifies the note of such trees as shed their leaves, does not destroy its individuality.

And like some bemused Shakespearean protagonist who’d sworn eternal chastity only to be confronted by a dream walking, my fictional stays were undone.

In truth, Under the Greenwood Tree is a simple little book, Hardy’s second novel, published anonymously in 1872. It is pure unadulterated romance, cast as it is within the formidable thrall of another “hard sell,” Jane Austen. Since technology is ramped up in this glorious age of chick lit, the erased cellphone message is every bit as effective as the misplaced letter as a plot device of the twisty, turny variety. There is one such plot device and a number of passages, including the one above, however, that I’ll never forget in this 19th century story. The introduction of the heroine of this light romance, Miss Fancy Day (and, once the guffaws die down, consider the names of some modern protagonists such as Billy Pilgrim and Seymour Glass, Humbert Humbert and Emma Bovary, Major Major Major Major and Willy Loman, and even beloved Dumbledore, whose name comes up in its original meaning in this very book …), has to be unique in the history of literature. At a meeting of the local all-male church choir, the village shoe smith, Mr. Penny, removes from his pockets and

places on the table a boot – small, light, and prettily shaped – upon the heel of which he’d been operating.

‘The new schoolmistress’s!’

‘Never Geoffrey’s daughter Fancy?’ said Bowman, as all glances present converged like wheel-spokes upon the boot in the centre of them.

‘Yes, sure,’ resumed Mr. Penny, regarding the boot as if that alone were his auditor; ‘ ’tis she that’s come here schoolmistress.’ …

‘And that’s the boot, then,’ continued its mender imaginatively, ‘that she’ll walk to church in tomorrow morning.’ …

There, between the cider-mug and the candle, stood this interesting receptacle of the little unknown’s foot; and a very pretty boot it was. A character, in fact – the flexible bend at the instep, the rounded localities of the small nestling toes, scratches from careless scampers, now forgotten – all, as repeated in the tell-tale leather, evidencing a nature and a bias. Dick surveyed it with a delicate feeling that he had no right to do so without having first asked the owner of the foot’s permission.

And, so, it’s love at first, er, apprehension for our hero, Dick. And the rest of the choir, too, leans in around the cobbler’s table and is duly entranced by “a character” who doesn’t make her first appearance for another 10 pages. Pre-dating Holmes and Watson by 20 years and certainly no CSI, still it’s a neat example of extrapolation and induction (as opposed to deduction) that might be admired in any modern fiction writing workshop today.

The usual Austen-like plot twists may be found; a faux beau or two here, a stubborn father there, along with some decided misdirection, keeping things moving at a light, fast pace, all heading to a decidedly un-Hardy-like (happy!) ending. Along the way, village life is chronicled, both in its then present condition and also in its passing. The choir is to be replaced by the singular keyboard talents of the charming Miss Day, with nary a ruffled collar nor constricted brow, as happened in villages and hamlets throughout England at that time.

Never mind the fact from whom he nicked his title, the reason I show up and stay for Hardy is the occasional paragraph thrown off almost casually, as the descriptive opening with the trees, quoted above. Breaking my poetry blitz was most appropriate with Hardy, as might be gleaned in the following:

It was a morning of the latter summer-time; a morning of lingering dews, when the grass is never dry in the shade. Fuchsias and dahlias were laden till eleven o’clock with small drops and dashes of water, changing the colour of their sparkle at every movement of the air; and elsewhere hanging on twigs like small silver fruit. The threads of garden-spiders appeared thick and polished. In the dry and sunny places dozens of long-legged crane-flies whizzed off the grass at every step the passer took.

In one short paragraph, there is enough material for at least a half-dozen haiku and suddenly I realized: in both this and the opening graph above, I hadn’t broken my no-fiction vow.

I hadn’t escaped my poetry blitz at all.

Don

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Valentines in May

Someone I hadn’t connected with, until recently, was Ted Kooser. I’m not sure why; perhaps I had typecast him as a typical Midwestern poet, someone whose subjects and sensibilities are not things that normally show up on my radar. In some recent reviews, I read about his latest collection, Valentines, and was intrigued. So, when a copy came in for our International Poetry Collection in the Reference Services department on the second floor, I grabbed it.

As he explains in an author’s note, Kooser began sending out annual Valentine poems to a select group of 50 women in 1968, the poems being printed on standard postcards. 21 years later, his list had burgeoned to 2600 and, he implies, all the printing and postage was getting to be a bit much. So, the last card went out in 2007 and this book collects all the poems together, with one last one written especially for his wife.

The work in Valentines both celebrates and transcends the genre of occasional verse. The poems are, of course, all relatively short since they were originally published on postcards and I have a feeling that different poems here will appeal to different people. One short one that particularly struck me follows:

For You, Friend

this Valentine’s Day, I intend to stand
for as long as I can on a kitchen stool
and hold back the hands of the clock,
so that wherever you are, you may walk
even more lightly in your loveliness;
so that the weak, mid-February sun
(whose chill I will feel from the face
of the clock) cannot in any way
lessen the lights in your hair, and the wind
(whose subtle insistence I will feel
in the minute hand) cannot tighten
the corners of your smiles. People
drearily walking the winter streets
will long remember this day:
how they glanced up to see you
there in a storefront window, glorious,
strolling along on the outside of time.

One of the appealing things about this poem for me is its echo of W. H. Auden’s poem “Funeral Blues,” popularized in recent times in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral. Kooser, however, transforms the conceit of stopping time from a devastating grief of loss to a celebration of love and immortality through verse, reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 and Edmund Spenser’s Sonnet 75.

Kooser’s delightful volume of poems from the University of Nebraska Press is nicely illustrated by Robert Hanna; more poems from the book may be found in a pdf at the publisher’s website.

One final area of interest about Kooser, a former Poet Laureate of the U. S., is that he produces a weekly online poetry project entitled American Life in Poetry. This weekly web posting provides content for newspapers and online publications in the form of a column featuring contemporary American poems. Kooser selects the poems and typically provides a 3 to 5 sentence introduction to each. These columns are produced at no cost to any newspaper or online site that wishes to reprint them; all that is required is that the publication register on the website and that the text of the column be reproduced without alteration. Readers can sign up to have the column delivered weekly to their email box.

The stated intent of the project is “to create a vigorous presence for poetry in our culture” and, featuring work from poets as diverse as Sharon Olds, Ed Ochester, Wendell Berry, Jan Beatty, and 12 year old Max Mendelsohn, the project is certainly equal to the challenge. At 164 columns and counting, ALIP may just give Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac a run for its money when it comes to presenting accessible poetry for all; some, no doubt, will welcome the competition, Keillor himself perhaps most of all. The work is all mercifully short, clear in language, grounded in subject, and forthright in execution.

Sort of like one person talking to another, really; come to think of it, that’s as fine a place to start when trying to describe what poetry is all about as most any I can think of.

– Don

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